Enemy Design and the Power of Classic RPG Foes

Published: July 28, 2020

Enemy Design and the Power of Classic RPG Foes

Published: July 28, 2020

Roleplaying games of any variety have a few hallmarks: fantasy settings, epic villains, dungeon crawls, and at some point in the game you will have to fight rats, giant spiders, and skeletons. It’s almost a guarantee.

At this stage in gaming, these kinds of enemies are RPG clichés. Your new character with the training sword and the cloth armor is somehow destined to end up in the basement of the town tavern cleaning out a giant rat infestation. As much as these classic RPG enemies make us laugh, they can be more than gaming clichés. They can be a tool for rooting a player in familiar ideas in order to then show them something different.

In Operencia, we wanted fans of the genre to clearly see the grid-based foundation of the game’s design. That feeling of familiarity makes the gameplay more immersive by eliminating several player questions. For example, using classic button schemes in a platformer cuts down on the time it takes a player to learn how the game works. If a player expects a particular button to be the “jump” button because that’s how the rest of the genre has mapped the controls, deviating from that can be a source of frustration and confusion, disconnecting the player from the experience. If you use the same jump button, you have less to teach the player about how the world works and can move on to what makes your game interesting and unique.

Operencia is filled with these kinds of design choices, and classic RPG enemies are one of them.

For our team, Hungarian mythology (and the broader collection of central European folktales) is dear to our hearts, but we also recognize a world built fully from that mythology could be jarring for the majority of RPG fans who are much more familiar with the world of Dungeons & Dragons or with Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. 

At the same time, we felt we had the opportunity to use these classic enemies to make our unique enemies stand out more by contrast. If you’re in a dungeon fighting skeletons but turn the corner and encounter a party of Zoldeks—humanoid toad people—that encounter suddenly feels different because these aren’t what you usually expect to encounter in an early RPG dungeon.

It’s subtle, but we feel it matters. And we use this idea throughout the game, but ultimately only 30% of enemies in Operencia are classic RPG enemies while 70% are original RPG enemies.

Beyond the lore implications of what enemies we choose to use and where, enemies can also be a way to signal to the player where they are in a game experience while also communicating what that means about their characters.

RPG players expect enemies like skeletons to be low-level foes, so in Operencia when we go from a tutorial level with high-level characters to the game’s first real dungeon—an underwater castle—putting the player up against weaker enemies reframes where that player is in the story and what their characters are like. RPGs have taught us that certain kinds of enemies are the start of a grand adventure, and that also means that our player characters have a lot of experience to gain before they are truly heroes.

Again, this speaks to contrast. It not only communicates what kind of character the player is now guiding in this submerged labyrinth but also frames the status of the characters the player met in the tutorial level in a new light.

In these ways, classic RPG enemies can be hugely valuable to game designers. They implicitly communicate several aspects of the game to players and can be used as springboards for interesting new ideas or new types of lore.

Operencia: The Stolen Sun is coming to VR soon!