Role-playing games are everywhere these days. Just over the past six months, we've seen three blockbuster RPGs in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Mass Effect 3, and Diablo III. Although they're not selling in Call of Duty numbers, high-quality RPGs are selling better than ever before and attracting a diverse and passionate player base. It's no wonder, then, that elements from RPGs are cropping up in everything from shooters to racing games.
Before we can talk about RPG elements spreading through other genres, we should define the essential elements of an RPG. That's more difficult than it sounds, as RPG fans regularly argue about how widely or narrowly the genre should be defined. I'm going to define it as broadly as possible and assert that there are two major elements that are essential to a role-playing game. First, RPGs use numeric systems to define characters. Character statistics are used to define a character's basic abilities, and may also be used to determine combat prowess in addition to or instead of a player's physical gameplay skill. Second, player characters in RPGs develop over the course of gameplay, gaining greater power and new abilities as the player completes gameplay goals. This is often (but not always) done through an experience point and level-up system.
There are many other elements that are common to RPGs and have been picked up by other games though. Western RPGs tend to feature characters that are created or customized by the player, as well as dialogue and storyline choices that affect the game. Japanese RPGs tend to have pre-defined characters and few storyline choices, but feature complex statistic-based combat systems that often involve a fair amount of player customization and/or choice.
Now that we have a base to work from, we can see how RPG elements are sneaking into other genres. For instance, although action-adventures have always introduced new skills and abilities over the course of the game, the way they do so has become more complex and closer to the kind of character growth seen in RPGs. Think of the difference between the way Samus gained new abilities in older Metroid games versus the character growth seen in the Arkham or Darksiders games. We've also seen actual "role-playing" sneak into other genres, such as the moral choices found in inFAMOUS, the highly flexible character-building found in BioShock and Dishonored, and the strong character-based focus found in Blizzard's modern RTS games.
Many game developers have been taking this cross-genre experimentation farther creating RPG hybrids. This concept isn't new, as the venerable turn-based strategy/RPG hybrid Heroes of Might and Magic series will attest, but it's becoming more popular and in some cases more ridiculous. Some games, like the shooter/RPG hybrid Borderlands or the puzzle/RPG hybrid Puzzle Quest, make a lot of sense and have seen good popularity. When we get to the level of poker/RPG hybrids, however, one starts to imagine that "RPG" was just thrown into the mix to garner extra attention for the game. Still, the flexible formula behind RPGs allows them to cover a wide variety of subjects, considering we've seen sports game/RPGs and farming simulation/RPGs out of Japan.
Why does it seem that RPG elements are just about everywhere these days? As games are becoming more expensive to produce and purchase, gamers are demanding that their games provide long-term value. Adding RPG-style statistics and character development into games can increase their longevity and play value, while adding dialogue and morality-based storyline choices increases complexity and replayability.
Are RPG elements always a good thing to add to games? Of course not. I personally believe that experience-based character development systems have no place in competitive multiplayer shooters, which are supposed to be contests of skill, not of who has been grinding up the most experience and thus been able to grow stronger and access powerful gear. RPG-style character development can also easily be misused, creating terrible grinds in MMORPGs and social games that exist purely to extort more money out of players. Gamers are catching on to these types of grinds, though, and hopefully will increasingly reject them as time goes on.
In the end, there's a good reason why RPG elements are showing up across many game genres. The elements of statistical character growth help satisfy gamer desires to measure improvement and progression throughout the course of playing a game. On the other hand, the elements of player choice pioneered in the Western RPG genre are an ideal way to add interactivity to a game's storyline and cause players to truly think of a character as their own. While these are all positive additions to gaming, we should watch out for companies using RPG elements in order to artificially pad a game's length or to hook players on uninteresting gameplay in order to keep them paying subscription fees or purchasing items via microtransations. Either way, it looks like both the good and bad sides of RPG gameplay are here to stay.
Date: May 24, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*