As I worked to conclude this series that may or may not have been worth writing about, I did start thinking that this had been dragged on for too long. Perhaps I was thinking that while western RPGs were worth talking about at length, the things I’ve mentioned in this series aren’t exactly new information and may even be full of holes. I do admit to those doubts, but I still have to finish what I started.
But then again, there may not be enough of articles and blog posts out there that consolidate facts and observations about this genre, as well as its development. Also, I started writing these as a commentary on an old piece I wrote long ago called The Progression of the Western RPG for a now-defunct gaming website called CheatMasters. Perhaps it was meant to be a learning experience in many ways.
NOTE: My knowledge on this subject is limited to my own first-hand experiences with these games, which may 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.
Of course, that does not take away from the enjoyment that one may take from playing a quality singleplayer computer role playing game. But the most debated catalyst of change in RPGs of recent memory has been the casual gamer. Hasty and tempermental, the casual gamer feels no need to delve deep into lore and doesn’t care any less for whatever sophistication there may be in any ruleset. All he ever wants to do in a game is to kill things and be the hero, so recent releases have made effort in catering to these desires. Various things happen when developers try to please as many people as possible. While profits do increase, certain qualities of these games tend to take a nosedive. However, it’s not right to say that these new games are inferior to their predecessors just because they’re made to have casual gamers be just as excited about them as hardcore RPG fans are. There’s something else going on in the background while more people start to take video games as a serious medium.
Like I said in the first part, I admit that I was being an old fart and a hater when I wrote this paragraph. The casual gaming crowd, no matter how “unschooled” they seem to be with RPGs, are still a valid audience for these games since they still partake in the gaming medium and some may even become RPG fans themselves. Video games are the common gateway for prospective RPG fans to experience more of the genre, and many have since played tabletop games and joined pen-and-paper campaigns since.
RPG fans now come from all walks of life, and they get to share their affinity for role-playing games of various forms whenever they get together, as well as discussing and debating on their experiences and opinions. This made for a renaissance of sorts with RPGs and adventure games so far in this decade, with point-and-click adventure games and isometric RPGs being made with support acquired in Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites.
As for the whole business thing, we might as well accept the fact that it’s what happens to just about anything originally from a niche market being made to target more mainstream audience. Whether it’s dumbed-down gameplay and a crappy ending in Mass Effect 3, cool graphics and lots of meat covering up bugs and janky gameplay mechanics in almost every open world RPG in existence, and anything else that seems to be wrong with popular role-playing titles these days, it seems that there’s no avoiding it at all.
The only good out of it is that there are still a good number of developers and publishers out there that come out with good stuff every now and then. If you don’t believe that, then maybe you should play some Divinity: Original Sin or Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall. Never mind this whole thing about video games not being taken seriously as a medium since it’s a freight train that can’t be stopped at this point, even with so-called destructive forces that cynics and skeptics like to point to these days.
The games that try to be casual from the get go are split into two, which are those that are good because they’re casual to begin with and those that are made casual forcefully, despite being in a genre that takes a bit more attention for more than just a quick playthrough. If you take an RPG and make it for casual fans to begin with and not just for the express purpose of making it more palatable, then perhaps we do have a problem. There have been games that may have had potential in their premise, but have suffered greatly due to the influence of people who want it to be profitable and easy to begin with. Quality titles nowadays are both casual-friendly and sophisticated at the same time.
The terminology I used here isn’t really the best. I was just taking what was happening lately in the gaming world at face value, disregarding the cause as to why old brands get turned into temporary cash cows later on. RPGs being made casual isn’t a sin to begin with; there should be nothing wrong with wanting to expand one’s audience, despite haters seeing it as “selling out” and “not staying true to their fans.”
Perhaps it’s true, but it’ll take more than just that to have those people working in those companies continue to clock in every single day and bring paychecks home. But then again, most of the time and money that could go into development gets wasted in all the bureaucratic red tape they have to go through, which is actually a disease that constitutes for most of the mishaps with AAA releases, as we have learned in recent years.
