Let’s talk about RPGs

Role playing games are an interesting animal. They got a very clearly recorded history and a strong impact on gaming today, though there’s really two basic kinds of RPGs out there now — traditional, pen and paper games, and computer/console RPGs. Despite notable similarities, they’re functionally very different.

First, similarities. Both kinds of games generally use a series a statistics to determine the abilities of the characters. RPGs usually place a heavy emphasis on story, often of a sprawling epic saga of some sort. RPGs usually employ a turn based system to resolve combat, and often lack any other kind of major conflict governed by the game’s rules.

That’s about as specific as I can get. RPGs are a broad genre. But the major species have substantial differences; let’s talk about them any why.

Statistics
One of the most important conventions created by the first RPGs is statistics. It’s the idea that we can represent the ability of a person or character with numbers. It allows a method of conflict resolution which takes in to account the relative amounts of skill of each involved party.

Originally, statistics were all about combat skills — part of the evolution of RPGs from strategy games. Modern Pen and Paper games, however, generally try not to be so specific, covering physical, mental and social abilities, as well as a variety of skills. Even so, combat is often given special treatment mechanically.

Console RPGs, however, have made little headway in this department. It’s in part due to practicality; it’s worthless to have social attributes if the characters will never be given social challenges. Additionally, in many Console RPGs, most of the interactions with characters are pre-scripted and linear. While some games (like the Fallout series) may allow the player to explore different social paths and social conflict resolution, the means to do so are limited, for the most part because the computer is unable to spontaneously react to the player like another person can.

Advancement
Advancement is an undecided factor in games — it’s not always clear on the best way to allow a player to improve their abilities beyond the player’s actual input. In most games, as the player progresses, their combat ability increases, including their ability to deal damage and their ability to endure harm. Most Pen & Paper games also allow for increased abilities unrelated to combat, though this is less common in Console RPGs.

In both kinds of games, Advancement is generally done through experience points. When the player succeeds at challenging tasks, they are rewarded with experience, and when they collect enough, they advance. One of the biggest issues here is that in older games, experience is only awarded for combat; some even more specifically for killing thing, rather than simply fighting. Most Pen & Paper games suggest rewarding players for all challenges, including mental and social ones, so that non-combative players can still advance.

Additionally, most games advance players through levels, which increase their abilities. Being a higher level makes you more dangerous, generally. Levels are a troubled system, however, and given enough time they cease making sense; characters of disparate levels are nearly incompatible.

Some games have done away with levels, such as the Storyteller pen & paper system from Whitewolf which allows players to obtain and improve abilities by purchasing them with accumulated experience, but it’s a system that works on being loosely defined for the most part. Similarly, some games like Morrowind make players practice skills in order to improve them, which can make it difficult to obtain particular skills while trivial to improve others. Also, systems like this often neglect atrophying, letting players master skills once and not need to maintain them.

The idea of advancement in these games is ultimately something that has not yet be quite properly resolved.

Realism Analog
A bit of history; the term Role Playing comes from the psychological techniques of acting out an imagined scenario in order to realize it fully, and the consequences that come with that realization. Generally this is used to get people to confront irrational fears or build up positive traits. Role Playing games aren’t generally are intensive as this, though the best ones do get very engaging.

Most fiction establishes a level of realism; indicating what can and cannot happen and why. Most RPGs are generally presented as fairly realistic, even if they include fantastic elements like magic powers or sci-fi technology. However, this realism can be offset by the game mechanics which may not take realism in to account.

For example, in D&D, it wouldn’t be atypical to attack someone with a sword, which you would deal d8 damage. A 10th level character can easily have 40 hit points, meaning it would take between 5 and 40 hits to incapacitate them. D&D has no standard method for dealing with gruesome combat, however, and does not account for hitting vital points. This is also the most popular model used by console rpgs; attacks do a range of damage, when you run out of HP, you are incapacitated or killed. Additionally, most of these games fair to take in to account injury causing difficulty for the character in question — blood loss or concussive injures don’t affect anything.

However, there are a lot of Pen and Paper games that address this in a number of ways; by changing the way that damage is metered, by eliminated or modifying hit points, or by specially taking in to account combat scenarios like decapitation or substantial wounds. But very few console RPGs do anything like this, for a variety of reasons.

