Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The self-made irrelevance of the RPG

In a recent interview with VG24/7, BioWare's Greg Zeschuk spoke about the direction the influential developer has been taking in recent years, and into the near future.  Most controversial about this interview were Greg's words on RPGs, and how he viewed them in today's industry:

"I think broader. I mean – it’s funny – RPGs are and always have been our bread and butter, our heart is there, but at the same time I think – well, 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."

In this short piece, I'd like to take some time to break down some of Greg's thoughts on the subject, because I think that they're not only divisive, but also indicative of an ongoing - and dangerous - trend in RPG development.

History lessons

Developers have been bandying about this question for a while now, and, more than ever, I've seen the answer "it's all about story, and characters, and the world" come up.  Furthermore, a few months ago, controversy was sparked when Matt Findley claimed that RPGs always really wanted to be action games at heart, and that the strong mechanics of past games was not a legitimate design choice, but a limitation of technology at the time.  While it's no secret that RPGs are known for narrative, and that many RPGs have tried to incorporate action elements (often with little success), I think that this sort of view, that rulesets are an outdated concept and that RPGs are all about storytelling, is an inaccurate, ill-informed and poisonous one.

RPGs began as an offshoot of wargames, tabletop games designed around complex interactions of rules, where two or more players would compete against one another for dominance over a battlefield... while wargames were firmly entrenched in delivering a strong strategic experience, the pen and paper RPGs of the 1960s and 70s, most prominently emerging with Dungeons & Dragons, added a crucial and now defining characteristic to wargames: cooperation.  In order to do this, most RPGs centred around, rather than global military operations, individual characters and parties of characters, cooperating and competing with each other in order to accomplish a goal.  The design change was in many ways a necessary one, but also a popular one, and RPGs soon far outnumbered wargames in terms of popularity and success.  As narrative elements began to creep into RPGs, as players began to get attached to the characters they played as and the universes they inhabited, RPGs began to become associated with storytelling in addition to those mechanics.  While the name, role-playing game, reflected the inclusion of narrative, it still originally, and in my opinion, more accurately, reflected the fact that players had to cooperate within a predefined ruleset to solve problems, effectively serving functional roles within a setting whose narrative concepts only existed as a vehicle to structure the experience.

What are rulesets?

Though we tend to talk a bit about rulesets when discussing traditional RPGs, a moment to clarify just what these are may be in order.  A ruleset is just that: a set of rules, existing primarily to not just govern, but facilitate the interaction between players and the game (or the dungeon master).  A ruleset's strength is that it is universal: while we tend to think about rulesets as being primarily a determinant of combat outcomes, a well-developed ruleset will articulate a general standard by which the entire world is defined by.  The reason for this, quite simply, is because rulesets aren't just about determining how much damage you did to an enemy with your Vorpal Axe of Slaying +3 - they're about determining the way in which you are able to express yourself within an alternate game world, just as much as the physical rules of interaction our reality follows determine our own capabilities.

When the advent of computer RPGs came about, it initially wasn't the strong narrative focus that was carried over, it was the established rule-set, adapted to fit a solo experience on a personal computer.  Early CRPGs, including the famous Gold Box titles, were, though narratively charged, really little more than frameworks for players to enjoy a ruleset within.  And some of the most successful CRPGs ever, such as Fallout, were successful as RPGs not because they had great stories and characters, but because they created a world whose terms of engagement were well established in the mechanics in addition to the narrative, and then allowed the vast majority of the storytelling to be taken over by the player, as he or she navigated the world in accordance with those rules.

The "Golden Age"

Modern videogames are, of course, a diverse medium, and most traditional videogames don't depend entirely on explicitly defined rules, at least as far as the player's understanding goes.  Typically, these games also have a lower barrier of entry and lend themselves to a different style of play, one that relies more on reflexes and coordination than an overt manipulation and consideration of those rules.  A trend, which began in the late 2000s, and largely fueled both by newer gamers getting into game development, and a desire to appeal to wider audiences, saw traditional RPG rulesets joined with more action-oriented game design... even as far back as BioWare's Baldur's Gate, the focus of the game was not limited solely to the rules of the game world, but on being able to take part in a grand adventure, and in immersing one's self in a large and well-realised universe.  With the rise of more and more graphically and narratively focused RPGs, such as Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex, not to mention the JRPGs that preceded them by several years, the focus of RPGs on the PC began to change from the rulesets and the player's interaction with the world on a mechanical level, to the player's interaction on a social and narrative level, fueled less by mechanics than the player's own desires and imagination.

Today, I feel as if the concept of RPG, especially in mainstream understandings, has become severely diluted - what remains of the core rule-driven experience of RPGs constantly finds itself under threat of disappearing altogether, as the demands of modern game production require greater and greater budgets, and thus, the market for any particular game, RPGs included, must be expanded.  All of this, of course, is fueled by a misguided notion that RPG fans are concerned less with strong gameplay mechanics than they are by storylines.  If the RPG has become redefined over the course of the last decade, it is only because the premier developers in the CRPG space have decided to abandon the core of the genre of itself, choosing not to make RPGs founded on consistent rulesets, but to create cinematic experiences that differ from most action games only in that they tend to feature a greater ratio of dialogue to action.

A question of relevance

And here we find ourselves today, with the RPG an "irrelevant" genre, as said by one of the apparent fathers of the modern CRPG.  In light of the history I've articulated (mind you, an incomplete and highly simplified one), I think it's safe to say that the question of relevance on Greg's mind comes either from a misunderstanding or change in perception of what an RPG actually is, or from a desire to no longer make RPGs.  BioWare have, for many years, been at the forefront of delivering cinematic and story-driven videogame experiences to players... considering the ease at which many of these games can be divorced from their mechanical underpinnings, and their narratives told in a way unhindered by statistics, it becomes questionable whether BioWare are, or even have been for the last eight or so years, in the practice of creating RPGs at all.  RPGs have traditionally been about universal rulesets, and even the best narratively-charged CRPGs have governed those narrative qualities via mechanics - Planescape: Torment, Fallout, and even more recently Alpha Protocol, have all built their stories around the fundamental notion that it is the player's choices in statistically developing a character or a party, rather than around the idea that the player's decision-making be conceptualised as a choose-your-own-adventure novel.  That Chris Avellone has been involved with many of these CRPGs may or may not be a coincidence.

Of course, I do not mean, in any way, to suggest that BioWare's games are bad, because, for what they are, they are categorically of a very high quality standard.  Yet close analysis demands that we consider very carefully the kinds of games that BioWare claim they've been making this last decade... under scrutiny, I don't think that they hold up particularly well as RPGs, at least when we think of RPGs in the more traditional sense I've defined above.  The conclusion that I'm forced to draw through all of this is, simply put, that if BioWare feel RPGs are no longer relevant, part of the answer is that they have made them irrelevant.  And those fans that made companies like BioWare successful in the early days, the ones that they keep claiming they're making their games for - they're still around.  They just don't care much for the fact that the innovations in the upcoming BioWare titles have less to do with crafting mechanically sound RPGs, and more to do with alien love triangles.


  1. I have played countless RPGs in the past decade, but Demon's Souls stands out as the best and I could not have said why. It has little story, and even less character development. But reading this post, I realize that the game has a fantastic ruleset and that is why it is excellent.

    I hope RPGs like this are not, as you suggest, a dying breed.

  2. *n88r on ZU*

    ...following this blog. You show a lot of points on RPG's history that I completely agree with and in the directions they are going.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. I appreciate the feedback.