AuthorTopic: 2D-RPG Development Observations  (Read 9873 times)

Offline Cyangmou

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2D-RPG Development Observations

on: September 01, 2013, 10:15:23 pm
With this Pixelation-exclusive wall of text I tried to address some common problems regarding to RPG-development.
It just contains my experiences and some things I learned the hard way.

A big thanks to Wolfenoctis for proofreading it.

link to the abloaded image version (v1, 1.3 MB)

2D-RPG Development Observations
by Cyangmou

I am a professional pixel artist and after working freelance for quite a while now I have noticed the following:

There are a LOT of people out there who want to, are thinking about or attempting to make a RPG, despite the fact that only a tiny fraction of these projects ever see the light of day.

Why I think the majority of these attempts fail:

Since I am working on my own action 2d online RPG and speaking from experience, in both – have done various art assets for freelance and developing them for myself, I decided to write this article to sum up some important considerations that a would-be RPG developer should be aware of, and in additio, to offer some thoughts on why so many projects are doomed to fail from the start.

The feel of a well made RPG:

As a kid I really loved to dive into, and get lost in those huge RPG worlds, meeting awesome characters, exploring deadly dungeons and ancient temples, and finally kicking the fat ass of the demon at the end. The journey is long and after many achievements, you are left satisfied. It is no wonder then that so many people, unable to withstand the charm and allure of these great games, start dreaming of making their own.

But there is a difference between your dreams and reality

The main problem is that in your dream everything works out perfectly and your RPG looks amazing.
You start development and enter „the honeymoon phase“, you're in love with your project and think that the two of you will live happily ever after...

...except you won't

After the initial buzz wears off you realize that you have to devote thousands of hours to make your dream come true, and you'll need a lot of money to pay people to do all the things you can't.
The honeymoon is over and you are overwhelmed by the shear amount of work and skyrocketing expenses. The project finally dies before it ever truly got started.

This is even worse if you are new to game development. Your inexperience means that you are not competent enough to finish a project of this size and scope. You need a ton of experience and skill simply to start a RPG project, and a lot more to finish one plus an elephant's endurance.

The RPG thematic is unforgiving, one wrong step and dozens of hours of work will need revision or will become unusable.

Software like e.g. RPG-Maker creates the illusion that it will be easy to realize your dream, but after all it doesn't do the planning for you, it only cuts down on engine development time but also introduces a lot of limitations.

What should to be common knowledge about RPG development:

RPGs are the most complex genre you can choose to develop, except online RPGs which are harder to develop due to all the fancy online coding.
Every RPG is usually trying to create unique and believable worlds with interesting narratives, the latter often being the sole focus of some of them.

Add to that the need for „interesting gameplay“ mechanics common to all games and you begin to understand the colossal task of, not only including these elements, but making them fit together seamlessly.
This can't be done without an experienced team. In general you'll need at least:

1 project manager (who plans all steps and brings the project forward)
1 coder ( + scripting, for all technical stuff)
1 graphics artist (for graphics)
1 musician (for OST & sound effects)

1 writer (for engaging narratives – some action RPGs don't need a lot of story)

A RPG as your first game development project:
Deadly mistake: without the benefit of a clearly thought out pipeline how stuff is getting done, like experienced indies or companies have, you'll find yourself doing the same thing multiple times to get it right.
Since you don't know what all the requirements of such a game would be, you will find it hard to prioritise tasks effectively, which will make it even harder to finish tasks in a timely fashion or establish a release date.

You will spend an inordinate amount of time planning and re-planning what you have to do and in what order. Even if you manage to come up with a decent plan, you will be overwhelmed by the vast amount of work needed to finish the project.

RPGs have loooong development times:
From a graphics perspective alone, RPGs like the late SNES „Golden Era“ RPGs like Chrono Trigger, the Secret of Mana Series (to name a few of them) have a graphical workload of multiple thousand man-hours, not taking in account coding or soundtracks. The game design and programming will most probably take the most time, especially if you intend to create your own game-engine.

Using a pre-existing engine can cut down some of the workload, but also introduces limitations that you would have to work around or you would have to cut down or alter features in order to make it work.

The Quality of any new RPG will be measured by past RPGs:
When you release your game it will be judged based on the quality and standards of the great RPGs of the past, mostly from the „Golden Age“ of RPGs. You can still play and be fascinated by games like Chrono Trigger, Dragon's Quest or The 2D Final Fantasies today.

However, all those games are real masterpieces, the AAA games of their time and huge teams worked on them (just look at their credits). Even with modern techniques it will be difficult to attain the same level of quality like any of the above mentioned game series provide.

