What if, on your deathbed, you had the opportunity to change your life and fulfill your wildest dreams? In your final moments, what if you could completely rewrite your memories in order to experience the pleasures of finally achieving your deepest desires. In To the Moon, a critically-acclaimed game created entirely in RPG Maker by Freebird Games, you can do just that for the game's protagonist, Johnny.
Most RPG Maker games don't tackle this kind of subject matter, and even fewer garner any kind of critical praise. It's a newbie-friendly tool for creating 2D Japanese role-playing games (JRPG). Most people think of it as a kind of Final Fantasy fan fiction creation engine, but it can be so much more.
Everyone that loves games has thought, at some point in their life, "Wow, I would love to make a game one day!" And now there are dozens of programs and tools that make the process a bit easier. From Game Maker and Construct 2 for 2D game development, to Unity and Unreal for larger projects. RPG Maker is a very easy and popular tool, but it comes with a stigma: people often think any game made with the program is an easy-bake, color-by-numbers project.
If you browse the RPG Maker forums or the various digital indie game storefronts like itch.io or Steam Greenlight, you can see why. They're filled with shoddy efforts that appear to have been created in an afternoon using nothing but stock art assets that come with the program. Broken english, bad level design, poorly written stories, boilerplate interaction, and inconsistent pacing are just some of the problems that often plague these games.
"The easy-to-use nature of the program is a double-edged sword," explained Kan Gao, Director of Freebird Games. "It's a wonderful way to get new folks into the game dev scene and discover their passion, but a flood of first-time-games is bound to paint the engine unflatteringly." And since the program is so easy to pick up, by design, people naturally assume anything made with it must have been simple to make.
Gao said that RPG Maker helps people without any experience in game development get rolling with their vision, which is a great thing, but when everyone is given the same set of images and music to draw inspiration from to create games, the result is that a lot of those games are going to superficially look and sound the same.
In his quest to avoid that stigma, Gao did a lot of things right with To the Moon. In terms of presentation, it clearly portrays a much more modern setting with a science-fiction theme, "since the RPG Maker generalization tends to be tied to the classical medieval fantasy theme," Gao said. "That, and the fact that it wasn't exactly a traditional RPG."
That's an important differentiator. Several of the other popular RPG Maker games such as developer Dingaling's LISA and developer Vagabond Dog's Always Sometimes Monsters, employed a similar tactic by circumventing the genre the program was designed for. LISA is a side-scrolling RPG that deals with survival, sacrifice, and debilitating moral dilemmas. Thematically and stylistically, it's about as far away from what RPG Maker was designed for. Always Sometimes Monsters, meanwhile, maintains the general visual aesthetic and presentation of an RPG Maker game, but utilizes custom-built features and a personal, modern narrative and setting to tell its story.
Lead developer at Dingaling Austin Jorgensen told me that a lot of his inspiration actually comes from To the Moon. "It helped give me the confidence I needed," Jorgensen said. "It was a success not because of the engine, but because of what the game offered. This showed me it's all about what the game is, not how it was made."
LISA is definitely unlike anything else out there. You're often faced with difficult choices such as, surrendering all of the items in your inventory to save a character's life, or even losing a limb (which can severely handicap your effectiveness in combat for the rest of the game) to save someone you love.
"The most important thing a developer can do to protect the vision of their game is creating unique content that goes beyond this base level of production," said Justin Amirkhani, creative director at Vagabond Dog. "With the proper application of fresh art and uniquely developed mechanics, it can be difficult to discern if a game was even made using RPG Maker. Developers who take the time and effort to make their product their own need not fear any stigma, regardless of what engine they create with."
Making a successful, unique, and well-made game with RPG Maker is far from impossible, but overcoming the associated stigma can often prove more difficult than the game's development process itself. "It's unfortunate, as the engine is actually vastly underappreciated, and there are certainly wonderful things made from the engine out there," Gao said. "It's hard to blame folks for generalizing in that sense, but it's still up to the devs to figure out ways to distinguish themselves."
And part of the burden falls on players, who shouldn't write a game off just because it looks like it was made with RPG Maker. If you do, you could miss out on some of the weirdest, most interesting games being made today.