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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: RPG Maker VX Ace (PC)

Before user generated content became something of a hit amongst game developers, and before LittleBigPlanet was a household name, there was RPG Maker. This little franchise has been around both on consoles and PCs for quite some time, and through a wide range of versions. The newest release, RPG Maker VX Ace, is by far the best of them all.

For people who haven’t used a version of this software before, it does what it says on the packet; allows you to make your own RPGs. Specifically, your own SNES era-style JRPGs, with 16-bit style visuals and all the nostalgia wrapped up with that. You’ll build maps, towns and dungeons, populate them with people to interact with, and set a party of heroes on a quest. You can make a game last long – or as short – as you like, give it a custom soundtrack, and design all the cut scenes. It’s a full fledged creative package.

Previous games in this series have proven popular because they’ve been easy to use. RPG Maker VX Ace takes that to a completely different level. For someone new to the software, it really looks after you. The game provides templates for towns, houses and other locations so people can get straight into designing the adventure if they don’t feel like creating their own maps. The graphics are all there; no need to hire any artists to get these projects off the ground. There’s a random dungeon designer to take that part of the development process out of the equation. There’s a character generator that lets you come up with easy sprites for heroes and their enemies.

The software also doesn’t require a shred of programming skill to get an RPG up and running. “Events” (heroes, monsters, shops, treasure chests, traps and the like) are all easy to set up using a clear and intuitive menu system built into the software. Those can be taken to surprisingly complex places with a bit of practice, and certainly you’ll be able to make a game of the quality of the early Final Fantasy games through this software. Later on you’ll work out tricks for building non-linear adventures where different choices can have far reaching repercussions for the game world. A 16-bit style Skyrim? Sure, why not?

Then it’s time to customise the characters that your players will control, the weapons they weild, the magic they’ll be facing and the enemies they’ll encounter. You’ll even tweak the title screen and game over screen. Everything can be customised to suit the kind of game you’re looking to make, and with very little effort on your part. So for instance, as a fan of the old Final Fantasy Legends games on the Game Boy, I’m currently making a stylised, black-and-while graphic RPG. If you want to tweak your party’s skills so it’s a “low power” kind of RPG, that’s possible. If you want something with a greater focus on character interactions than combat, then that’s also possible. It’s all so easy.

That’s not to say developing a game can’t take a while. If nothing else, RPG Maker will help you build an appreciation for just how hard game development can be. For instance, after deciding the direction my game would take, I spent a weekend designing the overworld map and the first town, the first dungeon, and a couple of encounters. It took me a weekend, working at a casual rate, and gave me about 30 minutes worth of gameplay. People who use previous versions of this software often fail to finish a full-scale project, and that is one thing that RPG Maker VX Ace hasn’t made easier – it takes a lot of time and energy to finish a full RPG. Coming up with an interesting premise and some quirks to make your game stand out is a challenging task. And, while it’s entirely possible just to make the games for yourself, with all the work that goes into it, you’ll want to share them around.

A screenshot of my own game!
And that is the one area the new RPG Maker falls down in. Game file sizes tend to be very big when exported, which makes it hard to distribute. And while I’m being critical, it’s also very disappointing that it’s not easy, if not impossible, to turn the games into a commercial project. For instance, why couldn’t it be possible to export in a format that would have been easy to package up for iPad or iPhone? When rival entry-level software, Game Maker by Yoyo Games, works with talented developers to put their games on the App store, RPG Maker’s relative difficulty in sharing games is disappointing.

It’s also relatively difficult to work collaboratively on game projects. In an era of Cloud computing and Dropbox, it’s amazing that it’s so hard to set up and keep a group project working, unless everyone is in the same room. Given how much time an RPG Maker project can take, some collaboration tools would have been greatly appreciated.

That’s especially true when you discover that it’s possible to do some really amazing things with this software. There’s a full code editor using Ruby for people that really want control over what happens in the game, essentially turning RPG Maker into a useful tool for learning how to program as well, and easily allowing you to turn out commercial-quality games. This could have been a really great way for indies to kick off a career in the industry.

But that’s a really minor complaint. RPG Maker VX Ace is essential software. It allows for people of any skill to come up with their own dream game, and it’s robust and powerful enough that it’s possible to do a lot with it. The sense of pride when watching your masterpiece unfold is unparalleled, and so this might just be the most rewarding software a gamer can invest in.

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Be sure to check out for more news. The software releases March 15
Review: RPG Maker VX Ace (PC)
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