[What can RPGs do differently to avoid their old pitfalls? Writer and commenter Nayan Ramachandran unearths some old chestnuts to make recommendations.]

I don’t think there is any question that I have an almost insurmountable devotion to the RPG genre. My very first RPG was Dragon Warrior for the NES. After it and Final Fantasy, my undying love for RPG genre was officially cemented. I have a healthy background in PC gaming, but just like any person whose gaming education was heavily based on console gaming, my most formative RPG years were spent playing games from Japan.

My entrance into Western RPGs started with Ultima VII. I had no console at home at the time, and my friends were all enjoying Super Nintendo RPGs like Illusion of Gaia and Final Fantasy III. I was looking for the replacement that would keep me going. I enjoyed what Ultima provided, and was always amazed by the series’ level of depth and freedom, but there was a certain je ne sais quoi about Japanese RPGs that I still missed.

When I finally got a SNES and returned to modern JRPGs with the Playstation, I was surprised to find that while games had moved forward in a storytelling and cinematic capacity, the games themselves were largely unchanged. The depth, freedom and malleability of Western RPGs that I had started to take for granted was nowhere to be seen. I was happy to be back, though, and enjoyed Wild Arms, Final Fantasy VII and its ilk without regret.

It’s now 10 years later, and admittedly, not a lot has changed. RPGs have become prettier, have better translators and occasionally sport new battle systems. Like the Joker raising his shoulders in disappointment after a hospital fails to self-destruct, I find myself wondering what can be done.

There’s so much ground that could be covered, but with executives begging for cash cows and a tough economy nipping at their heels, only those who have enough capital and/or guts will step up to the plate. Perhaps its not such a gamble, though. No one is asking for drastic and sweeping changes in the RPG formula over night. Gamers themselves treasure a certain level of familiarity in what they play, but little changes can go a long way to make a consumer truly appreciate the effort.

More Interesting Encounters

Screen wipes are old, even if they are still there to hide load times. Even those who still love the idea of the random encounter are tired of going to a completely different screen to start a battle. It chops up the pacing and lacks the smooth transition that a game largely based on adventure and exploration should have.

The solution is simple: be inventive with transitions. No game should have a player blindly run into giant hawks and sandworms without proper introduction. Passing through a forest? Thieves might jump out of the trees and ambush. Traipsing through a swamp? A large creature might emerge from the murky waters to capture its next meal. Don’t treat this as a replacement for random encounters. People love the excitement of an unpredictable environment. Dynamic enemy spawning does not have to be planned. It just has to be believable.

Make Each Encounter Matter

RPGs have a horrible habit of throwing “trash mobs” (useless, weak, time wasting enemy groups) at the player on their way through a forest, mountain range or dungeon. Especially in games where random encounters are the main course of battle, monster encounters are numerous and in many situations, not a challenge.

Encounters are meant to fulfill two jobs: initially, they are meant to provide an obstacle between the player and the boss creature of ultimate goal of the dungeon. Secondly, they are meant to be a source of strength and experience upon their defeat. Unfortunately, most RPGs tend to fulfill the second requirement but overlook the first.

When a game has enemies only to pad the world’s empty landscape and provide the player with the ability to grind their way to victory, the experience begins to wear thin faster than possibly intended. Higher risk and reward might be the best way to alleviate this. Make each fight count.

Increase experience gained and the difficulty of each encounter, but decrease the frequency of encounters. Instead of breaking up the flow of exploration with incessant and worthless fighting, make encounters a slightly more unusual occurrence, and make each one special and worthwhile.

Quest Logs and Records

This is a problem particular to the Japanese RPG. JRPGs in the past never kept any record of one’s progress in either the main story or in the plethora of side quests they might stumble upon. While some are starting to emulate the quest structure of MMORPGs and more Western-centric RPGs, JRPGs still manage to cling to incomprehensible idiosyncracies for no other reason than to infuriate the player.

Sega’s 7th Dragon has the ability to pick up quests from townspeople and even provides a fantastic quest log to keep everything in order. The quest log even provides a five star rating system that gauges the difficulty of the quest, and clues players in on how to proceed.

Strangely, though, the quest log can only be accessed at a Guild Hall in town, which means that if you forget what exactly you’re looking for in a forest you must return to the nearest town. It’s unnecessary, and reflects absolutely nothing about reality. Why can my characters not keep a notepad of active quests in the inside pocket of their armor?

Provide Waypoints

Why RPGs still refuse to give players markers on the map that identify the general area a player must go to in order to fulfill a quest is beyond me. Hybrid RPGs like Level 5’s Inazuma Eleven and Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku (Yakuza outside of Japan) give players waypoint markers for most quests, but other games refuse to follow suit.

Even Level 5’s less than stellar White Knight Story provided a useful waypoint system that made finding the next part of the story much easier. There are cases where waypoints should not be used (like forcing the player to search for a person or object), but there’s usually no legitimate excuse other than to artificially pad the game’s playtime.

Give Characters Life

JRPGs, now more than ever, have become painfully rote. Effeminate protagonists are more ubiquitous than the much parodied bald space marine, and player character archetypes (like the adorable lolita with an oversized weapon) run rampant. It would be wonderful to see developers break away from fan favorites and try to be a little dangerous. If that means choosing new and unusual settings and environments or even picking an untapped and strange art style, players will be open-minded enough, and they will thank you.

Additionally, try to add character interaction that does not interrupt the player experience. Cutscenes are not always the best way to develop characters. Exploring a large and empty landscape? Why not have characters converse in real time. Namco’s Tales series is famous for its skits, but with current hardware, it could be taken to the next level. Have players talk and comment in and out of battle, but add enough dialogue and content that players never hear the same comment more than twice.

Explore New Locales

This is a point that I belabored both in real life and in my writing, but I have little problem touching on it again. RPGs grew from Dungeons & Dragons and Wizardry, but that does not mean that the genre is irrevocably tied to Fantasy, or even Science Fiction.

Just like adventure games, why not explore other, more unusual locales? Inazuma Eleven successfully brought soccer into the RPG space, and Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series has long had its fingers in the pop culture pie, but most series and new releases seem happy to wallow in the tired fantasy pool. Sure, taking a chance can be scary, but when it pays off, it can be a huge success.