Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why the RPG Genre is Losing its Distinctiveness

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 29, 2011

The top names in the mainstream games biz – many of whom have a history of producing computer and console RPGs, have now come to question the relevance of the genre. A former Interplay producer claims that RPGs always wanted to be action games at heart, but just lacked the technology to do so.  Even Bioware’s Greg Zeschuk has questioned the value of the distinctiveness of the genre, and isn’t really sure what an “RPG” means anymore.

Answering this is a Gamasutra blog article by Eric Schwarz which I think will resonate with a lot of RPG fans who aren’t newly minted in the last five years:

The Self-Made Irrelevance of RPGs

What I take away from the article is that the dismissal of the traditional RPG style by certain RPG developers in the mainstream industry over the last several months is due to an identity crisis of their own making:

“I think it’s safe to say that the question of relevance on Greg’s mind comes either from a misunderstanding or change in perception of what an RPG actually is, or from a desire to no longer make RPGs.  BioWare have, for many years, been at the forefront of delivering cinematic and story-driven videogame experiences to players… considering the ease at which many of these games can be divorced from their mechanical underpinnings, and their narratives told in a way unhindered by statistics, it becomes questionable whether BioWare are, or even have been for the last eight or so years, in the practice of creating RPGs at all.  RPGs have traditionally been about universal rulesets, and even the best narratively-charged CRPGs have governed those narrative qualities via mechanics – Planescape: Torment, Fallout, and even more recently Alpha Protocol, have all built their stories around the fundamental notion that it is the player’s choices in statistically developing a character or a party, rather than around the idea that the player’s decision-making be conceptualised as a choose-your-own-adventure novel.”

It’s a medium-sized article, and well worth reading the whole thing.

This sort of thing comes from the inevitable arguments over the question, “What is an RPG?” It’s a fun little discussion to have, one that should be revisited regularly for the good of the genre, but it never results in a definitive answer. I think that’s probably a good thing.

I don’t think I’d go so far as to argue that the products that Bioware has been making lately are not RPGs. But I think they are making the kinds of games that once upon a time would have represented the fringe of the genre, and have now come to represent the mainstream view of the genre. It’s perfectly understandable why the distinction would become so blurry, and the relevance of the genre would come into question.

What led to the migration to the fringe, and possible extinction of the genre (in the minds of mainstream developers)? I think it really comes down to to much of a good thing. These guys have been at it for years, and have had numerous iterations optimizing the experience for the broadest possible market. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. They just took the “average gamer’s” answers to questions to the extreme:

* What’s more fun & interesting: Making a story-based decision like “Who lives and who dies?”, or making a stats-based decision like, “Do I raise my Strength or my Intelligence this level?”

* What’s more fun & interesting: Decisions which have immediate, clearly game-altering results, or decisions for which the results are subtle and may not be noticed for several hours?

* What’s more fun & interesting: Walls of text, or dramatic spoken lines by popular actors?

* What’s more fun & interesting: Visceral, high-speed action sequences, or methodical slow-moving “action” sequences?

Granted, for some of us, our answers may not be the same as that of the average gamer. I think my answer is largely the same same as that of the average gamer, but I like variety.  I love turn-based RPGs so much now partly because they have become such a novelty. The problem is only that the those preferences have been cranked up to eleven as design requirements.   Story-based decisions with immediate results are generally more exciting than slow-burn character building decisions? Well, hey, then exclusively doing the former and doing away with the latter is the way to maximal fun, then, right?

It’s not quite all-or-nothing yet, but it’s been on that path for a while now. And that trajectory will eventually take it completely out of RPG-ville, as far as I am concerned. I don’t think that needs to be a call to turn the clock back to making turn-based wargamey titles again (though Knights of the Chalice did a spectacular job of it). But I do think it’s a great time to go back and revisit some of those old RPG features that have been “optimized out” in recent years. The indies are doing it, but it doesn’t have to be just them.

I know I keep singing the same song, but it’s a good tune.


