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:
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…
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