If you are lucky enough to get to a beta-version or a demo, you will have to spend a fair amount of time fixing bugs, since a RPG takes long time to play through and provide more possibilities for glitches than other games.

Finishing your Game doesn't mean it will be successful:
If you don't want your game to flop financially, you will have to devot a lot of your money to advertising. Even then, or perhaps eypecially then you need the game to sell a lot of copies just to cover the production costs. People are fickle and may not like your game, regardless of how much effort and passion went into it's creation. RPGs therefore have a high risk of failure.

The graphic hurdles of RPG development:

This is my take on the main graphical obstacles that you will have to overcome:

Interesting visual design is an integral part of a RPG. Avoiding the generic look and feel of most RPGs will prove challenging.
Everything you see will have to be designed, environments, NPCs, monsters, items, props, etc. The more unique and innovative a design gets, the longer it takes to create and implement.
I've worked on some graphics where there were up to a dozen of design-versions and more than half of the complete time for the final asset was spent with the design-process.

The ¾ RPG perspective (Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy I-VI, Seiken Densetsu)
This perspective is, artistically speaking, a pain in the ass. While sidescroller's provide a horizon line which enables you to present a lot of depth in your scene, and isometric view looks 3D-ish because of the arrangement of the axis, ¾ RPG perspective has several problems.

The odd arrangement of the axis of this perspective is the reason that the front and top planes looks similar so it's difficult to get things looking properly 3D.

This strange perspective also makes it difficult to illustrate most assets believably. This problem is also compounded at higher resolutions and further exaggerated with realistic styles. This perspective is a challenge, even for skilled artists because at low resolutions a simple one or two pixel difference can break the perspective.

Correctly drawn characters with a 45 degree viewing angle look distorted an limit the possibilities to make the sprites look unique.

Overall this perspective is weak at three-dimensional representation.

The Tile Grid:
When you have to connect 2 bottom textures you'll need at least 12 transition tiles (4 straight ones for each cardinal direction, 4 for inner edges and 4 for outer edges). That's the most basic transition possible, which will always take a fair amount of time to produce and is ineffectual at hiding the grid, so you'll likely need a lot more to make it look good.
Sidescrollers for instance can sometimes get away with no or with 2 transition tiles in the most basic approach which is compared by far less work.

Despite the ¾ RPG view's weaknesses it's a bad idea to try to use isometric view, because of the diamond shaped tiles, that take even longer to create and limits you much more in terms of level design and sidescroller perspective isn't a good choice to get the golden age RPG feel.

Animation Directions:
Your chosen perspective also heavily affects how many directions you have to draw you characters and has obvious implications for your workload:

perspective – most basic approach
side view – 1 direction (east or west) (with mirroring)
iso view – 2 directions (southeast and northwest) (with mirroring)
¾ view – 3 directions (north, south, east) (east can be mirrored)

This means that a sprite created for classical RPG view needs to be drawn more often.
On top of that there is the common animation problem of getting things consistent when drawing multiple directions. More directions simple means more work.

Action oriented sprites (Zelda, Mana-series) are especially difficult to make due to the effort required to make attack animations that look good, not to mention the fact that you consistently have to fight the perspective and get attack distances looking believable.

Most of the RPGs from the golden age used 8x8 or 16x16 tile sizes, but screen monitors have changed a lot since then. Your graphics has to look good on super sharp flatscreens which means a bigger resolution might be necessary. Common sense should already tell you that the workload increases with greater resolutions.

If you double the tile size, the amount of pixels exponentially grows – the working time also grows with more pixels.
Since you'll need a vast amount of tiles to illustrate even the simplest assets, increasing the resolution will result in nearly exponential growth of the overall workload.

But to be honest the tile-size and time to draw tiles is a smaller problem. People commonly forget that at higher resolutions you'll need more frames per animation (up to 12-24 fps animation film standards)
Doubling the resolution also results in doubling the distances between any 2 frames of animation which, if left unresolved will leave you with jerky animations. To maintain the same level of smoothness at doubled resolution means usually havingdouble amount of frames.

Since all your animations have to be done in 3 directions, you can calculate how much more work a bigger resolution with the same quality means.

It is possible to cut down on animation by having a static frontview battle system or a simpler sideview battle system, instead of a action battle system and a random encounter system instead of having visible enemies on the map. This however could make your game instead of „retro“ outdated since most people have seen these methods in older games and there are more advanced game design approaches.