Flow of Storytelling
Herein lies the biggest difference between the two breeds of RPG, and perhaps the most fundamental reason why they are ultimately not the same.

Storytelling is the core of most Pen and Paper games. Actions are described, locations invented, characters acted and so on. But the story is handled by a human being. They can elect to engineer their own story or borrow one from someone else. But more importantly, they can react to anything the player’s do, ultimately meaning that the players can do anything, and the game continues. While the storyteller may direct their players along a given plot, they’re able to change its direction as necessary, should something different be desired or if unusual circumstances arise.

However, in console games, the story is usually set more or less in stone. There is an opening, which is in many cases isn’t interactive, then a series of plot segments where the conversations or (generally) predetermined, where you may engage in scripted scenes, such as where the party cannot win and must die to continue the story, or where a deus ex machina occurs to finish the scene. The ending is predetermined, or selected from a small number of possible endings. If a party member dies, it’s usually predetermined or temporary. If the party dies, the game ends and you get to reload from a saved game — in fact, if anything unfavorable happens you can reload, usually.

So therein lies the key different, the organic nature of the story. Computers are generally bad at making things up, and so their stories need to be crafted in advance, where people can change theirs on the fly.

Now here comes the inflammatory words. With a few exceptions, Console Role Playing Games SUCK. They suck hard. Fans usually tout the stories of console RPGs as their best feature, but my experience (especially with more recent CRPGs) is that they play like mediocre fantasy movies wherein you are forced to go through dozens of uninteresting menus to see the story. The ‘game’ portion of these RPGs, the mechanics that drive them are weak and uninteresting. Turn based combat with uneven elements, where players are given few and more or less meaningless choices toward their strategies, all of which can usually be overcome based on patience — if you’re willing to go back and fight weak random encounters over and over, you’ll eventually level up beyond any challenge and you’ll collect enough money to purchase all of the best equipment (another problem all together) and as many recovery items as you can carry. The patient can reduce the difficulty as much as they like.

This isn’t to say they can’t be made better. Some Console RPGs are great, but they’re rare. Generally, the less like a traditional CRPG a game is, the better it actually is. And in fact, a lot of other genres have adopted elements from CRPGs, though not always to their merit.

And there you have it, an initial summary between the two major flavors of RPG. Of course, they both have strengths and weaknesses that I haven’t covered here, but I’ll talk more about them in the future.

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10 Responses to “Let’s talk about RPGs”

  1. Daniel I. Harris Says:

    I remember when I was 10, and FFIV first came out. For me, it was new, it was exciting, and it was hard. I remember dying so much in that game. Balancing the skills of each of the characters, learning each enemy’s usual moves so I could anticipate them, calculating the opportunity cost of each action… it was hard, and required abstract thinking in a way that most video games don’t. It used a part of my brain that I was literally just fully developing.

    The problem with RPGs, in my mind, is not the gameplay, it’s the stagnation of the genre. I’ve tried a couple RPGs from the past couple years, and most of them have the same elements as FFIV. I can use the things that were difficult to think of when I was 10, and now I don’t need to think. So, I stopped playing console RPGs.

    I don’t think the mechanics suck because I remember having so much difficulty with them. The problem is that most non-turn based games require reflexes and progressive refinement. When I play an FPS, I have the skill from all the FPSes I played through my childhood (OK, that’s really not that many. FPSes I owned while young: System Shock II, Thief I-II, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Goldeneye). I keep improving that skill each time I play a new one: I come to any FPS with more ability than someone playing for their first time. Most FPS mechanics are extremely similar, with just a couple differences. However, I’m still challenged because I can get faster, more accurate, etc., etc. With an abstract system that doesn’t require quick reflexes, once you have that information in your head, you can just output it and win.

    However, instead of altering the mechanics to make the game difficult again, most RPGs just alter the story–or make up a little system that you need to learn before you enter combat and then do the same thing all over again (FFVII, I’m looking at you).

