Editorial: Stop It, Kotaku Writers And Old People. You Are Not Wanted Here.

Constant readers, I must confess that I feel sorry for Justin Beiber and Oliver Motok. Sure, one is a vile blight upon the soul of human culture in general, and the other one is Oliver, but underneath that callous and frightening exterior beats the heart of a gamer, and in that, we are brood. So I shall spare their tender feelings, and instead lambaste a perfect stranger at Kotaku that had the temerity to write a column with which I disagree. Take that, establishment.

As we get older, it is tempting to put on our rose-colored bifocals and lecture the young about how good things were in the old days. Anything new is chintzy, cheap, a symptom of throwaway consumer culture, watered down by the deteriorating cultural expectations of a society increasingly fascinated by its own navel.  The old stuff is the good stuff, we muse, because when we were younger, the old stuff was the “cool new stuff” that the preceding generation thought was chintzy and cheap.

When I see articles like this one, about the deterioration of the Western role-playing game (by which of course the author means the computer RPGs of yore, to say nothing of their console-bound brethren), I have to sigh in frustration.  While we all may remember Ultima and Wizardry fondly as groundbreakers and trailblazers, are they really better in either style or substance than modern games?

One of the things the author laments is the slow evaporation of the menu-heavy turn-based system.  What once was a kludge owing to the limited nature of programming has now become a distillation of nostalgia.  We find ourselves too pressured to click a hotbar or (worse) push a button instead of spending a good ten minutes wondering whether “Meteo” (because we cannot have more than 5 characters per spell name, thanks to limited memory!) or “Fire3” is the appropriate nuke spell to use.  What absolute drivel.

If a slower, more sedate, chess-like pace of play is what the gamer desires, tactical RPGs abound.  If micromanaging the creation and development of a character appeals to players, sandbox-style MMOs provide a far greater chance for depth, customization, and emergent gameplay than any single-player RPG produced.

My concern with RPGs going forward is not that they embrace the quirky conventionalism of stat-crunching, skill-selecting, menu-based mania of years past.  That is, regrettably, the technological foible of trying to adapt the Great Western RPG (Dungeons and Dragons) to an electronic medium, initially for personal consumption.  As games and gaming have expanded beyond merely a solitary experience, and technology has expanded at an exponential pace, I fear that too much fond remembrances of kludges past may bog us down from innovating.

Wizardry Screen Shot
This gets the nostalgia juice flowing?

Ideally, the game experience should reflect as little convention as possible.  The recent forays into motion control are the fledgling steps in this direction.  If commands can be executed by intuitive gesture rather than button combinations, the game experience becomes more natural.  Every “layer” of artifice between the player and the game creates another layer of abstraction away from a truly immersive experience.  Playing a role-playing game, in the ideal world, would be no different than playing make-believe as a child.  Player choice would be limited only by our imaginations.

This sort of anti-abstracted escapism may never be fully achievable (absent sci-fi or cyberpunk’s total virtual reality worlds), but it is the eidolon to which we, as gamers, ought to ask the industry to strive.

By focusing in on the “good old days” in terms of mechanics and structure, we ignore what was actually good about those days (the stories, the depth) and romanticize what were merely necessary concessions to technological limitations (the game mechanics).  It may be annoying to have to aim and shoot like in a first-person shooter to play Mass Effect, but truly, the FPS mechanic is more natural than pressing an arrow key to hover the cursor over our selected baddie (who is probably doing nothing more threatening than running in place), and then spending five minutes digging through somewhat obtuse menus for the perfect command.  It eats time; it kills the natural flow of events.  Narrative must suffer while I compare whether “Fight” or “Item” sounds better.  Of course, aiming a projected target reticule with thumb sticks and then pressing one of a predefined set of buttons to fire a weapon is likewise not the way one would fire a weapon in life, so even the FPS mechanic contains concessions to a decades-old system of game control.

Ultima IV Screenshot
Sure, Ultima IV had a lot of character customization options, but that fact alone cannot make a game. And in light of modern storytelling, those options can conflict with cinematics. Which is better?

The basic premise of a role-playing game is that the player assume the “role” of a character within a story.  Much ado is made about creating an original character (the Dungeons and Dragons model) but this not strictly necessary.  Rather, the player must merely be responsible for the actions and choices of the character (something modern “morality” systems are getting better and better at defining).  The player assumes, albeit to a limited degree, control over the narrative.  In emergent sandbox games (like EVE Online), the players become the totality of the narrative.  In other games, those choices may be more limited, but the player must still assume at least partial responsibility for the course of the narrative.  The more intuitive and natural the situation of player within the world, the more naturally the narrative will flow from player choices.

