Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

“RPGs Were a 30-Year Detour?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 24, 2011

What. The. Frack?

Okay, Matt Findley doesn’t actually say this (it’s just in the title of the article) , but he does offer some choice quotes, like:

On the fantasy genre tending to be represented by RPGs: “Well, you know, we analyzed the long history of video games. I think these games always wanted to be action games at their heart. I think all those old turn-based games, it’s just that’s all the technology would allow.”

On turn-based gaming: “The reason those games were turn-based sword battles is that was the only option you had. I think, now you get that twitch element of “me at the controller.” When you take the monster down because you successfully hit, blocked, switched to exploding arrows, and shot him in the head, you’re getting that same depth that you would have had through 30 years ago D&D experience, but it’s happening fast-paced, quick, and in real-time for a modern audience that wants to see action.”

On the differences between games that work well for PC and those that work well for consoles: “You can play a game on the Xbox, and you can have a PC version of that game, and, you know, the same art assets work, the same environments work, the same control schemes work. You can use the same controller if you plug your Xbox controller into your PC. It’s allowed the lines to be blurred. Going forward, I think the lines between genres are getting blurred and the lines between all the different consoles are being blurred, which is, I think, very positive for what we can do with our games.”

Uh-huh.  I’m not usually prone to nerd-rage, but sheesh!  I’m granting that the interviewer, Christian Nutt, kinda pushed the conversation in that direction, but it still feels a little bit like he’s giving the finger to old-school RPG fans.

I remember a local DJ who had been a big fan of The Doors, especially the song, “People Are Strange.” That song helped him get through adolescence, and spoke to him when he felt awkward and alone (as most of us do at that stage of our lives, on one level or another). It had a profound impact on him. One day, he finally got the chance to meet a member of the band in person, and wanted to talk to him about that song. As soon as he brought up the subject, the band member laughed it off and said something to the effect of, “Oh, man, that song – we were such sellouts when we made that song. It was such a manufactured, commercial piece of crap.”

He eventually got over it, but it sounded to me like he was crushed. I can understand how he felt a little, now. Not that I consider Matt Findley to be any kind of RPG mastermind out at Interplay / Black Isle. Nor do I disagree that some fantasy-themed action games are a good thing. But the whole, “We only did RPGs because we didn’t have the technology to make obviously superior action games” thing really sticks in my craw.

‘Cuz, you know, I’m still playing good old-fashioned dice-and-paper RPGs. WHY, when I have these obviously superior console games sitting not ten feet away in our living room when we’re playing on a Saturday night? Why do we roll dice and describe scenes in slow spoken form instead of spending the night playing World of Warcraft and talking to each other over our headsets?

The reasons are multitude. Some of our group would probably say the experience is superior (at least in some ways) to anything they’d play on the XBox. And many of us are avid video game fans.

This is the kind of thing that pisses me off. You know this, if you have been following this blog very long.  This whole idea that RPGs have been ‘evolving’ towards this platonic ideal that is indiscernible from a straight-up action game is a load of crap used by biz and marketing folks to justify going after the lowest common denominator. And according to all accounts – including my own first-hand experience – action games are a hell of a lot easier to make than traditional RPGs.

If you want to work less and make more money by making an action game, that’s FINE – just don’t imply that fans of more traditional RPGs are just too stupid to recognize the genius that is the action genre. Dude, I lived in arcades during my formative years.  I was addicted to Asteroids and Pac-Man long before I discovered Ultima.  I’ve spent half of my career making action games for consoles. I was FTPing Doom the day it was released. Oh, and I was playing action-RPGs before anybody decided to draw a border between the two – back when it was stuff like Gateway to Apshai.

I’m not ignorant of the virtues of action games, nor am I too old and slow to have a great time playing them today.  And yet I still crave a good, stats-heavy, turn-based RPG. Regularly. I am so grateful to indie game makers and places like GOG.COM that provide me with more games like this – old and new – than I have time to play.

Because obviously the mainstream games business is too screwed up to make something like this ever again.