    I think FFXII is the most egregious example of this. Because the combat has become so repetitive, you automate your characters to do the actions upon the circumstances in which you would do them. The game actually realises that the core mechanics are now so easily understood that they can be automated with a few simple conditions.

    So that’s my gripe with most CRPGs. It’s not that the mechanics are uninteresting; it’s that they are the same. This was driven home to me a while ago, when I was watching a 12 year old girl go through FFXII. She had a really hard time deciding when things should be done, when people should heal, and all that. She had to do all the calculations: keeping people up at near-max HP keeps them safe from any lucky, powerful hits, but also wastes MP, and allows the enemies to hit you while you’re healing–they deal more damage to you because you healed. What kind of spells are important? How important is it to conserve MP, and therefore have more money to buy equipment that will make you powerful, but at the risk of dying?

    The first time you do them, those calculations are hard. But, 15 years later, the calculations are the same.

    In most turn-based games, the calculations shift dramatically. Civilization introduces new elements in each game that make you re-evaluate every strategy. I just played my first game of Civ4 a little while ago; I played Civ 3 a lot, and ended up playing Civ4 as though it were the same as Civ3–and I got my ass handed to me (though I do have problems with the Civ4 mechanics, as they make dramatically different strategies for multiplayer and single player games, but that’s another story).

    I think part of your distain for CRPG mechanics comes from the levelling system, and I agree, if it’s thought of the way you think of it, then it’s horrible.

    Of course, we’ve had this discussion before, and I will repeat what I said then:

    Levelling in computer games is often very, very good because it’s a flexible difficulty system. If the game is too easy, rush through to the next section, fighting as little as you can. If the game is too hard, then you can level up and make it easier.

    Honestly, I think levelling is the best difficulty system invented for a computer game. Yes, some people will just level up to make the game easy, but in my experience those are the same people who read walkthroughs or look up cheats on the internet (and always set games to the easiest difficulty level). That is, those people just want an easy game to go through, and not have to work so hard.

    The purchasing system is also good. Yes, I can buy potions and such, but that limits my ability to buy weapons and armour. Do I want to protect my units so they take less damage, or do I want to increase my ability to kill them so they can hit me less?

    Yes, all this can be circumvented by just fighting an insane number of battles, but that’s like saying that, on the easiest difficulty level, games are too easy–or that a game becomes too easy after reading the walkthrough. Yes, it does become easy: that’s why you shouldn’t do it unless you want it to be easy.

    • Greg Says:

      I would agree that at-the-time, some of the older games were good; I really enjoyed Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and the first three quarters of Final Fantasy 4 (but the ending was disgraceful). However, I look back on these games and can only think about how they could be improved.

      Earthbound had some interesting ideas about rows in combat, and had a great distribution of abilities between party members, but the reason it was so great was because of it’s story and humor, not it’s mechanics. It doesn’t even let you get any additional party members, or rotate from a larger party — the strategy is in how you conserve your resources from a limited ability pool and inventory.

      Chrono Trigger had a few interesting ideas, like enemies that wander around in combat and powers that took positions in to account, but by mid to late game, those abilities have been replaced with large area of effect abilities or ‘hit everything’ abilities. Beyond that, the player never had any control over where the party positions themselves, making the usefulness of those positioned attacks something of a lottery.

      Final Fantasy 4 is the worst of these three; the key change from FF1 to FF4 was mana instead of spells per day. I believe they had rows; (front and back), but it’s rarely relevant — you can’t change it on the fly, so you have to premeditate strategy for random encounters. Fighter characters have only a small selection of moves, where casters have an insane number of moves. (A problem that was also apparent in games like D&D — they tried to resolve it in 3rd edition with limited success, and a bit moreso in 4th, though I can’t say to what extent; haven’t played it yet.) The party has a shared and nearly infinite inventory, reducing the need for strategy by the amount of money you have.

      In all three of these games, the combat broils down to, you hit or you miss, then you do damage. It doesn’t matter what you hit with, be it gun or yo-yo. Range is never a factor. Position is barely a factor. Strategy is limited, and simplified. Weapons and Armor are very rarely something you consider; usually you get to the next area, buy the new equipment, sell the old stuff and continue on your way. You generally fight excessive amount of throw away creatures to fill space between ‘important’ combats. Why? Because there’s essentially nothing else to do between one place and the other. Still, they were different and (somewhat) innovative for their time.

