Computer RPGs are weird.
Even thought I play & love them since childhood, even though I'm editing a book on CRPGs, even though I've been posting on the RPG Codex for NINE YEARS (Oh god, send help), I can't easily answer one of the hardest questions ever - be it for devs, critics or fans: "define RPG".
So I've decided to sit down and rant a bit on why it's so hard to define this genre, and also why it's a genre that sometimes end restricting its games. Some of it will be obvious, but I hope to offer some decent insights. I even recruited Batman for this.
Buckle up, this will be LOOOOOOONG.
ACT I - Defining RPGs
A brief history of role-playing the goddamn Batman
Imagine you're a kid in the 70's, and you want to play a game as Batman. Well, besides wearing a towel as cape and running around singing "na-na-na-na-na-na-na-BAT-MAN!", you're
best only choice was playing with action figures or glorious ludic artifacts like these:
Expect a 60 hour campaign, that can reach 80 if you do all the side-quests and own a season pass.
A more elaborate, structured form of being the Batman would appear in 1985, when DC released DC Heroes RPG, a ruleset for playing tabletop RPG with its heroes:
DC Heroes RPG came with a sample scenario, showing one player role-playing Batman and the other as the Game Master. In it, Batman must stop the Riddler from stealing an ancient Egyptian scroll from Gotham's museum. Here's an excerpt, as Batman comes across two thieves:
Very Batman-ish. As you can see, multiple dice rolls were involved, which the game explains:
Sometimes the Gamemaster will ask you to throw dice. This is the method by which Players determine how successful their character will be in certain actions.
Oh, that seems pretty obvious. Otherwise, how the hell would you test a character's skill at stealth, shooting or fighting, for example? Play hide-and-seek? Give a gun to the player and ask him to shoot some targets? Start a fist fight against the DM and the winner is the successful one?
Sounds cool, but not really a practical solution... so rolling a dice and checking against your stats seems like a fairly decent solution to it, compliant with budgetary and safety limitations.
That is, until THE FUTURE arrived:
Press L1 to aim the Bat-arang and test your shooting skill in real-time. Understand the guard's patrol routes and navigate the environment avoiding their gaze to sneak past them. Press X to Punch & Kick, Y to counter and B to do marvel enemies with your fabulous cape.
Suddenly, dice-rolls aren't required anymore!
As Warren Spector explains in this 2014 interview (to me!):
"There are no levels or dice in the real world – those were simply the best simulation tools available to tabletop RPG creators in the stone age of game design. Today, in the world of electronic games, we have better, more expressive tools for determining whether a door gets smashed or an NPC responds well to a conversation with a charismatic PC. Always remember that RPG's should be defined by 'role' not 'roll'."
Makes sense. So Batman: Arkham Asylum is an evolution (or an offspring) of the Batman tabletop RPG, where instead of rolling a dice to determine success at a certain action, you employ glorious technology to perform said action yourself.
Computer, roll a d20 for me
So in more technical terms, most video-games focus on player skill, while tabletop RPGs rely on character skill - conveyed thought stats and tested via dice-rolls. Each on its own.
But back in 1974 there were already some guys who liked BOTH! They played the original Dungeons & Dragons and were studying with PLATO mainframes at college. And they decided to merge them, programing the mighty computer to "DM" a crude tabletop-like RPG for them:
I don't blame them, I can't imagine how hard it was to find a d20 in the 70's.
But by doing this, they created what we call a CRPG - a computer role-playing game!
To sum up:
Tabletop RPG: Has stats. You roll the dice.
Computer RPG: Has stats. The computer rolls the dice.
Other Video Games: No stats, no dice bro.
Oh man, this is so simple, why people get confused?
Why people get confused
Things is, almost every game out there has stats AND dice rolls - aka random numbers / RNG.
They have to be there. When you fire a pistol in Doom, it does 5-15 damage per bullet. The Imp has 20 hitpoints, so you'll need 2-4 shots to kill it. It's hidden from the player, but what happens is this:
Same thing with Call of Duty. The game has to calculate how much damage firing each weapon does, so of course it has stats. One quick check at the Call of Duty wiki shows this:
Looks like something that would fit nicely into any RPG.