UPDATE: Looks like Matt Barton, author of the excellent book Dungeons & Desktops,  gets a little hot under the collar over this interview as well. I actually hope Hunted: The Demon’s Forge doesn’t suck, because I was looking forward to it with no expectations that it would be an RPG. I hope it’s great. I hope Mr. Findley can keep making the action games he loves. And that nobody lets him take charge of development of an RPG ever in the rest of his career.

UPDATE 2: Rock Paper Shotgun weighs in as well.


Filed Under: Biz, Mainstream Games - Comments: 32 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    Thank you. I read that article this morning and was quite upset.

    I’m just sick of everyone justifying their actions as being the evolution of the RPG. Yes, it’s another style of RPG, but that does not make it superior. New != Always Better.

    You want to make action RPGS…. good for you! If you wanted to make action games in the past but lacked the talents… go for it! If you want to make half***ed games and get rich off them… more power to you!


    Sigh… It’s articles like that that remind me of why I hate the modern game industry. “If you don’t like our game… it’s cuz your too dumb to get it!”

    Sorry for ranting… I was rather irked by the article and couldn’t stop typing. If only my typing was turned based so that I’d have time to formulate a coherent thought.

  • Nils said,

    Couldn’t have said it better.

  • SusanTheCat said,


    I like turn based RPGs since I have the reaction speed of a slug. This is fantasy — not reality. I want to be able to play a gymnast with super reaction speed.

    I also get nauseated by most 3D graphics.

  • Picador said,

    The Who, especially the song, “People Are Strange.”

    I think you mean The Doors.

    As for the feeling you’re having: yes, it’s unfortunate when an artist talks about how their own sensibilities have changed and tries to retrospectively apply it to their older work. But I think this is a symptom of our culture being obsessed with the notion of authorship. We place too much emphasis on what an artist has to say about their own work, instead of letting it be a stand-alone cultural product, with which fans can form their own relationships independently of whatever the artist has to say about it. Think William Shatner in that old SNL skit, denouncing Trekkies as freaks and losers: if the fans just considered him an actor who did some work on a show they like once upon a time, instead of revering him as a near-god, the skit wouldn’t have been funny.

    This cultural attitude is bad for artist as well. Think Bob Dylan and his complaint that “Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything”. Artists should be allowed to change their minds and to hate their earlier stuff. But what they have to say about it shouldn’t be privileged as some sort of definitive evaluation of the product’s worth.

    I think there’s clearly some truth to what the dude is saying in the interview: for many people, real-time action was always the holy grail of developing these sorts of games. And I definitely agree with him that it’s very strange and arbitrary how the “fantasy” (i.e. wizards and elves in the Dark Ages) setting got so closely linked to the RPG gameplay style. So I support the fact that some “fantasy game” afficionados are moving into developing non-RPG games in these settings. But of course, I agree with you that his statements go much too far in ascribing this view to everyone who worked on (or played) old-school RPGs.

    Personally, I think it’s healthy for the computer “RPG” to get deconstructed like this. It’s a weird mishmash of gameplay styles, with elements of turn-based strategy, puzzles, item collection, and so on. I think we’ll see some very interesting games come out the other end of this process, as the value of these different elements is given a more explicit consideration in game design. I would really like it if this movement resulted in a prospective designer of “RPGs” having to stop and ask herself: why elves? why medieval Europe? why dungeons? why fighting? why magical weapons? why treasure collecting? why personal attributes? why experience points? why exploration? why health points? why magical spells? and so on, asking what each contributes to the concept of this specific game, instead of just falling back on “because it’s an RPG”.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Man, I’m steamed up too… What a smarmy little git he is. The interviewer doesn’t help, making it sound like being triple-A is the ideal.

    I’m starting to think the best thing that could happen to the video game industry is another collapse like in ’83.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Picador: Thanks – corrected. I was thinking The Doors, but I somehow wrote The Who. Maybe I was listening to “Behind Blue Eyes” when I wrote that.

