When I was ten, I discovered that I could record stuff from my NES onto tapes using my VCR. So, if I wanted to see myself beating some fantastically hard boss or something years later, I only had to pop in a tape. This absolutely amazed me. Soon, I was making recordings of all my favorite games, using the password screen of Metroid to tell the viewers what they were watching, and how cool it was. This was tons of fun at the time. Of course, I'm past that now.
Or am I?
Sure, now I'm not making a movie, I'm designing a game. The technical difference is huge. The real difference is that making the game is even more fun, even now, four years after my stint as a very young independent film director. It's still a labor of love either way, and you're likely to enjoy it only if you already have aspirations toward game design.
Of course I couldn't pass RPGMaker up.
If you ever played Final Fantasy 6 and said, "I could have done that better," you shouldn't pass it up either. In fact, I suggest going out and getting it as soon as possible if you're interested, because the designers have come out of the closet and into the stores - buying up RPGMaker as quickly as possible. I don't want to even THINK about what I had to do to get my hands on a copy.
"Did you see my MAD SKILLZ master?!"
RPGMaker at its worst is time consuming. At its best, it's extremely rewarding.
You see, you don't just choose what hair color your main character will have, the bust size of his love interest, and put him on pre-made maps, you choose or draw your main character, choose or draw his girlfriend (and her bust) and then make your own map. You proceed to create spells, graphics, items, characters, monsters, dungeons, dialogue, and, of course, a story. You do some other stuff, too.
The bottom line is, you do everything short of composing your own music. While you are provided with graphics, characters, and spells, you can (and probably will) create all these things. It is also entirely up to you to provide the game with your own unique story.
This will definitely be a very overwhelming experience at first. There are tons of options, the game doesn't really offer you any directions, and you aren't likely to get much help with anything but terminology from the manual. But after about five or six hours, you should have a general idea of what you're doing. It may take longer - I've had a little experience with this sort of program before, and it still took me that long.
After you get the hang of it, you'll understand what I'm about to say a lot better. For the meantime, I'll do my best to keep it simple…and you do your best not to hate me, because believe me, it's equally confusing for both of us.
The basic concept that drives RPGMaker's engine is events. Pretty much everything is an event, from the knight walking around next to you to that sword laying on the ground, or the cash across the room.
We'll start with the knight. He's a moving text event. Moving, because, well, he's moving, and text because if you press the examine button by him, he'll talk to you. The sword is an immobile text event, because when you examine it, you are told it's too heavy - which prevents it from being a treasure event, like the cash.
There are tons of other kinds of events. Events that bring about cinematics and plot, events that start up other events, which, in turn…
Yeah. The point being, you create the most important parts of your RPG by stringing together a number of simple components in complex ways. The limit is how creative you can be.
The other limit is how much time you have - and this is the most important and frustrating part of all. Making one room with a few events my first time took me hours, mainly because you have to enter all your text without a keyboard. The text entry system is as well done as can be, but still depends on a controller. I've gotten better, and rooms take a lot less time now, but it's still a very time consuming commitment to even do one dungeon or town, let alone an entire game. It's incredibly intimidating.
It gets more intimidating when you find out that you'll be handpicking and customizing every character, monster, and map in your game. You'll do game balance, you'll create spells (the program-let for making spells is surprisingly powerful) and you'll design your dungeon maps by hand. It's a lot of work, but luckily it's presented with menus that work very well, considering you have to navigate them with a PSX controller.
Also included in RPGMaker's package is Anime Maker - a nice little paint program for the PlayStation, which will allow you to create backgrounds, monsters, and characters for RPGMaker, and some other stuff specific to the Anime Maker program. It's pretty nice, but don't expect to like it - it's merely functional. Luckily, it works with the fabled PlayStation Mouse - but I've never even seen one of those things, so it won't help me. Otherwise you're stuck drawing with the controller. It's not as bad as it could be, but it's worse than it should be. Little refinements and touches like the ability to choose a noise to play when your character bumps into things make your RPG feel extra special.
In short, making RPGs with RPGMaker is fairly overwhelming. But once you get the hang of it, if you have any design aspirations at all, it should be good for many hours of fun.
Also worth mentioning is the game included with RPGMaker, Gobli's Quest. Built in the engine RPGMaker uses, it's much harder than it should be, but it's also quite entertaining, and serves to introduce you to a lot of the principles behind the games you'll be designing.
RPGMaker's graphics are a throwback to the 16-bit era. I count this as a good thing, though, because I don't think I could work with (or duplicate the results of) anything better. Unless you're a real graphics freak, you're guaranteed to get past the lackluster graphics pretty quickly.
"Not too good, either."
The music in RPGMaker is the one thing you can't create yourself, and that's probably for the best, but I can't help whining about it. The music (and sound) selections you get to choose from are better than I would expect them to be, but they're not great - merely better than you expect.
When all is said and done, RPGMaker is a habit that will cost you lots of time. But it'll also provide you more hours of entertainment than just about anything else if you aspire to designing RPGs, or think it might be fun. Take a look at it some time, it's pretty darn cool - and ultimately, better than I ever could have expected.