The aforementioned problems all apply to every level of the world, every map has perspective, animation and tile-based considerations that have to be taken in account. While a lot of games can get away with a small variety of environmens, most of the SNES RPGs had around 50 Maps/Levels per game.

Even if you heavily recycle tilesets, you will still need a lot more tiles than you would if you were making any other kind of game. If you intend to reuse a lot of assets, you will need to adress these issues in the planning stages, and if you are not an experienced graphics artist it will prove difficult, because you don't know all the requirements.

HUD & Menu Design
The HUD and Menu design is a crucial part of any RPG project. Bad menu structure can negatively influence people's experience with the game, just think of modern games like Skyrim which suffered the same problem with an obtrusive manu and inventory system.
The bad thing about RPG menu design is that you usually need to display a lot of information on screen due all the items, stats etc.

Items/ Skill icons
people often forget that RPGs have a lot of different items and skills, all of which need icons, unless you have a paperdolling system which would unfortunatel multiply the workload depending on how it's done.

Other Considerations:
Then there are also environment animations, battle effects and tons of little stuff you won't think of right away to make the whole thing look like a game.
It's bad to reduce a RPG just to character sprites and map tiles.

Contact Related Observations:

Ever since I started working as freelance pixel artist I have received many job offers to create graphics for RPGs of all different genres possible.
Off all of these offers only a few seemed really to be considerably, with competent people behind them who were conscious of the amount of work that would be required.
Some „problematic“ offers kept reappearing in different guises and I thought I would enumerate some of them to illustrate their inherent flaws.

Kickstarter pitch turned Kickstarter scam (although unintended):

A common request I get a lot these days is to produce mockups and assets for projects seeking funding via a Kickstarter campaign. I call this an unintended scam because it's nearly impossible to raise enough capital for a RPG with Kickstarter alone. While it is possible for the asked artist to produce the minimal amount of assets for the initial mockups (even at high quality) it is in most cases impossible to produce all the needed graphics for the full game if you have to work alone and part-time.
So the graphics on the Kickstarter campaign page can be deceptive, and is not representative of the actual quality that would be possible throughout the whole game.

These campaigns typically have funding goal of around $50,000.00, 5% of which are paid to Kickstarter and further 4% paid to Amazon, which means you are left with $45,500.00. Depending on where you live there may also be taxes and other additional costs that will lower the figure even more. Everybody on the team will need a certain amount of money per month in order to work full-time on the project.

 Let's suppose a person needs $1,500.00 per month (fictive, this always depends on the country people are living in and how high their rates/needs are) – and you don't use any of the funds for marketing, that means that you will be able to employ one person for 30 months. But since you will need to employ several specialists it will be impossible to get away with so little. Even if your team is very small and only consists out of 3 people, who will each have to handle several tasks (musician, graphics artist, programmer, writer and project leader), you can see that it will get very difficult.
And if this is your first game project you will waste a lot of time and money doing and redoing things, due to lack of experience.

This still leaves out the costs for marketing without which no one will even know your game exists. If you do not take these things into account and plan accordingly your project will be a non-starter, and if it was succesfully funded you will have essentially scammed your backers.

Planning is crucial if you intend to get your project funded with Kickstarter, and should be done done before you launch your campaign. In fact, your project should already be playable before you go to Kickstarter.

Any person who works on a „scam“ project like this will be liable for it's failure and subject to legal repercussions. Not to mention the damage to their reputation.

You only have one chance to recruit the person you want to work with:

Mails which don't explain anything about the project, are asking obvious things, aren't personal, or are just one liners such as:

„Ey do u have time 2 work on my ossom RPG?“

are ridiculuous and have no chance of being taken seriously.
RPG projects are a serious thing and that's how you have to approach people you want to work with.
Show the person you are contacting how important the project is to you, and also show show them what work you've already done on the project, like a demo or at least a video with programmer art and rough gameplay to show the direction of your ideas.
You have to be confident in your ability to finish your project and showing existing work will instill confidence in the person you are trying to recruit, after all if you're not confident in your own project how can you expect others to be.

A graphics artist will not be put off by programmer art because they know it will be their job to take care of the appeareance, likewise a musician weon't be concerned if there is no sound, because their job will be to provide the audio stuff. After all, if you already had good graphics, sound, writing, etc. you wouldn't need the help of professionals.

These professionals will be more concerned about completing the givento them than finishing the project as a whole however.
For this you need a project director, to guide the project to completion. You have to remember though, that it will be extremely dissatisfying for those professionals to put a lot of time and effor into a project which ends up not being finished or released. The more ambitious your project is, the harder you to work to quell all possible doubt that the project may fail.

