Exactly a year ago, I posted the first part of a commentary on an old article I did for a gaming website (CheatMasters) called The Progression of the Western RPG. After all this time, I now continue my commentary with some new insight, which is perhaps my main excuse other than procrastination for taking so long to post this.
The first part was mostly about the basics and classic assumptions when it comes to the WRPG genre, which then shapes how most people see role-playing games in general. Gamers during the 90’s and 2000’s (and maybe late 80’s) who had not played tabletop and/or pen-and-paper RPGs before or rarely so then develop a general sense of what RPGs are supposed to be, much of which have since changed quite a bit.
There has since been a renaissance of sorts for role-playing games, with people playing pen-and-paper RPGs over Skype and shows on YouTube showcasing the tabletop games of yesteryear being enjoyed today. They have also showed people of this day and age how role-playing games came about and the the different directions that the whole genre has taken compared to the video games.
This second part is more on looking at newer games that are changing the way we see Western RPGs and how it’s also fusing with elements from Eastern RPGs and coming up with new gameplay experiences altogether, as well as what we can expect in the foreseeable future.
NOTE: I admit that my knowledge on this subject is limited to my own first-hand experiences with these games, which is not as extensive as that of some people who have been playing a lot more games than I have. However, I do feel that my journey in this whole thing is worth writing about, and I would like to know what other people think about it.
Please read the first part before proceeding to better understand the context of this commentary.
What the first person school tries to get across is the direct experience of “role playing” at its very essence, being one with the character and interacting with NPCs and enemies “as the character”. As for combat, it’s no longer just about clicking on enemies to take them out, but actually incorporating skill and intelligence in part of the player himself to engage the enemy as optimally as possible. If other mechanics like stealth and ranged attacks are called upon, the first person perspective offers certain advantages and challenges that offer a different experience from the classical isometric perspective.
At this point, even I have to concede that the combat in most first-person action role-playing games is not that good. The weight of weapon swings in melee isn’t translated very well in them; other games like Dark Souls and Chivalry have done better. But then again, those two games are third-person games, and you may be able to do better in Skyrim if you switch to third-person mode. So perhaps it’s just the inherent problems with the first-person perspective when it comes to melee combat.
Perhaps the Dark Souls games has become the bridge between the gaps in this discussion. I’m no where near experienced enough with the Souls series to really give a thorough analysis, but it has become so big that I have to bring it up. It has WRPG trappings from visuals to its combat, but it was made by a Japanese developer. It can be said that the Souls series, and perhaps others like it such as Monster Hunter and Dragon’s Dogma, bring the RPG genre in a full circle around the world.
We live in quite a time when western developers like Bioware are actively bringing WRPGs to consoles, while Japanese developers like From Software are making games that emulate their western counterparts and actually succeed in being better than anything people have seen thus far. Perhaps I have to play more of those games in order to better understand how they fit in all of this, so the aforementioned statements regarding them are mostly observations at best.
Other than that, we still have the more traditional top-down action role-playing games based from the Diablo formula. Some of the more prominent examples as of this writing are Diablo III and Path of Exile, the latter of which is being continually developed by New Zealand-based Grinding Gear Games. I don’t know if they’re good examples since each has its own flaws and problems, but there are still a lot of people out there who play them. I had already talked about top-down ARPGs for a bit in the first part.
These debates all come down to what various groups of people think about the priorities being undertaken by game developers. Old schoolers feel that gameplay has taken a backseat for aesthetics, while the new generation feel that these old timers are frowning upon innovation and experimentation. Whether you’re on one side or the other, the only real thing we can take from this is that we like good RPGs. Whatever we give for a good role playing game must pay dividends in gameplay experience, and that’s really what matters most in the end.
It’s the classic battle between flash and substance, which is a non-debate in my book. There is no real issue here since role-playing can and is supposed to take multiple forms anyway. This is more of a fight between complexity and convenience; having to roll dice and writing stats down versus being able to see everything right there on the screen. It’s not often you see gamers who have true affinity for both and no bias for either, and even fewer still enjoy both with equal fervor to this day.
The newer generations may not be aware of the text adventures and early role-playing games that constantly battled with the storage size limitations and other technological constraints of their time. But even then, stat-tracking and other usually tedious processes were done automatically, letting players focus on other aspects of the game. Characters and settings are made manifest through graphics and sound design, letting them come to life and be memorable in define form for many more years to come. The adventures you may have gone through years ago can be replayed with expectations of most elements being mostly similar since it’s still the same game.
In comparison, adventures partaken in tabletop role-playing games are remembered mostly through anecdote. You can play the same campaigns again, but the story will most likely be told differently from last time. But there are more possibilities with them due to the main engine of role-playing being imagination and requiring other people to play with. DMs can do things like punish mindless min-maxing while players can be creative with their solutions to problems without being constrained by limitations of programming and of the video game medium itself.
If there is only room for one, then maybe there’s no real point to being excited about RPGs anymore since there would only be one “true” way to role-play. That’s not even including live action role-playing (LARPing) that takes it even further in terms of striving for a “realistic” experience, throwing ping-pong balls as lightning bolts notwithstanding. The variety of forms and the diversity in experiences are what give role-playing its depth and flavor.
