Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ranking and Rating CRPGs

I've been thinking about the process of rating CRPGs. What makes certain games so addictive and enjoyable? I started making a list of everything that occurred to me, and tonight I organized that list into categories. It just so happens that there are 10 categories, and if I assign 10 points to each one, I have a decent 100-point scale.
The things I like about CRPGs may not be the same things you like. For instance, I don't care much about graphics. All I ask is that, as I put in my list, they're not distractingly bad. I care even less about music. I know that game developers pay composers and musicians to record extensive soundtracks for their games, but one of the first things I almost always do when firing up a new game is turn the music off.

On the other hand, I do value some unusual things. For instance, I love games that extensively describe the different weapons and armor you pick up. I also love the process of finding new stuff and outfitting my characters. I value strong NPC interaction as much as exciting combat. I prefer my areas to re-spawn so I can return to beginning areas once I'm level 12 and idly fireball rats just for fun.

I could read these all night.
With this in mind, I created this master list of characteristics (titled with a nod to my Reddit user name, and my favorite drink). Each of the individual items combine to create a score of 0-10 in each category, contributing to a master score of 0-100. Let me know if you think I missed anything obvious. Ultimately, over the years, I expect I will create a separate blog post for each of the items in these categories.

CRPG Addict's Game Innovation, Merriment, Likability, and Engagement Test (GIMLET)

1. Game World
  • Game world has unique features that distinguish it from other CRPGs
  • Creators have endowed game world with history and lore
  • You understand how your character and quest fit within overall game world
  • Your decisions and actions measurably affect game world

2. Character Creation and Development
  • Game allows extensive customization of characters during creation process
  • Characters are rewarded for combat and quest-completion
  • Character advancement process is satisfying and rewarding
  • Encounters and dialogs play differently with different classes, sexes, alignments, and characteristics

3. NPC Interaction
  • Game has NPCs with whom you can talk
  • NPC Interaction advances the plot of the game
  • Game offers you flexibility in dialog choices
  • NPC Interaction provides opportunity for role-playing
  • PC learns things about the game world from NPCs
  • Game offers NPC relationships (romances and friendships)

4. Encounters & Foes
  • Game offers unique monsters distinguishable from other CRPGs
  • Foes are well-described in game world
  • Foes behave in different ways depending on their type
  • Game features some scripted encounters with opportunities for role playing
  • Game has some level of random encounters so that you never know what's coming
  • Areas respawn at some point after they are cleared

5. Magic and Combat
  • Player has numerous options in combat
  • Combat is tactical, requiring some strategizing to successfully navigate
  • Combat offers opportunities for role-playing
  • Magic system (if included) is well-balanced

6. Equipment
  • Game has wide variety of weapons, armor, and accessories to buy, find, wield, and wear
  • Game makes it easy to understand and evalute how items compare to each other (e.g., which weapon does the most damage)
  • Items are thoroughly and interestingly described
  • Items are at least partly randomized within game world
  • Player can create or customize items

7. Economy
  • Game gives you monetary rewards for killing creatures/solving quests
  • There are interesting and helpful things to buy with your money
  • You never reach a point in which collecting money becomes pointless

8. Quests
  • Game has a "main quest" the completion of which constitutes winning the game
  • Main quest has different outcomes based on player decisions
  • Game features side quests that offer opportunities for character building
  • Side quests have opportunities for role-playing

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs
  • Graphics are not distractingly bad
  • Fun and realistic gameplay sound effects
  • Interesting and immersive background sound effects
  • Some well-acted, spoken NPC dialog
  • Controls are intuitive and responsive

10. Gameplay
  • Game is alinear, allowing freedom of movement throughout game world
  • Game is highly replayable, offering different experiences for different classes and alignments
  • Game has the right level of difficulty: challenging without being exasperating
  • Overall pacing is good; game is not over too quickly, neither does it drag

After I finish The Bard's Tale, I'll rank the games I've played to this point on the scale. Without overly demanding criteria for graphics and sound, I suspect that some of these older games (especially a few of the ones coming up) will hold up quite well.