    And yeah, I get annoyed when games get mislabeled as “RPGs” just because they are about wizards & elves. The two have had some serious overlap since before the advent of “Personal Computers,” but that’s very different from being synonymous. I’m very cool with non-fantasy-genre RPGs, and likewise quite cool with fantasy games that don’t resemble an RPG. That’s a Good Thing. Just don’t pretend that the action game is the ultimate goal of RPG design.

  • Demiath said,

    I’ve heard the “turn-based systems were only invented because realtime action was not technologically possible at the time” argument many times now, often expressed by very intelligent people trying to make what appears to them a perfectly reasonable and empirically well-founded point. I think they genuinely believe what they say, and simply don’t get how anyone could not consider turn-based combat to be a curiously outdated concept.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Demiath – They are obviously uninformed, as we’ve had action games with “RPG elements” for a long, long time. Go visit CRPG Addict’s blog for some more examples. Somehow these people think Diablo invented the concept. No, like most things Blizzard does, they simply took an existing concept and refined it. But unless you were making an RPG before 1981, the technology excuse doesn’t really hold water. Lots of other people were doing it. No, not in full 3D first-person-perspective normal-mapped glory with voice-overs by B-list actors, but back then the choice of “arcade action” versus “turn-based” was a conscious choice by the developers based on what kind of game they wanted to make, not something dictated by the genre. Same as today.

    And turn-based outdated? Yeah, I’m with you. Bullcrap. It’s a more methodical style of play (but not necessarily by much), and lends itself to more tactical gameplay, but it’s still just as viable – if not MORE SO – in terms of sales as it’s ever been. It’s just that they’ve moved the bar so far that a million sales represents a lackluster performance.

  • Menigal said,

    Like others have said, statements like these really piss me off, and are actually driving me further away from mainstream gaming. How dare they say we should all love the same bland, generic action cutscene.

    If the mindless suits running the industry these days decided to make lower-budget, but “niche” games, they’d probably find they’d be better off in the long run. This would be even more the case if the gaming media would stop their horrible Editorial: “graphics aren’t that important and developers need to learn this”, Review: “The graphics aren’t absolutely cutting edge, FAIL!” crap.

    Years ago, when I decided to escape my thankless old IT career, I had to choose between focusing on game development or archaeology. I find I’m increasingly glad I didn’t go down the gaming route! :p

  • Picador said,

    Just don’t pretend that the action game is the ultimate goal of RPG design.

    But surely you agree that, for some people, it is.

    Look, I share your attachments to many specific RPG gameplay elements that are hard to find in other genres:

    1. I really like playing a game as one or more specific, distinct personalities.
    2. I like these characters to be differentiated from each other and from the universe of other possible characters by choices I make during their development. I don’t like games where a single development strategy is either hardwired or heavily favoured.
    3. I like exploring new spaces, at my own pace, and to be rewarded for this exploration.
    4. I like looking forward to the next reward (level up, treasure etc) because of the developmental choices it will give me.
    5. I like being able to interact with the world (including other people) in some way other than attacking it.
    6. I like my interaction with the world (including combat) to follows the same rules as for character development, i.e. heavily divergent based on my choices. I don’t like a single gameplay or combat style to be hardwired or heavily favoured.

    To the extent that a game that isn’t a pure “RPG” doesn’t have these things, I probably won’t like it all that much. To the extent that it does, I probably will like it. I loved Oblivion because of its encouragement of exploration and its multiple ways of interacting with the world and its inhabitants (even though player characters tend to converge as they level up, rather than diverging, thereby failing tests 2 and 4). I loved Demon’s Souls for its excellent character development, risky and rewarding exploration gameplay, and deep, strategic combat (even though it doesn’t do a great job at test 5). I’m playing Assassin’s Creed 2 right now, and while it fails most of these tests, I’m enjoying it a fair bit simply by virtue of the exploration gameplay and the well-paced leveling-up rewards.