But in fact it's more detailed than most RPGs, since it also factors in the body part being hit by each shot, something very few "TR00 RPGS" do and no sane tabletop gamer should ever attempt to.
Even fighting games like Street Fighter can be seen as such, at least from a systemic point of view.
Instead of announcing your character's moves to the GM and rolling dices, you "declare" them to the machine via the controller input, and the "virtual GM" calculates your position, action & stats versus the opponent's - player's speed, moveset mastery and reaction time being the deciding factor.
Ok, sorry. Let's account for that
So, again, most character-driven video games are "spin-offs" of tabeltop RPGs, full of stats and even dice rolls, but testing the player's skill instead of (just) the character's abilities.
We want "TR00 RPGs", so let's sort them by that - what matters more, the character skills or the skills / reflexes of guy holding the
Tabletop RPG: Driven by character skill.
Computer RPG: Driven by character skill.
Other Video Games: Driven by player skill.
There! No issues now, right?
DARK SOULS BRO! WHERE'S DARK SOULS! MIYAZAKI IS GOD!!!!111
Oh yeah, I love Studio Ghibli and Totoro!
And in games like Dark Souls there are stats & levels to define & evolve your character, but also a strong reliance on player's skill to move, attack and overall react in real-time. A bad player with wonderful stats will (quite often) get destroyed by an excellent player running around naked at Lv 1.
Same thing could be said about games like Deus Ex, System Shock 2, Borderlands, Mass Effect, Fallout 3, The Witcher, Skyrim, Gothic, Diablo, etc... stats & dice rolls are there and matter a lot when defining you character, but player skill often rivals or trumps them.
Let's call these ACTION-RPGs! 'Cause there's like action and stuffies:
Tabletop RPG: Driven by character skill.
Computer RPG: Driven by character skill.
Other Video Games: Driven by player skill.
Action-RPG: Driven by both player & character skill.
This is the "traditional" classification of RPGs, favored by hardcore fans - it's simple, direct and clear.
There are still subgenres, like Tactical RPG, Strategy RPGs, Dungeon Crawlers/Blobbers and Roguelikes, but IMHO those are all sub-divisions of either "CRPGs" or "Action-RPGs".
BTW, that's why The Legend of Zelda games are NOT RPGs, not even Action-RPGs - because Link's stats don't matter. You won't ever see this:
They are not games about Link's stats and skills as a character, but about the player's skill in controlling him. The Biggoron's Sword is more powerful but requires two-hands, forcing you to abandon the shield. It changes your playstyle - the question it poses is not "does this fit my character's stats?", but rather "does this fit my player skills?"
Which is cool too, and makes the Biggoron's Sword more memorable than most RPG weapons, as it changes how you play the game, not just your stats.
It sounds great, but...
Of course, not everyone agrees with this (this is the internet after all!).
Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series and pioneer in the CRPG genre has a very different view, as you can read in this Gamasutra interview:
This is my personal definition; most people don't adhere to this. Diablo, great game. Loved it. For me, I use the term "RPG" for it because it is a stats game. It's a "Do I have the best armor equipment compared to the creature I'm facing?" There's not really any story for it. It's a great challenge reward cycle game. Blizzard, by the way, does the best challenge reward cycle games I've seen.
On the other hand, Thief or Ultima are role-playing games versus RPG -- which I know stands for role-playing game. When I think of a role-playing game, it is now where you are charged with playing an actual role and qualitative aspects of how you play are every bit as important as what equipment you use. That's what I find most interesting. It's a lot easier to do stories there.
Looking Glass Stuios' Thief games are certainly the best "play as a thief" games ever designed, and the same could respectively said about Batman: Arkham Asylum. As Warren Spector said in his quote a bit more above, "Role, not roll".
Like it or not, no company in the last 15 years was as influential in the RPG genre as BioWare.