      I agree that non-turn based games require reflexes, and that’s a turn off to people, but Console RPGs aren’t the only turn based games — they’re just the most boring turn based games out there. This especially comes to light with some more recent games, like Final Fantasy Tactics, which did a good job innovating the idea of Console RPG combat, but was dismissed by most Console RPG players, and was followed by a terrible sequel years later. We also have the Fire Emblem series, trying something different (though less successfully, as far as I’m concerned).

      There’s an enormous number of ways that CRPGs clould be improved, and they’ve not been. I agree that the genre has stagnated, but that’s ignoring the fact that the games weren’t all that great to begin with. It’s just more admissible for games that first tried something to fail at it then it is for more recent games.

      Now, to address leveling again, there’s a distinct problem with it as ‘flexible difficulty’, and it’s because it punishes poorer players arbitrarily. They aren’t required to get better; there’s no mechanism for teaching them (though most games lack that), they’re required to get patient. And that’s not always fun. If a developer wants their game to be completely accessible, why not allow ACTUAL flexible difficulty? Bethesda has done just that in Oblivion and Fallout 3, where players can pause at any time and slide the difficulty up or down. No penalties, no problems; just a shift in difficulty as desired. There’s also Left 4 Dead, which monitors the success level of the players and increases the difficulty if they’re doing too well, or lowers it if they’re having trouble. There is no reason why a CRPG couldn’t do the exact same.

      And there’s any number of ways you could improve these games. Why not disguise the numbers for health and mana? You could show players percentages instead of literal numbers and let the interpret the results. All of a sudden, there’s guesswork involved. Besides, when was hit points in the hundreds ever a good idea? (And don’t get me started on attacks that do ‘max damage’; that’s just epic stupid.) You could also take position more in to account. Have maneuvers that take several turns to complete. Find a way to increase the number of solutions to combat from ‘beat them’ and ‘run away’ — I can think of a few.

      There’s just too much that could be improved. And that’s without taking in to account the uninspired storytelling that usually accompanies these games — I’m looking at you, end of FF4.

  2. Daniel I. Harris Says:

    I agree, FFT is much, much better, and actually makes combat interesting (I don’t really feel like Fire Emblem merits much here, as the gameplay is the same in every game. I played one, and enjoyed it, but will never play another). I’m not sure what you hate so much about FFTA and FFTA2, though–I admit I haven’t played too much of them yet, but they don’t seem too bad (then again, FFTA & FFTA2 seemed to fall into the time-sink problem with all those quests, emphasising length of game instead of quality of game, but I don’t know if that will continue). You also neglected to mention Front Mission, another Square strategy role-playing game that has sold much, much less than FFT (which sold over 2 million).

    I also agree that the storytelling is usually crap in games, and it usually seems like it’s more crap in RPGs than in non-RPGs. My hypothesis: with so much emphasis on dialogue, RPG makers try to give something epic enough for all the dialogue, and usually end up being laughable. The only Final Fantasy game that ever had a even half-decent plot was FFVI, and that didn’t make it by much.

    I also agree that there are numerous ways that RPGs could be improved.

    I also agree with you that pretty much all CRPGs are crap, including the early ones. I should have made that clearer in my earlier comment.

    In fact, I agree with pretty much all of your conclusions; it’s the reasoning you use to get there that I take issue you.

    For example, take FFT. This is a great game. But how many people can play it without first playing another CRPG of a simpler variety?

    There are two types of complexity in games: inherent complexity and emergent complexity. Inherent complexity is the rules of the game, and require learning before the game can be played. Emergent complexity is the variation and complexity and depth those rules create.

    To show you what I mean, let me use what I think is one of the best games ever in terms of the ratio of inherent to emergent complexity: Diplomacy. Diplomacy’s rules are very, very simple: basically, if you have more units in a battle, you win. If you have fewer units, you lose. If the number of units is equal, it’s a tie. If you get a supply centre, you get another unit. Units can move one space per turn.

