Tag Archives: RPG

Pop-Gaming – We Asked For It

It’s high time I discussed the phenomenon that is sweeping the video game realm. I’ve avoided it so far – mostly because I want to pretend like it’s not there – but I can’t help but see it creeping into my daily life. What started out as mere curiosity has become a huge part of my gaming life, and I can’t imagine it subsiding anytime soon. My will may be strong, but as more people are embracing this paradigm shift I find it hard to avoid. The phenomenon I’m referring to is “Pop-Gaming”.

At first glance, you might decide to bash the Pop-Gaming market, and complain about how Farmville has given many people a false idea of gaming; or how Prince of Persia should have never been a movie. A closer look will reveal that this is what we’ve been demanding all along, but we never expected it to come to this.

As many people spent the 90s sitting at home, playing hardcore games alone in their basements, they experienced the judging glares and condescending comments of pretentious detractors. These gamers quickly began to demand respect and understanding of their hobby while politicians accused their beloved Mortal Kombat, and other “violent” video games as the core reason for high school shootings and the like. As time has progressed, people have slowly dropped the misconceptions and are taking an interest in our hobby. What started out as a misunderstanding and a “waste of time”, has shifted to curiosity and respect for this thing we call video gaming.

When I think about this shift, thoughts drift into visions of game-related novels, movie adaptations, Farmville junkies, and masochistic little birds with a hankering for pork. These images are enough to make a JRPG fan go nuts and begin slandering these wannabes. My initial reaction was very similar, but as I see these mediums begin to permeate the world outside of hot, sweaty dungeon-crawling warlords, I started to realize that hardcore gamers have very little reason to complain.

Take World of Warcraft, it contains what appears to be a niche market; but how niche can 12 million players be? You may have started out on the ground floor of this MMO movement, but you’ve opened the gates and happily welcomed your friends. You showed them around, got them a glass of wine, and displayed grade A hospitality; but by the time you turned around, the entire room was filled with people. Now you are upset all because you forgot to close the door.

There has been a large movement into the realm of MMOs recently. Leaders of free-to-play games such as Nexon, have paved the road and found ways to convince normal people to pour hundreds of hours and dollars into an endless grind. That market is getting bigger, and as more companies jump on board we will see more people losing their time to the micro-transaction model.

How about first person shooters? How many of you spent countless hours in front of a computer screen with Unreal Tournament, fragging your friends and scoffing at those who just couldn’t understand why you thought that could be fun. Now the tables have turned. You complain because some of the same people who laughed at you then, have all but sold their soul to Call of Duty. It’s a fight that you’ve fought for so many years, but you never thought it would come to this.

We were the ones who wrote blog and forum posts demanding respect from unreasonable parents and conservative politicians, who said that shooting and fighting games were the leading cause of juvenile violence. We fought, and continue to fight, in fear of losing our precious games, and the battle is slowly being won. We proudly wore our Legend of Zelda t-shirts and honorably display our allegiance to the Horde and the Alliance. The floodgates have burst open and we now stare in disbelief at the wave of support we’ve ushered in.

Every movie, book, cellphone or Facebook game that comes out is not bad, but I can understand the frustration when you watch your favorite genres or series get watered down with under-par content. What was once a labor of love has slowly been loosed from the grip of the video game forefathers, altered, and injected into the mainstream of America. Now corporations have seen ways to make additional profit off of our favorite games and have all but forced us to support them.

We can’t blame anyone but ourselves. No matter how much we think that motion controls are ruining the core experience, or cell phones and Facebook have inaccurately inducted business men and stay-at-home moms into the gamer category, we supported the development of our current predicament. If you feel like the issue has gotten out of hand, but you aren’t quite sure what to do about it, then I have one thing to say…VOTE.

“How,” you might ask. With your money. You may be able to get your comrades to support your antics by posting on forums about how much pop-gaming should die, but you aren’t going to affect the decision makers unless you refuse to buy their product. If Angry Birds is ruining your gaming feng shui, then don’t “accidentally” download it and get caught up in the addicting gameplay. If you have to choose between Prince of Persia and Bride’s Maids, then go with the latter…though, at that point, you may have a completely different problem on your hands.

You could, of course, choose to support this change. It’s not all bad. In fact, I find the new shift to be quite the stimulator for the industry. As revenue continues to pour in from the pop-gaming market, we will see funds shift to develop higher powered consoles that can hit the market at more affordable prices. Expect to see the Wii U announced with a fairly low price point, due to the astronomical financial success of the Wii. There’s a lot of good that social, mobile and motion-control gaming can do to support hardcore gamers. Plus, Angry Birds is just plain fun.

At the least, don’t forget the role you’ve played in making pop-gaming a reality; even you have made some bad judgment calls. So, dismount your self-constructed throne of conceit, uncover your hidden stash of Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat films, and face the facts…you’re a Pop-Gamer.

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Mass Effect 2 Is Overrated.

