Game design elements

… some random thoughts to start things off. I’ll organize this better later on.


The primary inspiration for this game is the Ultima series of games (1980 – 1993)

Open world

Story-driven games that direct the player through a particular path make the player feel like the game is playing them. A linear progression can make a lot of sense for some games, but for an exploration-based RPG I think it can ruin the sense of immersion.

Challenges of an open world


In open world games with 1st or standard 3rd-person views it is difficult to get a sense of your location. The end result can be design elements such as auto-mapping functions or “quest arrows” that direct you mindlessly to your current objective. Without these it would be too difficult or tedious to navigate the world. However, I feel these can eliminate a potentially fun gameplay element – that of routefinding.

A more overhead “2.5D” view – such as is common in RTS games – can alleviate some of the downsides of large open expanses. The player is better able to get a sense of the terrain. Instead of arrows directing the player towards their current goal, the player can direct themselves based on information given by NPCs (e.g. “if you follow the south branch of the river, you will reach a small lake. On the southern shore is a recluse that may have the information you desire).

Empty space/getting around

Another challenge posed by open worlds is that of traversing boring “empty” spaces towards the next town/dungeon/etc. There are two problems here: the lack of interesting intervening terrain and the repetitive travel back and forth between towns.

It will therefore be a goal of the game to minimize large empty expanses (with perhaps the exception of the sea, but even then…). Towns and other interesting spots will likely be unrealistically close to one another. This will detract from realism but hopefully help with immersion.

It will be a goal of this game to have very little “boring terrain”. Obviously this has a content creation burden that conflicts with this. But it seems like it is still possible to insert small mysteries and rewards in the empty expanses to entertain the player.

We want to reduce repetitive travel across terrain the player has already explored (unless it is still interesting). Some games address this via an abstract interface that removes you from gameplay (e.g. Map Travel in Guild Wars). Ultima used a piece of lore from the actual storeline: moongates. Moongates also had some pretty severe restrictions: they were fixed in place and only a couple of moongates were active at any time, depending on the moon cycle. Ultima 5 (I think) added the ability to “dig up” moongates and move them, but the player would only discover this later in the game (which is good because it rewards the player with greater power). From my memory though, moongates were often irritating due to their destination restrictions.

The goal here – if repetitive travel proves annoying – will be to use some natural plot-based mechanism to handle “map travel”. We need to be careful not to eliminate “fun” barriers between spots on the map, but considerate enough to eliminate boring barriers.

Everything is accessible

Keeping parts of the world off limits is essential to keep the players interest and sense of mystery alive. The goal as much as possible will be to not create any artificial means of gating access. The world should be self-consistent and make sense (immersion). Natural barriers will be used, such as:

  • an area containing enemies of overwhelming force, making it difficult to progress far in that region without being killed.
  • natural barriers such as water (requiring the aquisition of watercraft) or mountains
  • hidden/difficult to find entrances

Ostensibly there should be few places the player can’t go given a strong enough party and large enough monetary resources.

Don’t know what to do next

When the player can go anywhere, he might be overwhelmed by his choices. When there is no incentive to explore any one particular area why would one explore any area?

The lesson here is that the player should always have something to do. Something to work on, somewhere to go. Obviously this is a hard ideal to achieve. But right off the bat the player should be given some suggested direction to work with.


It is a goal not to have large yellow exclamation points above the heads of NPCs. In the early Ultima series, there was no formalized quest system. NPCs provided stories and conversation to the player, and generally hinted at what they wanted done, or at what the player might want to do. For instance, they might say:

“There is an old man called Bob on BlahBlah island. I’ve heard he knows how to make magical swords. Unfortunately I don’t have enough money to buy passage on any ships to go an visit him.”

Here, the player might fell motivated to go visit Bob themselves and maybe get instructions and bring them back to this NPC. Contrast that to an NPC offering an official quest: “bring back instructions from Bob on how to make magical swords and I’ll give you 500 gold and 120 experience”.

In other words, quests should fall naturally out of the plot (immersion) rather than being some obvious formal construct to the player.

This does pose some problems. Without a formal construct how will the player keep track of which quests he should do? If he leaves the game for days and comes back he will forget what he was doing. So I think it is still important to provide some sort of quest log. It need not appear as such though. It could be a conversation log organized by NPC/town/region. Important tidbits from conversations would be stored here. This will entail an extra content creation burden (identifying the most relevant bits of conversation without polluting the conversation log too much).

I would also like to minimize useless fetching quests (“I need some silk from farmer Bob”, “tell Maggie I’m sorry”). The player should ideally find enjoyment in the execution of a quest, and not just for the potential reward at the end. You’re not there to be a courier or mediator.


My goal is to have no cutscenes. Again, they break immersion. The player suddenly feels as though a story is unfolding over which they have no control. I want the player to feel like they are creating the story.

Obviously there will need to be plot developments at certain points in the game. I am hoping I can handle these through mechanisms such as hearsay by NPCs with which the player interacts. For instance, one could say “It’s hard to believe, but I heard that the King has begun executing prisoners!” The players interactions should result in him being informed of plot developments. This also has the benefit of reduced content creation burden.

The thing is to think of how you would be informed of large developments in the real world. It is generally through talking to people, reading something, or seeing it on TV. Not through actually watching it unfold.