5 Thoughts on Fixing the RPG Genre

An Editorial By Figboy

tgs-final-fantasy-xiii-3

I’m a huge RPG fan. Eastern, Western, as long as they are quality, I’ll play them all, from Final Fantasy to Fallout. However, all is not rosy in the land of RPGs this generation. We’re about 4 years into this current generation of gaming consoles, and we’ve yet to receive a single defining RPG.
Look at it this way: By the time the Playstation 1 hit it’s second birthday, it was graced with Final Fantasy 7, widely considered to be one of the best RPGs ever made, and it most certainly was the RPG that pushed the genre into the mainstream, and beyond it’s niche market. Furthermore, by the time the Playstation 2 was 2 years old, Final Fantasy X was on the console, not only further cementing the notion that the Final Fantasy series is one of the premiere RPGs in the industry, but cementing the capabilities of the Playstation 2, and the future of console RPGs.
After last generation, however, it seems as if the genre has hit a wall in most respects. Concepts have become cliche and uninspiring, and gameplay mechanics are simply retreads of mechanics we’ve been using for the past 20+ years in a lot of cases.
All is not lost, however, as there have been some pretty good RPGs released, with more promising ones on the horizon that I feel may be just what the genre needs, but it’s still in the need of an overhaul (much like the First Person Shooter genre’s recent evolution a few years back), and some fresh ideas. Here are a few of my thoughts (and even some example games that are heading in the right direction) that I think could give RPGs the breath of fresh air they need.
1) Customizable Characters: This seems like a no-brainer, but many an RPG feature a premade character, with a premade tale waiting to be told. There is nothing wrong with these games, but most gamers, thanks to the customization of MMORPGS have gotten addicted to the concept of being able to craft their very own avatar to take into the games world.
From sex, race, class, and more, the player should be able to create an in game avatar that best expresses their own individuality, which in turn will help them connect more to the character. Sure, it’s often fun to be a premade, established character, but I most certainly feel more of an affinity for a character that I’ve spent hours to create.
Games like White Knight Chronicles (already released in Japan on the Playstation 3, and heading to the US sometime early 2010), feature an incredibly robust character creation system, allowing players to adjust everything from eyes, nose, and mouth, to the shape of the ears, neck, hairstyle, and body type (think, tall, short, thick, thin). There are sliders for each of the facial features (even down to being able to adjust the width of the space between a character’s nostrils), allowing for some pretty deep character creation. Other games like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Mass Effect also feature character customization, although not quite as deep as White Knight Chronicles.
2) More complex Cause and Effect: Very few video games are able to accurately represent things such as morality, ethics, and the consequences of having to make hard choices. Most of the time, they devolve into “good” and “bad” choices, with a few gray choices thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, most of these choices are cosmetic, and very rarely have an effect on how the game plays out or the story.
I’d love to have an RPG that really rewards (or punishes) players based on the more moment to moment choices they make throughout the game, and having the story change and alter depending on those choices. I understand that this is not an easy thing to compute, but I feel that I’d rather enjoy a smaller game, with a large variety of choice and consequence, than a large game with black and white choices that are ultimately heading towards the same ending regardless of whatever choices I make.
Fallout 3 (released last year on the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC), is probably one of the better current examples of an RPG that allows you to play it with more freedom of choice than any other RPG out on the market, with many of those choices truly affecting the outcome of the game. For example, if the player chooses to blow up the town Megaton, all of it’s inhabits die, and characters and events related to the town are gone for good, and the world and people will reflect the destruction of the town.
Other games like Mass Effect, and Oblivion feature elements of this, but not on the level that I feel the RPG genre should be striving for.
3) Environmental Interaction: In just about all of the RPGs available at the moment, the world in which the game takes place is little more than a backdrop, and not a real place. The amount of interaction the player can have with the enviroment is rather minimal.
