When my friends and I were making plans to craft the ultimate RPG, as nerdy boys are wont to do at one stage in their lives, the hardest problem was how to make the pitch sound less generic. What to put in was obvious: why, everything!
Funny how we never realized that all RPGs try to have everything, that's kind of their act. Exploration, story, combat and puzzles; trading, crafting and inventory management; even a dress-up component, not that nerdy boys would be caugtht dead admitting they play that kind of game. "It's just party creation."
Some RPGs even come surprisingly close to having all of it actually present.
That was roughly two decades ago. Our plans at the time got nowhere, of course. Doesn't bother me. Those nights were still some of the best in my life.
Ten years after that, Nightwrath and I started No Time To Play. Another ten years and I'm a seasoned game developer, with an original game engine that's turning heads, actual experience writing fiction, and contacts in the industry.
If I was to start planning my ultimate dream game at last, as my good friend has been pushing me to do for a long time, the first question would of course be what to make it about. Probably a grand save-the-world plot. We need those.
A more urgent matter however is what to put in. Not just because "all that and more" is beyond the reach of a lone developer, or even a small team. But do you really care about all aspects of role-playing games equally? It matters a lot when you set off to spend years chasing an old dream.
To me, the top priority would be a world to explore. Probably a city, because I'm born and raised in one, and frankly roaming the countryside is alien to most of us today. You'd think more people would try to see the beauty and learn the stories of a place they lived in for all their lives, but it's uncommon.
Speaking of stories, those would have to come next, as a palace is just a pretty pile of rocks but for the context of who built it, when and why. And where you have people, you have needs and wants. Also choices to make, because you can never help everyone. Even if you could do it without taking sides.
Because sooner or later you're also likely to run into conflicts. Like it or not, the needs and wants of people often butt heads, never mind those people who simply enjoy hurting others. And in an RPG, that means combat: a stylized proxy for the complexities of real-life disputes.
Fortunately, I have a rule system figured out. Inventory management is hard to implement and unfun to me as a player, so my recent games de-emphazise it. As for magic, it turns out to work best in the role usually taken by puzzles in most adventure games. Which suits me fine, because I like magic but not puzzles.
Trading? For all the time I spent playing space trading games, I could never wrap my head around the way their core mechanic is implemented. And crafting as a game mechanic means little to me.
Dressing up as a means of self-expression, now that's a big thing in all my fiction. In retrospect, it's odd how I never tried to put it in a game so far.
I'm writing all this to get it out of my system, but also to remind myself of where my efforts should be focused: "no, dummy, don't make a game with a big countryside! Leave that to other creators".
Looking across a lake at the next town over in the distance, now that's a familiar feeling for me to try and evoke.
This is all very personal, yes. All games should be. Doubly so an RPG into which you're going to pour your heart and soul for who knows how long. Make it a blend of your own. It's unlikely to be unique (there are way too many games out there for that by now), but players will notice and remember it more easily.
It's a notorious failure more of RPGs to have lots of intricate little rules but hardly any content to take advantage of them. Another is to have vast maps with not much at all happening. Especially towards the end, go figure. Limited time is a factor, especially for commercial titles, but I suspect a lot of older games would have remained that way even if online updates would have been an option in their time.
Quite simply, any creator runs out of things to say after a while.
One thing I've learned from being an artist and writer is that creativity works much the same way in any medium. In particular, art can't exist in a vacuum. It must be about something. You might not be aware of what, exactly. It might end up saying things you didn't intend. That's fine, as long as it has some sort of substance. Even abstraction distills the concrete, you know.
Games are like that too. Set out to make an RPG "like X only with more Y", you're likely to end up with a paper-thin prototype, soon forgotten in a folder. I should know. Got plenty of those. At least mine are online so that others can learn from them. So instead make one about things that move you. That you feel strongly about. You'll be surprised how far such a drive can go. Or for that matter where the journey ends.
It will be your own destination, and that's important.