Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why the RPG Hate?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 14, 2011

There’s an obviously linkbait article over at IGN (which works, I’m linking to it here) which praises the upcoming Elder Scrolls title Skyrim by talking about how it doesn’t play like an RPG.  The article summary states, “Even if you think RPGs are dumb, this is a game that will command your attention.” While most of the actual text of the article is fine, the author’s angle at the start is to set himself up as a non-RPG fan. Or more specifically, someone who takes an active dislike in RPGs (and thus making his praise of Skyrim more remarkable):

“The only reason this is worth mentioning is because I really, really don’t like RPGs.  All that leveling up, those tiresome stats, all those dreary fantasy tropes, the endless tinkering with skills and items. Yawn! “

My first thought was, “Holy crap, what games are he talking about? I haven’t seen a mainstream release like that in years! I want to play whatever it is that he’s railing against!” *

Maybe he’s talking about Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. In which case, sorry dude. But I really don’t think your average PC game journalist has even heard of my game yet, so it’s unlikely. If you limit it to just mainstream games, I really don’t know what non-MMO game would fill the bill in the last seven or eight years. Was Mass Effect 2 a stats-heavy leveling nightmare that overdoes it on the fantasy tropes?

Okay, snarkiness aside — I’m actually on board with the idea of RPGs designed to appeal to new audiences.  A HUGE chunk of the role-playing games I affiliate at RampantGames.com are designed for non-fans of the genre.  The Aveyond series, Ella’s Hope, the Lilly and Sasha  series, Millenium series, the Witch and the Warrior, and others. I don’t really expect these to be “gateway” games that will eventually lead to more hardcore RPGs. Yeah, I used to hope for them being more “entry-level” titles that would lead down that path, but it’s not a common occurrence. I’m okay with that. And I’m mostly okay with mainstream games trying to do that too, to appeal to a different audience. And I really do enjoy these games. These casual, girl-friendly, RPG-lite, jRPG-style titles have been known to suck me in for hours. And I have little doubt I’ll push triple-digit hours playing Skyrim on its release.

I just wish there were enough game devs (indies & mainstream) trying to fill that gaping void in the genre where the kinds of classics I love used to come from. But it’s a more niche audience and it’s a lot harder to make the numbers work.  (I’m talking budget / dev time / cost numbers, not the internal game numbers, though that can be challenging too).

Which brings me to the question of the title of the article. Why is it so popular these days for journalists to bash on a subgenre that’s been an endangered species for over a decade? Why the fear and loathing of RPGs? Why the RPG hate?

I don’t know if many of the folks in question have actually played an honest-to-goodness hardcore stats-heavy RPG before. Or maybe all the stats in Mass Effect taxed their patience. Or maybe they are tilting at mental windmills based on secondhand descriptions and brief encounters with older games that were unplayable without RTFMing** (a skill that seems to have been lost in the mists of time now).

Ultimately, I think it might come down to a phobia (or really, an intimidation factor) that is probably inherited from the earliest days of pen-and-paper role-playing games:

RPGs seem like they require too much work in order to have fun.

I had to come to grips with this one myself a year or so ago, when I tried once again to play Might & Magic 1. I’d never played it when it was new(ish), but I thought that with my previous experience with a later game in the series and having played some of its contemporaries, I’d be in good shape. Not so much. I’d wasted three or four hours in previous futile, frustrating attempts. Finally, I took a mere 30 minutes or so to RTFM**. Voilà! I discovered an amazing and fun game.

Was a half-hour of reading a book “too much work?” Not for me. But maybe for others. I don’t think thirty minutes is excessive, but I’d agree that the reputation of RPGs is not baseless.

As an aside, this probably explains the near-extinction of “hardcore” combat flight simulators as well. They make most RPGs look like a game of Candyland.

The goal for an RPG system should be “Easy to learn, challenging to master.” That should really be the goal for almost any game system, RPG or otherwise. Earlier D&D-based RPG systems failed on both counts, from my perspective. They were challenging to learn – with lots of breadth, but lacked much useful depth. Third edition D&D – which I preferred (and its descendant, Pathfinder) rectified the latter by providing a great deal more depth, but in spite of their mandate probably made the “basics” even more difficult to learn.

