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Five Things I Unequivocally Love About Modern Mainstream RPGs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 2, 2012

I tend to rip on modern RPGs a lot here. Yeah, it’s unfair, but it’s my blog. Part of it is my own reaction sycophantic game reviewers and wannabe-journalists who either believe video games weren’t invented until 2000, or who believe that they are doing publishers are a favor by attempting to invalidate anything from prior eras as hopelessly inferior.

Now, maybe I’m just not hitting the right (read: wrong) sites anymore, but I’m not seeing so much of that as I used to. That’s probably helped my blood pressure some. A silly, illogical, hopelessly optimistic side of me wants to believe that maybe, MAYBE, this new generation of gaming cognizati might actually be learning a bit of appreciation of past classics, at least in the same way that I learned appreciation of classical architecture in my college humanities class. Which is to say, I didn’t learn to appreciate the actual architecture personally so much as I learned to appreciate the value of keeping my mouth shut to hide my ignorance.

But in the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, I’d like to point out some things I really do love about modern, mainstream RPGs.  Now, this is tough to really do right, because modern RPGs remain a pretty diverse lot. Okay, not quite as diverse as the genre used to be (*coughcough*), but in spite of a noticeable list in a certain direction, these games still have their own take on the genre as a whole. So here are some things that I really feel like they are getting right:

#1 – Graphics.  Duh. We can argue styles all day, but the new games sure are pretty. And impressive. It’s pretty obvious to see where their huge budgets go, but I can’t help to be thrilled at how these worlds come to life. Seriously, this was what I was seeing in my head when I was playing those games way back then.

 #2 – Ease of Play. While I gripe about frequently losing the depth and breadth of interactions in certain older titles, it’s not like that was a common thing back then, either. We remember the exceptional ones. And there’s a lot to be said about being able to pick up a game and just play, without needing a cardboard keyboard map laying propped up against the bottom of the monitor.  Cleaner interfaces, more intuitive (or at least familiar) controls, more gradual introductions to the games – these are generally good things. Maybe I’m just spoiled now by not having to RTFM in order to play a new game now (although at least back then the manuals were actually fun to read!). But learning to play by actually playing is definitely the Right Thing.

#3 – Emphasis on Story and Characters. Sure, don’t sacrifice my game mechanics and interesting choices on the alter of storyline – I’m still here to play a game, not watch a movie – but story and characters are still what turns a good game into a great and memorable experience. That’s really a focus in most modern RPGs, and I’m pretty happy about that.  Really, in many older games, as much as I loved the story, like the graphics it was usually the story in my head that I created as I played that I loved, not so much what was there in the game. I think modern games could do a better job outsourcing some of those critical story elements to the player’s imagination – as the old games had to do – but what’s “on the page” has far more depth to it than almost anything created before the era of Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout.  I should probably include jRPGs in that list, too, but you know what they are. Bravo, designers. While missteps have taken place and some games may have been made worse by truly crappy stories, this seems to me to be the right direction.

#4 – Strong Game Systems / Mechanics. Okay, while the emphasis on twitchery has me fuming a bit, going back and retro-gaming old favorites and “new-to-me” classics has reminded me that many of these standouts of the genre’s history had pretty crap systems that were frequently poorly-implemented, poorly-balanced, and most likely poorly-tested retreads of some D&D rules variant. Fortunately, the games were often a lot of fun in spite of this.  Although as the CRPG Addict keeps rediscovering, some of those games remain quite fun today, but others have not aged well at all.

#5 – Less Grinding. I like some grind. Especially when it’s optional. It’s a great way to make some additional “progress” in the game without taxing the brain or the skills to heavily. But a good portion of older RPGs was grinding. The 50+ hours you’d need to put in to beat it? You weren’t following an epic story all that time. No, much of the time you were hitting the respawns on level 3 of the dungeon so you could get high enough level to cast the spells to keep you alive on level 4 of the dungeon.  There was really too much of that. It’s still an artifact in newer games, but it feels like designers are taking an active role in minimizing it.  That’s a good thing. Killing the same monsters over and over again just doesn’t scream “epic adventure” to me nowadays.


Filed Under: Mainstream Games - Comments: 17 Comments to Read



  • Chris said,

    Thing is, while some of these modern mainstream games are maybe better versions of the non-exceptional RPGs of the past…we’re not getting much with the depth of the exceptional ones these days. We’re not seeing any Arcanums (which I’m not even a fan of) among the mainstream lot.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, enormous creativity and innovation is NOT one of those appreciated issues of modern game dev, sadly. Not that it was ever *big*, but that’s something that has diminished significantly over the years.

  • LesserEldritchStarspawnOfBob said,

    I think grinding in RPGs gets a lot of bad press. I’m sure I’m saying something that has already been said before, but not all grind is bad. Modern RPGs seem completely opposed to any and all grinding.