I’d like to see an RPG world that not only teems with ambiance (ie, dynamic weather effects, animals/wildlife, etc), but also features a huge level of interaction with the environment. If you want to chop down a tree and utilize it in some way (maybe in weapon/item crafting), you can. If a stubborn NPC (Non-player character) is holed up in their house and won’t come out so you can accomplish your task (or simply snoop around his home), you can kick in the door or even destroy the whole building (more than likely killing the person inside).  You should be able to interact with every object and creature in the game within reason (ie, hunting animals, rooting through drawers and cabinets, stealing horses/vehicles, etc).
The world should not only feel alive, but it should react to your presence, and you should be able to have a tangible effect on it (like having the area around you reflect when you’ve had an epic battle, and remain that way for the duration of the game).
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion features a world that is a lot more alive than most other RPGs, but it lacks a lot of the environmental immersion that really sells the setting as a real place. NPCs aren’t nearly enough. Red Fraction: Guerrilla, which is not an RPG, features a wide open sandbox environment where the player is literally able to destroy nearly every structure in the game. That element applied to an RPG would be wonderful.
4) Battle System/Gameplay Elements: I’m an old school RPG gamer, so I grew up on turn based battle systems and active time battle. However, I think the genre is in need of a change.
I propose a mixture of real time, and turn based combat, cooperative techniques, and even multi-player gameplay (on the same couch or online). RPGs have always been a solo affair for the most part, generally due to the turn based nature of combat, but opening up the world to feature more than one player at a time would really add to the experience. Also, allowing players to have more customization in gameplay really helps
Games like Valkyria Chronicles (released on the Playstation 3 last year), and White Knight Chronicles feature gameplay mechanics that are beyond the norm for the genre. Valkyria Chronciles, for example, is a real time strategy RPG, but instead of grids and structure, players are able to maneuver troops in real time in 3D, and aim and attack using a 3rd person perspective like a shooter. Even so, the game is still a turn based strategy game, just with a fresh take on the mechanics.
White Knight Chronicles allows up to 16 people to join a town, with 4 of them breaking off into their own group and accomplishing missions. Coming to the North American version of the game when it releases next year will also be the ability for players to craft their own towns and populate them online, so their friends can create their own quests and tales to venture through.
These mechanics are rarely implemented in the modern RPG, but would go a long way when it comes to adding some freshness to the genre.
5) Drop the tired premises: How many RPGs can feature the young idealistic hero who sets off on a journey of self discovery, high adventure, and romance with the help of a mysterious, yet beautiful girl? Too many, that’s what.
Despite most stories already being told numerous times in games, the simple premise above seems to be the only premise most RPG makers, both eastern and western (though primarily eastern) seem to bet on. There is a wealth of story-telling potential out there that would make for an excellent backdrop for a truly epic RPG. Not only that, but so many RPGs are stuck in the fantasy or sci fi genres.
Why not try setting the backdrop in the thriller, horror, or comedy genres? Why not a mixture of more than just one element or genre, and why not take chances with heroes and character types beyond the norm? Why not really push character development in the RPG, instead of relying on the cliches and stereotypes the genre is known for (and getting sick of)?
Games like Mass Effect feature incredibly deep stories with fantastic, unique characters, in a setting that is a mixture of realism and sci fi. Despite the main character being a user created avatar, the characters around the player provide fascinating backstory and depth to the already well thoughout world. Other RPGs like Chrono Tigger and Final Fantasy VI featured worlds, characters, and plots that played around with the conventions of the genre, but are really the exceptions, not the rule.
So there you have it. My 5 thoughts on what I think needs to happen to push the RPG genre forward, as well as a few games that are already heading in that direction. I’d love to hear what your own thoughts on improving the RPG genre are, so don’t be afraid to leave them in the comments secction below!I‘m a huge RPG fan. Eastern, Western, as long as they are quality, I’ll play them all, from Final Fantasy to Fallout. However, all is not rosy in the land of RPGs this generation. We’re about 4 years into this current generation of gaming consoles, and we’ve yet to receive a single defining RPG.

