Role-playing games are long undertakings, but that’s also part of their charm. You spend a great deal of time getting to know the world and characters while perfecting your gameplay skills. For some, this familiarity keeps them coming back, but at the end of the day, an RPG needs to offer so much more to keep players invested. Sadly, I hear many people confess they don’t finish RPGs as often they’d like. Why? Their connection to the game fizzled out along the way. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what RPGs have done well to ensure I make it to the finish line and where many fall short.

Many RPGs land in the 50-hour range, tasking them with keeping gamers occupied for long stretches. I’ve seen so many RPGs provide boring filler content such as backtracking and meaningless fetch quests to pass the time. In more recent years, I’ve seen RPGs find success filling those hours with more personal moments, like choices and social systems, that better engage fans. This can make all the difference. I don’t remember the hours of mindless grinding in my RPGs – I remember the moments directly involving my input that made me feel connected to the characters and world. Sometimes, it’s the anticipation of how a decision will turn out, such as waiting to see Ciri’s destiny in The Witcher 3’s various endings. Other times, it’s reaching a new level of friendship and romance with a party member. I’m taking all the credit for helping Cullen with his lyrium addiction in Dragon Age: Inquisition – our blossoming romance was just a bonus. 

Social systems are becoming increasingly popular in RPGs, and for good reason – you should get to know the people you’re spending all this time battling alongside. I love passing some of the time by getting to know the faces I find interesting. It’s even better if I get some gameplay bonus out of it. For instance, in Persona 3 and 4, you can get an experience bonus on your Persona depending on how far you’ve pursued certain social links. In the Fire Emblem games, support conversations between you and various characters grants bonuses on the battlefield, such as higher attack, better chances criticals, and an increased chance to dodge the oncoming attack. Better yet? You can pair up certain characters and build relationships between them. 

Trails of Cold Steel is another game that breaks up some of the grind by letting you pick the characters you want to get to know, and this gives you special perks when you’re linked with them on the battlefield, such as randomly healing you or curing status ailments. Choosing who you get to know is such a small thing, but it gives me that much more attachment. You can laugh all you want, but pairing up Rean and Alisa in Cold Steel romantically added something special for me to look forward to, and I reveled in every adorable moment that surfaced because of it.  

RPGs that spend more time crafting memorable moments outside of battle are at a significant advantage. Some of the Persona social links I’ve completed have stuck with me close to a decade later because they’re so poignant and powerful, such as the one where you help a dying man find meaning in his life. Mass Effect 2 flourished because it involved you spending the time to really get to know the crew – that final mission would not have the same impact if you didn’t, and chatting with your team was well balanced with the more intense combat moments. In The Witcher games, I like to just go back and see how things have changed in the world from the little side quests I do. When you affect the people or landscape of something – that’s a powerful tool, making you want to stay locked into the experience. And I don’t want to sound narcissistic, but I really like how BioWare makes its games all about what you will do as the main character. What will your Inquisitor choose for the future? How did your Shepard treat the people around her? Putting power like that in my hands is so satisfying in these long journeys.   

I’m not saying the intense battles and character building aren’t exciting parts of RPGs (I love these just as much), but developers need to find ways to keep the player coming back and not getting bored after a certain number of hours. So many RPGs show their entire bag of tricks within the first 10 hours. I like gameplay that continues to evolve or throws surprises at me well beyond that. Social systems and choice give you something to anticipate the whole way through. The more you can give the player a stake in the journey, the harder it is for them to walk away.