Ratio of plot/optional areas

Indrah

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So, summarized question: What do you think is an acceptable ratio between obligatory and optional areas in games that use a large world map that can be explored?

I’ll specify some more: I’m planning a game (commercial, so on the large side) with a big world map separated in kingdoms, each with its towns and dungeons and secret places. My main interest whenever a big world map is involved is exploration, and exploration means optional content up your nose.

However, I’m afraid it may be too easy to go too far and completely sidetrack the player. How many “optional” areas do you think are acceptable per plot or “obligatory” area? For example, if each “chapter” has one obligatory dungeon, how many optional dungeons would you allow in the same chapter?

Some more questions: do you allow the player to explore everything available right away? Do you place very hard monsters in places they are not supposed to explore yet to discourage them, or do you simply make them impossible to enter until certain criteria is met later in the game?

How big can the optional areas be? Would big dungeons be preferable, or many smaller areas with only a select few big dungeons?

As it is, I’m inclined to use a ratio of 1 obligatory area = 1 optional large area = 1-3 small optional areas through 8 chapters, but I’m not sure if people think that’s too much, or too little. Through roughly eight chapters, that would be 8 plot dungeons, so that 8 optional dungeons, and many many smaller areas, plus another 8 “character dungeons” late in the game. That sums up to 24 and something like 30 hidden maps.

Is this too much, or too little? Is it reasonable for a commercial game? Should optional areas be smaller than plot areas or the same size?

On a similar note: how do you feel about sidequests? Should there be many “small” ones (fetch x items, kill X monsters, find some npcs, etc) with a group for each location, or is it better to have one “big” quest for every area (along with very few “small” ones)?

And so on. Any input is welcome. Personally I am in love with being able to find hidden places in the map, but I’m aware not everyone may feel this way and too much exploration may turn people off.
 
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Zeramae

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Oh I love this topic!

Right now I am making my world map with exploration in mind. So far I have three mandatory places and six optional ones. Two of them being towns, two being very small maps with campsites, and another two being optional dungeons. One of those optional dungeons will have multiple floors that the player will not be able to finish all in one sitting. I think making the optional areas completely up to the player is the best choice. By that; I mean that if a player wants to ignore curiosity and skip the optional places that it doesn't hinder the main game's experience so much, or makes the game impossible to play through without grinding. (Although I like some grinding, but I'm speaking generally)

I don't think there's a such thing as too much optional content as long as you're willing to put in the extra work.

In spite of this; also keep in mind there are people who may get tired of optional areas, but still treks through them for completionist's sake. (I'm actually one of these people, but it's still part of the fun for me :p )

As for sidequests; I believe having an optional area being part of a sidequest is extra fun for world building.

Bottom line, sidequests and especially optional content will help make the game world a living breathing place. Make some places mysterious with an answer as to what happened without actually spoon-feeding it to the player...people will write faqs about the theories...seriously.

PS: I'd love your world map by the way you're describing it!
 
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TDS

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Some more questions: do you allow the player to explore everything available right away? Do you place very hard monsters in places they are not supposed to explore yet to discourage them, or do you simply make them impossible to enter until certain criteria is met later in the game?
I usually put hard monsters in the way, but leave some sort of worthwhile reward for anyone that makes it before they're supposed to. This way you can reward players that try to break the game.

How big can the optional areas be? Would big dungeons be preferable, or many smaller areas with only a select few big dungeons?
It's never about the size of the area, many games try the old "100 of something trial or challenge", but it's really just "100 mostly padding". Just make sure the area adds more to the lore of your game and maybe reveals or explains extra things to the player. Also a good puzzle can make a small area great without having to great gigantic maps.

As it is, I’m inclined to use a ratio of 1 obligatory area = 1 optional large area = 1-3 small optional areas through 8 chapters, but I’m not sure if people think that’s too much, or too little. Through roughly eight chapters, that would be 8 plot dungeons, so that 8 optional dungeons, and many many smaller areas, plus another 8 “character dungeons” late in the game. That sums up to 24 and something like 30 hidden maps.
Again, don't focus on the size or try to force a formula. Just add as much as needed to expand on the lore of your game. There really is no point in adding an area that only serves to explore. Also once people notice the formula if there is any they usually get bored pretty fast because they know what to expect.