Filed Under: Biz, Design - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    The real issue here is there are two different schools of thought on the matter, both concerning what RPG means:

    1) One school of thought is that an RPG is the ruleset, the mechanics and rules involved. An RPG to this school of players means stats, skills, numerical values and formulas to learn to be successful. A good story is great, but they are there for the “game” primarily, the G of RPG.

    2) The second school of thought is that an RPG is about the “role-playing”, or the R&P of RPG. They believe an RPG is defined by a story or narrative where the player assumes a role and makes meaning choices that have consequences and affect the narrative as a whole. To them, developing a character in the traditional narrative sense is what they are on board for – stats and skills are only useful so far as they enable the player to define his character in a narrative fashion. They want to “play” and define a “role” in a story.

    Now for this second school of thought, the streamlining of RPGs that Bioware is engaged in IS evolution and progress for them. Maybe Chris Avellone has always been in this second camp, and he is truly being honest when he says RPGs are finally becoming what they were always meant to be – for him.

    Full disclosure – I’m in the second school of thought myself. Even back in the eighties, my gaming group was less concerned with rulesets that playing a character in a role. We liked meaningful conversations and choices with narrative impact – we despised keeping up with skills, or the weights of items, or how much damage a small character with a large two-handed weapon was supposed to do. We liked to tell and participate in stories. We often had whole (12 hour) adventures where a weapon was never drawn or a fight started.

    The first school of thought, I believe, actually wants war-gaming. They like building stats, thinking of tactics, planning battle strategies, etc. They want what are essentially chess games where you can choose and customize your playing pieces. And no surprise that what they refer to as RPGs are actually war-gaming – we all know PnP “RPGs” started that way.

    So we really have two different genres with some similarities laying claim to the same name, and confusion and anger results.

    The first school of thought got to see a glut of games catering to it in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the second school of thought has control of the playground and is getting a glut of games.

    There should be a balance between the two. One school or the other shouldn’t have to experience feast or famine.

    But it all boils down to the genre being too wide – if there were separate genres, say “RPGs” and “tactical” or “TRPGs”, it would be easier for developers to recognize one or the other going under used or exploited and in need of a new game.

    You say “optimized out”, but we are just working to two different sets of blueprints.

  • MalcolmM said,

    What’s more fun and interesting: Soap opera quality stories and endless fetch quests, or pretty much anything else.

    I hated Mass Effect so much I couldn’t bring myself to try ME2, even though I bought both together in a Steam sale. I’ve long given up on Bioware.

    Dragons Age wasn’t much better. The brain dead behavior of your party members when you didn’t directly control them killed all enjoyment for me.

    Obviously Bioware knows what kind of game to pump out to have multi million selling games. Not that I care, indie game developers are providing the type of hard core gameplay I’ve always preferred.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    My concern is that it’s never that black and white – I don’t know if anyone (even you) are fully in one camp or the other. I mean, I did my time playing the Storyteller system and really focusing on the social and role-immersion and shared storytelling aspects of games. And I do enjoy the more wargamey aspects as well. Sometimes it depends on mood, but in general I’m somewhere in-between the two.

    And I don’t think either one adequately captures the genre. I mean, I thought Falcon 4.0 had me “playing a role” better than any RPG, ever. And the first time I played the Thief games. That was “playing a role” for me. And most games that bother with story and characterization and have you playing individuals are all immersion. They want you to absolutely feel like you are in the shoes of a master assassin, gangster, space marine, WW2 soldier, whatever. They do a great job of it.

    Which is why I see the pure emphasis on the “second school” as you put it leading to … well, just games, and the genre losing it’s distinctiveness. ‘Cause almost every game is doing that already. I guess from that perspective, it’s a win. What started in Dave Arneson’s basement has taken over the world in the form of Call of Duty, Gears of War, Red Dead Redemption, etc.