    That’s more or less it. There are 21 rules, and most of those rules are just clarifications of the first 5 rules. You can learn how to play the game in 5 minutes.

    But winning the game? Winning the game takes a whole lot of skill that isn’t covered by the rules, and a good player can waltz all over a poor one, even if they both have equal mastery of the rules.

    Diplomacy is, of course, a very easy example because so much of its complexity comes from human nature. But I’m sure you can think of many, many other examples of games that are easy to pick up, and almost impossible to master.

    Strategy RPGs have more emergent complexity, but they also have much more inherent complexity. There are more barriers to play a strategy RPG: first-time players are usually completely flummoxed, and just stop trying. To people who’ve played RPGs before, though, the game becomes much easier to learn: you already learned a lot of the rules by playing other, simpler RPGs.

    So I don’t think it’s fair to hold up FFT as simply better by its very nature, as FFT has more barriers to play. Strategy RPGs will always be a niche market because of how much knowledge they require before you can even begin playing. Declaring them to be better because they’re more complex ignores the

    CRPGs were never that great to begin with. Their inherent complexity is too high, and their emergent complexity is too low. The best games–the games that last–are the ones that you can go through time and time again, and learn something new each time. In games like Diplomacy and Chess, you can spend your lifetime playing and never learn all there is to know.

    But those games didn’t start from nowhere. Have you ever played Conflict? It’s a truly boring game. Tactics was much better, as was Tactics II, but those basic wargame concepts were around for a long time before games like Risk and Diplomacy did them well (in different directions, though, and it’s no challenge to see which one’s my favourite).

    But Conflict was really popular at the time because it provided something new and interesting. People enjoyed the game a lot because the strategies were new to them, and the emergent complexity was being discovered. As the emergent complexity of Conflict was exhausted, new games came out that increased the emergent complexity without increasing the inherent complexity–Tactics, Tactics II, and then Diplomacy and Risk.

    Final Fantasy I was like the Conflict of the RPG genre. FFT is to Final Fantasy I as Warhammer is to Conflict. Yeah, definitely more complex, but far too much of that complexity is inherent for it to ever be popular.

    Most RPGs have increased the inherent complexity without increasing the emergent complexity (in fact, this is not just a problem with RPGs: it’s a problem with many video game genres. I think that our love of new technology has made too much effort go into making the flavour better, not the mechanics (and, ironically, most corporate game designers are really bad at the flavour)). The point is, I agree that most CRPGs aren’t very good, but that’s simply because they never evolved to the next level. The RPGs that offered more strategy also presented more barriers.

    So I agree with you again; I look back at the first RPGs and think of how they can be improved as well, but that’s not a sign of their failure, just like the fact that Conflict is a boring game now isn’t a sign of its failure. Doing something new generally means not doing it perfectly. The first versions of chess were not as strategically interesting as the modern version, as well. What happened? People refined the idea.

    I think that you’re judging RPGs based on the fact that you already know how to beat them. In most games, not just RPGs, you’re required to take out a whole bunch of minor enemies before you have the big, challenging battle. That’s the way video games often go. Now, originally, these random battles were needed: those bad guys between you and the boss would be hard, and would force you to improve your skills until you’re ready to take on the boss. In games like Metroid, this usually still happens: you go into an area, find a new weapon/suit, learn how to use it against the small bad guys, and then use it well against the boss. It’s a way of increasing the endgame emergent complexity while providing the increased inherent complexity in small, manageable chunks.

    The first time I played a CRPG, those random battles were useful for the same thing. I was honing my skills until I could take the boss. I was learning about the way the new spells worked, about new ways to use my characters, etc. Those battles gave me chances to try out new tactics and new strategies.

    In most games, especially RPGs, random battles have become redundant for experienced players because they already have all the knowledge required to beat the bosses. The emergent complexity is exhausted and there is nothing more to learn.

    What RPG is there to provide new emergent complexity without drastically increasing the inherent complexity? Damned if I know.

    CRPGs have had their version of Conflict, but there is no Diplomacy on the horizon–only Warhammer.