Fighting games, popular in the 1990s, have long served as my example of this principle. A cat could randomly step on the contr0ller buttons and put up what would look like a reasonable fight. Players could feel competent from the outset, but experience and skill would make a huge difference. But even so, the depth of gameplay in these titles was more one of ability to execute, rather than a depth of tactics (which was still present, don’t get me wrong, but the ability to pull off a counter was a bigger challenge than deciding, “I’m going to use a counter!”) While by no means easy to do well, this type of depth a heck of a lot easier to design and develop for. And for something like a turn-based RPG (or strategy game), you are really talking about tactical depth.

But there’s another issue: For packaged, single-player RPGs, you aren’t selling a game system.  You are selling a game. That makes a crucial difference, particularly if you are selling a game that is more story-based, with an ending and no emphasis on practically infinite replayability (like a roguelike). You are selling a boxed experience, and the system is secondary at best.  “Simple to learn” remains important, but the game may be over before mastery really becomes an issue. So you have, “Simple to learn, no need to master.”

That’s where the “dumbing down” trend comes from.  Some players may never get to that depth, and as a developer you don’t want to cut them out of the endgame, so things stay at a pretty easy surface level  for most of the game. And by avoiding putting that depth in at all, you make the game system even easier to learn, and avoid that anti-RPG angst about them being too much work.

This isn’t something I’m particularly pleased about. It’s not something I think is immutable, either.  I think it may have as much to do with marketing, business, and presentation as it has to do with game design. The road more traveled seems to be watering down the genre, stripping it down to the bare bones, and disguising its genre.

I don’t think that’s the only way to deal with the “RPG Hate.”


* But at least there are some semi-recent indie examples of games to hate on:

Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon

Eschalon: Book 1 and Eschalon: Book 2

Sword & Sorcery: Underworld

Darklight Dungeon

Knights of the Chalice

Avadon: The Black Fortress

There are others that would probably  fit. But not enough…


* RTFM:  Read the (fine) manual


UPDATE: Per Charles’ suggestion, added links to some of the offending indie RPGs…

Filed Under: Biz, Design - Comments: 24 Comments to Read

  • Celso Riva said,

    I must admit that through the course of the year I became more inclined towards “action-RPG” or light-RPGs. However I would never say that old-school RPG are boring! Maybe, too complex if you only want to spend a few minutes/hours a day doing something relaxing 🙂

  • Charles said,

    Keep those articles coming, but next time link to us as examples of what not to do so that millions of players get the opportunity to prove them wrong 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Did better than that, and linked to ’em this time…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Celso – I’m not entirely different. There are some games I play just to enjoy a story and some “lite” monster bashing. And there are other times I really want to go deep and immerse myself in a deep world and deep game system. The former probably occurs more frequently these days with my schedule, but the ones that I really remember and love tend to be the latter.

  • Max said,

    Umm why you even concentrated on what mainstream says. Mainstream = console. Different audience, different genres.

    RPG just like RTS ,simulators and turn-based warfare games are special niche genres. They do no not have as broad appeal as farmville. So what? turn them into farmville? -well if you do that you will be just another facebook game, which there are plenty already

    I mean I dont like “old-school” RPGs (bought frayed knights just because of your blog ,but didnt last past the temple of pus god) ,many people dont like RPG in general, many more dont like simulators. Etc. Cant please them all

    There are many factors which play into why one particular player might not like particular genre. You can alleviate some of them , but at some point you just turning game into completely something else. There was once a tactical real time squad based game called Syndicate, now they make FPS shooter with same name for console generation.

    Accessibility is good, but do not cross the line when you blend into mainstream. Mainstream is all about production values (e.g. shiny) and large budgets. Not the substance

  • Lulero said,

    Hi Rampant Coyote, great article as always.