    These are all action games that nonetheless have enough of what I like about RPGs to satisfy me. In many respects, they’re better RPGs (in my book) than something like Dragon Age, which was actually kind of crap for exploration gameplay, and also for non-combat interaction with the world.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the recent crop of RPGs has shown me that “old school”, to the extent that it means anything, isn’t always better in my book. Dragon Age is sort of turn-based, which allows some cool party-based strategic combat. Demon’s Souls is twitchy, but this is layered on top of a combat system that requires you to make complex strategic choices. I much preferred the latter game. While I hate twitchy games as a general rule (I find the combat in most top-10 games to be the most annoying part of their designs), I think it can actually be a great way of ratcheting up tension IF layered properly on top of meaningful player choices made during character development and during the fight itself. The challenge as I see it is for more developers to go the Demon’s Souls route and figure out a way of effectively marrying action gameplay to RPG gameplay, instead of just replacing it wholesale. What this guy is saying in the interview implies that all the RPG elements can just be jettisonned now, because all we ever really wanted since 1977 was Halo with magic swords. That’s obviously wrong as a blanket statement, even if it’s true for some subset of the previous RPG fanbase.

  • Fumarole said,

    Anyone who thinks turn-based has had its day should fire up a game of Frozen Synapse. That game is a great example of how it can be done well.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I don’t believe that there is an “ultimate goal” in RPG design, actually. I want variety. If all RPGs were turn-based tactical affairs, I might get pretty bored with ’em. In fact, circa 1993, that really was the problem with the genre – many of the RPGs were very much alike, but with varying degrees of quality. Fans were a little overwhelmed with too much of the same. It took a game like Diablo (and shortly thereafter, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and Final Fantasy VII) to help focus attention on what else an RPG could be. And for that brief period, it looked like RPGs had broken out of their rut, and we were all going to be treated to an incredible variety of titles that – while not for every RPG fan – were exciting and different.

    But then everybody decided they wanted to be exactly like the latest best-seller. Blah.

  • Greg Tedder said,

    Well said. Closed minded opinions like this make for a boring landscape.

    My preferences are certainly not cooky cutter. My major vg inception was Joust on the 2600, still an awesome game. I played hundreds of action games on my way to FF6 which introduced me to turn based, and I flipped out began to love turn based.

    Now I spend my days in a good mix. About a year ago turn based was my hard core preference, but I now find variety to be the ultimate balance of video gaming fun and interesting.

    So everybody keep making everything, please. 🙂

  • Chance said,

    Oh God, this is my generation’s fault (and I use the term ‘generation’ in the broadest sense). Kids these days only play Call of Duty (cliche, yes), and no one wants to use their imagination, or wait more than thirty seconds for an explosion, or ‘sit through’ the storyline instead of shooting people.

    The worst part is I know people in their forties that only play Call of Duty, and refuse to acknowledge all the good old games out there.

    This may sound dramatic, but I think that ‘gamers that love GAMES’ are a dying breed, and it bums me out.

  • PoV said,

    The thought “what a tool” also ran through my mind as I read that article. I’m convinced there’s a totally awesome middle ground, one we can take the best of both from. Dismissing the history and the creative significance of working within the limits is just dumb.

  • getter77 said,

    Stuff like this reeks of “trying to hard” on top of just being ridiculous.

    Yes kids, Choose Your Own Adventure novels were the first ARPGS—built upon frantic speed reading, snap decisions, and savagely ravenous page turning~

    “Gaming History” thoughts are pretty hilariously off the mark 9/01 times due to the somehow “blinders…ON!” aspect that, “grand evolutions” are a thing actually entertained as a frequent occurrence. Yes…in a mere 30 years time, a blip of a fart versus most aspects of human culture since we came up with semi-systematic ways of doing expressive things. How about…no?

    Gaming doesn’t yet have enough age on it for people to act like Pong and Robotron and Wizardry were the equivalent of the Dark Ages. By and large, past all the suit-beget hype and developers oddly within a bubble and not making any effort to examine the context of things contemporary and otherwise—we’re still very much in the first lap, or at least the first few mile, of a cross country drive. Part of this is myriad hardware issues, part programming languages, part dumb luck of people coming across with a certain take on XYZ.