  1. what a juicy post. alas, not enough hours in a day, so i only managed to get through point 1 so far ;). and this is what emerged to me as a great addition to this point later on while reading my good night book:

    [just for the kicks; sorry for spam]

    Hiccup Forest was full of dark secrets. Throughout the day, heavy carloads of silver ore would roll toward the South. But at night, the road was deserted, for few men dared walk there under the lights of the stars. It was said that at night the Siu bird called from the High Tree. No one had ever beheld this bird, for it cannot be seen by human eyes, being no ordinary bird. It was said that great shaggy spiders would jump from the tree branches onto a horse's neck to suck his blood in almost no time. It was said that the monstrous primeval dragon Pech roamed this forest; the monster was said to be covered with giant scales; to bear a live young dragonlet once every twelve years; and to drag after it 12 tails pouring with poisonous sweat. And somebody is said to have seen with his own eyes, in broad daylight, how the naked wild sow Y, cursed by the Holy Mika, was dragging itself along the highway, moaning and grunting -- a rapacious beast of prey, invulnerable to iron but easily pierced by a bone.
    Here in this mysterious forest, you might encounter the fugitive slave, the one with the black tattoos between his shoulder blades. He was stupid and pitiless, just like the shaggy, blood-sucking spiders. Or you might meet the magician, the one who had been mangled by three deaths; he was always gathering mysterious mushrooms for his magic potions, which could make a man invisible, or change him into different animals, or even give him a second shadow.
    Everyone knew, of course, that the robber captain Waga Koleso and his band roamed along the road all through the night, and fugitive forced laborers from the silver mines, with their black hands and whitish, transparent faces. The poisoners would gather here for their nocturnal meetings, and the brazen hunters of the Barons of Pampa camped out
    in the glades where they could roast their stolen buffaloes on a spit over an open fire.

    now, wouldn't you like to play an rpg inside such a world? it IS a bit weird-ish, but man, how distinctive and racy it is ;]

  2. as for the excel file, check out google docs ( you can create a spreadsheet on the cloud and then just link it as you like. or even embed it right into the blog (in g/docs it's: Share > Publish as a web page > Get a link to the published data > Html to embed in a page).
    (ding, your internets mojo skill has improved by +1)

  3. I notice all your screenshots are in a cmd prompt window. This is rather deceptive as you've shrunken the aspect ratio of the game's graphics and now what probably looked REALLY pathetic on a standard monitor/graphics card setup in the 1980s only looks bad as compared to "modern" graphics. If you get a chance, try previewing the games full screen (ALT+ENTER) in DOSBOX to see what I'm talking about.

  4. I have. I can't take notes, make maps, etc. while I have the games going in full-screen mode, so I play them windowed in DOSBox. I understand what you're saying, but I don't think the shrunken resolution makes the games look SO much better that it's influencing my ratings.

  5. Also: I don't think this harms a game any: I often watch TV or play games in a window to make things look better. There isn't a rule saying you have to play games at the highest resolution your monitor supports.

  6. I dunno dudes, I'm currently playing this DIY RPG for Qbasic called "Arc Legacy" by Mark Hall. It's pretty cheesy, but its helping me to think about writing my own CRPG code (I'm really trying to reinvent the wheel with my code).

    Well, anyway, the game is totally cheesy in fullscreen mode (all the characters look like something a pre-schooler might find acceptable), but when played it a CMD window, actually looks much better.

    BTW, really enjoy the site as it is helping me in the aforementioned project.

    I say, if you REALLY want to experience these games, you should play them all in the resolutions that they were designed for back in the day. You really cheat yourself by not doing so, it's like looking at picture of a Monet instead of the real thing...

