I threatened in another thread to write this one, so… in PAX South, a panel of developers was asked “What’s an RPG?”
This was a panel on online RPGs, which I sadly only noticed after the fact, or I might not have screwed up so badly that I will facepalming at the memory of it for years to come, but… the panel was chaired by Dallas Dickinson (of QC Games: Breach), and consisted of some fairly heavy hitting game design stars:
- Gabe Amatangelo (also of QC Games)
- Chad Robertson (of Bioware, Anthem])
- Matt Rhoades (of Stoic Studio: Banner Saga)
- Scott Hartsman (formerly of Trion Worlds: Everquest, Rift…)
- Marsh Leflet (of Monster Squad games, Torchlight)
- Jack Emmert (of Daybreak Games: Lord of the Rings Online…)
Gabe spoke first, saying he felt there were four things that made an RPG, whether tabletop or PC:
Collaborative Storytelling - he said that for a computer RPG, the collaboration would mostly be between the player and the developers and AI.
Character building and progression
Combat, with loot
Exploration - he said this was an uncertain one, and the rest of the panel, after brief discussion, agreed it was not necessary.
To me, this seems a fair start, though what’s missing there is worrying. It’s basically just a rephrasing of Bartle’s four character archetypes (Socializer, Achiever, Killer, Explorer). And as a hardcore Explorer, I was pained to see my segment so swiftly dismissed!
Chad spoke next, saying that for him, the agency you had with your character mattered. I perked up for a moment, but then he defined that as the ability to define a representation of yourself, via XP curves.
Then Jack spoke, saying he felt that persistence of the progression was important, and ideally the gameplay should not be twitch play.
Matt said that it was solely about character progression through stats. Jack pointed out that tabletop RPG was becoming became less about stats and more about story, and suggested this might be because computers RPGs had the stats-based gameplay sewn up, so tabletop had to go for the niche play
Scott said that, while they were making Everquest and such, they had thought they were making RPGs, but in fact all that players really wanted was fighting and loot.
Jack pointed out that this was just Monty Haul gaming, which has existed since the days of tabletop.
(Looking back at it, I really like Jack’s continuing efforts to draw the parallels between tabletop and online RPGs).
To me, thinking that players want Monty Haul campaigns feels like conflating what players complain about, with what they would actually enjoy playing. Players will tell you where the pain points are, and how to make the game incrementally less unpleasant to play. They will generally not make suggestions on how to make it exponentially more enjoyable to play. So if you make a grind game, they’ll whine endlessly about the combat, and the loot drops, but they will not, in general, say “deprecate the grinding and looting, and put in an epic storyline, with relatable NPCs!” – particularly if you’re not making a sequel, so people can’t compare to what went before and say “this is missing, and should be there”.
Marsh said that basically, he felt that the focus should be to make an amazing game that you could lose yourself in, and that the RPG trappings should just be a layer on top. That the grind days were over, and that nowadays, we had got to the point where we could actually make games that are fun to play, rather than forcing players to “grind to make the pain go away”. (Damn yeah! Preach it!)
He also added, and this is kinda relevant to UA, perhaps, that it takes time for an RPG to come into itself. It takes time, keeping it alive and developing it, building the community, before it starts to become itself. Jack pointed out that KotOR is still alive and well and profitable, but if you ask most gamers, they’ll say they think it died after a year or so. Hype cycles, he said, are a thing!
But after all that discussion, the overall answer they came to, almost unanimously, was “skill trees/character development, which persists between gameplay sessions.”
They were asked if they considered MOBAs to be RPGs, Battle Royales, and they replied, sure, if the character could persist between sessions. FPSs, they said, were not RPGs but only because they required twitch reflexes.
Freaking MOBAs and Battle Royales!
Not one person in an hour long panel even mentioned NPC interaction, object interaction, world interaction, morality exploration, or having an impact on the world that persists. Story was briefly mentioned, but immediately discarded as being “really only for context.”
And, forgive me, I was tired. I’d been pushing my wife around in her wheelchair for about two days by this point. I had, for the most part, been faking human pretty good. But I fear I lost it. When they asked for questions, I stood up at the mike and went full-on fatass middle-aged neckbeard. I ranted at them until the poor helper at the mic had to tap me on my shoulder and say “so what’s your question?”
And I groped around in my head, trying to sum it all up into one point, and asked: “If RPG is not the name for this type of game that I seek, then what tag should I be looking for?”
And they looked down at me with pity. One of them, I think it was Jack, bless him, leaned forward and said… “I get where you’re coming from. I was a fan of Ultima Online too.” My face fell: this guy didn’t get it at all. But he continued anyway. “But nobody nowadays wants to make that kind of game. Maybe if you look at some indies…”
Shaking, my stomach in a tight knot of social embarrassment at what I’d just done, I returned to my seat. I was an idiot to even have asked, and I’d been rude and made an ass of myself. But boy, it’d been revealing.
To me, the Elder Scrolls Online does “RPG” really well. It’s a full-on massively-multiplayer online RPG experience by a AAA studio. So… how can a panel of luminaries look at the tag “RPG” and decide it’s just persistent skill trees?
Which is all a long way of asking… what is an RPG to YOU?