Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Devolution Revolution

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

  • WCG said,

    Great post. I especially like your distinction between evolution (as used in the gaming industry) and expansion.

  • Aelfric said,

    Well said, as usual, and I could not agree more. In fact, your post on the old gold box games the other day got me thinking about Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor. The game is near universally reviled, and I think, for good reason. But as I played and became more and more disillusioned, I couldn’t help thinking, “Holy heavens! Imagine if they’d just remade the old Pool of Radiance with all these bells and whistles and options!” And I swooned in my own mind a bit. (Note, the Temple of Elemental Evil game was a lot closer to what I wanted, but still a bit flawed). So, this is a roundabout way of saying I think you’re absolutely right, and wish the games industry, and RPGs in particular, could learn not to slavishly follow the past nor blindly reject it (with apologies to the Hegelian dialectic), but take the best of what was and combine it with what’s now possible. And, as you note, I think that’s where indies really shine. If they rubbed off a bit on the super huge publishers, I think it would be better for everyone. Thanks, and happy Friday!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – well, I DO have a modest solution:

    Now, it’s completely improper to say that mainstream dudes do it for money, and the indies do it for love. That’s completely false. I know most of the people at the development level in mainstream studios really are passionate about what they do (if perhaps misguided), and most indies are looking to monetize well enough that they could keep doing the indie-thing full-time.

    But what really gets the mainstream business moving is the dollar. Did you see how quickly they piled onto XBox Live Arcade once a handful of near-launch titles made bank? Have you seen how EA and other companies charged after Facebook-style “social” games? When they smell success and money to be made, they move.

    So the answer is simple. Pick some indie RPGs you like (*cough*like Frayed Knights, soonishly…*cough*) and get a LOT of people to buy them. If these old-school indie games start making serious dollars (publicly), you’d better believe the mainstream industry marketing types will “sense” another “shift in the markets” and figure out a brand new way to “evolve the genre” in a way that (makes more money).

    Heh. That wasn’t a self-serving recommendation at ALL, was it? 🙂

    But seriously – vote with your wallet.

  • Geoff Dunbar said,

    Great post Coyote.

    Just to quibble a little, I remember (possibly incorrectly) the “Death of the RPG!” history a little differently than you. That talk peaked in the mid nineties, when Ultima 8, Daggerfall, and Fallout ruled the roost. All were disappointing to some degree (sales, certainly); the first 2 had major flaws and Fallout was pretty niche. The question was whether RPGs could survive the transition to Windows 95, 3D graphics, and multiplayer. Then Diablo and Baldur’s Gate came along and proved that RPGs were OK after all.

    Note also that the “RPGs are dead!” talk wasn’t necessarily sensationalist at the time either; the “Adventure Games are dead!” and “Space sims are dead!” talk turned out pretty accurate.


  • WhineAboutGames said,

    he “Adventure Games are dead!” and “Space sims are dead!” talk turned out pretty accurate.

    I don’t pay much attention to the mainstream reviews anymore, but I used to snark about how every single review of an adventure game on the mainstream gaming sites led off with a paragraph about it being a dead genre… despite the fact that they were reviewing MORE new adventure games per year than a lot of other things!

  • Bad Sector said,

    Probably “dead” for them means they don’t have the graphics and production values (or, actually, costs) that some other genres have, not that they aren’t made anymore.

    I’m sure many developers and gamers (indies/indie friendly or not) will tell you that text adventures are dead even if a massive number of them is still being made.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Yeah, but with text adventures it’s mostly true that they aren’t being sold. There are a rare few that are, but they don’t turn up in walmart like the new graphical adventures do. Commercially, pretty much dead, though the art form goes on.

  • Wavinator said,

    Excellent article (although your hamburger parody was a home run too, and quite deserved).