On a similar note: how do you feel about sidequests? Should there be many “small” ones (fetch x items, kill X monsters, find some npcs, etc) with a group for each location, or is it better to have one “big” quest for every area (along with very few “small” ones)?
I've never been that big of a fan of side quests, but they are great to explain extra things to the players or allow them to gain more power by doing something early. Also it's great to set trends or Easter eggs for your games.
 

Indinera

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I love exploration but I don't think there is just one answer to your questions. It really depends on who is playing.

I've tried plenty of combinations and I'd go as far as saying that everything works as long as the game itself is interesting.
 

Indrah

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The problem I have is that I am clinically incapable of keeping things simple. So far, i have for the world map a freaking amount of:

-7 "kingdoms" (aka large areas) and at least a large island that doesn't belong to any kingdom.

-3 TOWNS (large settlements) per kingdom.

-At least two smaller villages ("one map+ houses only" sort of size) per kingdom or more (I'm a bit undecided on this).

-One plot dungeon per kingdom.

-One optional large dungeon per kingdom.

-2-3 very small "secret" locations per kingdom (forest clearing, camps, hidden caves, sort of thing)

-One late game dungeon per kingdom.

-At least 3 non-kingdom based dungeons for the plot.

That's a freaking lot of places, but I'm mostly connerced with cities and my own godamn tendency to think spaces are too bare. I mean, a large kingdom can't possible have only 3 towns in it! It must have more! And then...Well, you see where I'm going. It's endless and I keep enlarging the thing over and over until it will eventually fraking explode, is what I'm afraid of.

That said, most optional areas would be on the SMALL side (say, 1-5 maps at most) so its not so much a problem of WORK (making secret corners of forest in the map isn't exactly hard) but of going too far.

Edit (I was ninja'd XD): It's not a problem of the locations lacking backstory at all, there's plenty of that and mostly every optional area serves a purpose, they're simply not directly tied to the plot progress.

Also by "large" I mean "complex". A small area would be one map, like a forest clearing, for example. A large ara would be more maps (not necessarily "large" sized individual maps), for example, a lost ancient temple, a cave network, a ruined tower, etc.
 
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MrRaiho

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Well, I believe it's alright to allow the player to be sidetracked. Sure you can block certain plot heavy side-areas and bosses off until the player is ready but don't just close every area off from the player, let the player try that secret area and/or boss out, get killed a few times, and (hopefully) they'll decide to try later or overcome the area and score some phat lewt. And remember while it may be a 'side'quest, that doesn't mean the story should stray away from it.

Ex. You destroyed a monster that was forcing miners to quit and what-not. Have an NPC in another town mention it, "Hey, I heard some guy destroyed that monster in the XX mines, wish we had people like him in the army." Or something like that.

Huh, I think I got a little sidetracked myself. Anyway, what I'm saying is I'm all for sidequests, side bosses, and side areas, just make sure they reward the player, I'd hate having to trek through a dozen or so deadly enemies only find rewards I could easily find in other places (at that point in the plot). Sorry, if this sound like a load of gibberish but I do hope it helps.

PS: Is this game separate of Arum? Just curious. :3
 

Indrah

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@Mr.Raiho: Consideing it will be commercial, no, it's not in Arum.
 

Espon

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When it comes to story progression, I'll sort of limit the amount of optional content available to only a few things every now and then. I don't want the player to get side-tracked too much and forget what they were originally doing. Most of it contains some helpful rewards for that point in time or to learn some extra bits of lore. I even included a couple optional characters in one of my games about midway that required you to go a fair bit off the beaten path.

Near the end of the game I'll start adding a lot more optional content since I'm the type of person that loves tackling content before going at the final boss (often times extra content being harder than the final dungeon). There's usually no limit at this point when thinking up optional content. These places are usually locked off by story events or not having the right tool to prevent the player from going into them too early...I want the rewards to be meaningful but at the same time I don't want crafty players getting some OMG-amazing weapon and trivializing much of the game. I've done that in a few games where strong enemies weren't enough to stop me from getting to the end of the dungeon.

