I shouldn’t write this blog post, because of the recently mentioned book that I’m writing. However, it’s something I’m passionate about and so I want to just make a quick rant about.
Firstly a clarification for those in the pen and paper world: I am referring to CRPGs here, not pen and paper RPGs, which admittedly, I am rather uninformed in. I’m specifically talking only about RPGs that you play on the computer or a console.
You should also know that I am an RPG expert. I spent much of the 2000s obsessing over finding great RPGs, coming off of an obsession with the first two Fallout games, Ultima VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, as well as JRPGs like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. This led me to learn about more obscure RPGs like the wonderful Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Wizardry 8 and older games like Ultima III: Exodus and Pool of Radiance. At this point there is not a series or subgenre of RPG that I haven’t at least played around with, if not having beaten many of.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that I get it about CRPGs. And I have concluded, quite solidly, that RPGs are a bad idea.
Now because of my extensive background in RPGs, I think it is unfair for someone to dismiss what I have to say on this issue with a statement like “well, they just aren’t your kind of games”. Beyond the fact that clearly this is not true, it’s also a non-argument.
But I Enjoyed That RPG!
Now, this is not at all to say that an RPG cannot be “fun”, despite the fact that it was a bad idea. Whether or not you had “fun” with something actually says very little about the quality of its game design, because there are so many other factors that could lead you to have “fun” with something.
This much cannot be denied: a lot of great things are in many RPGs. The combat system of Fallout (1 and 2, not 3), the art and music of Final Fantasy, the character generation of Arcanum, the writing of Planescape: Torment. There’s a lot of hard work put into these games and as a result, there’s a lot to love about many of them.
The problem is, there are two defining characteristics of the RPG that both essentially doom the games to, at best, mediocrity.
Characteristic Problem #1 – Driven by Story
I’ve already gone into depth about why this is a huge problem on my post, Games Hurt Stories, Stories Hurt Games. But suffice it to say that mechanics tied to a story must be extremely limited in their flexibility, and a story tied to mechanics must be more flexible than is in its best interest. This leads to mediocrity (or worse) in both areas.
Characteristic Problem #2 – Leveling Up (Grinding)
Grinding is a low-risk activity that the player can do repeatedly for a real gain. In any game that has grinding, grinding is the optimal move. In any game that has grinding, it becomes a matter of not “what is the best move?” for the player, but “how much can I stand to bore myself for my own gain?” Call me crazy, but I think games should motivate players to do exciting things, not repetitive and boring tasks over and over again.
Just about everything I’d really call an RPG allows grinding, and this is actually because of Characteristic Problem #1: the game has to be complete-able, since it’s a story. So the player must be able to overcome all challenges, and so we must allow for grinding.
Now sure, you can come up with an “RPG” that doesn’t have either of these qualities. However, at that point, I would no longer call it an RPG (and I think most would agree with me on this).
These things will eventually be the killer of the RPG. What’s annoying is how these elements of the RPG have actually crept into every mainstream genre of digital game, dooming them all to mediocrity in the same way. Until we stop following these patterns, we continue to make games that have no staying power.
Make no mistake: future generations will have no idea what Elder Scrolls or Fallout is… but they will be highly aware of Tetris. Which isn’t to say that games have to be abstract – but it is to say that games have to have replay value. Any story-based, grindy game will not have much replay value.