Monday, June 14, 2010

That's not an RPG! *This* is an RPG!

One thing I love seeing bandied about in various places is whether certain games are or are not RPGs.  And by "love", I mean "find interminably frustrating". My favourite is recent times in the number of people I've seen complaining "Mass Effect 2 isn't and RPG but Mass Effect 1 is". Huh? What?

The proponents of this argument usually raise the following points:
1. ME2 is a cover based shooter like Gears of War.
Well, its combat segments are... but how is that does that make it less of an RPG than just shooting in the open as was the case ME1?
2. ME2 doesn't have an inventory.
Right... because I loved playing pack mule and upgrading my ammo for an extra 5% damage that made no noticeable different to gameplay.
3. ME2 has no choice/roleplay.
Wait? What? Are we playing the same game? Squadmates dying, universe changing decisions... maybe we're not seeing the effect of some of those in the game itself, but it doesn't mean those choices aren't there.

I'm sure there are more that I'm missing, but if I continue along this line, I won't get to the point of this post.

Shooters cannot be RPGs! I am gamer, hear me roar!

So my question to everyone is: "How do you define an RPG?" If you look at all the games that have been given the "RPG" moniker over the history of computer gaming, you're going to get a really broad spectrum of games.  Dungeon Master, Gold Box Games, Ultima Underworld, Diablo, Guild Wars, the Ultima and Final Fantasy series, Mass Effect... and many more that I've omitted.

There are many concepts and elements that combine to make an RPG.  The ability of your character to level up, customise their build/skils, change their equipment, to talk to individuals within the world, to progress a story, to carry out side missions or optional objectives, defeat enemies in combat, etc, etc.  Many of these exist within other games that are not classified as RPGs.

You had optional objectives and the ability to customise your equipment in the Thief series, but no one called them roleplaying games. You can "level-up" and pick new abilities in multiplayer Modern Warfare... and there's a story you experience in the single player campaign... but that's not an RPG either.

It has swords and magic. Must be an RPG, right?

I'll confess that I'm somewhat of a preaching purist in my definition of roleplaying. I would say that roleplaying in games is largely about "playing a role", i.e. based on your character's decisions and interactions within the game, you define or play a particular persona. As a game designer (can I call myself that as a modder?), I'd say that providing an RPG demands that you actively provide the player with the ability to make those choices to define that persona. You actively force the player to make decisions that require some thought or will dictate the type of character that they are roleplaying - in modern games, this is typically through dialogue.

There are other choices that players enforce on themselves, like not using traps, only wearing matching armor, or any other myriad of "personal" decisions that players make because of their view of the world and characters, but the game designer has no say in these. Some might argue it's not just dialogue, but character development, i.e. how players allocate the "skill points" of their character - which is how games like Diablo, Demons' Souls and World of Warcraft have the RPG designation. I would say that doesn't actively define your character for anything except their role in combat, so it's not really "roleplaying" as such. I don't consider assigning skill points roleplaying.

Time sink, definitely. Fun, arguably. RPG? Sorry, not in my book.

For me, a "true" roleplaying game is where there is a significant amount of gameplay that consists of dialogue choices, and those dialogue choices allow me to roleplay a particular character type. The ability to effect the game world is also becoming increasingly more important, even though I'd still consider it a "recent" trend. Yet I can't dictate my opinion to other people, and I can't deny that many of the games that I don't consider "true" RPGs have RPG elements.

That said, I don't pretend I'm not hypocritical to some degree.  How could I possibly call a gold box game an RPG but not World of Warcraft? Surely the scope of character customisation and the story through which the character progresses through WoW far exceeds that offered by something like Matrix Cubed? Do I give the gold box game a conceded pass into my RPG "box" simply because it's old? Umm... apparently, yes. Yes, I do. Go figure.

The giddy heights of choice in a Gold Box game...

I can't claim to have the "one" definition of an RPG that I expect everyone to adhere to, and nor should I expect that. But likewise, other people dictating that "game X" is not an RPG because it doesn't do something that they think it should is somewhat narrow minded.  The concept of exactly what makes an RPG an RPG is ill-defined at best. Without game developers pushing the boundaries of that definition and trying to take the elements of RPGs and combine them different types of gameplay, gamers will end up with a stagnant genre. Given that RPGs are pretty much already a niche market compared to the immediately and easily consumable (and as easily discarded) first person shooter and sport titles that sell millions of copies within scant weeks of their release, I want to see the genre evolve.

I want to see more games in the genre of Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol. and as much as it pains me to say it, Fallout 3. Don't get me wrong, I love the traditional fantasy setting and engrossing book-series-worth-of-dialogue present in Dragon Age, but it was merely expanding an area in which a pre-existing fanbase was already comfortable. I love BioWare for catering to that market as seemingly only they are able to do at the moment, but without pushing the boundaries of the RPG genre in other directions, they will struggle to attract new fans. New fans and game sales provide funding and hence future titles, so I'm happy to see game studios try new approaches to bring people into the fold.

If you love your RPG, set it free.


  1. While this post seems to imply people are all over the map on what an rpg is, I think it's a little simpler for the vast majority. A game where you have to progressively build your characters stats up by earning experince is what I call an rpg. Most people I know, light gamers or heavy, expect the "character building" system when they hear rpg.

    For example from the NES: never really considered ghosts and goblins an rpg. Final fantasy ? yes. Link? I never did since the action was live and there was no replying to anyone.

  2. Indeed I agree with your point of view. Being that I started role-playing without any RPG system whatsoever (just words and the collective imagination of my fellow players), I've come to define an RPG more by its nature than by its mechanics.

    I consider Mass Effect 2 an RPG---decidedly---as opposed to something like, say, Red Dead Redemption. Red Dead Redemption offers many RPG elements, and it would be easy for those who see the open world, the variety of guns and appearances, and the large amount of distractions to label it as an RPG; but the amount to which you can affect the story is equal to zero. Therefore, it is not an RPG.

    Anyhow, well said.