Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dialogue vs Combat (Part 1)

When designing an RPG, one of the important things to balance is the distribution of dialogue and combat. Too much of one or the other can alienate a large number of players, and gamers are a very fickle bunch.

It will probably come as no surprise to many readers that I have a huge hankering for dialogue when it comes to RPGs. It's why I've designed quests previously that involve no to little combat, because I love presenting the player with tough choices that they can't just resolve by pulling out a weapon and killing everyone. I also like having stories related to me about the lore and history of the world, and will explore them whenever I can. However, I'm also aware that many players would prefer to avoid those types of conversations entirely.

Now it's time for a history lesson...

A big problem with dialogue is that players can quickly become bored or simply overwhelmed by talking. This tends to happen when areas suffer from the "too many quests" syndrome, where every person in the village/outpost/city needs help with their lost dog, sick daughter, oversized rat problem, or a menial delivery they can't be bothered doing so they give it to the "heroic" adventurer. Dumping a dozen small quests on the player all at once is going to bore some people from having to listen to or read so much dialogue, and frustrate others at having so many minor tasks "distracting" them from their immediate goals. (This doesn't just apply to games. Have you noticed how I put in pictures on a regular basis in these posts? It's to demonstrate what I'm talking about... and to break up the wall of text.)

Quests and favors and missions, oh my!

Generally, players don't mind doing "small" tasks every now and then, as they (should!) provide short and interesting diversions from the over-arching plot. Even better, some of them might even tie in to the main plot later on. Yes, some people are going to love having a huge list of things to do, but it's not good practice to alienate the majority for the sake of a few.

Another problem with dialogue is that it is time-intensive. The amount of effort required to provide players with interesting and meaningful choices to resolve situations, and have the NPCs react in believable ways to their actions takes a lot of effort. Compare writing 100-200 lines of dialogue and associated scripting to laying down a few dozen monsters throughout an area. It's likely that players will get around the same amount of play-time out of the two, yet the latter takes significantly less time for the designer.

Naughty, nice, neutral or in-between. Option overload?

Writing time is increased for each choice the designer gives the player. Taking the example from my NWN2 mod Fate of a City above, each player option demands a different response from the companion Kyandra. The conversation will branch out and then trunk back in to a "core" set of choices, but there's at least 4 lines of dialogue that the player will not see in a single playthrough - and that occurs for a large percentage of the choices that the player is given. Multiply that by every conversation choice the player has, and the amount of time to do the writing alone increases dramatically, let alone the subsequent proofreading and playtesting. Fate of a City didn't have voice acting, so it was possible to have that much choice; if I'd included it, the amount of time to record and master the cuts would have been very large, not to mention a massive increase in download size. 140,000 words of voice acted dialogue would be a huge undertaking.

In summary, dialogue takes a long time to write, even longer if you're doing VO, and some players are bored by it - yet it's a crucial part of an immersive RPG.

PS Yes, I know I didn't cover Dialogue vs Combat in this post, but my discussion of dialogue turned out be longer than I expected. I'll be tackling combat next, and then balancing the two.

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