Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Is Role-Playing the ultimate videogame genre?

In the beginning, genres were watertight. Action games were pure action – some had the semblance of a story, others just ignored it altogether and let you get on with the leaping, running and killing. Racing and sports games put you in the thick of things, and didn't bother with levels or stats or items. Strategy games just focused on making sure your fingers were almost dropping off from pain. Fighting games featured crazy rosters, mad combo skills, but no customization. Adventure games had great stories, mind-bending puzzles, and little else.

Meanwhile, Role-Playing games were catering to the more hardcore, more intelligent and erudite gamers who demanded more complexity and nuance from their gaming experience. There were engaging stories, lots of complicated stats and items to manage, there were vast and exciting lands to explore, dangerous creatures to kill, puzzles to solve, strategies to formulate. Early CRPGs such as the Ultima games, SSI's legendary Gold Box games based on the Dungeons and Dragons rules, Wasteland, Daggerfall and Betrayal at Krondor were amazingly complete gaming experiences, and prely for the hardcore. They were difficult and demanding – and would usually overwhelm new players who would rather play more simple games such as Doom or Screamer or Prince of Persia.

But the fact was that Role-Playing games offered the most complete gaming experience of all genres – incorporating adventure, strategy, puzzle-solving, and action in addition to the core role-playing mechanics of character development and equipment trading.

Fast-forward to the present day, and you have every single genre scrambling to introduce 'role-playing elements'. Shooters such as Borderlands and Bioshock give you a range of weapons, stats and skills to develop your character. Racing games such as Forza Motorsport have introduced XP points, a level-up system, car customization and vehicle upgrades you can buy from a store. Sports and racing games have introduced story based 'career modes' to further draw players into the experience. Strategy games such as Dawn of War and Warcraft now feature unique 'hero' characters that can be levelled up just like in an RPG, and equipment and items that offer bonuses and boosts. Fighting games such as Soul Calibur now have 'create your own character' modes, skill progression, and unlockable moves and equipment. Even casual games like Farmville have tons of features from traditional RPG designs.

Just what is happening here?

Looks like game designers are discovering that as the gaming market matures as a whole, gamers are demanding more value from their games – especially considering that games aren't cheap these days. You stick in role-playing elements (character development and customization, item progression, engaging story and setting) and suddenly the same basic gameplay is more involving, and lasts much longer. Job done. Even online communities have all been built as meta-games, which are essentially role-playing in nature – consider XBOX Live's customizable Avatars, achievements and gamerscores, all fundamentally role-playing concepts.

So what we have here is this – whatever you're playing today, it's likely you're playing an RPG at some level.

At a basic psychological level, we're all obsessed with acquiring stuff, and comparing said stuff with our friends and neighbours and total strangers. Role-playing games tap into this need for constant acquisition driven growth, and make it a harmless (mostly) and entertaining virtual experience. And addictive. Game publishers like that.

Alright, off now. Need to play Dragon Age Origins for a few hours – so I can level up my strength to 38 and wear that Blood-Dragon Armour. That'll show Videep Vijay Kumar who's boss.

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