You should always be honest, the person whom you contact will act likewise. If they don't have the time, or are not interested, and don't reply, you have your answer.

„I don't have a clue what the actual workload will be“

This is also a problem I run into frequently. If you are contacting a person you should have at least a rough idea how long the whole task should take and a clear idea of the actual workload in terms of assets.
Another thing is to let the person you want to recruit exactly let to know what you expect of him/her and what position you want them to occupy such as art director, lead artist, or just as executive artist.

Who else is working on the project?

If you already recruited other people, provide links to their site or show off some of their material. An established company has the benefit of a reputation, as indie developer you can only impress with skill and past projects. It's easier to recruit people if you already have a team which looks promising.
Having all persons of a team aside from the person you try to fill and you don't introduce any of the other team members smells fishy.

„I don't have a lot of money, I want equal or better quality then the SNES RPGs had“

Forget it!

People who are skilled enough to produce such quality will instead work for more professional indies or companies with a good reputation who will pay them accordingly and get the project done.
As I've said before SNES RPGs  were like AAA games back then. These games were made by teams of professionals and you can be surethat the best people got paid for their work. RPGs are the most expensiv type of game with the highest production costs of all, due to the immense volume of work required.

Nobody owes you anything. Don't expect people who have a lot of options to take the weakest offer and not the best ones that are available to them.

„I don't have a lot of money, I will work with a less experienced artist or a hobbyist“

That might be a bad idea. A less experienced will likely not have any idea how to approach a large project and will be overwhelmed. Less experienced artists are cheaper, but also produce lower quality work and take long time to create assets because they don't have efficient workflows (this means less money per hour, but more hours of working time).
A hobbyist might not have the time needed for a RPG, you can't rely on their time schedules and things might take longer which might affect other parts of the development as well.

The skill level of all persons working on a project like this should be equal to the difficu lty of said project.

„I have an idea, the story is roughly laid out, nothing is finished so far“

Have you ever playd a RPG? Ever read all the dialogues? Even the most generic RPGs had multiple times more text than what is contained in this entire article. So basically you have nothing.

Ideas that are too ambitious:

They sound fantastic, too fantastic, and experienced persons will see right through them and know that they are impossible to pull off.
COncentrate on the basic game first and once this is done, you maybe have some more time to domore fancy stuff.

„I don't have a concept artist, so you have creative freedom“

For the artist this means that the assets have to be designed before they are produced, which is a lot more work. Design is not a trivial process. „Creative Freedom“ could also be interpreted as „I don't know what I am doing“

„I already have a concept artist“ (but I don't show any concepts before)

Does your concept artist even know if it will be possible to translate his design into low resolution sprites.
The artist also can't say right away if he is compatible or interested in working with the concept artists concepts.

„Just do some graphics for me“

What a waste of time, everyone would rather put time into a project that has good chance of succeeding.

„Let's do a profit share“

This might work for small projects, but for long term projects it's a high risk for everybody working on it. What happens if youself won't proceed with the project? Or if a person jumps off and other team members have to take care of the work?

This was just a brief summary of my experience with RPG-development, and I just enumerated some of the most common problems. If you intend to develop a RPG you should seriously ask yourself wether you are experienced enough, or can get experienced enough to handle such a mammoth-task.

Starting with your own RPG-Development will drastically change you, one way or the other.
« Last Edit: September 02, 2013, 10:12:30 am by Crow »
"Because the beauty of the human body is that it hasn't a single muscle which doesn't serve its purpose; that there's not a line wasted; that every detail of it fits one idea, the idea of a man and the life of a man."


Offline PixelPiledriver

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #1 on: September 01, 2013, 11:21:55 pm
It's a bit glass half empty.
Could use more process tips or solutions to problems.
Some pictures would be nice.
A few typos here and there.
If you post in text form it would make it easier to point them out.
But a decent read with some important information from your experiences.
And knowing that it is, we seek what it is... ~ Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Chapter 1

Offline Ai

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #2 on: September 02, 2013, 04:38:40 am
Frankly, I think PDF is the correct format for this guide (and possibly your other guide)
* Inkscape supports quick+easy PDF export (and has excellent text facilities, definitely better than GIMP)
* Allows precise positioning and sizing
* You can easily render it to an image for those that want it as an image. IMO the more info you want to pack in, the worse an option a plain image is.
* Most of the text can be actual text (for editing and suggestion purposes, as PPD points out)

A casual correction : "Man-seriesa"->"Mana-series"
Also near the start "it is no wonde rthen"
and near the end "if youself won't proceed" -- I think you mean "if you yourself won't proceed"?
If you insist on being pessimistic about your own abilities, consider also being pessimistic about the accuracy of that pessimistic judgement.

