The RPG Scrollbars: Questing at the speed of light

This week, something a little different. I’m going to talk about something I’m working on myself. Obviously, this brings with it certain complications. I’m won’t pretend not to be biased, though I don’t mean this to be an advert. I just thought it would be interesting to share some of what I’ve been working on as the writer and co-quest designer of Daedalic Studio West’s The Long Journey Home [official site], and to dig in to the difficulties and decisions that underpin the making of RPG quests.

Got the disclaimer? Cool. Filter accordingly as we blast off. Next week, back to other games and/or long rants about where my bloody Witcher 3 action figures are.

First, quick summary time! The Long Journey Home is a mix of space RPG and roguelike, heavily inspired by classic space games ranging from Star Control 2 to Starflight to FTL, to really obscure stuff like Psi-5 Trading Company.

Starflight and Star Control 2 are the biggest touchpoints though, and just to get the obvious question out of the way, I know that Stardock is making an official new Star Control game, but aside from having seen the couple of screenshots that came out the other month, all I know about it is that I’m really looking forward to playing it next year. Always been a fan of GalCiv and the company’s sense of humour is a great fit for the license. Fingers crossed, fans will enjoy both games, which are going to be pretty different.

Anyhoo, the basic premise. You’re in charge of Earth’s first jump capable ship, on what’s mostly a PR exercise for space agency IASA to rekindle the public’s interest in space travel. With a crew of misfit experts ranging from an archaeologist to an embedded blogger, your job is to make a quick, easy jump to Alpha Centauri and back. Shocking literally nobody, it goes horribly wrong. The crew is stranded at the far end of the galaxy, alone, injured and deeply unprepared. The only way back is through.

One of the interesting things about quest design is how every RPG has its own distinct flavour, based on everything from the player’s purpose to the nature of their avatar to the technology level of the world. They often have similarities, obviously, but most have at least some unique aspect that changes them up. Take quest givers. Individual person, automatic delivery, bulletin board system, hub? And then when you’ve done the quest, how do you turn it in? The classic approach is that you go back to the person who gave it to you, since in most cases that’s the most ‘realistic’ way of handling things. The Secret World however, to give one example, is a world where everyone has a phone, so it makes much more sense to report in from the field. World of Warcraft also slowly moved towards just making NPCs able to beam psychic messages to you, in one of many ‘just go along with it’ decisions over the years that stem from players typically and LOUDLY favouring efficiency over in-world consistency.

And that’s just a tiny part of questing fundamentals. What verbs does the player have access to? Verbs in this case being anything from cooling a fire with an ice spell to just clicking on a thing. What’s their status in the world, since that will determine both what’s worth their time and what people will charge them with. What bigger picture are the quests in service of? If you’re a travelling hero, it makes sense to be picking up odd jobs. If, again, you’re a member of the Illuminati charged with protecting the world from hordes of evil from behind the veil, you can’t really be caught in the river, just fishing, just as if you’re in a race against time, you’re probably not going to stop to help get someone’s cat out of a tree. If something is an MMO, how many players will be present at once, and can that be justified? Is the challenge level fitting for the level of character it’s being given, on both ends of the scale? Does your setting allow for or demand comedy/humour, or is it all being played straight? Does the engine have the power to show interesting things happening, or will all the cool stuff just be described to the player in a “Wow, that was an amazing explosion! I could see it from here!”

In short, it’s not enough to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Like the old saying ‘never apply a Star Trek solution to a Babylon 5 problem’, every RPG is unique. Even if you are just killing twenty rats and gathering bear asses.

Though thankfully, we don’t have space rats to deal with. Just some bare asses.

Here’s a few specific challenges we had early on with The Long Journey Home. First, and most importantly, the game is built on forward momentum. The universe is broken into systems, connected by Gates. Your job is to get Home. This alone is a massive deal for questing. We can’t send the player back to somewhere they’ve been. We can’t have them stick around too long in any one place. We can’t show much in the way of change on a local level, though there are a few exceptions to that, like accidentally infesting a planet with a destructive alien swarm. Or nuking it.