Baldur's Gate was an old-school adventure, packed with all the stats, items, classes and spells that AD&D could offer. Since then, every single of their games slowly, but surely, moved towards more story-oriented experiences, focused on narrative choices.
With the Great RPG Drought of the late 00's, a generation grew up with BioWare games as the high point of the genre - its definition. Who cares about player skill vs. character skill, RPGs became games about creating your character and telling your story.
Just try showing Wizardry to a kid under 20 and tell him it's an RPG. "But where are the choices?"
What a mess...
So now we roughly have three lines of thought:
Dice-Rollers: RPGs are driven by character skill! (muh stats!)
Role-Players: RPGs are driven by role-play! (muh immersion!)
BioWarers: RPGs are driven by choice! (muh romance!)
I'm being silly here for
edgy educative purposes. (You could say "Role-players" and "BioWarers" are the same, but remember that there are no choices in Thief - you'll never convince them it's an RPG)
If this wasn't confusing enough, forth rides the fifth Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
xXx MARKETING xXx (I had used unicode skulls on the side, but Gamasutra doesn't support them) :(
Marketing LOVES buzzwords and trending features. As soon as one pops up, it will be overused into irrelevance. We're seeing this with "roguelike" now. Simply having random dungeons, permadeth or hell - begin hard - already makes a game a "roguelike". Or "rogue-lite". Or "roguelike-like". Whatever.
In some ways, "RPG" is one of the original "design buzzwords". Over 20 years ago you already had things like Strife: Quest for the Sigil - widely advertised as a "DOOM meets RPG!!!1", it was an early FPS where you could talk to some guys and upgrade your character like three times.
Adding RPG elements isn't a bad idea per se, but things have gone a bit out of hand nowadays...
Roughly speaking, about 99.8% of AAA games out there now has "RPG elements" - which usually are nothing more than a bunch of lazy, pointless stats for you to grind, level up and hopefully feel something other than sheer boredom. But it sells.
I won't get into details on why this suck and why Garriot & Spector are rolling in their
graves beds... but it sucks. A lot.
So now, technically speaking, games like Farcry, Assassin's Creed, Just Cause, Watch Dogs, Starcraft 2, Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid V, Batman: Arkham Whatever, Saint's Row, God of War, GTA, The Last of Us AND EVEN MULTIPLAYER CALL OF DUTY are "Action-RPGs". Kinda.
Conclusion (but no solution)
So yeah, this is why defining RPGs, why objectively defending that The Witcher is an Action-RPG but the latest Batman game isn't is so damn hard. It's all a goddamn mess.
I mean, it's easy if you're an elitist old fart who still complains about Fallout 3 not being true to the series and Mass Effect not being a "TR00 RPG", but that doesn't seem to be as popular out here as it should, so for the time being we have no clear answers here.
But this is only half of my point, so let's move on!
ACT II - Being restricted for being an RPG
At the Classic CRPGs PAX panel last year (it's cool stuff - watch it!), after asking what RPGs meant to each of the veteran designers there, the host asks "but what an RPG means to a consumer?"
Josh Sawyer replies: "Stats." And the whole room laughs.
Because it's true, players think like that. They are petty and narrow-minded (I know, I'm one). But it's also a joke - as we estabilished, Call of Duty has as much - if not more - stats than the latest RPG.
What really hurts is how that stops devs from saying "Imma make an RPG with no (visible) stats! :D" You can picture the scene:
Enter COMPANY'S CEO, MARKETING DIRECTOR and lackeys.
Now, dear designer, we care not for logic nor reason,
but an RPG without stats... Why, I call that treason!
RPGs need numbers to sell, those are facts.
But, Oh generosity, I'm willing to sympathize.
Just push 10 millions on consoles (for PCs are crass)
Or thou team shalt meet its swift demise.
Exit COMPANY'S CEO, MARKETING DIRECTOR, lackeys and any subversive thoughts.
No no, they don't care about your bullshit - their focus groups all say the same thing:
- "RPGS HAVE STATS! (also pandering romance, plz)".