So whenever you see a guy who moans about how bad Fallout 3 or Oblivion really was and how games like Baldur’s Gate and Arcanum are no longer made, you should understand that he may have a point but he’s wasting too much time criticizing new games than taking time to find a way to enjoy them as new releases pave way to new ways to play role playing games “digitally”. The same can be said for whipper snappers who blow a raspberry at older games that don’t look as good as what they’re growing up with in this day and age, only caring about games with “awesome graphics”. In terms of singleplayer experiences, there is always a finite amount of replay value in even the most well-made of role playing games. Perhaps they should then look towards an online option for their gaming needs. This is where MMORPGs come in to provide replay value that is virtually unlimited.
I think I had already said enough about the non-debate at this point, but I did mention MMORPGs. This particular genre brings about a different level of involvement, which is all the grinding and long hours of participation necessary to engage and maintain a high level of involvement. It’s a different kind of role-playing for serious MMORPG players wherein their place in the game becomes a major part of their reality. I myself had been that serious with an MMO when I played Ragnarok Online semi-competitively from May 2003 to January 2006.
I’ve talked about World of Warcraft already in the first part, and it’s still the stalwart of this sub-genre. Its fifth and most recent expansion (as of this writing), Warlords of Draenor, appealed to both casual and hardcore players and helped WoW surpass 10 million subscribers. Throughout its dominance for over a decade, competitors and rivals came and went, from the demise of titles like Warhammer: Age of Reckoning to the failings of The Elder Scrolls Online. There are players who have invested several years of their lives in WoW, with some coming back every now and then and a few having never left at all.
You can click this link to see many of the MMOs that came and went over time. South Korea, in particular, churned out all of these half-finished games, many of which had tons of potential but were never given more attention beyond its revenue-generating capacity. Playing Korean MMOs is an exercise in getting familiar with the concept of transcience since there is definitely no guarantee that a title will last or even stay fun after a few months. However, there are exceptions like how Ragnarok Online was for me.
EVE Online is a role-playing game; it ticks all the basic RPG boxes, even though it may not seem to be an RPG that most people would recognize. It’s perhaps the only MMO that has existed longer than World of Warcraft and stayed on top of its game for just as long, and the reason why WoW hasn’t crushed it is because EVE caters to a different kind of audience altogether. You play the role of someone with a ship in space who can choose from different career paths in order to build his own success in the vast expanse of the EVE universe.
There are also the Guild Wars series and many other titles that have somehow survived past the peak of MMO dominance in the market, either they’re free-to-play or pay-to-play. There are also those in-between freemium titles that have pay-to-win options, which had been disgusting back then and are still so now. Games like Path of Exile profess in having “ethical microtransactions” that sell real-money items that only cosmetic. MOBAs like League of Legends have taken upon the same formula as well, which accounts for a big chunk of Riot Games’ revenue from their free-to-play game.
I remember a lot of those games I’ve either played or encountered in gaming cafes here in Manila. These days, MMOs have been overtaken by MOBAs in these establishments, and whatever else becomes the trend afterwards will be beyond me at this point onward since I no longer visit gaming cafes regularly like I used to. Maybe I’ll talk about my experiences in those places and the games I played sometime in the future.
Certain problems and challenges still hinder MMORPGs complete dominance of the mainstream market. While games like World of Warcraft has raked in unprecedented sums through quality and consistency, classical role playing elements seem to be lacking in these newfangled games. What they do have over their singleplayer counterparts is the ability to communicate and interact with other players, breaking the barriers between the so-called nerd and the outside world. All of a sudden, we’re seeing video game nerds with a pretty good amount of social skills, or at least enough to interact with fellow players through chat or VOIP. That’s contrary now to the classical image of a nerd, and this is bound to continue with the innovations that may take place in MMORPGs in the coming years.
This paragraph looked like I wrote it back in the mid-2000’s since it would actually be a revelation back then. But nowadays, it’s common knowledge that many gamers are far from socially-inept (maybe socially anxious, but still have pre-requisite skills to socially function). Voice chat isn’t new, and many gamers use TeamSpeak, Mumble, and similar programs for their gaming all the time. But MMOs and other online multiplayer games are not the only ones that requires social engagement; tabletop gaming has been the epitome of social gameplay for the longest time.
You can watch videos like Spoony’s Counter Monkey that tells stories of pen-and-paper role-playing adventures, wherein you’ll see how various problems and perilous scenarios were dealt with, as well as the different strategies and tactics that are possible. Many of those tricks and fundamentals are based from understanding of psychology and social dynamics, so having lots of first-hand experience in social situations can actually help with playing pen-and-paper RPGs.
With MMOs, there’s the ever-present option of interacting with other players and actively deciding your own level of involvement with them. But with tabletop games, you always play with other people right there alongside you, so the dynamic is very different from that in MMOs. Whatever freedom and bravado that Internet anonymity and isolation gives you in MMOs are not as present in the tabletop setting, unless you’re crazy and have a penchant for being an asshole to everyone.
To Be Concluded
There are three paragraphs left, so the third part should be shorter than these first two. I opted to split it up some more since this part got pretty long and those last few paragraphs tackle other aspects of the subject, and there should also be a conclusion to wrap everything up. I also plan to post some of my other past editorials that were published on CheatMasters (since they’re planning to close down sometime in early 2015).
If there are erroneous or problematic statements written here, then please feel free to leave a comment about it. I would like to know what you think and feel about role-playing games, as well as what you’d like to see in the future.