Darwin Quest RPG: Making Historical RPGs for Almost Nothing

August 5, 2008

Last Friday I was excited to rediscover RPG Maker, a windows only, no-programing skills necessary, platform for building role playing games. The tool allows you to create games with the look and feel of mid-nineties Super Nintendo Games like Final Fantasy VI, Breath of Fire, or EarthBound. As an avid gamer and proto-historian I was excited to see if RPG Maker could be used to build historical RPGs, or, if not that, at least  playable proofs of concept. After a few hours of fun with the program I am happy to report that I think it can serve both these purposes.

Through the tools relatively simple interface you can very quickly create maps, characters and edit all the other RPG staples like character classes, skills, and items. I have always thought Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos would make a neat RPG so I thought I would start by playing around with that. Below are some screenshots from my 2 hrs of work.

Darwin Quest Title Screen

Darwin Quest Title Screen

Charles is aparently a level one naturalist

Charles is apparently a level one naturalist

RPG maker comes pre-loaded with generic map tiles and each tile already comes with standard properties. For example you can’t walk on water tiles but your ship can sail on them. So with a few minutes of playing around with the tiles and a map of the Galapagos I had a functional recreation of the islands for my game. I also used a visual basic sprite generator one of the members of the RPG Maker community built to make a little Darwin character for the main map. You can see him, the map, and the HMS Beagle in the image below.

Darwin on the Map

Darwin on the Map

Here is where the interesting stuff starts. RPG Maker allows you to create events triggered through simple interaction, and then use those events flip global switches that can then impact any number of other interactions. So, in a simple example, a designer could require the player to observe 10 finches on the island to trigger a switch which would give the player an item called “Finch Observations”. Now, the player can use that item to say win an argument, or form a theory. What is exciting here is not my example, which is actually pretty weak, but the fact that this platform allows folks interested in these types of games to jump into development, with basically nothing more than the investment of their time, and get right to the heart of interesting game design questions. You can skip all the programing and start making a game today.

Darwin finds a finch

Darwin finds a finch (Ok, I know it looks like a chicken)

Now, the fact that RPG Maker requires basically no programing experience does mean that it imposes some strong limitations on the kinds of games and the kinds of game play you can develop. After a bit of head scratching I think I am getting close to some ideas for how to use the mechanics behind the RPG standard “kill some monsters-to get experience points-to level up-to kill some tougher monsters-repeat” model to build some very different kinds of player experiences.

I should mention that a lisence for RPG Maker costs 60 bucks, you can try the 30 day trial for free though. Beyond just using the platform, it looks like that fee allows you to make and distribute any game you develop in any way you chose.