Offline Crow

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #3 on: September 02, 2013, 08:20:08 am
Frankly, I think PDF is the correct format for this guide (and possibly your other guide)

I'll have to agree with this. Can't really say anything else about it, no time to read it right now.
Discord: Ennea#9999

Offline Cyangmou

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #4 on: September 02, 2013, 09:42:22 am
I don't have the time right now to formatize it with inkscape - seems to be like a good choice for next time though.

For now I added the text version.

There can quite be some minor mistakes, if you find one, just name it and I will edit it ofc.

I just pointed out some things which seem to come up a lot of time, I don't intended to give solutions, I just talked about the problems I know of - which might let it sound a bit negative, although I tried to stay neutral.
The text already contains about 4000 words and that withouot really in-depth observations. It's just a short overview.
"Because the beauty of the human body is that it hasn't a single muscle which doesn't serve its purpose; that there's not a line wasted; that every detail of it fits one idea, the idea of a man and the life of a man."


Offline Corinthian Baby

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #5 on: September 03, 2013, 05:21:53 am
I read the whole thing, and I can relate to some of the sentiments you are communicating here. Especially resonates as a pixel artist/rpg developer (guilty of rpg maker as well).

I agree with PixelPileDriver though, some pictures would be nice, and yeah it's pretty negative. I get the sort of vibe that you're discouraging newbie indie developers. I understand the frustration on your end from job offers by inexperienced amateurs, but I think from the flipside there is something to be gained by starting a project you're not ready for. It forces you to learn and get better, gives opportunities to get some feedback and recalibrate, or maybe a wake-up call.

As you said, making an RPG will change you. It will probably change you for the better though. You may not have solutions to some of these problems, but maybe through this discussion others can chime in with their own experiences and work to maybe answer some of them.

Also as a side-note I think this goes hand-in-hand with the goblins of the game industry thread.

Offline Sunjammer

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #6 on: September 03, 2013, 07:50:25 am
There are a lot of people out there who think in the most naive possible terms about game making - even those with more realistic ambitions for minimal-resource game production often have little concept of development efficiency. What can realistically be accomplished is a hard slap in the face to many aspiring developers, and reading this could be a benefit to them. There are ways to make development extremely efficient, especially if you have the skills to do almost everything yourself. The good news is that if you successfully create and sell a game that is more limited in scope, you'll have the resources to move on to your bigger concept... so there is a positive upswing to this!
« Last Edit: September 04, 2013, 11:40:03 pm by Sunjammer »

Offline dekutree64

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #7 on: September 09, 2013, 03:58:04 am
Excellent guide! Pretty much matches my views on the matter, other than the overall tone of "newbies shouldn't make RPGs". I say if it's your dream, go for it. Just don't involve money, and don't feel bad when you fail :P You'll still learn stuff in the process... hopefully.

Another point needed is monster graphics. If you do anything other than single image, "flash when attacking" monsters, you're looking at a massive workload increase.

And you make a quick mention of battle effects, but to expand on that, Chrono Trigger is an example of "nightmare" difficulty level. Not only would the spell animations take a lot of time, but they require a programmer-artist to create, because most of them make heavy use of HBlank effects and other tricks of the SNES graphics chip. Hard for a non-programmer to design those, so you need an experienced programmer who can make them, with artistic sense to come up with cool stuff. Not to mention the combo system causing exponential growth of work needed for each additional character, and more testing to see how the game plays with different party selections.

And lastly, making Final Fantasy 1 is actually pretty easy. It's like a reference guide for the absolute bare minimum work to create the feel of a classic RPG. When designing your game, think "in what way is this more complex than FF1?"

Offline tcaud

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #8 on: October 08, 2013, 09:38:35 pm
I think SNES graphics are in the range of everyone... it's just a matter of understanding the technique.

Offline ptoing

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Re: 2D-RPG Development Observations

Reply #9 on: October 09, 2013, 12:17:24 am
Yeah, I do not think you would need a programmer-artist to come up with cool effects. All you need is a good artist that knows the system specs, how far you can go, and how to abuse them. Also communication with the coder. Plus, it's not like anyone here will be making a game for the SNES here. Effects like that are a lot easier nowadays with things like pixelshaders.
There are no ugly colours, only ugly combinations of colours.