Second. The crew is alone and desperate. The player shouldn’t be thinking “Why don’t they just live with the Wolphax Knights,” or similar, because that diminishes the goal of getting Home. As much as we want the quests to be exciting and the universe fun to explore, as much of the game is rooted in the idea of homesickness and longing, especially in the crew’s banter and internal thoughts during the voyage.

Third. The crew is vulnerable. Any empire in the game could sweep in and crush them. However, their isolation is also felt in things like not having long-distance communication, not having bulletin boards for quests, etc. The one big exception we ended up making to this rule was that the first time you get credits, you get a generic bank account, though the original idea was that everything would be trade based. It was cool, but it was also a real pain in the neck, so in the end, credits won out.

Fourth. A ship doesn’t have many verbs available to it. Scan. Shoot. Communicate. Orbit. Salvage. Send down Lander. Fly away really, really fast. Not many more.

Fifth. Galactically speaking, nobody cares about or respects the crew. At best, you meet polite well-wishers. At worst, pirates and slavers who are quite happy to rip you to pieces and condemn their new human slaves to a lifetime at the bottom of a cobalt mine. Quests have to be interesting and feel worthy, obviously, but it wouldn’t make sense for everyone to expect you to solve all of their problems for them.

All of those are wrapped in a final, global pillar, that wherever possible, The Long Journey Home should offer the choices and opportunities that you’d actually have if you were there – including the freedom to break or ignore every quest, to make whatever friends or enemies you want, and make the most of your crew’s abilities to solve problems. There’s an old RPG saying ‘if you stat it, they will kill it’, usually used as a warning. Here, go right ahead. It’s a phenomenal scripting pain in multiple arses, but all to the best. If a ship comes up and asks you to do something, and you just shoot it, that’s a valid choice. Indeed, it can be a sensible one, especially when dealing with a mugger, or a ship trying to persuade you to take on infested goods. (But if you do, please, take a moment to think about the poor coders looking for edge-cases…)

The cool thing about restrictions though is that they breed interesting ideas. For example, just because nobody’s going to ask you to find the lost treasure of their people doesn’t mean that you can’t do that, and face interesting situations because of that. Will they be glad to see it returned, or furious that some mere aliens are waltzing around with their equivalent of the Holy Grail? Likewise, not being able to send the player back to hand in quests or handle debriefing by e-mails or whatever lead to having to bring quest-givers back to the player. This really helps boost the feel of a living universe, and makes betraying someone feel much more personal.

(And oh, can you betray them. In an early quest for the Wolphax, a race of grasshopper style guys who like to play as glorious knights, you’re approached by a lowly squire to kidnap his beloved so that he can rescue her from the ‘evil aliens’. Another race will ask you to run important deliveries for them. But if you want to sell her to the slaver race and just open the box and keep what’s inside, you go right ahead. Of course, there are always consequences, but if you think you can handle them, hey, it’s your ship…)

My favourite solutions to the problems though involve handling the verb problem. Enter the crew. A lot of space games treat the crew as little more than stats, while we wanted them to be both characters the player could feel for, and valuable parts of the mission. There are ten in total, of which you get four per game. Gather ‘artifacts’, go into the lab, and each will attempt to use their specialist knowledge to do something with it. The archeologist for instance, Siobhan, might take an old relic and be able to translate it. The researcher, Nikolay, might realise it’s a gun. Someone else might just break it.

Where things get interesting though is that we get to use these verbs to both offer abilities, and explore their characters. I said above for instance that if you’re on a courier quest, you can open the boxes. That’s true, but only if you have a crewmember willing to do so. If everyone’s a goodie-two-shoes type, you can’t force it. (You’re not one of them, or the Captain, per se, but more the ‘spirit of the crew’). This extends to dedicated ‘Crew Picker Quests’, where someone has to volunteer for something. Usually, it’s something horrible, like an alien torture probe designed to determine guilt through trial by ordeal, or agreeing to become a slave so that the others can go free. This whole system ultimately came from that problem that a ship can’t actually do much, and our characters who could… well, didn’t. After a couple of experiments on one of the game’s silliest quests, though, being able to bring them in via multiple vectors evolved from a cute feature to one of my favourite pillars of the experience.