    Of course grinding is never fun when the player is FORCED to grind, but I feel that some modern RPGs might have missed out on something that some old (mainly JRPGs it has to be said) RPGs had. In many of these games I remember getting thrashed by a boss and every monster in the area was a struggle – so I went to an earlier area and grinded for ages. My characters gradually became stronger and learnt powerful new skills that made me say “Oh, cool!”. When they went back to the area that I had so much trouble with, they easily obliterated everything in their path. It was extremely satisfying.
    It felt like what I had just been through was the gaming equivalent of a movie training montage – especially the kind seen in martial art movies and some Westerns. You know, when the hero gets completely thrashed by their enemy only to barely survive, so they go to some secluded mountain to master their secret move or perfect heist plan. When they return for the second confrontation, the villain expects to win as they did before only to be completely defeated by a much stronger hero.

    I’ve yet to experience moments like that in any modern RPG which is a shame. There were a few moments where the makers tried to achieve a similar feeling, but seemed too scripted and “forced”.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    After this post and Chris mentioning Arcanum, I’m suddenly wishing Obsidian or Bethesda (or both working together) would make a new Arcanum game. I’d love to see that Steampunk Fantasy world come to life on modern systems . . . .

    Well, I guess I’m off to play Arcanum for the rest of the weekend!

  • Anon said,

    Obsidian + Bethesda = Bugs ^ 2
    !!!

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    @Anon

    Yeah, but mainly because both companies are so ambitious. The original Arcanum was a buggy-mess when it first released – so why break tradition? ;P

    Besides, the bugs always get sorted out eventually. Fallout New Vegas was a collaboration between the two and it was amazing.

    I say Obsidian because they have team members that worked on the original Arcanum, and Bethesda because their open world creation is unparalleled in the current generation.

  • Anon said,

    All true – but this means selling a lot of crap until the necessary patches are out. When the crap pile gets too high the publisher closes down – see Troika.

    Face it: What you want (great, very complex titles & publishers that live from making them) is simply not possible. Idealism pays no rents.

  • tanto said,

    everything there sounds like a con to me

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Okay, tell me true — would you really prefer uglier & more primitive graphics, more obtuse controls, more cardboard-y characters & plots, weak and poorly tested game mechanics, and more grinding? While they might be part of the charm, I guess, of some older titles, I don’t think I’d really considered a strength.

  • True to Design: What I’m Reading « Managing the Game said,

    [...] Five Things I Unequivocally Love About Modern Mainstream RPGs: http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=4011 [...]

  • Anon said,

    “Okay, tell me true — would you really prefer uglier & more primitive graphics, more obtuse controls, more cardboard-y characters & plots, weak and poorly tested game mechanics, and more grinding?”

    Absurd question!

    There are enough well-made games out there, ESPECIALLY in the indie sector (CRPGs, too!).
    And, by the way, I wasn’t attacking your own game – only in case you were wondering. I’m not sure in which of these two categories it would fall, though…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I should have noted that my commented was directed towards Tanto, not you. And I’m honestly curious about the response. I suspect it’s more nuanced than his one-sentence answer suggests.

    Which two categories are you referring to?

  • Anon said,

    “Modern mainstream standard” vs. “old mainstream standard”

    (“old” as in 80ies/90ies)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Ah, okay. Probably the old mainstream standard, though I aspire to the above five virtues of modern RPGs.

  • McTeddy said,

    Gimme the old school grind anyday.

    At least old games were honest about wasting my time. These days I get Cutscene… 30 rooms where I am ambushed by waves of enemies… no level up for my work. Even worse… the boss ends up being ridiculously easy no matter how much I try to keep my character weak.

    That said… I’m actually 100% anti-grind. Any game that intentionally wastes my time to pad playtime doesn’t get my love. Gimme 5 hours of epic over 40 hours of mindnumbing crap any day of the week.

    Although… there ARE times I miss the cardboard plots. There days its hard to just jump in play an RPG because they are so concerned with introducing me to their epic stereotypical fantasy world… so I can meet their stereotypical fantasy characters.

    I’m not saying I dislike story in games… It’s just nice to have it optional sometimes. Do I really need to hear the 7 minute tale of the plague of the year 802… when all it adds up to is “It made zombies… we want you to kill them.”

  • lempar said,

    “Besides, the bugs always get sorted out eventually. ”

    By fans.

    “would you really prefer uglier & more primitive graphics, more obtuse controls, more cardboard-y characters & plots, weak and poorly tested game mechanics”

    Sometimes. I havent played Mechwarrior 2 when it came out, but after playing it, and 3 and 4 a few years ago – 2 still speaks the loudest to me. The original release, without textures. There’s just something about it that makes it more real than some expected insane megatexture and superfluid animation.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Okay, I don’t feel right trying to argue with you on Mechwarrior 2 because… well, okay, it totally rocked. I tried hard to play MW4 and just couldn’t. They’d killed everything that was fun about MW1.

    I *COULD* see modern improvements made with MW2, though, to make it a better game. But … the guys responsible for doing so… didn’t. Or maybe they did. I did like Mechwarrior 3 okay — it was a pretty decent game, but didn’t grab me quite as hard.

    Dang. Now I am totally nostalgic for Mechwarrior 2. I played that game to death.

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