Deus Ex is one of the best western RPGs. It's deeply influenced by Ultima Underworld and System Shock but takes place in the near future. Player agency in the world is valued to a degree that no game had previously managed and few have since. You didn't just have agency in the missions, choosing to tackle them however you like, but also in the outcome of the overall narrative. Your impact on the narrative was limited but definitely recognizable.
It's the holy grail of Western-style RPGs; the choices you made on the micro, mission to mission scale, effect the macro, the overall outcome of the game. This is almost the exact opposite of the JRPG experience but I think both types of games should be enjoyed on their own merits.
There's an excellent post-mortem by Warren Spector, the designer, available on Gamasutra; here. It's worth a read and it's the source for the excerpts below.
Until It Exists In Game You Know Nothing
These test systems and missions revealed gaping holes in our thinking or things that we thought would be true that turned out not to be true at all.
For instance, our augmentation and skill systems proved dry and rather dull, once implemented, despite looking really good on paper. Those systems were designed around the totally valid idea that the computer would resolve actions without any secret (or even non-so-secret) die rolls required. Players would always know, with absolute certainty, based on their character development choices, whether they could accomplish something or not. [...]
When Gabe Newell from Valve came down and played our prototype missions, he correctly identified the utter lack of tension in our skill and augmentation use, as written up in the design doc and ably implemented by the coders. The worst was confirmed when Marc LeBlanc, Doug Church, Rob Fermier, and other friends from Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games played the proto-missions and came to the same conclusions. Actually using skills and augmentations revealed things that merely thinking about them could never have revealed.
The lesson here is not that paper-design isn't valuable - it is! But paper-design only gets you so far; you must implement, refine, reject and iterate to get something that works in your game.
The second lesson is it's important to gather opinions from people you respect.
The third (minor lesson) in an FPS game with patrols, by hostile agents, you can add tension by having the player attempt something that reduces their ability to recognise and react to those patrols. This is a paper-design law, you need to try it your own game to see if it holds true there!
All Ways Are One Way
"Choice" and "consequence" were the two most frequently uttered words during our two to three years of development. What good is player control if all choices lead to the same result? Without real, predictable consequences, choice is irrelevant. (Which is probably why so many games seem so trivial -- they are trivial!)
Have goals for your project. What are you trying to do or express? If you have faith in your original goals be true to them, even if they make the way harder.
To Cut To Save, To Destroy To Restore
Our original plan to build large, outdoor areas -- whole sections of New York, Area 51, lovingly recreated in excruciating detail gleaned from maps and satellite photos and, most notably, my dream of allowing players to explore the entire White House -- just proved to be unfeasible. There was no way any then-current renderer was going to allow us to do all that. The design had to change.
Think big but know reality. With a talented teams you can change maybe one impossible to a possible so it's important to know what to save that one bullet for. Accept reality as it is today and revisit the your aspirations in a future project.
The Way is Not the Way
Multiple solutions falling out of our simulation didn't happen as often as we'd hoped. We just didn't have a deep enough simulation nor did we have the time or personnel to create one. We found ourselves in the position of having to brute-force the multiple-path idea, as developers on Ultima games, for example, have done for years -- though I think we do more of it, more consciously and more effectively, than anyone else has to date. Designers have had to plan a "skill" path past problems, an "action" path and a "character interaction" path. It works, but it's not what we originally intended.
The lesson here is that emergence is elusive, like a cat, if it comes to you that's great but it's hard to compel it. This is an open problem, it's something you can fix.
Perhaps the Metal Gear solid manages the multiple solutions approach better but it still feels like there's a designed and expected path.
May A Man Be Heard, Who Does Not Speak?
We worked on back-story stuff so we'd know what was going on in the world, even in places the player never got to visit. [...] enough to include the kinds of small details that make a fictional world convincing.
We did a vast amount of research into "real" conspiracies [...] Only a fraction of this stuff ended up in the game, but it gave us a peek into the minds of conspiracy buffs that was both scary and useful.
We also created a cast of more than 200 characters, many of whom didn't yet have specific roles in the game. Ultimately, this list proved to be both a help and a hindrance to designers as they fleshed out the missions. Characters sometimes suggested missions or subquests, but just as often ended up being filler we were reluctant to cut, even though their missions or story purposes changed during our storyline-focusing passes.
You can tell when a game has had attention paid to it's world, it's consistent, alive and interesting. For the designer is also provides plenty of source material for future projects. Don't let it become a dangerous distraction (or delaying tactic, time-box it and remember, above all, you're making a game.
To Know The Way, Is To Follow the Way
But more important than any genre classification, the game was conceived with the idea that we'd accept players as our collaborators, that we'd put power back in their hands, ask them to make choices, and let them deal with the consequences of those choices. It was designed, from the start, as a game about player expression, not about how clever we were [...]. Which leads naturally to a discussion of having clear goals -- the first thing I think we did right.
Have clear goals from the start and communicate them to all team members. Everyone needs to understand what they're making and how to evaluate what's important and what is not. Ideally the team should be involved in coming up with these goals.
The design goals for Deus Ex are worth checking out:
- Always show the goal. Players should see their next goal (or encounter an intriguing mystery) before they can achieve (or explain) it.
- Problems not puzzles. It's an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer's mind. And there should always be more than one way to get past a game obstacle. Always.
- No forced failure. Failure isn't fun. Getting knocked unconscious and waking up in a strange place or finding yourself standing over dead bodies while holding a smoking gun can be cool story elements, but situations the player has no chance to react to are bad. Used sparingly, to drive a story forward, O.K. Don't overuse!
- It's the people, stupid. Role-playing is about interacting with other people in a variety of ways (not just combat… not just conversation…).
- Players do; NPCs watch. It's no fun to watch an NPC do something cool. If it's a cool thing, let the player do it. If it's a boring or mundane thing, don't even let the player think about it -- let an NPC do it.
- Have you patted your player on the back today? Constant rewards will drive players onward. Make sure you reward players regularly. And make sure the rewards get more impressive as the game goes on.
- Players get smarter so games get harder. Make sure game difficulty escalates as players become more accustomed to your interface and more familiar with your world. Make sure you reward the player by making him or her more powerful as the game goes on.
- Think 3D. A 3D map cannot be laid out on graph paper. It has to take into account things over the player's head and under the player's feet. If there's no need to look up and down -- constantly -- make a 2D game!
- Are You Connected? Maps in a 3D game world must feature massive interconnectivity. Tunnels that go direct from Point A to Point B are bad; loops (horizontal and vertical) and areas with multiple entrance and exit points are good.
This is a very clear vision of what the game should be and how it should be made. Vision, especially on teams, is extremely important, otherwise people will pull in disparate directions and the game will be muddled. Can you write a bullet point list, like the one above, for your own game?