Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Computer RPGS: The Wallflowers of the Steam Age? Part 1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 10, 2014

Witcher3I’ve been a fan of computer role-playing games since the days when they were not known by that name, and weren’t much more than a mid-week substitute for a weekend Dungeons & Dragons game with friends. Some of my fondest gaming memories involve me sinking my teeth into a massive, meaty RPG, getting lost for hours at a time in a world of massive underworld complexes, fearsome monsters, dastardly puzzles, twisted plots (sometimes), and lots of loot.

Yeah, not every moment was great. Some of the fights in Pool of Radiance were tedious beyond belief, especially when you didn’t have a large area effect spell like Stinking Cloud or Fireball handy. But I was young and had time on my hands – more time than money, at least. I could only afford a new game every month or two, so patience came easy. As a student, games were expensive, but time was plentiful.

Flash forward to today. Between Steam, Desura, GOG, direct-purchases, and a handful from Gamer’s Gate and Gamestop, I don’t want to think about how many games I have in my “backlog.” That’s becoming true for a lot of PC gamers – we’re deluged with cheap less-recent and indie titles, constant sales and bundle deals. It’s even worse (in some ways) for the less mature but even more saturated mobile market.

This is changing how we purchase and play games, including role-playing games. (RPGFan)

Although perhaps things haven’t changed that much. When I was a kid, I’d go to the arcade and rarely put more than two or three quarters into the same machine at a visit. There were too many games, and too little time (or quarters)! I was something of a game browser, rather than specializing in one or two favorites and mastering them. I find myself falling into the same patterns today.  It takes discipline and a good game for me to stick with it for more than an hour or two. There are too many games for me to try!

If I do stick with it, and it’s quick and replayable, it may become a “go-to” game for those moments I’m seeking a short distraction.

goblinville1The thing is – RPGs, by and large, require a commitment. They are a favorite genre and I love it when I am fully immersed in these worlds and can play for hours without realizing how much time has passed. But getting to that point can take some effort, and when I’m tired and cranky and seeking a quick distraction, it can be daunting. It’s hard to see how much fun you will be having seven or eight hours down the road.

RPGs should not be the wallflower genre of the PC in this day and age. In theory, it should be a wonderful, golden age of awesomeness for RPG fans. After being declared dead at least twice, the genre is back with a vengeance, from high-budget AAA spectacles to spartan indie experiments. We’ve got Bioware and Bethesda blockbusters, middle-tier love-letters to genre fans like Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, and Legend of Grimrock, so many games in the style of 16-bit console JRPGs that people complain about it, experiments in the genre like Defender’s Quest and Heroes of a Broken Land, and an incredible variety of new, indie takes on classic RPG styles. Seriously, it’s better than I could have dreamed of ten years ago.

But a lot of these games are languishing undiscovered – or, shockingly, purchased unplayed (or even uninstalled). I have a few of ’em myself. Genre fans are becoming collectors – hoarders. This is true of all game types to a degree, but RPGs seem to suffer more than most. (As an aside… I think I have more untried strategy games in my backlog than RPGs. They have some of the same problems, including a perceived large up-front learning curve).

WL2_dialogI did some informal polling of friends, twitter folks, forums, and a little bit of a self-assessment. While there are definitely some things that game developers can do in general, my question was more of why computer role-playing games, in this era of plenty (or “glut” if we’re feeling less charitable) end up unfinished… or even untried. The results were unsurprising, but worth discussion. That will be tomorrow’s post.

One of the problems for me is that I wouldn’t want to mess up the core nature of the role-playing game to make it easier-to-consume. There’s a reason, when I finally allow myself to get drawn into a good RPG, that the hours fly. I am vehemently against the AAA trend to make RPGs more like action games because action games are more accessible (not to mention a lot easier to make). But I do think there are some modifications to the core structure that can make RPGs more inviting, easier to get into, and easier to stick with to the end.

More next time. But in the meantime, I’ll keep asking the same questions. CRPG fans: Do you have a glut of unfinished (or unplayed / uninstalled) role-playing games? Is it any better / worse than other game genres? What held you back from trying / completing the game? Have your gaming habits changed, and have RPGs failed to keep up?



Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    I still love RPGs, but I don’t have time to sink into them. One thing that I find most annoying, let’s use FFXII as an example, is when I spend time away from the game, and can’t tell what to do when I get back. A simple diary or map marker for the next plot point would go a long way.

    …of course, FFXII is also my poster child for poor pacing. I don’t have the patience to grind to qualify for new areas that the plot wants to take me. I’m stuck in the midgame where I was able to use Mist abilities to clear an area, but the next area has little, basic bad guys that kill me without any difficulty. One FAQ suggested I should have characters at level 45+, when I’m still under 30. I dropped the game at that point, since it means many hours of grinding just so I can keep going in the plot. Not cool, and almost a Twinkie Denial condition in my book. That would have annoyed me even when I had dozens of hours of free time to sink into the game.

    Chrono Cross did pacing well, and I wish more games would do that.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – I feel exactly the same way about FFXII, and I never got as far as you. I got annoyed at the extended intro videos & training sequence. I played for a few hours more, but the MMO-style quests and grindy meandering really lost my interest.

    Now, there were some games that took a while to get to the point where you are really “playing” the game (like Persona 4, which came out around the same time IIRC), but I was enjoying the story so much even with limited interaction, I was sucked in.

  • Trevel said,

    The problem with RPGs is that they’re generally long enough that I often end up wanting to take a break and play something else before I’m finished, but they’re generally complicated enough with both story AND mechanics that I end up starting over rather than continuing.


    To make it worse, MMOs hit a lot of the buttons that roleplaying games also hit (Grinding for levels! Grinding for drops!) only without a clear end point, story, or strategies — so you can rejoin them without THAT much difficulty — and thus (for me at least) have a bad tendency to occupy my ‘RPG’ slot, even though the best of them isn’t that great. (And they’re leaning more towards Action RPG these days anyways.)

  • jaes said,

    I don’t think my RPG-backlog is (comparatively) bigger than for other genres. But I complete fewer RPGs.

    These are my RPG-related turn-offs (not necessarily deal-breakers):

    – A very long and complex character creation. I like skills and stats, but prefer when games with a long character creation split it in parts. Like either just make the player choose a character or 5-6 basic attributes and then let him play, and then later, e.g. at first level-up, introduce the rest of the character system. Skyrim and Divinity II did this well.

    – Filler-combat. It breaks exploration, and gets boring after a few hours anyway, if you get attacked every 1-2 minutes. I prefer a focus on fewer, more unique battles and/or optional battles.

    – A very long main story. VERY few stories need to be more than 20-30 hours long. I don’t want to wait months to see the end of the story. Not everybody can dedicate 10+ hours a week to games/a single game.

    – Slow “intros”. The first 7-8 hours of Mass Effect felt like an intro (to me at least), and I just wanted the story and exploration to get going.

    – Clunky UI. The endless scrolling in Mass Effect was maddening. Mostly a console related problem I guess.

  • Xian said,

    I tend to have more RPGs in my backlog because, well, I buy more RPGs. Slap together some a character development system, a skill tree, and at least a thread of a story and I will usually lay down my cash at some point.

    The biggest issues contributing to my backlog is finding the time to play what I have and being unable to resist a sale, so the backlog grows faster than the completion rate.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m mostly with Jaes. I actually have less unplayed RPGs than other games, but my completion rate is… umm…. next to zero? I love them, but very few are worth completing.

    Most games reach the point of “Filler” where they only thing the developers give me is a B or C movie storyline. They run out of new weapons, mechanics, and actual new enemy types and expect me to keep playing.

    The problem is that RPGs do the same things but are just longer. They fill my time by throwing in level 42 goblins instead of level 32. Exact same gameplay but forcing me to waste more time.

    – – –

    Personally, I’m a fan of short casual RPGs because I don’t have time to waste. I was overjoyed to finish Shadowrun return in a few days and I was glad to return for the expansion.
    Guess what? I’ll probably buy the next expansion too because I know that I can fit it into my life.

    Each session is bite sized so that I don’t need to make a commitment. If I need to choose between a game or my life… I know my answer.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I have several RPGs I’ve either not played, or have played briefly.