    I think the Bioware school of thought throws in some additional avatar-building and a lot more story-changing decisions to the mix – and a lot more cinematic storytelling – which is a great “special sauce” lifted from RPGs.

    I do enjoy those games, but sometimes they really just don’t scratch the itch.

  • Robert said,

    I think you pointed out the main point in the last paragraph:

    ” I don’t think that needs to be a call to turn the clock back to making turn-based wargamey titles again (though Knights of the Chalice did a spectacular job of it). ”

    ‘Old-school’ RPG’s are (turn-based) tactical strategy games, ‘new-school’ tend to go towards the actiony/shootery side. For me, it’s not the combat that makes an RPG, so in a sense, the point is moot.

    You can argue that the Mass Effect approach gives more ‘immersion’, which in some cases is not true. You can argue that the Wizardry approach gives you more ‘possibilities’, which can be considered shallow in some ways.

    In the end, it’s personal preference. Do you like being in the thick of it, or do you want to be the puppeteer? Do you want to ‘quick intuitive’ decisions, or do you like to mull things over. It’s quite audacious to claim that ‘true RPGs’ are niche that you prefer. To me it’s both, and neither.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Fair enough. I do like both, but it depends on mood. The problem is that I usually don’t like them mixed together at the same time.

    If I am enjoying the gameplay, tactics, and battles, I get annoyed to have to sit through a long cutscene of dialogue tree. If I am really into the story I get annoyed at having to put up with all these battles to get to the next conversation and choices.

    And every game has started to be a lot like the second school of thought. Which I like. Whether or not I call it an RPG though relies on the expanse, depth, and meaningful nature of the available choices. Though you impressively inhabit the role of a cowboy in Red Dead Redemption, I don’t consider it an RPG because your choices cannot change the character or the story.

    I think as long as the genre stays this wide it will lose it’s distinctiveness, because RPG elements are put into almost every game now. Dead Rising has XP, levels, and unlockable skills. So does Call of Duty.

    Because as long as RPG is defined as a mechanical ruleset – stats, skills, XP, levels, etc., that ruleset will be mixed and incorporated into other genres and games.

    So, I guess RPGs have been TOO successful. They’ve put their “DNA” into everything and nearly every game now has RPG elements. If RPGs were a species of animal, we would say they are breeding themselves out of existence as a pure breed. But it has to be some kind of honor that every “game breed” is the RPG what dog breeds are to the wolf, right?

    I still think the term “RPG” is overly broad and that is the core of the problem. Because it IS a ruleset – it’s like trying to make “moving a item through an area to a specified spot against an opposing team to score points” a genre, when that “ruleset” applies to hockey, football, soccer, basketball, water polo, etc. If we just had an overly broad term for every sport like “sporting-game” instead of individual names, of course someone who showed up for a “sporting-game” expecting football and got water polo instead would be annoyed and angry.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    What’s equally amusing to me is that – SURPRISE – this is not really a new problem.

    At the dawn of the era of commercial RPGs, it was really a muddle, too. Nobody knew what to call them – they were “fantasy games” or “adventure games” or whatever. It took a while for “role-playing game” to catch on — which I think it did around the mid 1980s.

    But even later, if you follow the CRPG Addict, he still encounters games which may or may not be RPGs. It’s not clearly marked territory in any era.

    And the lack of diversity? That was a factor in the genre “dying” around 1995. Just as you stated… there was a glut of games all trying to be like best-sellers of the genre, and most of them sucked. It took (IMO) the triple combo of Diablo, Baldur’s Gate, and (this will freak some gamers out) jRPGs becoming popular in the west to really kick-start the genre again. This isn’t saying they were the best games of the time, but they sold the numbers to attract the attention of the industry again.

    The genre recovered from that collapse, and probably will again if it all becomes assimilated by a monogenre.

    As an indie, why should I be concerned? Shouldn’t I be grateful that the mainstream industry is retreating from the field? Well, yes and no. In the short term… sure. They aren’t filling a need, the the indies can profit from that niche. But in the longer term – the mainstream companies also create that need. If there’d never been D&D, never been an Ultima, never been a Wizardry, would I be craving those kinds of games today? I don’t really know.