When Mass Effect dropped in we were amazed at the experience that BioWare had presented to us.  We may have had a few gripes with the way combat was handled, or the complicating and tedious inventory system, but we were very satisfied with the world that had been created.  When Mass Effect 2 was announced and we were told that our end game save was important to the way we would experience the new adventure we wet our pants…or that was just me.  No game had successfully pulled off this mechanic, and if BioWare could tether our Mass Effect experience to our Mass Effect 2 experience, then surely this game would be the greatest we had ever played.

Sure enough, the game hit in January and many gamers, including myself, haven’t looked back since.  It was the best game I had played that year, and I seemed content to let it have that title for as long as 2010 was here.  Then Gamasutra recently posted their top 10 games of the year, and I was shocked to find that Mass Effect 2 was number 9 and was considered inferior to Bayonetta.  I thought, “Are you kidding me?  Here goes another group of cult followers who refuse to pick the ‘popular’ game.”  Then to my surprise, after reading up on their evaluation of Mass Effect 2, it struck me that maybe I was giving the game a lot more credit than it deserved.  Perhaps we all are.

What are your greatest assets?

There is absolutely no denying that Mass Effect 2 has an engrossing world, with complex characters, worlds, and story.  There are few games that know how to flesh out the characteristics of multiple races, and none of them do it quite as well.  When I walk up to a Krogan I know what to expect; he will be hot tempered, slow to trust, and strong.  A Turian will likely not trust me because humans are a newer race and haven’t earned much respect.  I also know that I’m going to be given a complex system of choices that will determine my outcome of my mission through three entirely separate games.   I can also expect to become attached to each one of my party members due to the in-depth quest system that requires me to gain or ignore the loyalty of my comrades.

When it comes to recent RPGs, the Mass Effect series is an original because they provide a unique experience that breaks many misconceptions that other developers had.  I’m beginning to think though, that we may be giving Mass Effect 2 the benefit of the doubt this year.  When we look at many other games that were released this year we can point out some glaring flaws of some otherwise enjoyable games.  Take Final Fantasy XIII for example, one glaring flaw that many critics had with the game was that it was painfully linear.  So linear in fact, that a majority of the maps only gave you a 10 foot wide walking space and consisted of no branching paths.  What makes Final Fantasy XIII so noticeably linear is the fact that it has a mini-map that makes it obvious that you don’t have much room for movement.  Take away that map, or put your focus on the surrounding scenery and you may quickly forget that you are at the mercy of those boundaries.  Mass Effect 2 makes the smart choice by leaving out the mini-map and allowing you to feel as if you aren’t as cramped as you actually are. Though you may be surprised to see that you are still on a fairly linear path, maybe even more linear than Final Fantasy XIII at times.  UH-OH!


Hope I don't get lost

We praise Mass Effect for the number of choices that it allows you to make, and how it allows you to tell your own story.  Dissecting this mechanic may make you realize that you don’t have as much driving power with the story as you thought you did.  It’s kind of like when you would sit in your parents lap with your hands on the steering wheel as they drove the car; you get a sense that you are turning the car right, or speeding the car up, when in fact the parent is doing all of the work.  The game allows you to cut down an NPC with your words, but you never really have much control of the story, and in the end most events are still going to play out the way BioWare wants them to.

I remember making some pretty big decisions in Mass Effect. *SPOILER ALERT* Based on my skills, I was able to talk Wrex down from his rampage and prevent any bloodshed in the first game.  It was nice to know that I would be able to see him in the sequel…for a few minutes!  Wrex ends up showing his face for a little while, sending you on a few quests, and reminiscing on old times; nothing close to what I was expecting.  I also decided to sacrifice Kaiden instead of Ashley so I could get my love on in Mass Effect 2.  To my surprise I was met with animosity and loathing rather than having the ability to add her to my team.  There were also quite a few people you could choose to help out in the first game…but be careful, your decisions have repercussions.  After choosing to help a few people, they decide to repay me by sending me a thoughtful email telling me how thankful they are for what I did.  Are you kidding?  That’s it!?  While all of these examples may be great ways to give players an emotional link to previous games, it doesn’t mean that Mass Effect offers content that is much more compelling than what’s already out there.

I hate you.

It may seem like I’m bashing Mass Effect 2 when in fact I’m not.  I think that Mass Effect 2 does some great things, and is pushing video games to a new level.  What I’m bashing is the praise that we give the game.  Even though it’s pushing games to a new level, it doesn’t mean that they are at that level yet.  We like to think that Mass Effect 2 has already taken us to a magical land where games in a series are effectively linked together and every person’s story is unique.  Taking a closer look can show us that it’s more of a facade, or a glimpse into the future.  I strongly believe that the fate of the series rests on the shoulders of Mass Effect 3, and how it combines your decisions in all of the games.  Perhaps I will be able to fail the entire game, or bring Wrex and Ashley along on the mission with me, or even kill them for the heck of it if I wanted to.  There just seems to be too much riding on the last game, and if Mass Effect 3 lives up to it, then it will be the best game of all time.

If there is any game that deserves game of the year it’s Mass Effect 2, and I’m giving it the title right now, forget what everyone else says.  Let’s just make sure we give it the proper amount of credit.

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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?


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.


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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