I’m a huge RPG fan. Eastern, Western, as long as they are quality, I’ll play them all, from Final Fantasy to Fallout. However, all is not rosy in the land of RPGs this generation. We’re about 4 years into this current generation of gaming consoles, and we’ve yet to receive a single defining RPG.

Look at it this way: By the time the Playstation 1 hit it’s second birthday, it was graced with Final Fantasy 7, widely considered to be one of the best RPGs ever made, and it most certainly was the RPG that pushed the genre into the mainstream, and beyond it’s niche market. Furthermore, by the time the Playstation 2 was 2 years old, Final Fantasy X was on the console, not only further cementing the notion that the Final Fantasy series is one of the premiere RPGs in the industry, but cementing the capabilities of the Playstation 2, and the future of console RPGs.

After last generation, however, it seems as if the genre has hit a wall in most respects. Concepts have become cliche and uninspiring, and gameplay mechanics are simply retreads of mechanics we’ve been using for the past 20+ years in a lot of cases.

All is not lost, however, as there have been some pretty good RPGs released, with more promising ones on the horizon that I feel may be just what the genre needs, but an overhaul and some fresh ideas certainly wouldn’t hurt. Here are a few of my thoughts (and even some example games that are heading in the right direction) that I think could give RPGs the breath of fresh air they need.

1) Customizable Characters: This seems like a no-brainer, but many an RPG feature a premade character, with a premade tale waiting to be told. There is nothing wrong with these games, but most gamers, thanks to the customization of MMORPGS have gotten addicted to the concept of being able to craft their very own avatar to take into the games world.

From sex, race, class, and more, the player should be able to create an in game avatar that best expresses their own individuality, which in turn will help them connect more to the character. Sure, it’s often fun to be a premade, established character, but I most certainly feel more of an affinity for a character that I’ve spent hours to create.

White Knight Chronicles - Playstation 3 - 2010

White Knight Chronicles - Playstation 3 - 2010

White Knight Chronicles (already released in Japan on the Playstation 3, and heading to the US sometime early 2010), feature an incredibly robust character creation system, allowing players to adjust everything from eyes, nose, and mouth, to the shape of the ears, neck, hairstyle, and body type (think, tall, short, thick, thin). There are sliders for each of the facial features (even down to being able to adjust the width of the space between a character’s nostrils), allowing for some pretty deep character creation. Other games like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Mass Effect also feature character customization, although not quite as deep as White Knight Chronicles.

2) More complex Cause and Effect: Very few video games are able to accurately represent things such as morality, ethics, and the consequences of having to make hard choices. Most of the time, they devolve into “good” and “bad” choices, with a few gray choices thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, most of these choices are cosmetic, and very rarely have an effect on how the game plays out or the story.

I’d love to have an RPG that really rewards (or punishes) players based on the more moment to moment choices they make throughout the game, and having the story change and alter depending on those choices. I understand that this is not an easy thing to compute, but I feel that I’d rather enjoy a smaller game, with a large variety of choice and consequence, than a large game with black and white choices that are ultimately heading towards the same ending regardless of whatever choices I make.

Fallout 3 - Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC - 2008

Fallout 3 - Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC - 2008

Fallout 3 (released last year on the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC), is probably one of the better current examples of an RPG that allows you to play it with more freedom of choice than any other RPG out on the market, with many of those choices truly affecting the outcome of the game. For example, if the player chooses to blow up the town Megaton, all of it’s inhabits die, and characters and events related to the town are gone for good, and the world and people will reflect the destruction of the town.

Other games like Mass Effect, and Oblivion feature elements of this, but not on the level that I feel the RPG genre should be striving for.

3) Environmental Interaction: In just about all of the RPGs available at the moment, the world in which the game takes place is little more than a backdrop, and not a real place. The amount of interaction the player can have with the enviroment is rather minimal.

I’d like to see an RPG world that not only teems with ambiance (ie, dynamic weather effects, animals/wildlife, etc), but also features a huge level of interaction with the environment. If you want to chop down a tree and utilize it in some way (maybe in weapon/item crafting), you can. If a stubborn NPC (Non-player character) is holed up in their house and won’t come out so you can accomplish your task (or simply snoop around his home), you can kick in the door or even destroy the whole building (more than likely killing the person inside).  You should be able to interact with every object and creature in the game within reason (ie, hunting animals, rooting through drawers and cabinets, stealing horses/vehicles, etc).

The world should not only feel alive, but it should react to your presence, and you should be able to have a tangible effect on it (like having the area around you reflect when you’ve had an epic battle, and remain that way for the duration of the game).

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Xbox 360, PC - 2007, Playstation 3 - 2008

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Xbox 360, PC - 2007, Playstation 3 - 2008

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion features a world that is a lot more alive than most other RPGs, but it lacks a lot of the environmental immersion that really sells the setting as a real place. NPCs aren’t nearly enough. Red Fraction: Guerrilla, which is not an RPG, features a wide open sandbox environment where the player is literally able to destroy nearly every structure in the game. That element applied to an RPG would be wonderful.