The balance therefore needs to be between structure and free-play, not between how many stats are available for customization, or what the spread of potential race/class combinations is.  Action-adventure games have become better at the mixture of mission-based story structure interspersed with free-play, while RPGs have suffered a bit (Oblivion stands to mind as an example of a game where players can fritter away and do literally nothing for hours of in-game time without meaningful consequence).  Making some quests or missions time-sensitive (e.g., after the triggering event, players have six or seven hours of in-game time to complete the quest or the game resets) would go a long away to instilling a sense of narrative pace into otherwise open-ended games.

Mass Effect 2 Screenshot
Mass Effect 2 offers a more immersive, if more restricted, experience. I argue that this is preferable given current limitations.

An overly structured game can feel on rails; a totally open-world game can feel directionless (much like real life).  But a story is an artificial construct placed within a reality; it has devices that are used to advance the plot (sometimes artificially, see MacGuffins) but in true Dickensian fashion, a series of interesting coincidences happens that makes up an entertaining story.  The trick with an RPG is to build in just enough coincidences to allow a story to form without forcing them through (too much) artifice.   Games should feel destiny and fate without succumbing to fatalism.

One barrier to this still remains technological:  despite advances in coding practice, memory storage, graphics and physics engines, and so forth, a game is still a limited computer construct created by humans.  But as our technology increases, as our creativity increases and we look for new interfaces between player and game that drop the controllers, keyboards and mice of the past, so does our ability to craft more engaging and immersive stories.  But we will not reach gaming nirvana by romanticizing about our favorite memories of “GO LEFT;” we will realize it by transforming what we loved so much about exploring the Great Underground Empire into something that very nearly replicates the experience on a visceral, physical level.

31 comments

  1. fantastic article. I’ve recently been thinking about conventions in RPGs and whether or not any of them are necessary or helpful towards immersion. the answer I usually came up with was no. levels, classes, skill trees, elemental affinities. in both the east and the west developers keep holdin on to these things more because that’s the way it’s always been done more than them lookin at the goal of their game and picking mechanics that best suit the play style. it’s mostly because of this that I’ve been erring away from from RPGs and moved more towards action and fighting games.

  2. also, add dice rolls to that list. if dice rolls was woman I’d throw her bitch ass in a male top security prison and laugh at her screams.

  3. Without customisable stats of some description a game is not a proper RPG, and I will not use it to fill the position of an RPG in my now playing pile. Mass Effect 2 is less satisfying to play than the original title simply because it simplifies the skill tree, but I do appreciate not having to manage the originals awful inventory.

    Action based controls are fine for WRPGs, but menu based combat is most satisfy for playing JRPGs.

  4. customizable stats can be done organically without skill trees/license boards/sphere grids. final fantasy 2 and romancing saga does this. want to be a good spear wielder? equip a spear and use it, you will get better. want to get stronger? keep using physical attacks. want a medic? buy a spell book that has cure and have them cast it often. even magna carta tears of blood has a nice system. most characters are martial artists and to get new skills they had to be taught at a dojo; the more they used a dojos style the better they got at it. there are more intuitive ways of character growth is my point.

    and that’s purely subjective. I’d rather have all RPGs, eastern or western, action based and have tactical RPGs, eastern or western, have turns and menus.

  5. Right, because KAWAZU games are the INDUSTRY gold standard. I’m not interested in those games, I prefer to micro manage my stat upgrades, to be denied that makes a game less fun and rewarding for me.

  6. Oh, and Magna Carta Tears of Blood has one of the worst battle systems of any RPG I have played.

  7. @NooB – well I LIKE KAWAZU so nya nya-nya nya nyaaa-nya :P

    though you raise a good point which clearly defines the two schools of thought. many, like you, have grown accustomed to the ability to have such absolute control over character growth and are not willing to give that up. my side, on the other hand would prefer more intuitive and more immersive controls. I can’t think of a way to combine the two. could you give some examples of games that had excellent stat progression? don’t worry to much about the overall quality of the games, I sure as hell didn’t.

  8. GROWTH SYSTEMS AND BATTLE SYSTEMS ARE TWO DIFERENT THINGS!

  9. It’s not that I have grown accustomed to those things, they are what attracted me to the genre in the first place, and have nothing to do with the games I played growing up (and I’d wager many others are in the same boat). It’s the same reason that Cricket is the only sport I enjoy watching, it’s because I enjoy depth over accessibility and simplicity.

    Take an RPG, remove the stat systems, remove menu based combat, and then what are you left with? An action game.

    I already wouldn’t play Mass Effect 2 or Fallout 3 as the primary RPG that I have on the go, simply because they offer greater satisfaction to my action gamer inclinations, than they do to my RPGamer sensibilities.

