Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 11, 2014
In light of Computer RPGS: The Wallflowers of the Steam Age Part 1, are computer role-playing games worse off in the age of cheap, plentiful games than other genres, and if so, why? What inhibits people from starting them, and once they start, what makes them give up long before the game is complete?
From the responses I’ve seen, the seriousness of the problems with RPGs is more acute than other genres for some gamers, but not others. While the responses were largely from RPG fans, and not from the gaming audience in general (many of whom may very well hate the very notion of the role-playing game), my feeling is that there’s nothing truly unique / specific to RPGs that might make players reluctant to start or complete the games.
That means, for my purposes, I can probably ignore anything that suggests that RPGs should be less RPG-like.
But there are a lot of things that do leave players feeling cold. Trying to combine lots of specific issues into some general problems, here are the top ten reasons, in no particular order:
1. RPGs take too long to complete
For many players, the ability to enjoy the same game for dozens of hours is a virtue, but it is daunting to some. If I only have time for maybe 5 hours of game-playing a week, and a game will require about 70 hours of gameplay to complete, that means I’m going to be “stuck” with that game for several months. While that can be wonderful and exciting, it can also be a bit daunting from the get-go. As plentiful as games are now, a lot of people really want experiences that are between 8-20 hours, rather than the dozens and dozens of hours demanded of RPGs in the “good old days” (which, in retrospect, weren’t always so good). In a lot of ways, the long playing time of the old games gave rise to some of the most time-wasting mechanics still present today.
2. RPGs take too long to get into
This is a bigger issue, and I don’t know anybody who would strongly disagree. While the style and mechanics of RPGs make it difficult for the player to really “get” the story and and mechanics in the first five or ten minutes, many games can do a lot better. The culprits are too numerous to name, but I’d say some of the bigger, mainstream titles are worse culprits. It’s like they are so afraid of exposing players to the complexity of the game that they never turn control over to the player. Likewise, the stories may be deep and interesting, but it takes forever to really offer the player a “hook.”
3. RPGs demand long gameplay sessions
Some players complain that – either because of save point limitations or simply the dearth of natural breaking points, RPGs often feel like they need long, solid stretches of gameplay. This limits the appeal, because adult players often find their time to game in much smaller segments – ten minutes here, a half-hour there. We may have twelve hours a week we can devote to gaming, but never in any block of time larger than an hour. If we feel we can’t enjoy and make progress in an RPG in that time, we’re not going to play it during our twenty-minute “breaks.”
If the players feel like they are just grinding – not gaining any truly new toys or powers to play with – and facing very similar challenges hour after hour, they are going to get bored and quit. There’s nothing exciting about gaining five levels only to learn you are fighting a level 28 orc instead of a level 23 orc, using exactly the same strategies.
Worse – and I have heard this from a lot of people – is when the game mechanics really require very little strategy, and are really dependent on character attributes / levels more than anything else. This leads to grinding, as the only way to get past parts of the game is to make your character stronger, rather than trying to be more clever about it.
5. Storyline grows stale after several hours (or never gets going in the first place!)
I personally feel that a good story can make up for (or at least temporarily fill in for) mediocre mechanics in an RPG. I’m also of the opinion that you can have a great game with little or no story (see most roguelikes…). But in a story-heavy RPG, if players are still having a tough time wondering why they should care what’s going on, it’s going to be hard for them to care about double-clicking the game icon when there are promises of more entertaining games out there.
6. Generic Settings and Storylines
I only remember seeing a couple of comments about this, but I immediately agreed. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been turned off by a game by the introduction, because it sounds like the same kind of crap I’ve already played a dozen times before.
The thing is – not only does this not necessarily require a major effort in world-building, but that’s actually probably counter-productive. People are comfortable with popular fantasy tropes in a way that they wouldn’t be if everything is bizarre, weird, and new. What’s often needed is attention and detail paid at the micro scale, not at the macro scale. Even if the world as a whole is a Tolkien-inspired D&D-style FauxEuropeanMedievalWorld, if there are some unique ideas and strange occurrences a-brewing in my character’s alchemist’s guild when the game opens, I can be intrigued. Just as I can be intrigued by a million stories taking place somewhere in “the modern world.” There’s no excuse for not having something to make the setting and story “fresh.”
7. Hard to continue after an absence
This includes both forgetting how to play, and simply being unable to remember where you were and what you were doing after an extended time away from the game. It happens – especially when games are pretty long. Maybe a new, shiny game “interrupted” our RPG, but we fully intended to come back to it. But when we try, we are immediately lost. So we don’t have much fun, and by the time we quit we’ve only barely gotten back on track, but we’re no longer motivated to play again.
This is possibly the number one complaint I heard from people. Some of the problem may stem from most RPGs not being easily playable in bite-sized sessions. But the key point is the assumption that a player will play the RPG from start to finish without major interruption, so they should have kept everything in their head. Not so, especially not in the modern gaming era. “Binge-playing” is now the exception, not the rule.
This is one area where the virtue of a genre (for example, non-linear gameplay) can become a liability if designers aren’t careful.
8. Lost in Creation
Some players get confused / lost during character creation. Too much to control, and even with instructions its hard to know how the abilities will play out in the game itself.
9. Random, “Filler” Combat
Yeah, some people don’t like surprises, and always want to be the ones to initiate combat. But the problem is made so much worse when the combat doesn’t really have a point, have any real challenge, and serves no purpose other than to slow down progress in the game. People who prefer the exploration aspect (like me) may be willing to accept risk that comes with it, but don’t want to feel penalized for doing so with tedious fights.
10. Frustration Tolerance Exceeded
I didn’t see this one too often, but combined with point 7, this is an issue. After being stymied by a tough boss (especially when it’s clear that going back and grinding more levels is all but required), or a tough puzzle, or simply getting lost in a “what do I do now?” situation, it’s easy to drop the game for a few days. If the game is no less frustrating the next session – or worse, it is more frustrating due to difficulties getting “back into” the game, then it may become indefinitely / permanently shelved.
So there are ten of the reasons players may shy away from or discontinue an RPG. Are there others? Certainly. But it sounds like those are some of the more common reasons cited.
I’d like to work on a part 3 of this series, but it may not be tomorrow. I’d like to talk about some of the solutions to these perceived problems. These can range from well-established practices by modern developers, to wild and experimental concepts that might not work at all, but await some brave indie to give it a try.
Please add your own ideas here. What are some problems I missed, and what are some ways to fix any of these that you’d like to see become common?
Filed Under: Biz, Design, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read