  • Agrias said,

    I don’t know, I think the biggest problem is showmanship these days. Every company wants to have their game be the flashiest and the one that sparkles the most. It’s reasons like WoW that I like to stick with the old-fashioned text-based rpg games. They may be lackluster for some people, but for me, they’re perfectly satisfying. There’s no limit to how deep you can customize your character, and you actually feel extremely proud of everything you’ve done. There’s a few amazing rpgs out there from Iron Realms if you want to give them a look. They’re a company, but they’re still definitely Indie, and they’re so much fun. There’s an article I read a few days ago about the different types of personalities you can come across when you play text-based rpgs. I think it’s definitely worth looking into. I have the link in my history somewhere.

    Aha, here it is. http://www.ironrealms.com/what-character-are-you-2011-08-25

    But, those are just my two cents. It’s sad to see that the genre seems to not be getting the attention it truly deserves, especially considering how long it has been around. Oh well. Kids these days just want bright flashing lights instead of anything meaningful.

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    “I think it really comes down to to much of a good thing. These guys have been at it for years, and have had numerous iterations optimizing the experience for the broadest possible market.”

    Boom. When you aim to include as many people as possible in your game audience, it’s no longer a strategy title, an RPG, an adventure game. It becomes an action fest with pretty graphics and impressive voiceovers by great actors A, B, and C. This is a different genre. A relatively new one. Call it a pulse-pounding bland? Or an action-based pre-teen-fest? Or a MacBurger, maybe. But saying it’s an RPG and that RPGs are no longer relevant loses sight as you point out, of what an RPG really is.

    Good blog post.

  • EHamilton said,

    The grand experiment of RPGs, dating back to the 1970s, has been answering the question of whether it’s possible to merge simulationist wargame mechanics with a narrative wrapper that invests them with meaning. To me an RPG was never one of those two things alone, but always the combination of both of them together.

    I think the answer is “yes”, but unfortunately not in a commercially viable way. Once you’ve buried enough resources in creating a compelling narrative, it’s always going to be commercially preferable to use simple and accessible action-mechanics, rather than “crunchy” wargame mechanics. Good A-list narrative killed the cRPG by creating something that the industry suddenly wanted to sell unbundled from the niche-oriented systems it was originally built to wrap.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,


    Succinct point and well stated. I think you hit the nail on the head.

    Great narrative relies on great pacing. Great pacing is not conducive to wargame or stat mechanics, which favor slower and more deliberate thought.

    Chris Avellone has always strived for great narrative above all else. He has used the GURPS ruleset, the D&D ruleset, original rulesets, but always his focus has been on story. Planescape Torment’s combat was . . . regular old AD&D. But the conversations! The roleplaying! The long dialogue trees of near endless options and the focus on character! Amazing.

    I don’t think Chris or Bioware care about rulesets. They want to create a new genre I think – something akin to an interactive movie with the player as the star. For those of us who always viewed D&D as merely a way to star in an interactive version of a fantasy novel, we are pleased.

    Not to say I don’t love tactical gameplay – I love chess – but I grew to like the tactics I was forced to employ in combat exercises in the military: real-time tactics that have to be developed and issued on the fly. It feels more natural and real in games(I guess for obvious reasons), and I love the added challenge. It is why professional chess tournaments are timed – it is easy to out-think an opponent with all the time in the world, but the thrill of executing a plan with mere seconds to develop and implement it is thrilling to say the least. It forces you to think several moves ahead and have multiple contingencies in place.

    But EHamilton is right – RPGs are wargames wrapped in a personal story to give the conflict meaning. But surely we can’t limit ourselves to one wargame over another, any more than we can limit ourselves to a single story to wrap them in.