    1. Ha. HA. Wow. I was interested in Mark Hall's sister years ago, who I only met after he tried to sell me his self-published fantasy novel one day when I was working at a used CD store around this period.

      I mean, I am not 100% sure it is the same Mark Hall, since that is not the least common name in the world, but ... the timeline and the questionable-do-it-yourself ethos certainly fits.

  7. No music? The music is one of the big atmosphere builders. And yes. It can be horrible misused, just like in the movies. But exploring caves, ruins and wilderness in Baldurs gate series? And even more in Morrowind and Oblivion? It would just seem wrong without the pompous music. Skyrim seems to fallow that line rather well. Looking forward to that.
    I can see your point if the music really is horrible, but even the you need to suffer some amount of time before muting it.
    Another thing came in mind. I like that my heroes look good. One thing I haven't seen in many games is the ability to interact how to wear certain clothes. A cape over one shoulder or both. Little things like that. I remember that in Daggerfall had something like that.

    I'll keep on reading and commenting old posts...
    Keep up the good work

  8. I realize the problem is mine. I just don't like music when I'm playing a game. I don't like it when I'm doing housework, writing, cooking, hanging out with friends, or doing most other things, either.

    1. You need a role-playing game with a jazz soundtrack. I hope you will find it someday!

  9. I usually play with my sound off completely. A good game I'll turn on game sound but not music. I find music to be distracting and non-immersive. If music was more contextual, like if I only heard it in the pub, then I might keep it on. After all, after a hard day adventuring, it would be worthwhile to go to a pub specifically to listen to music to relax.

  10. I think you and I are rare in that regard. I'm always hearing people talk about how wonderful and immersive the music is. In a way, I suppose it doesn't make sense that I like background music in films but not CRPGs. But I agree that if the music was actually IN the game world, as in a pub, I'd like to hear it.

    1. Well, you can add me to your elitist group. I definitively switch off the music (if possible) -- too obnoxious and interfering with my mood while playing, ESPECIALLY on older games (that's pre-90s for me :).

      I also agree to your statement about in-game music; the radio stations in GTA definitively enhance the mood.

  11. So, for fantasy games, just imagine you have a minstrel following you around like brave Sir Robin. And for games set in modern or futuristic themes, iPod. =D

    1. I'm reminded of how the NES Maniac Mansion started you with a CD player in each character's inventory, each with a different CD in it (find this out by READing the CD player) and which is disabled/re-enabled by... TURNing OFF/TURNing ON the CD player. It really was a brilliant touch.

  12. I've got a couple of responses to this one.

    First: "Combat offers opportunities for role-playing"

    I've been trying and failing to parse what this could mean, much less come up with an example. Is there a game where you can type in a taunt in the midst of combat? That would be a pretty cool mechanic, actually. Other than that, I'm really drawing a blank.

    Second: As an armchair game, book, film (and so on) reviewer, I've had to come up with similar scales for rating games, but I've invariably found them lacking because there's always (or nearly always) an element to my experience of the game that's greater than the sum of the disparate parts. It's frustrating, because I want to quantify it, but in the end I've had to adjust my lists of ratings criteria to include something like "fun," which basically is a measure of how much I've enjoyed the game/book/film. Otherwise my ratings often don't as accurately reflect my experience of the game, and things can end up with a lower score than matches my recollection.

    Third (I know I said there were two, but...): I look forward to the day when a game appears that fulfills all of these criteria in large measure. I've yet to play one, but it sure would be cool if it were possible.

    1. 1) Good question. There aren't a lot of great examples. I was thinking about tactical games like the Gold Box series, where you could have a wizard recklessly charge into melee combat without armor, or have your ranger target all his attacks on a particularly hated foe. There's Ultima IV, where it's part of the role-playing to let enemies flee. In Skyrim, you could refuse to attack animals and use "calm" instead. That kind of thing.