I can think of two major reasons for this dreaful scenario, the first one being pretty obvious:
Reason 1 - PEOPLE DO LIKE STATS! (myself included)
As crude as stats, character sheets and dice rolls are, they have a
rabid devout audience.
Sure, Garriott's Ultima games were not focused on stats (in truth, they barely mattered), but they were an exception. Most CRPGs, from 1975's DnD to 80's blockbusters like Wizardry, The Bard's Tale and Might & Magic were designed around spending A LOT of time creating a party of six characters and testing them against the mazes & monsters designed by the developers.
And those aren't just cold numbers. They tell a story, they are the reflection of characters you created, of the choices they made in their virtual life. In Daggerfall, my first Elder Scrolls game, character creation was a game by itself - and I loved it!
It had 8 main attributes, 18 character classes (plus the ability to create your own), 35 skills, including things like "Swimming", "Climbing" and "Speak Centaurian", plus an extensive (and kind of broken) advantage/disadvantage system.
It allows you to make crazy characters like a Mage acrobat that can only cast spells during the day, or a polite Rogue immune to magic but frightened of wild animals - which already sounds more interesting than 95% of RPG characters out there.
Thousands of years later...
Jump 15 years and you have Skyrim, where you start the game by picking a name & race.
That's really it, no classes or stats. Of course, there are some skills later, such as your Weapon skill allowing you to do more damage, or your Heavy Armor skill offering a bonus to your defense, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Elder Scrolls VI or VII removed these altogether. Fallout 4 shows Bethesda knows cutting is the way forward for them, as all the skills from previous Fallout games wouldn't really fit in such a
hiking simulator game.
Don't get me wrong, I love games like Daggerfall, I think the complex system can be used to create unique, memorable characters. But Skyrim is also a really fun game, albeit for other reasons.
What isn't fun is a half-assed compromise, tying to please both audiences and failing twice.
Compromising to Oblivion
Thus, I hate Oblivion.
I despise it's generic faux-European setting, the repetitive, boring forests, the overdone bloom, the consolized UI, the brain-dead NPCs who act blasé over the end of the world, that stupid dialog mini-game, the [insert 15 pages of very angry text here] ...and its pointless stats & classes.
Not, mind you, because they are "dumbed down". But because they should have been removed.
But don't take my word for it; here's an interview with Ken Rolston, lead designer of both Morrowind and Oblivion:
Anecdote time. Jake Gillen, he’s like a world builder, and he told me, this was early on, ‘Yeah, I couldn’t even get started in Oblivion because I played and I kept getting killed.’ And I said, ‘Well that’s impossible. That’s the easiest game on Earth.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I played one of the standard classes that you’d given me.’ Oh no, you didn’t do that. You’re supposed to know that you make a custom character because none of those other things work! And it’s that idiocy on my part of thinking from the hardcore’s inside knowledge.
[...] So I learned from that. I need to have the best reminders that I’m an idiot and a hardcore guy and I need to be able to see it from the eyes of beginners.
Oblivion's massive streamlining was heresy to hardcore, stats-oriented players, but it's the direction the series decided to go. Doing this while keeping all those classes & stats there only harmed the game; to people like Koltson it's the "easiest game on Earth", yet to new players it's a nightmare.
For Morrowind fans, Oblivion offered but a fraction of what I was used to. For new, casual players, it had a staggering amount of burocracy between pressing "New Game" and actually playing.
It's a compromise that serves no one.
The same thing annoys me when playing Pillars of Eternity. It's Lead Designer, Josh Sawyer, wrote extensivly about how he chose to balance stats in a way that there are "no bad builds", to close the gap between seasoned RPG veterans and new players who might pick "trash options".
Thus, in Pillars every character can use every weapon & armor, no matter their attributes or class. A Wizard can have 3 of intellect and still cast any spell. And even if you dump all your stats at character creation, you'll still be able to finish the game.
Which begs the question: then why have stats at all?
Reason 2 - We don't know better, yet
We can (and should) blame the evil marketing guys and the narrow-minded RPG audience, but blame also lies on the developers.