The most prominent example of a good RPG title being turned into manure in an effort to capture the casual market is Electronic Arts remaking Dungeon Keeper into an atrocious freemium mobile title, which was obviously as big of a travesty as a video game can get. That decision was most likely swayed by a pie chart with the largest slice labeled “mobile freemium market” in big bold letters, and the members of the board stroked their chins and made loud “hmm” noises before nodding their heads in unison at the idea.
Fair enough that they made a game that way, but they had to pick out an old title and perhaps thought, “No one remembers this, so let’s use it.” This killed Mythic like how chefs kill lobster by plunging a knife through the top of its thorax and bisecting the head in one forceful motion. The only difference is that lobster can be turned into delicious food, while Mythic continues to be mourned its demise.
As for quality titles being both casual-friendly and sophisticated at the same time, that’s basically what Bioware has been doing lately. As for games with RPG-like mechanics, MOBAs are basically mini-RPGs with PvM and PvP combat in 40-minute bursts. Since it’s now the most-played genre as of this writing, it has pushed RPG mechanics to the mainstream and even the most casual of gamers now know what levels, stats, and skills are, and they know the difference between health and mana.
Those games have become the gateway to deeper RPG experiences, along with JRPGs and more recent Japanese titles that feature action-oriented gameplay that are tied together with RPG mechanics like the Dark Souls and Monster Hunter series. I would also like to point out Minecraft — one of the biggest gaming phenomenon of this generation — being a major item in this category as well. I speak from personal observations; my nephew (13 as of this writing) is a big Minecraft and League of Legends fan, and he also reads fantasy novels.
(I may also be missing a whole slew of games that could fit here, but I’ve already talked out of my own ass throughout this commentary to begin with. In a way, this is intended to only scratch the surface to give people who may become interested in going deeper that much-needed push.)
In the end, it really is about quality of the gameplay experience that truly counts. Perhaps some may still complain about certain things like replay value and cohesiveness, but game design has never been a clear cut science to begin with. As it evolves, so will role playing games.
The term “gameplay experience” denotes subjectivity and nuance. What could be the best gameplay experience for one person may not be the same as someone else. For instance, an older gamer may fondly remember Baldur’s Gate, while a younger gamer may think that’s boring but also revere Mass Effect as the greatest RPG of all time. I may be breaking balls with that example, but it does illustrate subjectivity among RPG fans somehow.
Perhaps the only thing in computer role-playing games that has not changed much is how branching dialogue works in conjunction with the narrative. Most of the basics came from old adventure games and the formula has stayed relatively the same. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; the reason why it hasn’t changed that much is because it works. It goes way back to stuff like the Choose Your Own Adventure books that was briefly discussed in the first part of this commentary.
Of course, what helps improve it is having characters actually talk to each other like in more recent Bioware games such as Dragon Age and Mass Effect and less like in their older titles like Neverwinter Nights. It’s effective at bridging the gap between the player and the in-game world, but this also means more character animations and voice acting, which take a whole lot of work that only AAA developers can do with bigger budgets and access to top-tier talent.
Ben “Yahtsee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation on The Escapist Magazine wrote a blog post on this very subject, suggesting motion capture as the logical next step towards making character dialogue cutscenes even more engaging. Big companies should be able to pull it off with their deep pockets.
As for indies, they can stick to old-school text dialogue since they still work anyway. JRPGs are constant proof of that concept, and recent WRPGs like Shadowrun Returns and Divinity: Original Sin make use of them to good effect as well. Other than that, it’s still pretty much talking heads for the most part, so either developers keep it basic or make use of literal talking heads like in Fallout 1 and 2.
This act of writing about past articles with the benefit of hindsight still looks good to me, but I may have gone overboard by having three separate parts for one commentary. But then again, it does give me more material for this website, which means I get to post more. Perhaps I should work on refining the format and have something that doesn’t take as much time to finish and won’t be as long as this one has become.
It was still fun to write about, although I don’t know if it’s a fun read at all. I could definitely use some input here, so please leave suggestions and constructive criticism below in the comment section or send me a message through email or social media. Thank you very much.