4) Battle System/Gameplay Elements: I’m an old school RPG gamer, so I grew up on turn based battle systems and active time battle. However, I think the genre is in need of a change.

I propose a mixture of real time, and turn based combat, cooperative techniques, and even multi-player gameplay (on the same couch or online). RPGs have always been a solo affair for the most part, generally due to the turn based nature of combat, but opening up the world to feature more than one player at a time would really add to the experience. Also, allowing players to have more customization in gameplay really helps.

Valkyria Chronicles - Playstation 3 - 2008

Valkyria Chronicles - Playstation 3 - 2008

Games like Valkyria Chronicles (released on the Playstation 3 last year), and White Knight Chronicles feature gameplay mechanics that are beyond the norm for the genre. Valkyria Chronciles, for example, is a real time strategy RPG, but instead of grids and structure, players are able to maneuver troops in real time in 3D, and aim and attack using a 3rd person perspective like a shooter. Even so, the game is still a turn based strategy game, just with a fresh take on the mechanics.

White Knight Chronicles allows up to 16 people to join a town, with 4 of them breaking off into their own group and accomplishing missions. Coming to the North American version of the game when it releases next year will also be the ability for players to craft their own towns and populate them online, so their friends can create their own quests and tales to venture through. The game also features the ability to string together your own unique combos, which you can name and add to your repetoire of moves.

These mechanics are rarely implemented in the modern RPG, but would go a long way when it comes to adding some freshness to the genre.

5) Drop the tired premises: How many RPGs can feature the young idealistic hero who sets off on a journey of self discovery, high adventure, and romance with the help of a mysterious, yet beautiful girl? Too many, that’s what.

Despite most stories already being told numerous times in games, the simple premise above seems to be the only premise most RPG makers, both eastern and western (though primarily eastern) seem to bet on. There is a wealth of story-telling potential out there that would make for an excellent backdrop for a truly epic RPG. Not only that, but so many RPGs are stuck in the fantasy or sci fi genres.

Why not try setting the backdrop in the thriller, horror, or comedy genres? Why not a mixture of more than just one element or genre, and why not take chances with heroes and character types beyond the norm? Why not really push character development in the RPG, instead of relying on the cliches and stereotypes the genre is known for (and getting sick of)?

Mass Effect - Xbox 360 - 2007, PC - 2008

Mass Effect - Xbox 360 - 2007, PC - 2008

Games like Mass Effect feature incredibly deep stories with fantastic, unique characters, in a setting that is a mixture of realism and sci fi. Despite the main character being a user created avatar, the characters around the player provide fascinating backstory and depth to the already well thoughout world. Other RPGs like Chrono Tigger and Final Fantasy VI featured worlds, characters, and plots that played around with the conventions of the genre, but are really the exceptions, not the rule.

So there you have it. My 5 thoughts on what I think needs to happen to push the RPG genre forward, as well as a few games that are already heading in that direction. I’d love to hear what your own thoughts on improving the RPG genre are, so don’t be afraid to leave them in the comments secction below!

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3 Responses to “5 Thoughts on Fixing the RPG Genre”

  1. Good points. I do think Oblivion does a better job of dealing with cause and effect. I also like that the “gods” are watching and know when you’ve turned into a scumbucket. And frankly, Fallout feels a lot smaller/shorter.

    I would love to see a horror RPG with the elements you discussed. Could you picture Silent Hill or Resident Evil as a Fallout 3 style Rpg?

  2. alexpguy Says:

    I agree about oblivion/fallout but I think cause and effects can be taken farther still. A horror RPG maybe a bit difficult in the sense that you can have the atmosphere and ambiance, but once you hit a turn based battle, the momentum slows down. Fear is based on panic and knee-jerk reactions; Silent Hill and Resident Evil are so great because the almost paranoid mood they set, right before something jumps out at you.

    I have been waiting a long time for a simple mid evil dragon slaying/save the princess type RPG. Like Shadow of the Colossus + Monster Hunter.

    • for a “horror rpg,” i wouldn’t use a turn based battle system. that’s one of the problems i probably should have addressed in my article, but i think too many RPG developers are getting mired in some rpg “traditions,” like a turn based battle system.

      i actually have a horror rpg in mind, where the battle system is much more like Fallout 3 or Oblivion; real time, not turn based. it’s the only way to keep the game scary, but it would feature many other rpg elements in it to truly make it an rpg.

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