Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 28, 2010
Another week, another call for RPGs to “evolve.” So I guess it’s time for my monthly rant about the evolution of the cRPG genre.
Hat tip to RPGWatch for this link. My response was snarkier over there than this one will be here. (See? I may be growing as a person. Or something…) Maybe because, in some ways, I think the author is right. Just maybe not in the way he thinks he is.
In a nutshell, author Michael Johnson discusses what he considers to be the key elements that make an RPG an RPG, describes how these elements are now permeating a very wide variety of games these days, and notes how western RPGs like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 seem to be taking over an area where those moribund jRPGs used to dominate. And then he calls for jRPGs to evolve, as the western RPGs have.
I was pretty much with him through the whole Farmville-is-like-an-RPG thing, and then my teeth were set on edge. Warning: crochety old-school cRPG fan alert!
First, a history lesson, as perceived through the eyes of an interested outsider:
In some ways, the “death of RPGs” that was called repeatedly in the mid-1990s came from a lack of innovation. Or evolution, I guess. Except it wasn’t. Yes, RPGs were stuck in a rut – or two or three ruts – but it wasn’t just a lack of innovation. It was a lack of quality. An awful lot of crap filled the marketplace at that time, and much of it attempting to imitate the “best of breed” of the previous years.
Even Origin – a company once synonymous with quality RPGs – produced a game that really received faint critical praise with Ultima VIII during this time. Ironically, it did try to innovate, and turned off a lot of gamers without being well-received by a larger audience. (One critic referred to it as “Super Avatar Brothers.” )
It was kind of a dark time RPGs. Briefly. But it was enough to convince many of the best and brightest game journalists and marketing directors that the era of the RPG was OVER. Siyonara, suckers. It’s been a good run.
And then Diablo happened. “Ah-hah!” cried the industry, anxious to cover their collective butts and not to appear as fools when an RPG sold over a million copies after they’d declared the genre dead. “It’s a new paradigm! This is the evolution of RPGs.” See, they weren’t wrong. The old RPGs were dead. Long live the RPG!
Nevermind that Final Fantasy VII and Baldur’s Gate (which admittedly had some Diablo-esque elements) were also making insane amounts of money, too. FF7 pretty much dwarfing Diablo‘s success. But it was, you know, a console title. And even Fallout garnered some major critical appeal and financial success, and it was an old-school-style RPG writ LARGE.
So really, what we may call “evolution” is really nothing more than a story of “chasing the almighty buck” and following a narrative provided for by men in suits. So now, the whole “RPGs are dead / dying” thing really rings hollow to me. I’ve lived through it before, and I know how it works. It’s got nothing to do with changing the paradigm. Sure, a lot has to do with appealing to the market’s tastes, but a significant part of that is simply putting out a quality product (and marketing the crap out of it). Quality – and especially innovation – doesn’t always sell, but a lack of either rarely does. And that had been the real problem.
Moving on to Johnson’s other point: the jRPGs. As far as jRPG evolution / innovation – having been bored to tears playing Final Fantasy XII (but you just need to play it for another 8-10 hours and it gets good, they promise…) and not even bothering with Final Fantasy XIII yet after hearing the reviews, I can’t say I’m keen on what passes for “evolution.” But as far as innovation… dude, I’m there. I was absolutely delighted by Persona 3 and Persona 4 not too long ago. That, to me, was innovation. But in many ways, it also stuck pretty close to standard jRPG themes. Turn-based combat. Linearity. Weird, over-the-top monsters in a modern-fantasy setting. And a storyline only this side of comprehensible (but it still made more sense than Final Fantasy VII… or X).
Now, my apologies to Michael Johnson, but holding up the modern mainstream western RPG as an example of RPG “evolution” is pretty much a sure-fire way to set my teeth on edge. It’s not his fault. I’m kinda bored with the trend these games seem to be following, though I do see some good ideas there. But I see a lot more potential in the ideas indie games like Depths of Peril and Knights of the Chalice are introducing (or re-introducing) to the genre.
So for me, the point isn’t about evolution. It’s about expansion. There’s a critical difference. Evolution – as referred to by the media – suggests movement along a single direction – towards a “better adapted” (improved) species. Expansion suggests movement along multiple paths into greater diversity and niches. And in biology, by my limited understanding, this is the key behavior that allows evolution to take place. Otherwise, we would have had a world full of perfect dinosaurs…
Making RPGs more accessible with streamlined interfaces and hold-your-hand gameplay (AKA “dumbing down” by us crotchety old-school RPG fans) can be a great thing. It can help newer gamers discover RPGs and learn to love them as we crotchety old-school gamers do. And it can point out areas where truly pointless tedium (ahem – not just the elements that make an RPG feel less like Halo in the eyes of some designers) can be done away with.
But I don’t want to see every game like that. Or even a majority of games! There’s a wide field of opportunity for not only new ideas, but expansion on old ideas that have been left fallow for many years while publishers rode off in pursuit of the biggest buck. “Innovation” is a lot more than simply exploring non-linearity or getting rid of post-battle fist-pumps. There’s a lot of room to explore new territory in terms of story, character, and player interaction that goes well beyond what we’re now seeing, without necessarily re-writing the entire concept of how RPGs should be played. In fact, the latter tends to just get in the way and send us back to square one.
As players, what we REALLY want isn’t necessarily innovation (look at Blizzard’s success!), evolution, re-imagining, or anything like that. We simply want an experience that feels fresh and interesting but which still gives us the familiar fun that we crave. Many game developers tend to focus instead on new whistles and bells, or making a game that’s more like that-other-game-that-made-a-lot-of-money. While that’s a viable approach, many of us don’t want the entire genre dragged in that direction. We see a world of opportunities to explore, yet the mainstream industry seems blind to all but the most obvious, rudimentary possibilities.
I guess that’s why there are indies.
Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism, Mainstream Games - Comments: 15 Comments to Read