    I think the wide acceptance of RPG-like features in non-RPG games is a major factor in these calls for RPGs to “evolve.” When you have a financially successful game like GTA sporting upgradeable stats, it may only be natural to look at the feature set of RPGs to see what else might be adopted/pilfered. This, I think, in turn puts a downward pressure on RPGs to then be more like the now “RPG-lite” action or sim or time-management games that obviously have a much wider audience.

    I thought for a time that, like the inclusion of story in so many genres today, adopting RPG features for non-RPG games was an attempt to imbue these games with deeper meaning. Upgradeable stats, inventory, shopping, NPC conversations, etc. all seem to contribute to a sense of a more tangible, concrete virtual world– which is basically what you need if you want to feel as if your actions really matter. (Contrast to Doom or space invaders, where it’s just another level.)

    But honestly, I don’t know. It may be more of this cynical Skinner Box operant conditioning crap that seems to be behind the sudden popularity of features like grinding and “achievement unlocked!” Or it may just be more of the the marketing-driven game design you cite.

    The downward pressure can be enormous– after all, evolution implies extinction and who wants to be that? But the only way to evade it that I can see is to have conviction in what you’re building. You have to look past the doom and gloom and remind yourself that people are still buying hamburgers.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Dunbar – Fallout came out in ’97, around the same time as Final Fantasy 7 and Diablo, and a little before Baldur’s Gate. But around ’93 or ’94 (I can’t recall), a bunch of franchises – including Ultima – were really starting to fail. SSI had some really lame (or at least poorly-selling) games once the Gold Box and Eye of the Beholder series had run their course. Ultima 8 was largely a disappointment. The Elder Scrolls: Arena had made some waves and showed promise, but it wasn’t quite “Teh Awesome” yet. Mindcraft crumbled.

    So the stalwarts of the industry, who had previously been relied upon to push out two to four killer RPGs each year, weren’t cutting it anymore, and nobody else had yet stepped up to the plate on the PC.

    I know from my little corner of the industry, the general doom-and-gloom about the genre had pretty much become self-fulfilling prophecy. When we talked to Infogrammes about the possibility of doing an RPG in the late 90’s, we were told in no uncertain terms by the VP we spoke to that they felt the “market for RPGs” no longer existed of sufficient size. We were wondering if the guy had bothered to check the top 20 games list lately.

    Funny how they changed tunes only a couple years later, under the new brand name “Atari.”

  • Geoff Dunbar said,

    Look at that, you’re right! I’m not sure why I thought Fallout was in that same dead zone in the mid nineties.

    It’s a real shame about Ultima. Ultima 8 came out 2 years after Ultima 7, 17 years ago. In an alternate universe, I wouldn’t mind playing Ultima 16 today, the culmination of years of story and engine improvements from Ultima 7.


  • Calibrator said,

    Seeing, that most of what comprises Ultima 9 has been re-made and re-sold under the names “Gothic” or “Witcher” I don’t see much in the way of progress, except graphically of course.

    Mainstream is a bitch.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think I’m going to use that last sentence as a catchphrase from here on out, Calibrator.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – if only somebody would somehow buy or license the Ultima franchise from EA. And use it for something BESIDES an upscale Evony clone.

  • Calibrator said,

    > I think I’m going to use that last sentence as a catchphrase from here on out, Calibrator.

    By all means!

    > Heh – if only somebody would somehow buy or license the Ultima franchise from EA. And use it for something BESIDES an upscale Evony clone.

    Ultima – The iPad-Edition


  • Alex said,

    Great articl).

    I think the wide acceptance of RPG-like features in non-RPG games is a major factor in these calls for RPGs to “evolve.” When you have a financially successful game like GTA sporting upgradeable stats, it may only be natural to look at the feature set of RPGs to see what else might be adopted/pilfered. This, I think, in turn puts a downward pressure on RPGs to then be more like the now “RPG-lite” action or sim or time-management games that obviously have a much wider audience.

    Best regards,
    Diablo 3 barbarian skills