      2) I agree. What I hope is that the "sum of the parts" comes through in my writing (the qualitative bit) and the GIMLET (the quantitative bit) just stands as an interesting diversion.

      3) Me neither. Although Baldur's Gate comes very close.

    2. Fallout 1 and 2 meet these requirements, with the exception of the randomness in encounters and respawning. Persistent world, remembers your choices, character choice matters in a massive way - I read about someone beating the game _without ever killing any living thing_, playing as a persuader/stealth type. No magic system but the technology and skills fill in that gap.

      I think if you play Fallout you will appreciate How well it was built, especially after playing so many games.

    3. Games in which you can use non-lethal methods to neutralise threats (Deus Ex, Thief) in combat allow for roleplaying opportunities within the combat system.

      Otherwise it's mostly up to the player: Playing KotOR without ever wielding a weapon; restarting Commandos if you trigger an alarm; doing everything you can to protect your creations from dying in Geneforge (if you follow the 'PETA' storyline it makes sense to play that way); never getting your 'hands dirty' in Arcanum (I wore a suit throughout the game and let my ogres take care of the less seemly matters)

  13. Ah, I wish I'd read this blog post sooner. Anyway, I'm from RPGWatch, and some of us have been developing a checklist system similar to your own. Originally it was simply meant to determine if a given game was a CRPG or not, or if it was at least CRPG-ish. We did well on that, I believe, and on top of that we now have an extensive way to objectively analyze and quantify CRPG elements in games, as well as getting useful info that will ultimately make it possible to better compare games with each other.

    We have 3+1 main "role-play" categories, which your ten would easily fit into.

    1. Character Development
    2. Exploration
    3. Story
    4. (Meta) Combat - basically Combat is like an actualization of points 1-3

    These are further divided into 3+1 "game-play" sub-categories:

    1. Choice
    2. Interactivity
    3. Immersion
    4. (Meta) Interdependence - example: character stats can influence story elements like dialogue choices

    To give you an idea about what such an analysis entails, here's one for Wizardry 8, a game with quite a lot of CRPG elements:
    [ ]

    And one for Icewind Dale, a game with not so many CRPG elements:
    [ ]

    (See spoiler tags to read the actual reviews).

    We also have a little tool allowing you to easily click yourself through the checklist for a game if you are so inclined:
    [ ]

    We tried to keep subjectivity out of the system as best as we could, so it's not meant to be used to provide a qualitative "Fun" rating. That said, arguably CRPG elements can be a big part of what players like in their CRPGs. Reading through your list there still seem to be one or two elements that we didn't think of, so yay for that!

    1. By 'choice', do you mean different ways to solve a problem, or different problems to choose between?

      By 'immersion' to do you mean the game world's responsiveness to actions the player has performed?

    2. Choice: Both. Literally: what you can pick and choose, things you have to decide on.
      In Character Development, it would be things like choosing a name, stats, skills, hair color. In Exploration, it would be paths you can choose, or effectively freedom in where you can go. In Story, it would involve things like quest order, factions you can join, moral or romance choices, how you can do quests, etc.

      Immersion: Yes, that too. Immersion includes everything that makes the game world more believable as a whole and lets players identify more with their characters, to help them get invested in a game.
      In Character Development it means, for example, that there can be negative status effects, that you can tweak your characters lots of times during the game, that you need to specialize, that you can actually wear normal clothes instead of only armor. In Exploration, it may include that locations are not totally static, that creatures make sense and 'belong' in an area, that time is measured and affects the game world, etc. In Story, immersion may mean that there is lore, well developed NPCs, party banter, memorable antagonists, and so on.

    3. Thanks for letting me know about this. It's an interesting way to quantify and grade RPGs. I'll have to leave a full analysis to when I have a little more time. For now, I agree that your system helps determine how GOOD an RPG is, but I don't agree with those categories in determining whether it's an RPG in the first place.

    4. Excellent. We'd love to hear your thoughts (or anyone else's for that matter) and would really appreciate fresh input.