    And the wargames I always played were in realtime with a lot of shooting. They had rules, objectives, and tactics. We even had little stories we wrapped them in – the Verona Revolutionary Guard had staged a coup and captured all friendly airstrips, so we were to proceed to a pick-up by air in a forest. Our plans had been leaked and patrols of Verona Guard were combing the forest for us. We had 3 hours to make the rendezvous and “escape” the country. Were we in the Marines LARPing or playing an RPG? I guess, sort of.

    Lots of things in the real world use RPG mechanics. We gain experience to level up at our jobs. We grind for cash to buy new things and upgrades. We make plans for future challenges and train and prepare for them. And we all have our own story.

    It muddies things. I mean, what exactly is an RPG if the term can be applied so broadly? If it CANNOT be applied that broadly, then we may as well drop pretense and call them for what they are: tactical wargames with a story. Oh, wait . . . that still applies to things like RISK and Department of Defense meetings.

    I’m getting a little deep into games theory here, so I’ll stop, but I don’t think it is a mistake that “RPG” mechanics are being applied so broadly now to all games, because so-called RPG mechanics are very basic principles of game theory, and all good games will naturally incorporate parts of them.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    It’s a funny thing. When I play with other people, I’m all about the role-playing part. The only time when I *didn’t* go freeform, it was a mess.

    On the computer, though, I’m looking for a mechanical challenge. I love creating characters (a game in itself) and seeing how they fare in tactical combat. Maybe that’s why I migrated towards roguelikes as of late.

    Not that you can’t successfully combine the two — Planescape:Torment being the ur-example — or that you can’t have pure computer-driven stories. Adventure games (both text and graphical) demonstrate pretty well that you can. But it’s notoriously difficult to get it right.

    In the end, I think it’s about playing to the strengths of each medium. But there is no recipe for success. There is room for stories, and room for tactics, and endless variety in-between. Not to mention all the games that incorporate RPG elements without being one. *cough* Elite *cough*

    As for wall-of-text vs. voice acting… I’m a reader by nature. Give me two lines of text that stand well on their own, and I’ll be happy.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Of course, as someone who loves RPGs AND visual novels AND dating sims, I tend to like it if stats can be all tangled up in the story part TOO.

    Dragon Age and Mass Effect DO have certain stats they’re keeping track of that will change what options you have available in conversations, or how they turn out… your relationship meters, your paragon/renegade scores, your ‘personality’ (in DA2, where choosing similar options a lot would switch you into being that kind of character) but those tend to be stats that are ONLY used in choice-making and not anywhere else in the game. It sort of sets it up to be two different games in parallel.

    On the other hand I would have extreme difficulty trying to write a game where I had to write a second version of every single dialogue to cover the case where the player has created a character with Int 3. (But then, there’s only one of me. If I were a big company, I could get an entirely different person to write the ‘stupid’ exchanges, so they would sound different!)

  • adorna said,

    I think I might be leading the discussion further astray .. but for myself – I love most RPG styles but I find myself preferring the visual novel like ones – especially the japanes one simply because most of the party based, more western games are so soley focussed on fighting.
    I like to fight, but most games take teh AD&D flaw to a whole new level that all comes down to how much damage you do. Every other thing just compliments it. Haggle or forge to get the ultimate weapon cheaper, cast combat spells … thats basically all there is. Thats also why I don’t really like playing online RPGs – its all about getteing a better weapon to fight more foes to get a better weapon (or spell or whatever) If fighting is the only focus of a games it really is nothing but a slower kind of action game.
    Shouldn’t an RPG allow you to do different things? I always thought an RPG is rather like an adventure that has not one way to solve it but lots of ways depending on the character you play (ok, maybe Kings Quest warped my mind or something )

  • Karry said,

    “At the dawn of the era of commercial RPGs, it was really a muddle, too. Nobody knew what to call them – they were “fantasy games” or “adventure games” or whatever.”

    You’d be surprised what kinds of games Japanese called “RPG” in the 80’s. And i’m not talking about “JRPGs” or even Zelda clones.