For all the ways to test player's skill, to present choices and tactical scenarios, character creation & progression is still a game of numbers. We are horribly stagnant in this area. It's all we know.
Is all that players were taught.
Mass Effect asks you to provide a background to your character, and all your choices mid-game will define her personality. Your Shepard is created by how you interact with the world. But skill-side, you'll still get XP to level up so you can spend 3 skill points to improve her Sniper Rifle skill by 5%.
WHY? It clashes horribly with the rest of the game! Make me snipe good by
romancing training with Garrus or something like that - something similar to how the rest of the game plays!
Similarly, Dragon's Dogma has an exotic character creation, where your height, weight and even leg size affect your speed, carry weight and stamina use. A large, heavy guy can hold enemies down longer, while a small & light character can enter small holes but is easily knocked down.
And they never show you the stats behind it, it's just something organic & logical. Brilliant!
However, after character creation is done, we're back to grinding numbers. Gear aside, a Lv 1 and a Lv 200 hero look exactly the same - even though one has 100x more Strength than the other. Bleh.
Even The Sims 1, believe it or not, is based on a simple point-buy "attribute" system where you spend points to raise certain positive personality traits:
The Sims 4 replaced that with a more natural system of choosing an aspiration and 3 traits for your character, but still relies on numbers to display how good at a certain skill your character is.
But there are alternatives
Fable does an interesting job in this regard, which perhaps is a path forward. While it does have stats for you level up, they are visually shown in the character, as he gets older, stronger, taller, maybe with glowing eyes or a heavenly aura. Thus, the difference between a low level evil mage and a high level good warrior are crystal clear, even without opening the character screen:
GTA: San Andreas tried this as well - fat CJ getting exhausted after running just a few meters is a much more natural way of representing stats than "Character can run Endurance x 6 meters".
Perhaps this is will be a more common design choice as technology improves... a fully simulated RPG, free from visible hit points, attributes and DPS. Take a powerful axe blow to the arm and you lost that arm and a lot of blood - better find a wizard or a cyber-arm somewhere, or say goodbye to that two-handed sword, unless you are REALLY big and strong.
Again, I love my massive walls of numbers, but each has its place. There are so many paths beyond that, it's a shame how little we dared explore!
An alternative path forward
Wild simulationist dreams aside, moving beyond stats is an issue many developers are facing, as RPG players are extremely diverse now, and some don't want to bother with stats.
Mass Effect 3 took a bold step in this regard. Upon starting the game you could choose from three different experiences - Action, Role-Playing and Story - allowing players to experience it as a complete product or focusing on either the Combat or the Story:
So yeah, the stats & numbers are still there (oh, the outrage if they removed them!), but now there's the option to make them irrelevant.
It's a compromise, but it's an honest one, straight up-front. I would really like to know the % of players that pick each mode, as I have a felling that "Story" has a rather large percentage.
If it's big enough, you can bet that we'll be seeing menus like this a lot more. Or maybe it will become the default option... Maybe we'll get a big surprise in Mass Effect 4. I would be excited for that.
These things aren't exclusive. The genre is quite healthy nowadays, having some stat-free RPGs won't eliminate the other styles. Is good to have games of each kind, instead of fighting to sell to the widest audience possible or to fit the
unspoken RPG genre rules - "MUH STATS!"
It will be like decades ago, when you had DC Heroes RPG and other tabletop RPGs full of dice rolls and stats (not to mention wargames), but also an alternative, combat- and stat-free* way of role-playing Batman before video-games could do so - Choose Your Own Adventure books:
Will Batman find out who's behind that dreadful Death signal? Will "CYOA video games" rise as the "new RPGs"? Will developers find new character representation tools besides stats? Will marketing guys stop trying to bundle all RPGs together? Will anyone read this massive wall of text? Will the RPG genre ever be easily defined?
I guess we'll have to keep playing to find out...
*I know, I know, most CYOA games had stats AND combat, but the Batman Which Way book didn't. Because of course Batman wins all rolls & battles.