      I read your RPG definition on the right side. We have your 3 core criteria covered, actually. (1) Character Development is obvious. We consolidated all item-related things in "Exploration", along with anything else related to game world exploration and -interaction. An inventory with more than just puzzle items is one of our Must-Have criteria (2). Combat with attribute-derived statistics is just a "Should-Have", because it was argued that there could theoretically be RPG-like games without combat, although only one game was cited ("Magical Diary").

      The definition part itself is layered. We have a few must-have criteria (see above), which must be fulfilled for minimal RPG status, so a game without Character Development wouldn't be an RPG at all. Then we have a couple of should-have criteria -- if those are fulfilled too, we really have a "full RPG". If some of them are not fulfilled, the game may be a RPG, but could probably be described more in terms of a subgenre (like Puzzle RPG, Tactical RPG) or in some cases as linear RPGs.

      The current status of the rating system can be seen here:

  14. I'm having trouble understanding the justification for adding points for random encounters and respawning. These seem to be more a matter of personal preference than game quality.

    Personally, I generally do not like respawning monsters unless there is some reasoning to why they are respawning. Rats respawning in a cellar makes sense. A dungeon that's been cleared out respawning with the exact same monsters in the exact same places makes less and less sense the larger the dungeon gets. A unique, named creature respawning makes no sense at all without some story backing.

    A monster reappearing after being killed is, to me, suspension-of-disbelief breaking. This to me is a poor development choice that basically boils down to an easy out from making more content. If you need respawn to grind, then there's not enough content.

    In some contexts respawning makes more sense than others. Robots continuously rolling off an assembly line is a good explanation for why you may encounter the same enemies twice in the same location. But in standard RPG tropes, unless you've got a high-level cleric under every rock, the potential "in-game" explanations for the mechanic are hard to come by.

    Random encounters I'm kind of neutral about. I generally find them annoying yet I do appreciate the impact of uncertainty and risk on gameplay. Frequency matters here. If I see one random encounter every two hours of gameplay that's fine. If I've got a random encounter every time I take a step, that's not fine. Random encounters are another easy substitute for lack of content. Mind you, this refers to random combat encounters specifically. Random NPC encounters such as on the roads in The Magic Candle are all right. It really depends on how the randomness is done. If it's just done to slow you down it's a negative. If it's done as a way to give the player opportunities he may not have had otherwise it can be a positive.

    1. Well, It is a bit more complicated than that. Firstly, computer games (and CRPGs most of all) deal with a big dose of abstraction on many levels. A 1:1 representation of a real world would be quite frankly boring (not to mention impossible - yeah I know Daggerfall and all and we know how it ended up). Thus we usually see time and/or space compression. So a big city can be like five houses and ten interactable NPCs. Random encounters are an abstraction for what you do not see.

      Secondly there is a thing like already established genre tropes and conventions. Because you want to create a living, organic, believable world and quality is inversely proportional to quantity/size you need to put a limit to what you can do somewhere. In terms of CRPG conventions it means filling the gaps with abstractions (in this case random encounters) that make the world feel bigger than it actually is. The question of whether it is enjoyable or not is fundamentally in the realm of personal preference and good game design. I am not aware of how familiar is Chet with Gothic series (the only full fledged RPGs that I can think of balanced around the fact that monsters do not respawn at all) but the fact is that almost all games in the genre use randomness to at least some degree. If you make a universal rating tool, you want it to deal with as many possible scenarios as it can without making it totally useless.

      Thirdly suspension of disbelief. The problems you are describing lie not in one paricular element but in how a multitude of separate pieces comes together. You can make the very same argument you did above about every other gameplay element. And so what? Ultimately it is not about one element in an of itself.

      Fourthly replayability. Obviously the further you go on the deterministic scale the worse it gets. At the same time making a game competely random generates a whole different set of problems without really adressing replayablility.