    Did you play The Binding of Isaac? It’s a roguelike, which I assume can be considered as a RPG subgenre. As most of them, it’s quite hardcore (permadeath and a lot to learn before a serious attempt at beating it) but to date it’s imho the easiest one to get into. Its simple yet deep design impresses me and I’m curious to know what you think about it.

    ps: It’s “Voilà”, not “Viola”, which means *cough* raped as in “he raped her”. Now, why exactly did I have to bring this up?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Lulero – Thanks, corrected. I knew I should have been suspicious when Spellcheck *DID NOT* flag it.

    I have not played The Binding of Isaac yet, though I have noted that it’s gotten some good press lately. I have downshifted a little on the game dev side since the last update, so I have actually gotten to play a *little* of my game backlog, but I’m still far behind.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Max – If I have a point here (too often I do not), it is that the root of the complaint has merit, but that retreating before it may not be the only answer. I *WANT* there to be lighter fare and more casual RPGs and … yes, even action-RPGs. I was fond of ’em before they became “the thing.”

    But perhaps there’s an improved approach that can be taken with the ‘harcore’ RPG style, one that embraces the parts of traditional RPGs that the mainstream guys are so quick to reject, yet can still appeal to a good portion of the people who might otherwise balk.

    I don’t think I have “the” answer yet, but I have a few ideas that have bouncing around in my head since I finally found myself with enough time (and sleep) to think about it.

  • arglactable said,

    I think it would be good to mention JRPGs and their effects on the way mainstream gamers view the genre. There we have a genre that, in terms of mechanics, really hasn’t change a whole lot in the past 20 years. They still have mostly similar plots, characters, and settings. They still often cling to menu-based combat with randomized encounters. I think that the stigma towards RPGs comes from this idea that the genre hasn’t really changed with the times, which isn’t entirely true, but isn’t exactly false either. I find games like Mass Effect 2 quite appealing despite my love classic CRPGs, because it seems to me that a lot of the more obtuse features of RPGs that have made them seem so inaccessible for years have really become obsolete as our technology has evolved. I think the biggest part of Mass Effect 2’s effectiveness is that every single level-up has a real, tangible effect on the gameplay, instead of that feeling that, while the numbers being crunched in the background have probably changed, your experience has not (as in ME 1). So the problem for the genre in the future becomes this balance of accessibility, immediacy, and stream-lined leveling systems and the kind of depth that you can see in a game like Knights of the Chalice (which is a great example of an INCREDIBLY high learning curve). That really seems like a lot of what Bethesda is trying to do with their games. Hopefully, they’ve learned from their mistakes and this ideal will be fully realized with Skyrim (hopefully without a broken skill system and atrocious enemy/item scaling like the last TES game).

  • Automata said,

    It’s pretty much the same reason why nerds get picked on in school: something not popular being picked on to make people feel like they have more power. People just don’t want to acknowledge they like something nerdy so say, “Well, at least it’s not as nerdy as THEM!”

    I think for a lot of games that require intelligence and/or patience have been penalized when Big Gaming went mainstream: adventure games, turn-based strategies, the more cerebral/tactical RPGs, flight sims, possibly some others have all become unpopular to not only develop, but quite often enthusiastically dumped on by gaming “journalists”; the same group who crow “adventure games are dead” every chance something adventure-ish comes along.

    To go back to my earlier analogy, it’s a bit like being back at high school. Only the not-so-popular kids found that they liked a few magazines they had there, so take over the library. And start replacing the books with magazines because “Books? As if!”. And then labeled all the magazines “Books” because they contain words. And to make sure they don’t seem nerdy for hanging in a library with things with words in them, they’ll teabag you if you come in looking for a book.

    Even if there’s less room for the books, there’s still *some* room for them. Magazines are great, but just call them magazines and leave books for the book-readers: or if they’re a mix, call them periodicals or book-magazine hybrids.

    It seems crazy to try to market a game to people who don’t like that genre by changing the genre instead of inventing a new one. Not only that, if people want to try out an old game (say Fallout 1/2 after Fallout 3) and get a very different gaming experience then it’s just going to make the situation worse. There’s far less wrong with saying that “Fallout 3 is an FPS-RPG hybrid” than saying it’s an RPG. Granted, some of this fault lies in the way RPG is such a nebulous genre which allows it to be stretched, but that’s why we have “horror
    , but also add subgenres like “slasher” and “zombie” and “Lovecraftian”.