    The future isn’t about turn based versus realtime, nor is the present, and that certainly wasn’t the elephant in the room in the past. Most RPG trappings came out of P&P/Wargamery…and in general that makes abundant sense given that virtually all the Mythological source material/culture was paper in origin and presentation as opposed to living history back in the day. Strategy is a bit hardwired into mankind in all respects well beyond any other life on the planet—of course there’s a place for reactive and pre-meditated wranglings. That’s freaking reality/science/what begets progress!

    If somebody wants to attempt to spit history on me from up high to denigrate RPGs and basic logic, then they’d best bring their “A Game” as to what exactly their spot in the Pantheon is meant to be and how they are intending to go about it. There’s a world of things nobody has gotten right just yet, really basic things, so it is laughable to think an Ivory Tower has any business being erected on such porous grounds.

    If anything, something as ridiculously blind as this has actually managed to ire me enough towards a bit of further inspiration to get things going better for the lot of everybody. But hey, supposedly all publicity is good publicity right?

    For pity’s sake, I’m only 26 as wasn’t even around, nor had access to the bulk of relevant things—yet even I know much better and semi-humble, yet critical, industriousness is the order of the day.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I’ve heard similar comments about first-person vs. isometric (or other 3rd-person views).

    The argument goes that 1stP is “more immersive” and that 3rd-P/iso/overhead was only used because the technology wasn’t good enough yet.

    Madness when you consider 1st-person RPGs were very popular years back (Eye of the Beholder, Wizardry, Might and Magic to name a few).

  • Charles said,

    Maybe that guy wasn’t around back then, but the turn-based rpgs could very well have been real-time. Thinking back at Gauntlet, Autoduel, or heck, any old platformer it isn’t hard to imagine them with RPG elements like leveling, stats, story & npc interaction. They wouldn’t have been 3D just yet, but it seems to me turn-based was chosen gameplay.

    Wait. Wasn’t Zelda pretty close to an action RPG? And Flight Simulator 1 was fake 3D.

    Maybe I haven’t analyzed enough.

  • Ben Sizer said,

    This is related to a point I made in an essay on my blog yesterday (http://www.ebonyfortress.co.uk/blog/2011/05/the-importance-of-abstraction/) which is that many game developers are, for one reason or another, not interested in ‘games’ per se but are really in the business of making interactive movies or simulations. They don’t aspire to make a classic set of game rules like Chess but to create a compelling sensory experience like the Star Trek holodeck. This is not intrinsically a bad thing, but the danger is that computer entertainment – or at least, the big budget side of it – keeps moving further and further from games in the traditional and abstract sense, meaning we are less likely to improve on our abilities to make such games in the future.

  • UDM said,

    Screw chess, who needs chess? We have Command & Conquer 4 – real-time and streamlining various strategical elements so you get to focus on the tactics instead of getting sidetracked by resource gathering! Evolution!

    Hell if RPGs took a 30 year detour, strategy games must have taken hundreds of years.

  • sascha said,

    Let me put it lightly: That guy is an idiot! A hipster game maker who jumped on the band wagon because developing games is a fad right now. He has no clue about the history of games and how many games were better and much much deeper 15 or 20 years ago. He obviously wants everything to be shallow action shelf ware that lacks even the slightest trace of personality … and I’m sure that’s how his games turn out to be.

  • skavenhorde said,

    I’ll just add my voice to the masses here and say he’s a pretentious jerk.

    I could give a lot of reasons as to why, but I think you guys have covered the basics.

    I’ll just add that I like all types of games from The Sims Medieval to The Witcher 2 to Knights of the Chalice. I play them all for different reasons and enjoyed all of them.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I realized long ago that the game industry makes money mostly by convincing people that the old games are unworthy of their attention and that the newest game is the best one ever. This guy is obviously pimping his new game and is stirring up controversy by bad-mouthing older games. I’m no longer phased by stuff like this. I still enjoy older games, even if someone has an agenda and motivation to say bad things about them.