      What I mean to say is enemy respawn/random encounter mechanic can be used to both make the game and to break it.

    2. Walen did a better job rebutting than I would have, so I'll let his comments mostly stand as my own. To them, I'll only add that:

      1. I don't always give games credit for that item. There's a great deal of context involved. When enemies respawn the moment you leave the screen, that's certainly bad game design. On the other hand, a game like Skyrim with a fixed number of enemies would get boring quite fast. Walen's use of the word "deterministic" is quite apt; I generally don't care for games in which a fixed number of enemies and encounters are always found in the same locations. It makes it feel like the game is playing you instead of vice versa.

      2. "These seem to be more a matter of personal preference than game quality." I'll save you a lot of trouble: literally everything in the GIMLET is a matter of personal preference. I'm not GameSpot. I never had any intention of creating a scale that would provide a universal, objective rating. This blog is about MY reactions to games.

    3. Gygax would repopulate his dungeons gradually. If you left them for a short while, a few monsters would expand their territory to take the stuff you just depopulated. Over time new monsters would come in, filling remaining holes and displacing some other weaker monsters upwards.

      The one thing that would always happen instantly was any treasure you found put didn't carry would be sized and redistributed. Gygax was a stickler for carrying capacity, so if you found a chest of 10,000 gold, good luck carrying it. Oh, and almost all his chests were mixed gold, silver, copper. So do you take a while to sort out the gold and platinum, risking random encounters? Do hope it is mostly gold, stuff your packs and take off? The treasure that was left would be found by other monsters, and placed in their hord, so you'd often find the same treasure multiple times, with various monsters adding to it and parties stealing it.

  15. I feel like I should know this from years of discussion, but I still find myself wondering, each of your 10 categories above has just a few bullet points, but I've got the impression that these days your full rating system may be closer to a spreadsheet with 10 sub-items, with something close to a 1-to-1 checkbox system for deciding the score. Mostly I'm just curious if there's more details somewhere that get into the rating system at greater depth, or if this here is still the most precise version you've got?

    I ask for two reasons. One might be if someone were to try to craft a 100-score game, what would it take? And second, the perverse imp in me also wonders if it would be possible to craft (or jokingly describe) a game which managed to technically hit all 100 points while being terrible in most of them. While there may not be a way to hit "graphics aren't distractingly bad" in a terrible but funny way, there's probably plenty of ways in which "Game offers NPC relationships (romances and friendships)" could technically be true while still being effectively horrifying.

    1. No, not much has changed. When I go to do the GIMLET on each game, I still pull up this original post and scan the bullet points in making my decisions. I keep meaning to write an updated article about the GIMLET and save it as a "page" on the blog, but I haven't had time.

      There is an implied word "good" within each of the bullet points. A game that offered NPC friendships that sucked wouldn't get a high rating just for offering them.

      I'm not saying it wouldn't be possible for a game to score 100 on the GIMLET and still be ineffably bad in some way; it just hasn't happened yet. Thusfar, the scale has provided fairly reliable scores that correspond with my enjoyment of the game.

  16. Just curious: which games would be on the "Top-10 WORST/Lowest score" (maybe "bottom-10"? xD) until now?

    1. You can see it in my ratings list, linked in the sidebar. I don't like to call out the lowest-rated games because their low ratings are usually due to era or platform limitations and not because the programmer didn't try.

  17. Out of curiosity, how do you prefer your Gimlet cocktail?

    1. I mean, there are only two ingredients. Your only real choices are neat or on the rocks. I used to order them on the rocks. I don't really get them often anymore. They're way too intoxicating. I usually go for a Mule these days.

    2. There are some variations, such as lime juice and simple syrup vs the classic Rose's Lime. Choice of gin, or even vodka as some prefer.
      I was just wondering because this blog is where I learned about the cocktail and made it once, but wasn't sure if there was some other way you ordered them.


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