ARPGs: The Elements of Quality
There are five things that are crucial in any ARPG, I believe them to be:
Atmosphere and Story
Some of these are more important than others. However, they are all interwoven. When they are done correctly, working together as a cohesive whole, the end product is fantastic.
In this article I will define each aspect, lay out why I find each to be important, and detail their significance to the finished product.
So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or work of art.
In my time with ARPGs, I’ve found that the games with gloomy atmospheres are the most gripping. Perhaps I’m more partial to dark and gothic aesthetics than I thought. Or perhaps it’s just the general “heaviness” that comes with that particular type of tone. A dark, mysterious setting works wonders with these types of games. The “weighty” and “imposing” feelings that come with a gloomy setting add significantly to these games. If you can put yourself into your character’s shoes and think “what horrors are behind this door?”, the game is doing something right.
A game’s atmosphere contributes to the feelings the player experiences while playing, and a lack of consistent tone or mood while playing leaves a game with a hollow feeling. Atmosphere fills in the gaps between the game and the player and allows for better immersion. Not all games need to be dark and foreboding, but I feel this particular genre benefits from it.
an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
Story is tied in very closely with atmosphere. If you can make the world feel doomed, the story will be more compelling, even without constantly reminding the player “the world is in danger!” But what is necessary for a good story?
Presentation. It doesn’t matter how compelling the plot is if the delivery is flat. A good reason to fight, mysterious villains, and a sense of dread will do nothing if the story isn’t engaging. This is something that many games have trouble with, not just ARPGs.
Now, this might seem counter to what I just said but, although the story is important and should be engaging… it needs to be entirely skippable.
Essentially, ARPGs are all about gathering loot. That means it’s important to be able to run through the game’s content quickly and get in and out in the fastest amount of time possible. If you have to listen to a character go on and on about the world’s impending doom every time you want to run through a dungeon, it gets old really fast. It’s great the first time, sure, but after about thirty times it really loses its impact.
the persons who are actively opposed or hostile to someone or something.
Despite being little more than punching bags for you to murder over and over, enemies are really the only thing you as a player will be acting upon. The whole point of this type of game is to gather loot. This means killing stuff. Repeatedly. So the things you’re killing should be interesting. Variety is the spice of life after all!
Whether that means they look cool, or they do something special upon death, it’s important for the members of the unyielding horde of monstrosities to be be unique in some way. There should be some kind of distinction between “punching bags.” There should be something to think about while fighting. “I need to kill this guy first, because he will bring the monsters back to life!” or “Do I kill the Summoner first, because it might kill me, or save it for last because it summons zombies when it dies?”
Of course enemies, like story, are tied to the game’s atmosphere. If you’re in a temple devoted to the dark gods, fighting fluffy pink teddy bears wouldn’t make sense.
Although it would be funny.
the representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form.
This is a game design element rather than a game ‘feel’ element.
A fundamental aspect of a good ARPG is the player’s character and their intrinsic power.
What do I mean by that?
In my opinion, as the player progresses and gains in levels, the character itself should become more powerful. That said, power should, in part, be located within the character.
In some ARPGs, “power” is located within the items a player wears. That means without them, even at “max level,” the character would be as weak as they were at first level. This makes character levels little more than a system of gating progression behind an arbitrary number. Essentially, the only difference between level 10 and level 20 is that, “now I have access to more powerful pants.” At the end of the day, I’m only as powerful as my clothing.
Eventually this leads to what is called a “gear check”. You progress until the items you have are inadequate, then you have to stop and play through previous (usually significantly, and painfully, easier) content in hopes of finding better items in order to progress further. In a genre based heavily in luck and random chance, that can lead to very unfun situations if you encounter a string of particularly bad luck.
The flip side to this is if your character gains power upon each level independent of the items they are wearing, it gives the player a buffer. Despite progressing into harder content, you still have a chance. Even if the items you are using are sub par for the current content, your character’s innate growth allows you to still progress. Even though you can still run into walls in this kind of system, there are several different ways of bringing yourself “up to par.” You can gain newer, better items and also level up to gain more power. It gives the player choices and doesn’t leave them as beholden to the whims of a random number generator.
skill or expertise in a particular activity or field
Skills are what separate the different classes from one another. If a class is an entree, the skills are the seasoning that give it flavor.
A Barbarian is different than a Wizard because the Barbarian smashes things into paste, while the Wizard burns them to ash. In a good ARPG, skills should be interesting, flashy, and cool while also providing power and or utility. There is nothing worse than gaining a new skill and it being boring or useless.
That’s not to say everything has to be a massive bomb that fills the screen with fireworks. But if a class’s skills are underwhelming, the class is underwhelming. “Oh! Now I can cast a fireball spell! Wait, it does like no damage… Why would I use this?”
What makes good skills? Interesting mechanics and good presentation.
Summoning skeletons is cool, yeah, but summoning skeletons out of the dead corpses of the bad guys you just killed is way cooler. The consumption of corpses provides an interesting mechanic to the skill. Bodies become a resource. You can’t raise the dead without any dead to raise. This is both a good mechanic and good presentation.
“You tried to kill me, now I used you against your brethren.”
Smashing a bad guy with a mace is neat. Hitting him so hard he explodes is awesome. Perhaps it’s a weak mechanic, doing nothing more than dealing damage, but, the proper presentation can make a simple skill like this one feel really good to use.
Presentation is what separates “Fireball hit for 12, and killed the goblin” from “Fireball seared the flesh from his bones, leaving nothing but a charred heap.” If the game makes your character’s skills and abilities look powerful, while also being useful, proper presentation is achieved.
the balance and distribution of items, their types, and the various effects, powers, and statistics attached to them
Arguably the single most important aspect of an ARPG is itemization. Even if all of the other aspects are done well, boring items can severely limit or outright kill an ARPG.
The items you find and use should accentuate the character and their different skills. They should contribute towards your overall power, not be the sole source of it. Items should provide avenues to explore different ways of solving problems or ways to circumvent them entirely. Items should be interesting, surprising. They should be ways of shoring up weaknesses, as well as a way to add flavor to a character. Items should allow you to do things that you otherwise would not be able to do via your character’s skills alone.
A knife is boring.
A knife that electrifies its victim is mildly interesting.
An electrified knife that allows you to teleport through walls, is interesting. This offers solutions to a number of different problems you might not have even considered.
An electrified knife of teleportation that allows you to raise the dead to fight for you, is exceptionally interesting.
Not only does it offer utility in the form of transportation, it also offers defense by supporting you with a cadre of undead protectors. Give this item to a warrior and suddenly they become a skilled fighter that can also blink through space and raise his dead foes to fight for him.
An ARPGs items should accent the character. They should add to the character and provide depth, utility, and above all, cool factor. Items should be the icing on the cake. The cherry on top of the badass sundae.
I love ARPGs and I believe that each of these five elements are very important to a good experience.
Using the definitions I have laid out in this article, I plan to evaluate many of my favorite ARPGs and see how they compare to one another.
I look forward to writing about these games. I hope you enjoy.