  • sascha said,

    I recently particularly enjoy older games more than new ones. It seems the more realistic a game appears (hi-end 3D graphics, tons of lip-synced dialogs etc). the more it steals room for my own imagination, the less interesting the game is for me. It all becomes more like watching an interactive Hollywood movie rather than playing a game. Sometimes I like that (that’s why I play CoD:MW) but most of the time such games feel very shallow, especially if they try to hide all the complexity under the hood (if they even have complexity to hide).

  • Demiath said,

    @RampantCoyote Sure, and just to clarify; I was in no way *endorsing* the viewpoint I outlined in a previous comment; I merely confirmed how widespread it indeed is and just how matter-of-factual people seem to be about this questionable theory of the evolution of computer RPGs.

    I likewise get slightly depressed and annoyed whenever I read statements like Finley’s, but if you find yourself arguing about something as fundamental as the writing of history that means you’ve probably already lost. At the end of the day, facts about the past don’t have *that* much relevance for the interests and inclinations of the gaming majority. They like what they like, and, if asked, will inevitably come up with whatever pseudo-historical framework happens to justify their personal preferences. If that framework is destabilized by well-founded criticism from the outside, they may at some point have to dial back their historical revisionism somewhat, but that alone will obviously never change their basic preferences or, by extension, have any discernable effect on what kind of RPGs are actually being made.

    Many of these comments (as well as your own blog posts, of course) do what I think is necessary, however, which is to positively affirm what we like about stats-heavy turn-based RPGs and what makes them worthwile to play.

  • pasmith said,

    The guy is marketing an action game. You expect him to do an interview and talk up how great turn-based gaming is?

    If nXile does a turn-based RPG next, he’ll be doing interviews talking about the depth of immersion that only turn-based combat systems can offer.

    No need to get yourselves all spun up about it.

  • Tesh said,

    I just purchased the X-Com collection two days ago from D2D (yay for $5 sales; $5 for 5 games is one nice thing about being consigned to the rubbish bin of history). I’ve started a new game of the original X-Com… and it’s like going home in a lot of ways. As much as I like some newer games, I’m still a Microprose baby. That’s the gaming style I like, and it saddens me a bit that it seems to have dropped off the map.

    …so much that I’m currently focused on making an X-Com/Civ/Ataxx mashup in my spare time. I’ll probably never get the programming done, as I’m an artist/designer, but I’m doing all I can to nail down the design and art so I can present it as a real pitch/product (tangent: too many business types don’t understand that “concept” isn’t the same thing as “finished product”). Even if it never actually gets made (… sniff…), it’s a lot of fun pondering and refining the game systems.

    Game design… the ultimate turn-based gaming?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Demiath – Yeah, I was just just using your point as a jumping-off place for a tangent.

    But the flip side is that these indie games are becoming more and more unique. As I said above – the mainstream biz is *done* making these kinds of RPGs, which bugs me a little, but I’ve mainly made my peace with it. I do object to their revisionist history – A LOT – but every time that happens, I realize that they are retreating from the battlefield where there’s still much to be gained.

  • Mndrew said,

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; in my view, commercial RPG’s peaked with Might and Magic / Wizardry 8. I have no interest in twitch based real-time combat, period. I’ll not play it, I’ll not buy it, they’ll not get money from me.
    I have no objection to those vast hordes who love the stuff, but I am not one of them.

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  • Zeta Thompson said,

    Um I thought RPGs meant role playing game. That is you play a part or a role in a story? That implies choices need to be made.

    And I seem to remember a port for my old genesis controller on my 386 or maybe was the 486.

    Games where you controlled the character in a fight we called brawlers.

    And I am thinking that maybe this is just another excuse to tout a new product with current buzz words not a huge paradigm shift. (to pull out the old buzzwords.)

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