Hands-On Preview: Put your money where your mouth is and make that game you've been dreaming about
Computer gaming used to be a do-it-yourself affair. The first games (Tennis for Two, Spacewar, Colossal Cave Adventure and so on) were built by enthusiasts on their own time, not by major development studios. But somewhere along the line, that changed as games got more and more complex, requiring teams of experts, millions of dollars, and month after month of production time just to put together something run-of-the mill. Still, many gamers come away from great gaming experiences wanting to get their hands dirty and make their own game. It's no secret that most major games ship with the programming tools that the pros used to make that very game. It's also no secret that it takes a whole lot of dedication just to learn the basics of those tools and put together a simple map, much less do a total conversion mod to make that perfect game you dreamed of for so long. Enter RPG Maker VX.
The RPG Maker series has been around a long time. Its first iteration hit computers way back in 1988, and since then, players have been using it to build RPGs on platforms ranging from the PlayStation to the Game Boy Color. An official US version didn't come to the PC until 2005, though, when RPG Maker XP gave enthusiasts the chance to jump in and build a game without the steep learning curve associated with professional tools.
More than two years later, Enterbrain, Inc. is preparing a new product for the US market: RPG Maker VX. It's scheduled for a February release, and although the demo isn't available in English yet, some intrepid RPG lovers have translated a bit of the Japanese original to give would-be designers a taste of the action. So this preview requires a quick disclaimer, since it's based on a fan-translated, foreign demo: the US release version will likely be very different. If you want to check out the demo, you'll have to download the Japanese trial
, and then follow the instructions here to install the English-language file
RPG Maker VX puts a selection of powerful tools at the designer's fingertips, but in such a way that it doesn't overwhelm the fledgling. The first tool most folks would grab is the map editor. Not only does VX give the designer a huge canvas for world layout, it also gives the possibility of making links between one map and another. So if you want to put a dungeon in your world, you build your dungeon in a separate map, and then link them using a simple ?teleport? event. There are lots of different types of events you can use in the game, and it couldn't be simpler. Right click, choose ?add event? and then walk through the options you want to implement. In this case, you choose your dungeon map from a list, pick an entry point, and voil?, you're ready to adventure.
To make map design easy, RPG Maker comes with a variety of graphics in the form of tilesets. Unfortunately, the maps are simpler than you'll find in about any commercial game on the market today. Movement happens in a square grid with only four directions possible, and the visuals are pretty flat?they look like they'd be a lot more at home in 1988. Still, this retro simplicity makes it easy to build a map. Choose a terrain type?water, grass, mountains, etc?and ?paint? it onto the grid. The design environment allows for a few layers (think Photoshop) so that you can add trees on top of grass, rocks on top of desert, and so on. The demo includes hundreds of tiles of different types, giving you tons of options whether you're designing a rural countryside, a town, or a castle interior. And based on the release notes, this is only one tileset of many that will ship with the full version. Everything included in the demo is fantasy-themed, but screenshots on the official website show a few futuristic-looking views, so maybe there's hope for anyone not looking to build a world full of glowing swords and steel bikinis. But if it turns out that the built-in tilesets aren't to your taste, you can import custom-made graphics made in your favorite drawing program.
The same terrain building scheme is used no matter what the environment, so if you're doing the interior of an inn, you'll put up the walls and lay the floor, then position furniture and people on top of this background. The terrain editor has a lot of nice features, including the ability to paint tiles in large rectangles at the same time. It also takes care of matching edges of different types of terrain by doing things like automatically placing a shoreline between an ocean and land. One odd thing is that the map editor seems to be missing an eraser tool, so to remove a misplaced river, for instance, you'll have to paint down new terrain that matches the surroundings. Another shortcoming as compared to the last version is that VX allows fewer layers than its predecessor, thus limiting the amount of items you can put in any given location.
Once the map locations are drawn, it's just as easy to populate them with NPCs and monsters. Create an event, choose a graphic, and then choose as many characteristics as you need. You can set a patrol route and have it move in a pattern, jump, and turn in different directions. You can set the character up as a potential friend and build a complex, interactive dialog complete with player responses. The command system associated with characters doesn't require you to know any programming, but it does give you some useful programming features. For instance there's a conditional statement that gives NPCs the ability to react differently to different input. If the your player chooses one line of dialog and takes the first steps toward friendship, maybe the NPC allows him into a store or gives a reward. A wrong response could just as easily start a battle.
There are plenty of commands built into the event menu to give you control over what your NPCs do in the game, and they're all built into a easy-to-use set of menus. You can use them to move, rotate, or erase the NPC icon during play. They can also play music and background sounds, affect weather, and display all sorts of messages. Events and commands are used to set up all kinds of interactive items in the game. They could be used to create everything from a standard treasure chest to a talking palm tree. The only tough thing about this setup is that it will take some time to get used to the interface simply due to the large number of possible commands.
As mentioned, the menu system means that would-be designers don't need to have programming experience to use RPG Maker. But for anyone who wants to delve deeper, there's also plenty of numbers and scripts that can be tweaked behind the scenes. It offers a handy GUI interface to a database of all kinds of game objects, including heroes, classes, skills, items, enemy characters, and much more. Within each of these, it's possible to set plenty of details. Under Classes, there's the chance to choose which weapons and armor the class can use. It's also possible to set which skills the class acquires at different levels. Another database category is ?States,? which looks like the place you'd create damage effects like ?poisoned? or ?dazed.? It's a bit tough to tell exactly what's going on there, since the fan-made translation doesn't include the names of any database items (or dialog for that matter).
For those who want to get even more control over their games, RPG Maker allows designers the chance to edit existing game scripts and also create their own custom scripts. For the less technically inclined, scripting looks a whole lot like programming, except it happens within the context of the existing game engine, so you don't have to deal with a whole lot of low-level details if you don't want to. Some scripts already posted to the RPG RPG Revolution website
add features like changing the size of the face graphic displayed during dialogs, increasing the effects of weather in-game, and creating a party ?caterpillar? that makes party members follow one another like train cars. None of this is required, of course, but it can be a nice way to tweak the game into something unique to you. The scripting language is Ruby Game Scripting System 2 (RGSS2), a version of the user-friendly language Ruby tailored to RPG game making.