I've been trying to steer a way from the "World Map" style seen in old RPGs. I want my world to feel massive, but like you said, it feels unacceptable for a kingdom to only have a few towns and dungeons. Instead the world map is simply a list of places you can visit if you've unlocked them through the story...so it's more like more places exist, you just have no reason to go there. I guess I should also add that my current game takes place centered around a lake and a couple islands, total area being being less than 0.1% of the entire world map (and that's not including the 3 other worlds and the many sub-worlds that exist in my series).
 
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Necromus

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Too much optional content along the early parts of the story can be quite pointless sometimes, if you skip that, it will feel just like a drag later on, cause provides no challenge or any improvement anymore.

Once you have better ways to explore, like ships, airships and the like, there should always be something aside from your next story goal, just nothing to shift game balance (powerlvling, buying equipment of X tiers above what you should currently have like in some FF's), atleast not on the first playthrough. It's always nice to have that optional boss that gives out some really good stuff, but most likely won't go down if you don't know what you're doing (as in, it's possible to beat at the point where you can first get there, but probably not without the understanding you might gain from completing a game for the first time).

Optinal things can be a lot of minigames too, doesn't have to be your usual sidequest kind of thing. Since you wan't to go commercial, you probably have some kind of diary/questlog anyways, so sidetracking shouldn't be much of an issue.

Getting someone to do a lot of things aside from the storyline is not the same as getting lost and forgetting what you were actually after.
 

T.Bit

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Well, I'm super anal retentive when it comes to getting 100% completion in a game. I'm inclined to find everything there is to find in an area before moving on to the next. So when I was playing Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (just an example), for every main mission, I did about 10 or so sidequests. And I wanted to do every sidequest before moving on to the next main mission. (No, I still haven't finished all 300. I'm at about 290.)

Having lots of optional stuff is nice for people like me, but for a more casual player, it might overwhelm them quickly. If you want to cut down on the number of dungeons/areas, you might try just having unlockable areas in said dungeon. Like "Oh! I have this nifty key from X number of levels ago. It fits in this big door that wouldn't open for me before! Yay!" Hmm...evolving dungeons. That's a bit of eventing work.
 

derekwst3

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im kinda new at this myself. i have been working on one game where the side quests will either unlock other side quests that will either help unlock their "legendary weapons", or unlock 5 secret characters, i trying to throw the more humoris jokes there to make the quests less boring, im also trying to have each character have a choice of turning evil and if you kill the evil one, if you defeat them in battles they will forever be lost...
 

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I am working on a survival horror RPG that is split into two forms of play (plot and game play related reasons). But the majority of the game will take place in a VERY LARGE museum that has "changed" (survival horror). In this large area, there will be a total of 12 different optional "dungeon" areas that are representative of each astrological sign. The idea is that they are; 1. Entirely optional (and even hidden - some will require completing puzzles, finding items, or just exploring. I'm making the extra areas in my game, part of the game play itself.), 2. Going through the extras will give you a reward (endings, events, challenges, etc.), 3. Overall they have a connection to game play and to the plot.

I've got a degree in Game Design, and I've worked on 3 "AAA" titles in the field as well (one of which was an MMO). As long as you can make these extra areas optional, provide a reward (but not the exact same type of reward for each), and actually make sense to exist in the game (i.e., connect to the plot, characters, location, or game play) it should be just fine - ESPECIALLY in an RPG. The majority of people (based on everything I've studied and everything I've learned in the field) will replay a free game for the extra content, no matter how much it is, as long as this extra content is not shoehorned upon the player, and as long as the extra content makes contextual sense. On the flip side if you were to charge $60 for the game, the majority of people will buy (or rent it) it, play through it once, and then return it (unless they fall in love with it). The trick is you want the extra content to feel like a bonus to the player, like an "extra reward" for the game itself. You could have 100 extra areas and hidden sidequests if you wanted to for a lot of reasons.

