Saturday, August 27, 2011

BioWare and the irrelevance of the RPG

I noticed recently that a few people jumped on a quote from BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk about the RPG genre in a recent interview.

While most of the article focuses on selling The Old Republic, there was an interesting comment in response to a question about BioWare's status as "the" RPG studio.
Greg: "we had the RPG panel breakfast at GDC yesterday – and what was interesting about that was that we had the conversation about ‘what is an RPG’ and it’s a blend. The genres are blending right now, you’re getting lots and lots of progression and RPG elements in shooters – online persistence and so on.

It’s funny because the RPG in the context of the current world is – well, it’s not specifically irrelevant, but it’s becoming less relevant in and of itself. It’s more a function of ‘hey, this game has a great story’. For us having that emotion but also having other great features like combat and persistence of character progression and stuff."

As stated by many others, "RPG elements" have become increasingly pushed into other games, which has merely exacerbated the fight over "what makes an RPG?"

People have called BioShock an RPG because of the choice posed in that. I'd argue that it isn't because the choice is entirely moot. People praised The Witcher, but I found it a horrible game because I was handed a predefined character and personality and while I got to make choices, I was never roleplaying because I was always assigned Geralt's reasoning and rationale for any choice I might have made. People hated Dragon Age 2 and said it wasn't really an RPG because of an inability to affect the outcome of key events.

You can complain all you like, but you can't tell me this isn't an RPG

The story was the staple of the RPG for a long time, but now stories are common across many genres. Not all of them are great stories, but some RPGs have some pretty mediocre stories as well. Then you could argue it comes down to choices, but you occasionally get those in other games too. What about number based combat mechanics? Nope, they exist in other games as well.

The question this raises is at what point do the combinations of "RPG elements" make a game "an RPG" or "not an RPG"? As a blanket statement, I'd say that provided I can define the personality of my character and carry out actions and select dialogue that supports that character, the game is an RPG.  However, under this definition, the Witcher isn't an RPG, and hence all its fans will burn me at the stake. And where does this leave games like the "action RPG"... or heck, even things like the old gold box games, or Eye of the Beholder, or Dungeon Master? RPGs ain't RPGs.

I can't say The Witcher isn't an RPG because it has a protagonist with a set character

The difficulty of a definition is something I've discussed before, and the past year or two have done nothing to assist in defining what defines an RPG. I'll frequently see people complain about the death of the "real RPG", attacking modern RPGs like Fallout 3/New Vegas, Dragon Age 2 or Mass Effect 2, while in the same breath praising their favourite old games. The hilarity of these are when these people attempt to define their rules for what makes an RPG. Recently I saw someone comment that Dragon Age 2 wasn't an RPG because its first act forces the player to do sidequests to collect money, an argument that falls flat because the same idea was used in Baldur's Gate 2, which is held up by many as the pinnacle of RPGs. Another claim was that any game where you're given a set character isn't an RPG, but The Witcher (1 & 2) would fail that test too, and I've seen more than a handful of people declare them the "last bastion of the real RPG".

Given this issue, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it's not the RPG that is irrelevant, but the definition of what is and isn't an RPG is irrelevant. Most genres can be fairly clearly defined: People know a first/third person shooter when they see one, or a stealth-em-up, an RTS or a puzzle game. But these genres relate to specific aspects of gameplay. If these games start including "RPG elements" (whatever they are), at what point do they switch genres and become an "RPG" or an "RPG hybrid"?

Deus Ex: Shooter? Stealth-em-up? RPG?

As for how Greg's statement reflects on BioWare's reputation, I think it's merely stating something that should have been fairly evident to people for a little while now.

BioWare have definitely been trending away from "classic" RPG mechanics for combat. There's a movement away from having a character's success determined primarily by the numbers of the character's stats and the players high level strategic direction, and a movement towards having a primarily reflex/controller-eye coordination based combat. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but without some level of control, it takes away the feeling of character progression that has effectively been a mainstay of the RPG genre since its inception.

There are some issues with "hybrid RPGs" at the current point in time, most notably the tendency towards a reduced number of enemy types. If all the enemies you are fighting look exactly the same throughout your entire adventure, regardless of the deluge of new and deadly skills and powers you can unleash upon your enemies, there's still a feeling of a lack of progression. In an RPG, enemy variety matters - which is part of why enemy scaling makes the combat of some newer games potentially seem less epic than some older games that would start by pitting you against rats and eventually have you working your way up to fighting golems, giants, dragons and demons. I'd suggest this may be one of the major contributors to people thinking that they "don't feel like an RPG" in such games.

Turning into a golem to kill a dragon, now that feels like progress!

I think BioWare have some careful ground to tread in terms of managing the expectations of existing and new fans. I make no secret of the fact that I'm a huge fan of their games, but there are signs that give me pause for thought. The development of the Dragon Age franchise concerns me a little in that there seems to be a push to "tell the BioWare Dragon Age story" while at the same time telling players that "they get to create their own Dragon Age story."  I have no issue with developers writing the story that they want to tell, but they must be upfront with the player about how they will be able to affect the story.  If major choices are going to be "ignored" or "manipulated" to make things exactly the way the developers want them to be, then it's poor form to suggest to the player that their choices matter.

But this comment hardly signifies "the death of BioWare" as some have claimed. If anything, it's just reinforcing BioWare's trend to push the RPG genre towards a more action-oriented market that's more accessible for people who don't have the patience to mull over hundreds of different character builds and don't want to read swathes of text while playing video games. Anyone who declares this to be a bad thing doesn't really love the RPG genre, because they don't want to share it with others that find it intimidating and overwhelming, but merely keep it stagnant and isolated to a dedicated niche market.

The RPG isn't becoming irrelevant, it's becoming more commonplace.

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