    Yet I find myself wanting to go back and replay old RPGs, perhaps play them differently this time (spoiler alert: I end up playing them in the exact same way each time).

    I think I’d need to make game-playing my job to make any sort of progress through my backlog and have time to revisit old classics.

  • Silemess said,

    CRPGs have their fair share on my library, and their completion/at least played/Some day ratios are on par with the rest. What’s different is that they make up a hugely disproportionate size of my wish list.

    I know I don’t have the time to sink into them, so more than any other genre, they’re the ones who get wish listed when I see something that I want. When I can cross a title off my library by either listing it as “Complete” or “Played and Abandoned”, then the fighting begins. They have to be cheap, and they have to beat out their competitors on the wish list.

    Both extremely unfair conditions for a game I know I will sink more time into than the average game on the library. If the mythical free time were to raise itself to give me two days for a game, RPGs would cross themselves off my list at a faster pace and the library would swell.

    To be fair; the other genres are held to the same “Try to clear the backlog unless it’s crazy cheap or known to be quick.” They just don’t often get the luxury of getting on the wish list.

  • ShadowTiger said,

    I recently did some catching up over the last year. I still have a ways to go though.

    Shadowrun returns + berlin (95% complete)
    Icewind Dale 2 (about 20% complete)
    Dragon Age Origins
    Mass effect 2
    Neverwinter Nights 2 storm of zehir (boring so far)

    Also i want to replay some older titles such as kotor 1 & 2 and jade empire.

    I think i will play through grimrock 2 when it comes out as well as wasteland 2 and proeject eternity. I think bioware rpgs just take too long to get going.

    As a developer of a new crpg, i am designing the game to have lots of notes built into the user interface so if you come back to the game after a long break you can jump into the action without being lost, confused, or afraid of making a mistake. I think its possible to make rpgs a daily habit without compromising core values

  • Anon said,

    > Do you have a glut of unfinished (or unplayed / uninstalled) role-playing games?

    Yes. Unfinished, unplayed, uninstalled.
    I have more unplayed games than unfinished, though.
    And I only install what I actually play so the last category is unimportant to me.

    > Is it any better / worse than other game genres?

    About the same as I buy selectively, even if I don’t immediately play something.
    I also only buy bundles (=”shotgun approach”) if there is at least one game included that I’m really interested in. That doesn’t mean that I will immediately play this game.

    > What held you back from trying / completing the game?

    – Biggest problem is the limited time. I simply can’t play everything I *really* want and especially not what is only second best…
    – Also, sometimes a game lost its appeal to me (or the genre – I don’t play first-person shooters anymore, for example).

    – Lost interest b/c of stupid game mechanics or lame story.
    – Sometimes something better came along.

    > Have your gaming habits changed, and have RPGs failed to keep up?

    The RPGs I tend to sink time in now are usually mainstream titles like the Elder Scrolls series with more than 200 hrs. each…

    I pretty much don’t play anything party-based anymore and prefer action-based titles now. It’s probably also a problem of limited time on my end.
    In any case I don’t play many RPGs nowadays – what I play mostly are the run-o-the-mill action-adventure (like Assassin’s Creed), graphics adventures (like the Sherlock Holmes series from Frogwares) and more or less experimental indie titles. As I wrote before I’m a sucker for Hidden Object games which I play every months when I get a good deal.

    Ironically, if my little personal game project gets finished one day it will be a turn-based RPG, albeit with a focus on exploration and not on combat 😉

  • Washington Irving said,


    When I was younger, I’d create empty folders named after games I wanted to play (usually ones that I saw in magazines). I’d cram my c:\games folder full of those imaginary games, and I’m fairly sure I never got to play even 10% of them. So the backlog is nothing new, at least for me.

  • SniperHF said,

    RPGs aren’t any worse regarding backlogging for me. I’ve got a list of equal length for shooters.

    I’ve played through what looks like the most interesting or upper crust of each genre. Most of my backlog is what I’d call the middle tier. Probably not great games but still solid titles. To me these are only worth going back for and playing if there isn’t something new on the horizon.

    So for example before the current Kickstarter and overall indie RPG wave I was playing through those middle tier RPGs like crazy. Now I’ve completely stopped and am instead playing those new games.