    (I do think one partial solution to the boring random battles in RPGs could be solved through the Halo route: make each battle difficult so that it requires lots of skill and carries a real risk of dying, and then fully replenish your health afterwards

    Also, interestingly, I find FFI has more emergent complexity than pretty much any other main FF game, with the possible exception of FFV & FFVI).

    As for the levels, the Oblivion system doesn’t work for me because it’s meta. I’m changing the game itself in order to make it easier. With levelling, I’m using the in-game mechanics in order to alter the difficulty, and that’s a huge difference, and something no other system has ever been able to match, including L4D’s, though I quite like that system.

    I forgot about L4D’s system because I only have a Wii and a Mac; I hadn’t really paid much attention to L4D, and forgot about its difficulty system. I would definitely have problems with it if I couldn’t turn it off, though: I like things being brutally difficult. I like losing until I get good. I don’t want to win because the game made itself easy for me, as then I won’t feel any reward (“Did I win because I’m good, or did I win just because I died so many times the game made itself easy”).

    Though L4D’s difficulty system also requires patience, as you must die until the game makes itself easier for you.

    I do take issue with your statement that there’s no mechanism for getting people better with levelling, though–if the person has become so powerful that the fights against non-bosses are easy, then the fight against the boss should be easy, too. If not, then the problem is not with levelling: the problem is that the game has far too much variance in its difficulty. If the person just ends up doing the same thing over and over, despite the fact that it’s not working well, then the problem is not with the game: it’s with a person who cannot experiment and try new things, and no mechanic is going to be able to fix that.

    Hmm, but I’ve had too many points here. I’ll sum up:

    I agree with you, the early games could use lots and lots of improvement. They are not great games, and they are not classics. But early efforts at anything new always take a while before they become refined enough to have lots of emergent complexity without inherent complexity. That process has completely failed to take place with CRPGs. FFXII has as much emergent complexity as FFI, perhaps less–and the emergent complexity is the same as it was 20 years ago. That’s a true sign of a stagnant genre. I said that the problem with RPGs is that they’re stagnant because they never evolved to become classics–games that can be played over and over again and provide something new each time, and yet have very few barriers to playing them.

    • Greg Says:

      A lot to reply to, here! Sorry for the delay.

      First: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I had no stomach for it; it was a very simplified version of Tactics, and the story, imagining of the setting, and additional mechanics (the cards, rules and judge) felt arbitrary and inaccessible. I didn’t play it’s sequel, because I disliked the first one so much.

      Second: I agree, storytelling in games is usually bad. It’s partly because game producers aren’t aware of the difference between good and bad writing, and because they spend less time on it than on other game elements. (A great example of a group spending the right amount of time on their writing is for Half-Life 2. If you read Raising the Bar, the HL2 art book, the story clippets in it are ridiculously awful, but the refinement made it in to an enjoyable plot in the end).

      I agree with you over inherent vs emergent difficulty. Producing good emergent difficulty is tricky, and can mark a good game from a bad one. And I don’t disagree that people need simpler games in order to learn how to play more complicated games.

      Additionally, the growing complexity and improvement of the genre does represent a change in how difficult those games are to learn, BUT that doesn’t make earlier games like FF1 necessary. We don’t need worse CRPGs to teach people how to play passibly better ones; we need to establish what makes a complex CRPG good, and then RETHINK how to simplify those concepts, so that people may learn them. While we can get to a good concept from the existing bad ones, it doesn’t mean the existing bad ones are good simple version of the better games. We don’t see people sitting down to play Conflict because they want to try strategy games; they jump in to stuff like Warhammer.

      This isn’t to say earlier games aren’t important; they’re very important to see how design has changed, and to evalutate what does and does not work. This doesn’t necessarily make them good, even in the context of time. We’re often convinced of something’s quality by its commercial success — often linked by not always the same.

      “CRPGs have had their version of Conflict, but there is no Diplomacy on the horizon–only Warhammer.”
      You make a great and damning point here. And herein lies the primary problem; these games are so caught up in imitating their predecessors that they’re not thinking (or afraid of) experimentation on a grand scale. They need to try discarding old elements and inventing new ones; but it’ll be a while until that happens.

      Also: to clarify L4D’s difficulty system. It’s designed so that the situation is always tense without being impossible, with rises and drops in action to give the game a movie-like flow.

