Creating Self-Imposed Limitations for Smaller Games

Seacliff

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For a while now, I have wanted to create a short traditional rpg, preferably no longer than two hours in length, with assets I have created myself.

The problem, however, is that I have been having issues trying to understand what design limitations should be applied when making smaller games and how to best utilize them to enhance the gameplay and story rather than limiting them. I have created smaller games before, but I never felt that they utilize this smaller scope.

Whenever I make decisions for both the story and the gameplay, there seems to be some kind of contradiction. A party of four characters can help make the gameplay more satisfying across the course of the game, but it also feels like that leaves too many characters to develop and interact with each other across the course of the story. Larger stakes could help get the player more invested in the story quickly, but solving the incident in a such a short period of time may feel cheap.

Of course, I recognize there is way more than one way to go about this. For the creators who have experience making shorter games, what styles of approach do you take while developing them?
 

Soryuju

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Just based on the examples you've given, it sounds more like you're mostly concerned about how to approach the narrative aspects of making a short project. My advice is that big stakes and big casts of characters aren't necessarily what will get players invested in your game. Often, it's the small and personal narratives within a game which grab the player's interest. After all, I have to care about some of the people living in your world before I'm going to care about the demon god who's trying to destroy it.

And there doesn't always have to be a demon god, for that matter. Character-focused vignettes which tackle relatable topics can grip players just as strongly as epics where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. They may not have the same surface-level entertainment factor, but if you can write a story around characters and themes which have genuine meaning to you (perhaps even drawing from your own real-life experiences), then your narrative will resonate with players even when the stakes are low. Creating that level of emotional investment within a short story takes lots of practice, but it's very possible if you have a strong handle on writing.

In terms of gameplay, there's a very real case for minimalism regardless of how long or short you intend to make your project. Plenty of RPGs work fine with fewer than 4 characters, so unless your gameplay or story demands that you have 4+ characters, you shouldn't be afraid of trimming down the cast. I'll admit that working with fewer than 3 characters can be tricky if you're using a standard RPG combat system, but you're also free to create combat gimmicks which complement your choice to use a small party size, and you can give each individual character more depth when there are fewer characters for players to keep track of.

In short, shape your design and your narrative around what best suits the length of your project, rather than around what you think players are expecting from your project. Players will get invested on their own if they can connect with your narrative emotionally and if your game design is in harmony with itself.
 

HumanNinjaToo

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I read on article online, sorry I forget where exactly, that took into account the amount of time the player spends on different aspects of a game.

For example: 30% of game time reading text and moving through story points, 20% of time fighting mobs, 30% of time fighting bosses, and 20% of time tinkering with game mechanics (like crafting, buying/selling, walking around maps, etc.). So after you break down how much time you want the player to be spending in whatever areas you've included in your schedule, you then work toward adjusting those in-game moments to fit your schedule. If you have 10 boss fights, and you end up spending 50 minutes fighting those ten bosses, but your target total game time is only 90 minutes, then you know you need to somehow shorten the amount of time spent fighting bosses down to around 30 minutes.

To me, it was kind of a weird way to balance a game when I first read the article; however, it makes sense I think when you are trying to balance how much time the player spends reading your story text and watching cutscenes for character development.

I would also say to spread things out evenly so a player doesn't get bored. For instance, I prefer maybe 2-5 minutes of dialogue at a time. Break that dialogue up with 10 minutes of exploration, 10 minutes of mob fights, and a 3-5 minute boss fight. Then I'm ready for another 2-5 minutes of dialogue, rinse repeat. No matter how well written a story and character development is, I am usually bored with it and begin skipping text after 5 minutes. Same with anything, too much fighting gets old after a while too, no matter how dynamic the combat.
 

Seacliff

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Just based on the examples you've given, it sounds more like you're mostly concerned about how to approach the narrative aspects of making a short project.
It's both. I want to create a short adventure with two characters, but I'm struggling find how to frame a story and how to make traditional RPG combat engaging with just two players. What skills they should know/learn, and what roles they should play in combat is hard for me to determine. Whereas if I had four characters, I could instantly fit them into classic Fighter/Rouge/Cleric/Wizard archetypes.

To me, it was kind of a weird way to balance a game when I first read the article; however, it makes sense I think when you are trying to balance how much time the player spends reading your story text and watching cutscenes for character development.
This is useful information, but is less in line what I'm really worried about. Creating a typical structure of Town->Event->Dungeon->Event->Boss->Event is easy to grasp, but if it was executed the exact same way as a larger game I would have done that already.
 

Black Pagan

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I Plan the whole thing in Reverse. I imagine a Big Scenario of whatever theme my game would be, Lets say a Game based on an Alien Planet. Now I think of all the things i could do and start down-scaling them, drastically.

If the Planet had multiple zones - like Forest, Tower, Marsh, I would try to scale them all down and fit them inside a city converting them to "Park", "Beacon" and "Tar Pits" perhaps, all could fit well perfectly in a small settlement / city.

If what comes to my mind is a Party of 5, i would think of how to make the story fit only 2. If I think of 6 maps in my game, I would think of ways to combine 2 maps into 1 and scale it down to 3, So on.

If you are concerned about extending the game, Think of "Crafting", "Collection aspect", "Side Quests", "Battle Encounters" and "Cut Scenes", These gladly fill in and extend the Game elements.
 
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