    At the moment there’s only really the “J” and “A” modifiers, and most of the time the “A” is left off. Now modern customers have an expectation for an RPG that is different from the traditional viewpoint, so if a tactical RPG were somehow to be made for the modern audience, it’d probably be received badly because marketers have burned that bridge.

    This isn’t just bad for people like me who are fans of the more cerebral games, but it’s actually bad for gamers as a whole. Not only is there less plants in the game garden to cross-pollinate with, but assuming that smarter people like using their brains in games, encouraging these people – people who make good programmers, designers, etc. – to not like games will not get them into working in the industry when there are far better-paid positions out there, especially for the work demanded.

  • sascha/hdrs said,

    “The only reason this is worth mentioning is because I really, really don’t like RPGs. All that leveling up, those tiresome stats, all those dreary fantasy tropes, the endless tinkering with skills and items. Yawn!“

    Meh! I could replace this with any other game genre and fill in the respective traits likewise! Let me try …

    “The only reason this is worth mentioning is because I really, really don’t like FPSs. All that running around, those tiresome F-bombs, all those dreary military combat tropes, the endless tinkering with brainless violence. Yawn!“

  • Calibrator said,

    sascha: Exactly!

    And that’s why Jay’s post is pointless, too.
    The whole affair is nothing more than a storm in a waterglass.

    But perhaps Jay likes to associate himself with IGN – it’s not the first time he links to a “controversial” article there… 😉
    If it’s done to increase marketing for FR, then that’s OK as IGN is the mothership of games marketing (and pretty much nothing else).

  • Commie said,

    Jay, you speak much truth. Now you need to get together with Charles and make DE ULTIMATE ‘WizMightedry 1’ blob RPG. Call up JVC and DWB and holy f…. man, I’m drooling already!

  • Morkar said,

    I think the article is worthwhile to mention and write your opinion about it. Afterall the IGN article is a new low for rpgs. They let rpgs review from people who despise rpgs. I think that is a milestone in how much the genre degenerated in the last couple of years.

  • Licaon_Kter said,

    So it’s ok to add numbers and stats to ( so called ) FPS games ( and the game journalists cry with joy for each new level ) yet it’s ok to remove numbers and stats from ( so called ) RPG games? I still don’t get it.

  • Demiath said,

    An admirably even-tempered and constructive approach to the whole controversy. I personally think the IGN writer is A) entirely honest, B) not the least bit stupid and C) probably quite capable of enjoying a stats-based RPG under the right circumstances, if he were to approach it with an open mind and perhaps could get some basic advice from more experienced RPG gamers. It’s not exactly rocket science, after all, and I firmly believe that if one is capable of producing a coherent-ish article for a major gaming news site (yes, even IGN) then one is also clever enough to appreciate the rewarding and addictive elements of traditional RPG gameplay.

  • Mart said,

    More upcoming RPGs for that “journalist” to hate:
    – Dead State
    – Age Of Decadence

    I’m really looking forward to the latter though.

  • DeepThotts said,

    I feel RPG’s have gotten a bad rap due to the rise of MMO’s and Facebook games where the badly designed progression is so obviously a timesink. Games such as these and usually action-RPG’s like Diablo rely on the carrot on a stick addictive quality to goad the player into continually playing because the next ability, xp level, new area, piece of gear, etc. is just around the corner. I think most of today’s gamers don’t have the patience/attention span/time, for that and would rather have full access to everything up front. This is why re-speccing is a popular option where your character builds have no permanence since you don’t have to re-roll and go through 50 hours of gaming just to experiment with something different.

    To use your fighting game analogy, a fighting game designed with these bad RPG mechanics would be like having access to basic punch or kick at level 1, grinding and beating 50 opponents to get enough xp to level 2 where you get to use the fireball, grinding and beating 100 opponents to get enough xp to level 3 where you learn dragon punch, rinse repeat. You see this with the progression in multiplayer COD to unlock new guns.