Another unique challenge for space games of course is handling the aliens. Aliens are really hard. If they’re too familiar, they’re just people with silly foreheads. If they’re too crazy, finding actual ‘game’ involving them becomes a nightmare. Do not get me wrong here. I love and revere and respect and would consider wrapping Star Control 2 in fur so that I could better cuddle it, but this is something that it did kinda cheat with. Its concepts were amazing, but in practice most alien encounters consisted of a really long conversation where they got to tell you all of this crazy stuff that wasn’t particularly shown once in game. There’s exceptions, of course. Many are genius. The Ur-Quan Civil War and their philosophies, which extend to being willing to talk properly. The Dynarri influence. The Spathi ships being psychologically perfect. But in most cases – most – the aliens didn’t actually do a whole lot of weird stuff except talk about how weird they were and hand over their ships. We needed ours to be more active.

In designing ours then, we took more of a ‘hat’ approach to things. You have your military focused race, you have your religious race, you have your space pirates and so on. It was necessary, partly because you only get four of the major races in any one playthrough, and because the quests ultimately needed a ground-level of familiarity. We came up with some really crazy aliens early on, but there’s just not all that much you can do with, say, an inflating sac that ultimately evolves into a space whale. Not that would feel unique to an inflating sac that evolves into a space whale, that is, rather than just a slightly dressed up FedEx quest to deliver ambergris or whatever.

Instead the focus went on trying to give the different creatures depth so that the player sees different sides of them through their quests, through conversations with friends and enemies, through individual encounters, and so on. The trader race for instance, the Glukkt, may initially come across as being completely amoral, but no, they have a sense of honour and draw a line between good business and foul play. The Wolphax, the military race, are the exact opposite of your Klingons or whatever in that physically they’re pathetically weak insects, with their current love of battle stemming from the fact that nobody cares how tough you personally are when you’ve got ray-guns.

Most of the races haven’t been officially announced yet, but again, in quest design, a big part of the process was figuring out ways of not just presenting their hats, but playing with them a little bit. The dialogue system for the game for instance can track both what you say and what you do. Much like the Minbari of Babylon 5, some aliens take it as a compliment if you approach them with weapons raised, since it shows respect. Others take umbrage at the threatening action. Part of the fun is learning everyone’s quirks and making the most of them – including what they’ll take if you lose a fight. Borrowing from games like Risen, most of the galaxy doesn’t actually want to fight to the death unless really pushed, though that doesn’t mean they won’t, say, demand one of your crew to let the others continue their voyage.

Now, obviously, how well we’ve done with all this of course remains to be seen. Fingers crossed. Either way, The Long Journey Home is due out next March/April, with both updates and weekly in-universe newsletters mostly coming out over on Facebook. For now, hopefully this has been a interesting look behind the scenes of what I’ve been working on this year and the thought processes that it’s easy to overlook in favour of just ploughing through, or choosing to do a cheap gag about instead of focusing. Unrelated, next week: How Tyranny is the new test of intellectualism.

I kid, I kid. And can’t wait to play it. After another billion words of alien dialogue.

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25 Comments

  1. Faldrath says:

    Sounds pretty interesting, Richard. Can you talk more about the mechanics? Is it going to be more or less a traditional RPG where you follow the path until you “win”, or more of an FTL-type game (since you mentioned it) where you’re supposed to fail a few times before winning? I guess it tends towards the latter, since you mention that you can’t see all aliens/all of the crew in a single playthrough?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It’s a mix of the two. The big structure is like FTL – you jump through sectors on your way to a fixed destination. However, once in a sector you can explore its systems freely, meet, chat to and deal with aliens, pick up work and opportunities, land on planets (done in a kind of 2D Lunar Lander style) to mine for resources and search ancient ruins. And the quests aren’t ‘pick an option’ type stuff, but proper RPG quests with characters and scripting and action that can send you around the galaxy, to distant planets, bounty hunting, finding lost treasure etc.