    Remove a game’s depth, and it no longer functions as an enjoyable RPG for me.

  10. -Also, you may be the only Kawazu fan that I have ever met.

  11. I’ve always felt that it was more the focus on customizability, growth, and story that defined RPGs more than depth. and I wasn’t suggesting getting rid of the stat systems, just making them less… obtuse. and one can have depth without resorting to numbers. blazblue is deep but I never have to look over stat cards or deal with (goddamn) dice rolls.

    and I’m the only kawazu fan that I know too…

  12. why the hell are we the only ones talking? where’s Lane, I expected him to say something by now.

  13. Because no other genre of games have stories?

    Growth is much less rewarding without player input, though sometimes customisation has this aspect covered, as FFIX, Lost Odyssey and FFVII allow players to determine a characters skillset through equipment (this is a method that I find quite agreeable).

    But is there any reason why a player should have access to equipment customisation, but not have access to determining how to build up their stats?

    Also, I think it’s probably wrong to suggest that skill trees are an archaic relic, when you prefer character growth to be done under the hood. Growth was handled under the hood, through one-size-fits-all generic level-ups, long before the greater customisation of stat progression showed up.

    Now days it’s becoming increasingly rare to find games containing vanilla level-ups, because it’s more fun to be able to choose, than to have your progression dictated to you by the game designer.

    Thus I think a more apt defining aspect of RPGs is: the ability to choose, and make meaningful choices which have material consequences and outcomes.

    Stripping out game systems is only going to detract from and RPG experience, unless they are replaced by superior systems.

  14. I’m still at work, you numpties.

    Growth in an RPG does not need to be handled in an artificial fashion. We are still stuck with Gary Gygax’s 1960s system for stat growth, which was largely imported from war games.

    While I think that this hypermathematical system is fine for war games, I think it detracts from an RPG experience. And I’m a stat fiend. For Christ’s sake, I use a spreadsheet to plan out my WoW character’s DPS. But if I’m playing a console or single-player RPG, micromanaging my stats to make sure I’m hit capped or have enough of x elemental resistance detracts from my immersion in the story.

    One can have larger control over character growth (good!) without having to resort to conventions like “I now have sixty strength! Oooh!”

    Breaka hits the nail on the head by referencing SaGa and FFII. Even the dreaded Fable does this to some degree, though you must still use a profoundly stupid system to upgrade. Use heavy weapons? Get a bigger physique and higher melee stats. Spend your time running hither and thither? Get some agility and dexterity, motherfucker!

    Spend your time reading books and learning the secrets of the arcane? More magical power!

    Reducing stats to numbers is a requirement of computer programming. Making those numbers available to players to contrast their effect on game systems… even that is still a good concession to reality. But giving players generic “experience points” for accomplishing various tasks that can then be spent in any fashion makes character growth artificial. Want to build an awesome melee fighter? Well, you could spend all day fishing and still get the experience you need!

    That just feels unnatural, and I think it is more prevalent in Asian games than Western ones because of differences in gamer culture between the two areas. Asian games tend to be grindier and have a larger time-sink because it’s not unreasonable to expect a dedicated gamer to put up with that. Here in the West, that doesn’t fit our culture or our model. I’m not saying it’s bad, but that kind of system is going to be a turn-off.

    I like having very customizable character classes and growth options. I think I should be able to take any stock character template and make my party as balanced as I want it to be. But I should be able to do that by my equipment choices, my action choices, and the places I choose to visit.

    For instance, imagine that I want to turn my main character into the party’s tank (think Cecil from FFIV). Rather than have that decided for me at the outset, I’d like to go buy Cecil heavy armor, a shield and a sword and let him train with those. There should be branches, or options, during the game where I have the choice between using my brawn or my brains to solve a problem. Choose brains, get magic powers. Choose brawn, get stronger. And so on. As my character fulfills these tasks, the character path becomes more and more defined.

    Want to change that? Go back and do the attunement quests over again. Perhaps some penalty can apply: if you suddenly want to change your dual wield melee fighter into a spellslinger, s/he has to suffer a crippling injury that drastically reduces dexterity. Decide on changing later? You can heal the injury, but it burns out her sensitivity to magic.

    That way, character growth and empowerment are handled in-line with the story, instead of being some meta-game that we have to play. The same with crafting systems, pet farming, whatever. I hate it; it’s a stupid time-waster. I feel so dumb spending hours of game time crafting a potion when I’ve just been told to help the village immediately or everyone will die. It lessens the sense of emergency; I’d like for persistent, story events to be time bound. Once you talk to this villager, you have 1 days of real time to kill the next boss, or the game resets its state to the phase just before. That way, the story progression feels more natural and in tune with the narrative.