    I see this as a failure on designers’ part to balance and design interesting gameplay and encounters throughout the progression cycle.

  • Vatina said,

    “I see this as a failure on designers’ part to balance and design interesting gameplay and encounters throughout the progression cycle.”

    I’d say so too. Fun in a game shouldn’t be something you need to work hours to get to – playing in the low levels should be fun too! I think good RPG’s are a lot about the journey, not just the end goal of being level 100 and having super weapons.

    I have a lot of problems with the RPG genre too. I often find myself wanting to play a deep RPG experience, but as is already mentioned here, a lot of those titles are quite old. So I load the game up, prepare to play and… get met with clunky old-fashioned interfaces and game speed. Argh! Exit! Unfortunately I have very low tolerance with the slow way many old games work compared to now.

    I wish there were more games like these, but with more smooth GUIs and proper walking speeds so they are less of a pain to play through. That would be lovely, yes.

  • Deal said,

    To OP.I agree with most of what you said but the line about extinction of hardcore flight sims.They are alive and kicking and so complex now that they really have become too hard to enjoy.

  • Nick said,

    IGN is ran by idiots, the people there are not gamers, most of the people reviewing PC games are console players and don’t know jack about any games except COD and Halo.

    They don’t know anything about the games they review, while previewing BF3 the hosts kept referring to BF2 as BC2 and kept referring to BC2 maps like they were bf2.

    When Dragon Age 2 came around they gave it a great review while most users gave it a poor review and complained so IGN removed the user review section for that game since they were heavily advertising the game for months.

  • Fumarole said,

    And here I was thinking that RTFM meant Review the Furnished Material.

    At least that’s what I tell my bosses it means.

  • nyxalinth said,

    I can’t stand cutesy anime games. This is one girl who finds no appeal in them whatsoever. Yes, I’ve tried many. They don’t command my interest for long.

    Most of the people complaining that RPGs are dumb are seeing only the mostly dumbed do–err, simplified RPGs out on the market today. Thankfully, while i loved the old classics, I’m able to keep an open mind and enjoy the new ones.

  • Giauz said,

    Hey, this is kinda late, but why not?

    I’m on the fence. RPGs work for me as much as they don’t. I recently got that DnD Anthology Amazon.com was selling, and nothing seems to click for me. I began with Baldur’s Gate, and shortly after cracking open the monster of a PDF manual I just wasn’t interested (for the record, mature fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings and the many copiers have been unsatisfying to try to get into as well).

    However, BG1&2 as well as PS:T (the ones I have played the most, if only an hour or two) seem to be quite playable without going to in-depth on the manuals. What irks me here is mainly all the dice-speak (glad that KOTOR wasn’t as keen to make everything #d# as much as these games, which also have much of the game-relevant attributes of the weapons and such littered in walls of text), I’m now less inclined to like dialog options than I was in the earlier 2000s (don’t get me wrong, what I read of PS:T’s dialog was brilliant, funny, and engaging. I’ve just come to dislike going through a list of responses that I would not call gameplay nowadays), and the mode of play in all three lost its magic so quickly.

    Concerning that last part, I made a few comments on CRPG Addict praising PS:T for its intuitive interface improvements over the BG games and saying “I hunt for Torment” with glee. I didn’t get much father after making those comments because I began to form an impression in my mind that I wasn’t doing anything in these games. I tell my guys where to walk to, how to interact, and what they carry on them, but I lost my engagement to the game when these actions quicly became routine (I could have anyone following these actions and there would be little difference).

    To be clear, I am for the creation of new games with all the old-school tactic/strategically hard play of CRPGs gone by (for all the people who enjoyed those games and have been craving more). It’s just that for a genre that I have been reading about and talking about obsessively over the net since Spring 2009, I don’t think it works for me anymore, especially when I try to tackle thoughts on the game design that goes into making a CRPG. Experience, leveling, walking around a world, buying stuff, and all the myriad background systems interacting that make up a CRPG- all of it feels wrong anymore (luckilly players of hard-core and otherwise CRPGs remind me that I’ve just had a bit of a shift in taste, not that the games are necessarilly bad as video games).