      The roguelike element is that it’s a procedurally generated universe where you get four out of the eight empires (plus a few civilisations who are always in it) and a new galaxy each time. You probably WILL fail a few times, but it’s not like your regular roguelike that’s all “Ha! You made a mistake! You die!” It’s a lot fairer than that. (Also, we’re looking at a winning playthrough being about 4-5 hours, so not a crazy investment)

      The main goal of the single save is to keep the tension up, with the overall focus being more on keeping things together over the long haul. Your ship is collapsing around you, repairs are expensive and crew are irreplaceable. So, for instance, if you get into a fight, you can usually flee even if it’s against someone tough, but any damage you take while fleeing is still going to stick around until you can repair it – not just your hull, but crew injuries and individual devices like your main weapon.

      That means deciding stuff like, say, if an enemy show shows up and demands you give them your money, if it’s worth having that fight, or maybe realising that the path you planned to take next leads you into an enemy sector and you might have to head out into the badlands where the pirates roam. That kind of stuff. And the layout of the galaxy will also affect how you’re going to think. A galaxy with races like the Glukkt traders is going to be a reasonably friendly place. On the other hand, draw one full of guys like the Ilitza and your potential friends dry up fast.

      That’s the potted version, anyway :-)

      • Faldrath says:

        Thanks, Richard. I’m definitely going to keep an eye on the game, it looks right up my alley (even though I must confess I somehow skipped the Star Controls in my halcyon days of gaming). One last question, if I may: you mentioned crew banter – do the crew members establish relationships between themselves, and, if so, are they things you have to nurture/be careful about?

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Yes and no. It’s a little complicated (and any dialogue you might see in videos is placeholder – I’m writing the real stuff at the moment), but the basic gist is that they each talk about stuff like their mood, if they’re hurt, the quests you’ve done, the state of the ship, how close they are to Earth, items on board, personal stuff etc, and then different people will react on those with their own lines. You don’t change the core relationships, but what you do, the quests you take on etc, will determine what everyone’s talking about and who agrees on what.

          So the general mood of the journey is based a lot on who you’ve got. My goal is that if you’ve got people who get on, personally and professionally, the tone should be like a Star Trek episode, if you’ve got people who hate each other, it’s more Red Dwarf, and if you’ve got a motley crew then it’s more Farscape.

          But within that there are specific relationships – one we’ve mentioned before is that if you have astronaut Kirsten and pilot Malcolm on board, it’s obvious that they’re sleeping together. Which is done by their specific interactions with each other. So for instance, Malcolm will always have a line, like, “I’m going to check on the Lander Bay,” but Kirsten’s response to that might be something like “Oh, yes. The Lander Bay. I… I have something there too.” And then maybe (I’m not being coy, I haven’t written this yet) later on in the journey they accept that everybody knows, so her response to the same kind of thing becomes “When you’re done, you and me, shower room naked time – got it?”

          (Or whatever. Like I said, it’s not written yet!)

          The idea is to give the feeling of relationships and personalities aboard the ship with little bursts of interaction, so that sometimes you see how people are getting along, other times you can infer it, and hopefully mentally fill in the blanks of how life on board ship is outside those little exchanges. While also serving an important job of pointing you in the right direction or reminding you of stuff to do, like healing the crew or mining for fuel and jump-powering exotic matter before you run out of it.

          There’s also other ways that you see the crew personalities, including how they handle and look at artifacts, but the chat system is one of the ones I’m most excited about. I really think it adds a sense of life to flying around and regularly reminds you that the goal of the whole thing is to get these people home, not just return IASA’s lost property.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Benratha says:

    Thanks Richard!
    Games looks interesting; I like the method of ‘pigeonholing’ alien races.
    (checks text again)
    They will be wearing actual hats won’t they?
    Oh and one other thing…
    On the Zoetrope Issue #1 newsletter you mentioned ‘AU’ in the Viewer Mail. I’m sure someone has already commented but AU is typically taken to mean ‘Astronomical Unit’, not Astral Unit.

  3. BobbyDylan says:

    Wow, this looks great. A must buy from me. Gave me massive Star Control 2 vibes.

  4. Arathain says:

    This sounds pretty good. I love the idea of the FTL desperate space journey with more of a focus on characters.

    Sword of the Stars has an absurdly large volume of lore for each race, which is a little odd given that the game is heavily combat focused for a 4X. Ultimately, it works in the game’s favour, since a thousand small design decisions are informed by the lore.

