“Use a REAL Engine”: Rambly Thoughts on the RPG Maker Stigma

It’s been a bit since I’ve last updated this devlog (or is it devblog?) and that’s for two major reasons. First of all, I’m a full-time student, and it’s exam season. Enough said. But second of all, I’ve been feeling very discouraged as of late, because I’ve been reading a lot of stuff online about RPG Maker from folks outside the community. That second point is going to be the subject of my blog post today. It’s going to get a bit wordy and doesn’t have much of a central argument, so I’m sorry in advance. I just wanted to air some thoughts. (I’ll have an actual update sometime this week, I promise.)

A lot of people are dismissive of any game made in RPG Maker, no matter how much effort the developer has put into it, simply because of the engine. They’ll tell any indie dev who uses it to “use a REAL engine” (the definition of which ranges from something like Game Maker to full-on coding an engine from scratch). This attitude comes largely from other developers and “hardcore gamers” – casual audiences tend not to care so much – so maybe I shouldn’t be as worried about it as I am. Still, though, the more I poked through indie game communities and saw the vitriol directed at RM, the more I questioned everything I’ve been working on for the past year. I didn’t want to make much progress lately because I started to wonder if I would end up scrapping it anyway. Was all of the time and money I invested into RPG Maker worthless? Should I start over from scratch just to avoid using a “bad” engine?

I have to concede that its poor reputation isn’t completely unfounded. Ever since Steam Greenlight launched, it’s been full of obviously rushed attempts at RPG Maker, with poor map design, typo-filled dialogue, and all of the pre-packaged defaults utilized.* (Let’s be honest here: if you’re asking people to pay for your game, you have to be certain that it’s actually going to satisfy a customer. Steam is a major distribution platform meant for those with skill and experience.) If that’s the majority of what somebody sees from the engine, then naturally, they’ll start to be skeptical of games made with it. The problem is, people aren’t merely skeptical anymore – they’ve started to automatically bash any game that uses the engine, labelling it as effortless shovelware regardless of its actual quality, or even its distribution platform and price tag. I saw free RM games with 100% unique graphics getting blasted just for using the engine! It’s led to this weird situation where if you want to be successful as an RM dev, you have to hide the fact that your game was made with RM as much as possible.

Sure, a lot of people use RPG Maker just to try to make a quick buck. I get it. But how does that devalue the tool itself? RM’s accessibility may attract some lazy people, but it also opens doors for people who never thought they could be RPG developers otherwise.

Once upon a time, I was one of those kids who found RPG Maker and was floored by the possibilities it offered. I didn’t have to just play RPGs anymore – I could make them too! My first couple of RPGs were, of course, unbelievably bad, but I’ve improved a lot from my first forays. Those awful games taught me valuable lessons and helped me learn the ropes of the engine, so that now I can do more advanced things with it. I’m still far from the World’s Greatest RM Dev Ever, but I feel like I’m on my way to creating something of which I can feel proud. If I hadn’t been able to make my totally 100% original super-cool awesome parody RPG at age 14…where would I be now? Would I still be developing Jubilee Royale in my spare time? Or would I be sitting around thinking about how cool it would be to make my own RPG while binge-watching YouTube?

This is the point at which someone might say, “Yes, but that’s all RPG Maker is – a stepping stool so that you can learn how to use a REAL engine.” The argument here is that RPG Maker should be an introductory engine only, and that it should never be used for a project that you actually want to see succeed. However, I disagree that ease-of-use inherently makes one tool inferior to another. Children can scribble with pencil crayons, sure, but an experienced artist can use them to create something incredible. That artist could also spend all the time necessary to learn a more difficult medium, such as oil painting, but do they have to? Or are pencil crayons still acceptable so long as they work well for what the artist envisions as their end product? Is it truly the tool that matters, or is it the work? (I’ll spare you the typical list of acclaimed RPG Maker titles because I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times before, but if you haven’t, just Google around.)

I’m a solo developer with only basic programming knowledge who wants to make 2D turn-based RPGs. I could delay my project by years while I learn how to code my own RPG engine – and for some people, that may be what they feel is right for their game! Or, I could use RPG Maker, which is specifically designed for exactly the circumstances I’ve described, and begin work on my game immediately. When it’s laid out like that, I think my use of RPG Maker makes a lot of sense. That’s not to say that RM doesn’t have a lot of limitations, but if the end product I envision fits within those limitations…well…so what? What on earth is the downside of purchasing an engine that perfectly suits my needs? Using the time I saved to pour extra effort into other aspects of the game? I fail to see how that’s a bad thing – a project’s scope has to be kept in check. If I had made my own engine, in order to release this project within a reasonable time frame, I likely would have had to cut corners elsewhere in areas that I consider very important, like art and story. RPG Maker lets me focus my efforts where they matter most to me.

Another frequent argument I see against RPG Maker games is that they’re all essentially the same. Overuse of the graphics and music that come pre-packaged with the program* contributes largely to this, but even if someone acquires or creates their own assets, I saw some folks argue that it’s still not enough. No matter how much you customize the assets, or even the UI and combat system, all RM games are the same because…actually, if you’ve made all of that unique, the only big similarity I can see now is that RM games are tile-based. Presumably, these people also accuse older Final Fantasy and Pokemon titles of being the same…?

I don’t know. I give up. I think the RPG Maker detractors just yell about it because they dislike that making a game is more accessible now than it used to be, and that makes developers less “special” in their eyes. I personally think that there’s more than enough room for all of us, but who knows if they’re willing to listen.

So even though it hurts to hear people label my hard work as “effortless shovelware” because of my engine, I’m going to keep using the tool that makes sense for me. See you next time with an actual update.

* Note that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with solely using RTP – you can still create a great game with it if you have the skills. However, it’s going to be a lot tougher to make your project feel distinguished, not to mention professional enough for someone to buy it.

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