      However, the difficulty is elastic on a baseline — you choose a difficulty and it only ever gets so much easier or so much harder, relative to the difficulty you selected. It’s also dynamic, and occurs in response to the game as it happens, rather than between games.

      Lastly, about leveling: I agree, a player who tries the same thing endlessly and fails every time should not be rewarded. However, methods like power leveling, which are pretty quickly learned, are rewarding players for repetion, rather than technique. There are ways to make leveling make more sense, such as offering decreasing amounts of experience for enemies you’ve repeatedly defeated, or offering incentives for non-combat tasks, but they never seem to address the fundamental problem with leveling as a means to avoid challenge.

      • Daniel I. Harris Says:

        “This doesn’t necessarily make them good, even in the context of time.”

        I think this is the main crux of our disagreement (at least, if you ignore the levelling issue). I agree with you on most of your points, and you agree with me on most of my points. Most times something new is tried, it sucks at first. Some things are based in time, and that’s what gives them their value. They aren’t good in themselves, but in what they’ve influenced.

        And RPGs have had a great influence on the gaming community at large. They’ve pushed several games in great directions, like System Shock II.

        Of course, they’ve also created a whole host of problems, and exported a lot of the stagnation to other genres. They also seem to have increased the need for the EPIC STORY! All of that I see as bad.

        But, the first time you play an RPG, you’re still confronted with a host of options that have a lot of complexity to them. They just get boring, fast.

        Also, I think there are actionRPGs that are starting to evolve. For example, have you tried Mount&Blade? It’s not a great game, but it uses the RPG elements very well. These games show that, it may be 10 years too late, but RPGs are evolving. Games like The World Ends With You are also definitely trying to push RPGs into new territory (the problem with The World Ends With You, as far as I’m concerned, is that the pin levelling system makes you have to play the games at specific times, and I don’t want to be thinking about that when I play a game. I think the idea of world-sensitive games is an awful one because they demand more investment from the player when not playing the game–and I just don’t have the time for that.

      • Greg Says:

        Ultimately, I think what we’re disagreeing upon here is the definition of a ‘good game’. I agree with you that original (bad) CRPGs have had a spectacular and GOOD effect on a lot of games. And I don’t deny that they are important in a historical context. But I still don’t agree that they are GOOD games. Trying something new is good; experimentation leads to a great deal of advancement over time — it’s really the only way to improve and invent. But that doesn’t mean the original experiments or trials qualify as good in respect to their field. Informative, sure, but not ‘good’. If we offer something an award of quality just for being first, it’ll blind us to the directions which we must go in order to improve it.

      • D. I. Harris Says:

        I think things that come first, when they succeed on their own merits, are good–but they aren’t great. I would never call any of the FF games great. FM, possibly, but I haven’t played it enough to know whether it can support multiple playthroughs.

        I suppose, if I were categorising them into overly-broad categories (with the understanding that categories are always fuzzy around the edges, as they will always be negatively defined to a certain extent), and with the narrow definition of ways in which games make you learn (fun is important, but then I’d get into a graph rather than a continuum, though of course fun and skill development are linked), I’d go with categories like the following:

        Bad game:

        It doesn’t try anything new at all; all the skills you need to beat it are learned in other games, and there is no added complexity.

        Mediocre game:

        You learn some new skills from it, but a lot of those skills are due to more inherent complexity, rather than more emergent complexity, and that learning is quickly exhausted.

        Good game:

        A game that requires focused skill development, and forces the player to think in ways not done before; however, after a reasonable amount of time, these skills are developed to a point near their potential limit.

        Great game:

        A game that requires focused skill development to master and forces the player to think in ways not done before, yet is easy to pick up and play; furthermore, the skills learned can undergo near-infinite refinement of a significant nature (i.e. not just, “I finished 0.02 seconds faster this time!).

        Under these definitions, FFI is definitely a good game, as it requires focussed skill development and thinking in new ways. FFII-FFXII are all mediocre games.

        This may mean, however, that all this time we were in complete agreement yet using different definitions and not realising it. I will know when you respond!

