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All the Tedium, None of the Heart: Enough with Boasting "RPG Elements"

Game makers should stop describing their non-RPG games as having RPG elements--the phrase has come to stand for some of the least interesting aspects of the RPG experience, and tends to cheapen the genre.

Craig Stern, Blogger

November 4, 2009

4 Min Read

Dear fellow game developers: I have a special request for you. Unless your game is actually some form of RPG, stop saying that your game has RPG elements.

So the player of your top-down shooter game has to spend coins in order to purchase the double shot instead of just nabbing a power-up. Guess what? Your game has nothing to do with RPGs. The fact that you give the player experience points or make the player purchase upgrades from a store doesn't make your Galaxia clone a blood relative of Planescape: Torment. It isn't a selling-point, and it cheapens the RPG genre to pretend that it is.

Your game does not have RPG elements

There are a lot of games out today that claim to boast RPG elements. Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw claims to have lost count of them. Google hasn't: as of the time of this writing, it returns 34,200,000 results for the phrase "with rpg elements." That's over 34 million, for those who have trouble discerning large numbers.

Not all of those results represent individual games, but their sheer numerosity suggests that "with RPG elements" has, in fact, become something of a cliché. A similar search for "with FPS elements" returns just north of 100,000 results, and "with puzzle game elements," less than half that. RPG, for some reason, is considered a uniquely chic genre to plunder "elements" from.

Even Cliff Blesinzki is jumping on the "with RPG elements" bandwagon. He stated over the summer that he wants to make Gears of War 3 with RPG elements. I quote: "the future of shooters is RPGs." Yeah--and the future of hot dogs is ice cream.

Can we just be honest with ourselves for a second? Really, deep down, most of these games don't feature RPG elements. They feature RPG element. Singular. Because they only take one RPG element out of many. What's worse, they don't even take one of the better ones. I bet you that this is what Gears of War 3 is going to do: you'll get points after each level that you can put into things like accuracy, damage, armor, and movement speed. Ta-da--now there's stat progression! It's an FPS with RPG elements!

If I may briefly analogize, this is like saying that Zelda: A Link to the Past is a game with top-down shooter elements because Link can shoot projectiles at enemies with his bow, and he must dodge enemy projectiles. Is that technically true? Sure, insofar as that's something that shooters do. But it's a trivial observation. There is nothing ground-breaking about it, to be sure, and since it affects the gameplay only sporadically, it won't make the game appeal to shooter fans. Used in this way, it's a calorie-free marketing phrase. It tries to borrow the glow of a well-loved genre without honoring its heart.

You wouldn't know it from looking at these "RPG elements" games, but there are other elements that characterize RPGs besides stat-building. For example: extensive dialog, character arcs, party-building, exploration, puzzle-solving, and a focus on narrative. The best RPGs give you a variety of meaningful choices that have long-term effects on the game. RPGs that neglect more than a few of these elements, by contrast, tend to be crap. Why, I ask you, would you want to crown your game with a mantle of crap?

As Chris Avellone so elegantly put it just a few days ago:

"An RPG is a game that provides character progression, opportunities for exploration, the ability to confront or fight adversaries and obstacles to achieve rewards, and, most importantly, gives choice in everything from character construction to action and dialogue choices in the game, and the game reacts to those choices in measurable ways."

At the end of the day, I'm not opposed to games that borrow RPG elements. You want to make an FPS where you create your own customized character, with unique skills that affect how you deal with challenges? You want to include dialog trees, with choices that affect how others view and react to your character? You want an engaging, deep narrative that plays out according to the player's choices? Great! I applaud you and support you in your efforts. Just don't make a game "with RPG elements" that attempts to reduce the genre to its weakest charateristic.

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