Example - Star Ocean for the PS1, had 86 total endings (the box boasted "over 80") and the game sold well for it's time, with an average rating of 8/10. They did this with a branching plot and character system designed around linear player choices (for example 1 choice can lead to 3 different paths, which would then have 3 paths of their own, and then branch out like that continuously). Now realistically you have to ask yourself, what are the odds of any one player playing the game enough times to have seen every, single, ending? At the time I remember only 2 or 3 people who "claimed" to have done this. The average person (then) would get maybe 2 endings if they enjoyed the game. The average person now, would more than likely play through it once if that. There was a study released recently that said that 8 out of 10 players of any one video game, will not finish the game before they walk away from it - and this study was only regarding "paid" titles. With a free title it's very different because the psychology of the player is different. With a free title, there isn't an immediate tangible investment ($), and therefore the expectations are different. Even the titles that have a price range of a single digit, come with an entirely different investment and psychology associated with that purchase; which makes perfect sense if you think about it.

Titles like "The Binding of Isaac" (an independently developed game that combines ideas from Zelda with gameplay like Robotron), which only cost $5 have an entirely different list of expectations on them, that's why independent titles have a tendency to surprise people when they're exceptionally done.

Hopefully this will help you with your concerns/questions. Just remember the "big 3" about this topic - 1. Optional! 2. Unique rewards/benefits. 3. They must be contextual. You don't want to force people into it, you want to give benefits to the extras, and these have to have a reasonable connection to the rest of your game. The last bit of advice I would recommend is that to remember that not all of your "extras" or "sidequests" have to be locations, or quests themselves. They can be extra characters, items, weapons, monsters - or any other experience that is unique from the rest of the game.

If you don't want to take my advice (which is fine, I won't take it personally :) ), do yourself a favor, and play your favorite games with a piece of paper and a pencil. Make a record of how much of the game is requried, and how much of it is optional. Then just do the math at the end of it all. If you're strapped for time, go to youtube and watch other people do play throughs of your favorite games (assuming you've played them before of course), and just pour through those videos, doing the same kind of math.

Hope this helps! :)

Jason Taylor
 
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Mouser

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One word: Morrowind.

Great game, but it was so easy to get lost in the sidequests and "optional" things that you forgot (or worse, never found out) what the main story of the game was.
 

sabao

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One word: Morrowind.

Great game, but it was so easy to get lost in the sidequests and "optional" things that you forgot (or worse, never found out) what the main story of the game was.
Yes.

Although I do think Skyrim handled it well enough. The quest log is organized into categories where the main story arc-related quests are bunched together, factional quests are sorted by faction, and the smaller quests fall in the 'Other' category. You could switch quest trackers on and off at will as well.

OT:

As far as traditional JRPGs go, I think the golden ratio was like 3:1. Sidequests were fewer, usually consisted of more than a single fetch/hunt quest, and had significant payoff (Secret endings, ph4t loot, optional recruits). Western RPGs got away with the more trivial and shorter sidequests. The item/money reward would be crap, but people would do it anyway because it was faster EXP. That's what I take from it anyway.
 

Emmych

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I like my optional schtick to be sidequest things along the lines of the Chocobo Hot'n'Cold mini game in FF9 -- easy to get in and out of, a fun distraction from the main plot, and not a new, massive info dump. Basically, something that juxstaposes against the main game nicely!

I don't think a game designer should plot out side content while making the main game, though -- I think the main game oughta be the main focus, with side stuff being a "SURE WELL IF I AM STILL ALIVE AFTER THIS GAM IS MAK THEN WHY NOT"
 

tpasmall

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First off, chocobo hot and cold was so addictively stupid and fun. I spent more time on that than the actual plot. Even if it meant getting stupid items, I just kept doing.

Anyway, I like the idea that optional areas can help provide unnecessary but interesting details about the game world. FF7 did that amazingly well. Sunken Gelnika, Wutai, everything with Vincent Valentine, Gongaga, etc. All that stuff was optional, added difficulty (except Gongaga), but more than that, added a ton of other information that filled in the plot in ways that you never would have gotten just going through the main storyline. Shinra's war with Wutai and their rise to power, where Sephiroth came from, what happened to Professor Gast, who Professor Gast was, the link between Cloud and Zack. It was all optional and it was all awesome but none of it was needed to understand the main plot or complete the main quest. It just made it better.
 

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