    Tarka ships have heavily armed and armoured forward command sections, because while they like to approach combat directly the females are in charge and they’re up front. The bird-like Morrigi travel faster in flocks. Space whale Liir ships are maneuverable to allow them to encircle their prey. Mechanical decisions like armour values and where weapon hardpoints go on a ship are informed by the written culture of each race to a high degree of nuance.

    I mention this as an example of when alien differences are allowed to permeate other aspects of the game they can become mechanically relevant, rather than just something you read about.

  5. Sly-Lupin says:

    This sounds like something very close to my Ideal Star Trek Game, si I’m excited for it… But Daedalus? They’re kind of known for making fiercely mediocre games (at best) and don’t appear to have any experience with rogue likes, so my expectations are pretty low.

    Still gonna wish list it and hope for the best, though.

  6. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    …where my bloody Witcher 3 action figures are.

    They’re on their way, the courier just has to find your glowing red stink so they can find you house.

  7. sagredo1632 says:

    People have *got* to stop christening their starships “Daedalus”… who christens a new ship the “Titanic”?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      What’s wrong with Daedalus? Now, Icarus…

      Also, Daedalus is kindof appropriate, since one of the story threads is whether or not it’s actually a good idea to be poking our nose into space.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      In accordance with a wonderful short story whose author I have sadly forgotten, the most correct name for a prototype FTL ship is “Godspeed.”

  8. Alonso says:

    Please, no sounds in space.

  9. Gomer_Pyle says:

    I remember seeing a game play video a while back and thinking “this sounds interesting”. After reading this, I am even more excited for it.

  10. Henas says:

    Sounds very interesting. How does the game play Richard? Looks like it could be similar to Sunless Sea. Is it turn based, or more real time with pause like FTL in relation to combat?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Combat is basically Sid Meier’s Pirates – we zoom in from the system map where everything’s arrows and icons and time-compression, down to actual ship level. You’re mostly 1 v 1, shooting broadside weapons (at least at the moment), with things mixed up with extra stuff like enemy ships often having drones that attack your hull or shields. I’m not involved with combat though, so I don’t really know what else is planned for that before launch.

      The other stuff – all real time too. You fly around the systems along with other ships going about their business, charging up the jump drive to jump between sectors, and zooming in for encounters with aliens or things like asteroid fields and starbases. Planets are handled by a 2D Lunar Lander type affair where you can land in cities, mine for resources and salvage wrecks/ruins. Finally, conversation is done by assembling stuff like ‘Ask Home’ or ‘Insult Glukkt’ via a video window interface.

  11. sean says:

    Sounds like you have a lot on your plate Richard. Though if you are taking inspiration from the likes of B5 and Farscape, I just became very interested. Especially B5 even though it is not as well known as some it had some of the best alien races and a bit of more science fact rather than fiction. Which is always nice nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

    Though what I really want to know is. Will you be able to befriend and/or recruit individual aliens?

    For example do I quest for one of the Wolphax Kights to rescue his mentor, who is currently dying of boredom on your typical deserted boring planet say.
    Of course being so boring its only one system away an easy jump for anyone. Just a flat slightly off white ball of dirt completely devoid of any interesting life, or resources, orbiting a normal yellow star. Totally on its own, because all the other planets got bored and left.

    Anyway because I completed this quest the Kight who offered the quest in the first place would be willing to join the ships crew and journey with them, type thing.

    Best of luck with this and I look forward to hearing more about this in the future.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      You can give passage to aliens (as part of quests, survivors from wrecks, etc), and they appear in your living quarters with the crew, but they won’t actually become part of the crew like that. We try to convey friendliness more with things like characters returning to thank you rather than just having a ‘ding’ as money anonymously lands in your account.

      We talked about other options like that for a while, but ultimately decided that the focus should be the human characters and their journey. As I said above, we don’t really want people saying “Why don’t they just find a nice planet to go live on,” or “These guys are friendly enough, they’d probably offer asylum.” You’re always the outsiders of the galaxy and your only chance of survival is making it back Home.

      As for science-fact… well, we’re pretty firmly into the realms of SF here, and Farscape is by far our biggest touchstone :-) But if you read the ZOETROPE newsletters, they’re in part an attempt to ground things a little before heading off into the weird stuff.

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