Urban Flight: Exodus from the RPG ‘Town’

The traditional refuge for meek NPCs, today Towns are a threatened breed. New advances in design are leading to a mass exodus from the traditional collection of blacksmiths, potion vendors, and quest-givers that have traditionally relied upon the Town’s uniquely-monster-free status. And it’s about time.

The concept of a separate ‘Town’ zone in an RPG, where players can rest and restock, is one of the grand traditions that stretch back to tabletop roleplaying. In a dungeon crawl like Wizardy, the Town (usually The Town, as there’s often only one) is the hub from which the player sets out, and the base they return to. Danger, in a dungeon crawl, can be expressed in terms of distance to Town – the farther out the player ventures, the worse it gets. The Town is the orderly center of the universe, and chaos reigns outside its walls.

As video game RPGs evolved from single-dungeon adventures into globe-trotting epic quests, Towns became the stopover points between the dungeon segments. They were used as a pacing tool, the lull to the danger of a dungeon, the break after the storytelling of a major plot scene. In the JRPG pattern established by Dragon Quest, Towns served as reward stations, in which the player spent their hard-earned gold. In contrast to most dungeon crawlers, which give out nearly all their loot in the dungeon and reserve gold for utility purposes such as resurrection, later JRPGs mixed the item curve between dungeon items and store items, with Towns providing a steadily level-appropriate supply of weapons as the player progressed, almost a fallback if the player was oblivious enough to miss the dungeon treasure. They also gave background flavor, expressing details the limited graphics could not – the politics of the region, the concerns of the public. As technology improved, JRPG Towns tended to stay relatively small, holding from ten to twenty-five NPCs, each with a line or two of dialogue.

In western RPGs, however, Towns grew with technology. The RPG renaissance of the late ‘90s saw absolutely massive Towns, with dozens of unique NPCs. The king of them all is Amn, the titular city in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn.

The in media res opening sets up your plight, you get a trap-filled dungeon, the despicable main villain kicks you a few times, you get a kickin’ party, and then…you’re dumped into a metropolis. Amn is dozen or maybe hundreds of screens big, with hundreds of fiddly little NPC people running around to click on and hear their little NPC voices squeak. And it’s great! Except that there’s no guidance telling you that yes, you’ve seen enough for now, please go out and do some quests. It’s assumed that the player will feel free to leave, do some quests, then come back and explore some more. But a generation obsessively trained by games with one-way-doors and miss-able items is a generation trained towards compulsion.

Consequently, BioWare’s habit of opening their grand games with a large city became BioWare’s bad habit. Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect featured very similar openings, though KotOR had the good sense to mandate players leave for quests midway through.

Back to the point, the case study of the Giant BioWare City illustrates the flaws Towns have always had. They are where pacing goes to die, trapped in the oozing amber of the static NPC patrol routes. And as RPGs evolve and get faster placed battle systems, the gap between action and Town content becomes more obvious and painful. It’s one thing when a player goes from gently selecting menu items with a chance of death to gently selecting menu items with a chance of reward, but completely another when the player goes from PUNCHING A SPACE-ORC IN HIS MOUTH to gently selecting menu items with a chance of reward. The balance cannot hold.

BioWare showed they are experimenting with it in Mass Effect 2 by breaking up their Towns into smaller chunks and scattering them throughout an ‘action zone’. Traditionally, a zone (and BioWare has been discretely breaking up ‘zones’ for a while now, to allow the player to tackle them in any order, Mega-Man style), consists of:

n  An opening Town, which holds

  • A small shop, to deposit loot at,
  • Enough NPCs to tell the player about the following area,
  • And several quest-giving NPCs to give the player goals for the coming dungeon.

n  Then, the dungeon area itself, which is,

  • 6 to 8 moderate encounters,
  • A boss, and thus the end of the dungeon, or a miniboss, followed by
  • 6 to 8 slightly more difficult encounters,
  • And the true final boss of the dungeon, commonly an encounter involving the dialogue system.

n  Finally the player returns to the Town to turn in their quests. End zone.

Mass Effect 2 mixes these up. The main Town hubs are made much smaller, and the quests branching off of them involve peaceful Town-like areas. They more commonly showcase new art and new world-fiction details through the action settings, rather than leaving the heavy lifting to the now-reduced Town areas. As an approach, it risks the cramped, artificial feeling of a comically undersized Town, but the emphasis on the action sequences taking place in the same ‘world’ helps to mitigate that. It’s probably the way of the future.

Final Fantasy XIII, the game whose spirit animal is probably the noble three-legged horse, looked at the problem of Towns and extracted their story-dispensing and item-selling functions, leaving their brittle corpse dead by the wayside. The way it’s supposed to work is: the talking aspects of Towns are conveyed through cutscenes (it’s not like Square-Enix has any shortage of artists), and the shop aspects are just condensed into savepoints, freeing the player to keep the rollicking story moving without any gummy towns to slow them down. This is identifying a problem and taking steps to solve it by ruthless cutting fat – modern design, certainly. But completely excising Towns illustrates what they do bring beyond the strictly mechanical – and it’s pacing, again.

A Town can kill pacing when it’s plopped right into a fast-paced system. But the basic pause, the exhale, is a vital component of a journey. It’s something that is needed to sell epicness. It’s why more pages of The Lord of the Rings are about walking than anything else. How far did Frodo walk? Quite a long ways! A Town just needs to be appropriately scaled to the game it’s in. Modern games need smaller Towns, while needing to sell a higher standard of immersion.

Deus Ex offers a convincing case for the future of Towns (appropriate that it’s not all a dismal futurist vision). Its Towns are often considered highlights! How do they work? Being an action/RPG hybrid, Deus Ex has very small divisions between the ‘dungeon’ and Town sections. Your guns, tools, and augmented super-powers are never disabled, and your perspective and the scale of the environment is always the same. Town sections serve as low-key complements to dungeon sections; in dungeons, most NPCs are hostile, and you can only occasionally relax, while in Towns, most NPCs are friendly but you must occasionally be on guard, when entering restricted areas. It’s a seamless mixing of gameplay sections and it strengthens both. The hidden pathways and multiple solutions are denser in city areas because the less-threatened player is freer to explore possible solutions before committing, happily able to find all the air-ducts he or she wishes without worrying about being spotted. Allowing the gameplay to mix without having to discretely shift between the two allows for Towns large enough for convincing veracity while also staving off boredom.

It’s a tough future for virtual urban areas; they have to evolve or die. But proper urban development policies: short, spaced-out bursts, Towns fitted to the pace of gameplay, and more seamless integration of action and talk, can…I don’t know, build a bridge to the next vidcon century. Or at least keep them relevant.

Cross-posted at the Game Design Guild.

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