The State of RPGs


There is an ongoing and debatable list of RPG games that have shaped the face of gaming.  When flipping back through the history of RPGs it’s hard not to see how so many of those titles have influenced the way our games are played now.  You can’t even pick up a shooter or a fighting game without experiencing those beloved “RPG elements.”  It seems like so many of the games we play today are blurring the lines between genres.  So what does this say about the RPG genre?  Is it dead, or simply reforming under new rules?  What defines an RPG?  Where will the RPG go from here?

A recent discussion on Game Informer’s, “Gamer Gorilla Radio” highlights some opinions about where the RPG genre is today and where it is going; one statement even poses the idea that RPGs are dead.  While I do believe that this may be a little harsh, I can see how this genre is spreading itself thin over too many pieces of bread.  This discussion sparked an interest in me to research and find some answers to the exact same question.  I have found that RPGs sit on very shaky ground, and it’s very hard to nail down a true definition of what that genre should contain.  It has been split into so many different pieces that it’s barely recognizable by itself.  Due to these circumstances, I feel that it’s best to start out by reviewing the important game elements of RPGs.

Game Elements

Before you can understand the state of RPGs today, you must have some insight to some of the game elements that are important in RPGs.

Story/Plot:  If you are a designer, you have to attempt to give the player a story that has depth.  Not all games have great stories, and that is understandable.  If every game could produce a story as engrossing as Chrono Trigger then you would have to find a new story to consider great.  But that doesn’t take away from the fact that a game with a story that lacks depth can’t be considered an RPG.  The genre is hinged on this element and is therefore necessary.

Choices: There must be some form of choice that the player has to, or can, make.  This element is essential because without choices there is no role-playing, and you are simply following a preset path.  Choices can come in the form of stat building, story decisions, or even in dialogue.  One strong example of choices in dialogue is Mass Effect 2.  ME2 gives you the opportunity, on many occasions, to make choices in your response to what another person says.  These dialogue options are well thought out and shape the game in a way that very few, if any, games have been able to achieve.

A Role to Play: This is the exact reason why it’s called a role-playing game, it must give the player a role to play in the game.  You can’t simply play as the static character in a game.  In some way you must be given the option to tweak your character and effectively change them by the end of the game.  This can be presented in stats, story, or choices.

Battle System: No matter the style, a battle system is an important thing in an RPG because it’s probably what you will spend the majority of the time dealing with.  Japanese RPGs tend to lean towards a turn-based style of battle system that forces the player to “wait their turn” before attacking again.  Western RPGs usually have an active time battle system that factors in a “cool-down” period before attacking again.  Action RPGs usually let you attack freely with very little constraints; one example of this would be The Legend of Zelda.  Whether it’s turn-based or active time, an RPG must have an approach to battle.

Skill/Character Development: Great RPGs can be made without the use of stat building, but it’s rare to run across a pure RPG that doesn’t. Stat building and character development comes in many forms and fashions; one form is through levels in which you gain experience and level-up to add on more power, defense, etc. You could bypass stats altogether and focus on building the character through choices alone, this usually isn’t the way that it’s done, but it is an option. A great example of this is Crackdown.

The Current State of RPGs

The RPG landscape is changing in a dramatic way from what it used to be back in the 80’s and 90’s.  Even popular franchises like Final Fantasy are changing in ways that most fans aren’t used to.  Though it may seem that RPGs are losing their flare, the elements appear to be staying intact through other genres.

Taking a look through the list of RPG elements above helps one to realize that they have infiltrated our games.  Every disc you pop into your console or PC seems to allow you to customize your character’s attributes, or give you a skill tree to climb down.  Take a game like Borderlands for instance, it is a classic first-person shooter with elements scattered throughout that allow you to customize clothing colors, or choose from a large list of quests that you can tackle at your own whim.  There are also 61 character levels (thanks to DLC) that you can work through, and each level rewards you with a stat point to use in growing your skill tree.

Take another game like Modern Warfare 2, very easily the most played game these days, which has these same elements scattered throughout the entire multiplayer experience.  Kill your enemies, get points, level-up, and get more weapons and useful perks.  Your rank is noted by an emblem along with level number so you can compare yourself against your friends and enemies.

Still not convinced?  How about Farmville; a simple game about planting crops and growing a farm is littered with enough RPG elements to make you think you were playing a Square-Enix game.  Once again, you plant your crops, harvest your crops, get experience, and gain levels.  Gaining more levels opens up more items for purchase.

So what does this say about RPGs?  Are they becoming watered down?  The Japanese RPGs that were so popular in the mainstream world have appeared to be falling to the way side to make room for the elaborate worlds of Western RPGs.  Games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age: Origins are taking the place of Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and the popular titles from the 90’s.  On top of it all, the elements that make these games unique are being stolen and used in other genres.  Where are RPGs headed?

The Future of RPGs

The future is uncertain for these story driven games, but one thing is certain, they can not stay the same.  In a world where new innovations are constantly being made, RPGs can’t afford to sit idle and expect to cash in on old material.  Luckily, western RPGs are already changing in order to meet the demand of their audience.  It appears that Japanese RPGs on the other hand, have made very few strides to revitalize their genre.  You could even say that nostalgia is killing the genre.

So what do developer’s need to do in order to keep JRPGs alive?

Innovate

You can look back over their years of popularity and see that JRPGs have a successful formula.  There’s no denying that the typical story that Final Fantasy tells, or the battle system employed by Dragon Quest are great elements that fans desire, but they are in great need of innovation.  What that will take is hard to say, but Final Fantasy XIII’s new contemporary battle system could be a great milestone and benchmark for other JRPG developers.

Telling a more intriguing and dynamic story, or breaking away from linearity are both great ways for Japanese role-playing games to innovate, and are probably the most crucial changes that need to be made.  The terrible dialogue translation, and cheesy one-liners and fist pumps, are plaguing the genre and need to be changed more than anything.

The way that the Mass Effect series has innovated story telling through deep character interactions is a testament to how western RPGs are flourishing and JRPGs are suffering.  In order to keep playing Japanese developers must take hints from their western counterparts and innovate.

Update

The typical setting for a JRPG is a fantasy world covered with lush scenery, dream-like monsters, and zany, over-the-top characters.  This setting is in serious need of an update.  While that fantasy setting doesn’t need to be ditched altogether, it does need to be put to rest for a short period while developers find other settings and character types to explore.  Perhaps a modern setting with modern enemies could be a interesting place to start.

Linearity is not a bad thing, but too much of anything can be bad.  JRPGs have a problem with sticking too close to linearity.  While there appears to be a sense of being able to do whatever you want, most games are more linear than you might imagine.  The anti-linearity of Fallout 3 has been a success for western role-playing games, and is a clear example of how Bethesda has updated their formula.  It wouldn’t hurt a JRPG to give the open-world a try.

Blood, Gore… What more could you ask for?

The Verdict

RPGs are probably more popular than ever.  With so many games borrowing gameplay elements from the RPGs we have loved for so long, it’s only a matter of time before casual gamers start looking for more depth.

Western RPGs have a bright future ahead.  The recent success of Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Dragon Age: Origins, are prime examples of where the genre is headed.  Japanese role-playing games, on the other hand, are dying, but not dead.  The favorite console games of the 80s and 90s are still great, but need a little more than updated graphics.  Innovating and updating the genre is a must for Japanese developers if they want to stay in the game and keep fans from removing their loyalty.

So keep that chin up Japan, there’s still room in our hearts for your wacky hairstyles and bizarre clothing.  We won’t give up on you if you won’t give up on us.

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