      • Greg Says:

        Well, I’d say that to be a good game, you need to either try something new and succeed at it OR drastically improve/perfect something that has already been tried that worked (or almost worked). To be a great game, I think you need to do both — perfect something old and succeed at something new.

        However! I certainly wouldn’t discredit your measurement metric; it seems pretty spot on.

  3. Vinay Says:

    A comment leaped out at me from the last long post- that an increased difficulty in RPGs of the traditional sort might make for more interesting gameplay and greater emergent complexity. I’d agree, with an interesting case study in this regard being Persona 3. The game is relatively easy by Shin Megami Tensei (the metaseries to which it belongs) standards, but random battles still pose, for most of the game, a significant threat. The threat comes from two quirks of the battle system. First is the combat mechanisms- should one ever hit an enemy with an attack type that they are weak to (one of the three physical damage types or the six elements), that enemy will be knocked over. Should you ever crit an enemy (only possible with a physical attack) they will be knocked over. If ever you knock an enemy over, you get an additional turn, and this can keep going for as long as you can keep knocking stuff down. The same holds true for enemies, so if they can knock you or your party members down, they can take a large number of turns, which can get out of hand in a hurry. Secondly, if your main character dies, the game is over. These two facts combine to make combat in Persona 3 significantly more deadly with significantly less randomness than many difficult RPGs- leading to more thought by far expended every encounter, boss or random, than 90% of RPGs I’ve played.

    On a question to Greg, it’s unclear to me why Fire Emblem implements its mechanics less successfully than Final Fantasy Tactics does. Fire Emblem has two major advantages over FFT in my mind- first, all the calculations are transparent. Damage equals attack minus relevant defensive stat (resistance or defense as appropriate). To hit is hit rate minus avoid. Crit is crit minus dodge, none of which is obfuscated or hidden on enemy stat panels. Secondly, the amount of experience in the game is hard limited- it’s impossible to beat the game by grinding your characters through easy fights until they’re far beyond where they should be for that point in the game (Sacred Stones notwithstanding). You either get good, or you will never win. It’s that that keeps me coming back to the series- it’s refreshing for games of any sort nowadays (although that’s a personal peeve more than anything else).

    • Greg Says:

      I’m not entirely convinced of your stance on Persona 3, and admittedly I’d have to play it to be sure. It frankly sounds like the same old thing, without any real increase in depth.

      In response to Fire Emblem; it’s a shallowness of tactical choices, primarily. In Fire Emblem, you are given a set number of units, of which you have little growth control. Worse yet, the game’s mission-to-mission nature makes it exceptionally easy to force a player to restart because they did something dumb, like level a character who would leave or who has poor growth — or hell, a character they just don’t like. It limits your long term strategy in this sense, because without knowing what the characters will be like later on, you can’t bet on their abilities. While you can’t grind (good), you can get easily screwed (bad) by having a strategy the game doesn’t account for.

      Beyond all that, the game really only offers one or two real solutions per engagement. It often fails to allow for actually different strategy on any given map beyond initial troop selection and item selection (buying and selling) — it’s not quite ‘1 right solution’, but the variation between winning plays seems low when it isn’t inconsequential (ie: too easy).

      Second; is system transparency a good thing? And if so, to what degree? I do like knowing what all the stats and the like do, because it lets you understand a character, (though Fire Emblem often gives little information for comparing these numbers, like most RPGs, so you really only know their abilities relative to each other and current foes) but it makes combat in to a very weird experience — particularly in how Fire Emblem let’s you know your enemies perfectly. You don’t need to estimate anything, you just know it all. That kind of perfect information is bad simulation. A worthwhile comparison here is to FPSes, who have seen a trend of reducing the interface and literal numbers as much as possible in the last decade. In DOOM, you can see all your weapons, your total ammo, your inventory, and your health and armor at ALL times. In many newer games, you’re never told your health, (and healing pick ups have been eliminated), and ammo is either integrated in to screen graphics or displayed occasionally.

      Now, this isn’t to say that we should have less information in RPGs, but in Fire Emblem? It’s too perfect. (Not to mention it features a number of bizarre combat oddities, like the way it handles retaliation.)

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