    SN has a good point, though, is that this is restrictive. What if I don’t want to save the world, but rather fish in every stream across the land? The question is where we strike the balance between open-world sandbox style games and story-driven single-player campaigns. My preference is for segregation: sandbox style games flourish in the MMO world (see Fallen Earth, EVE Online), whereas story-driven games do better on consoles or in single-player mode. That way, we don’t hold back development of the one to try to achieve some sort of ultra-broad appeal.

  15. Wow, there goes Lane …

    -I don’t think I’m really into the same RPGs as you guys, I would prefer to pick and chose each and every skill and attribute. Trying to scour all that stuff from RPGs just seems a little backwards …

  16. you talk as if my examples take all control away. as I said, in FF2 you choose how your stats develop through your equipment. I find this preferable because it makes more sense. remember how at the beginning of FF13 there’s a tutorial to explain how to use the chrystarium system? and in FF12? FF10? that type of shit really shouldn’t be necessary. there’s no reason to have something as simple as getting stronger to be so complicated.

    and I’m not suggesting that “improve through use” systems are newer I’m saying that they’re sensical. and if the goal of the RPG is more immersive I’m putting forth that they’re superior. ITU offers as much depth as STs just with less menus.

    and your definition of RPGs doesn’t seem to lend itself any more towards ITU or ST. both have choices that have meaningful consequences it’s just that mine is more intuitive and yours is more hands on.

  17. Yeah, well hitting myself with a sword in order to grow stronger isn’t exactly the type of customisation I’m looking for …

  18. -good god Lane!

    @NooB – yea, OK. agree to disagree.

    and with one post Lane brings order to chaos.

  19. -I’m not talking about story choices, I’m talking about character development choices (though this makes for a nice parallel to non-linear stories).

    I get that you want all the complexity stripped out of RPG game systems, but statistical complexity and micromanagement is an integral part of RPGs for a very large number of people.

    Personally, I can think of few things more dull than the growth systems used by FFII or Oblivion. And I really don’t think that is the direction that the genre on a whole is heading.

    Trying to satisfy myself on the kind of RPGs that you prefer, would for me be like trying to satiate my hunger by eating soup made of weak piss and dandelions.

  20. Personally, I usually find I enjoy games more when I have full control (or almost full control) over the character customization. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy immersive character advancement as well (heck, I probably liked FFII more than most. I loved knocking my own characters out to make them better!), and I’m certainly not going to argue that that’s the more realistic way to make a game (as Lane said, menus are a crutch from before we could do better), I’m just saying that’s my personal preference. I guess my ideal system would be a hybrid of both. By default, you gain experience based on your action and decisions, but with the option of manually tweaking it if you so desire.

    @Lane: Your comments about timing in RPGs actually bring to mind Persona 3 and 4. All the side-stuff (social links and the like) seem to exist outside of time, but at least the main plot is on a strict schedule, with important events occuring every month or so (in P4, you actually do get a game over if you spend all your time fishing instead of defeating the boss by the set day).

  21. @DG: I’m getting Persona 3 Portable for my cruise this fall (yes, I’ll spend my time on the cruise playing PSP. Don’t judge me. I hate water.), which will be my first experience with the series. I’m looking forward to it.

    @SN: But hitting yourself with a sword is integral to actually learning to use it. Well, admittedly, it’s a blunt or wooden sword, but once upon a time I could’ve shown you some awesome welts I got from sword training! It at least makes in-game sense. I am all for rich depth in customization, but I want it to happen from something more than “I did x number of things, got y number of points, and now I get to spend them how I want.” That leads to people bypassing fun things in favor of efficient things (such as in WoW, where I’ll skip a difficult quest to go on to a boring one because I will level up faster), because in leveling up, I get more “talent points” to spend.

    Now, I’ve done a lot of martial arts throughout my life, and I’ve never felt like, after a night of intense working out, someone handed me a talent point that I got to spend to learn a new attack. Usually it involved a lot of people throwing me on my ass before I felt like I had a handle on it.

    I’m not against micromanagement as a system per se (like I said, I think it makes sense in some games, like WoW), but WoW isn’t primarily story-driven. I am very “aware” I’m just playing a game at all times because there’s usually some chowderhead on vent I’ve got to cuss out, my UI impedes on my field of vision, and I use lots of boss encounter helpers to try and lead my raids around. So I’ll say shit like, “OK, everyone spread for defile” (which I pronounce “DEE-fi-yal,” much to the chagrin of my non-Texan raidmates) and that breaks the fourth wall.

    But when I fire up Dragon Age, I don’t want to spend time agonizing over whether to gain a new Champion skill or whatnot. I want my character to grow in response to my actions, just like the story does along with my textual responses.

  22. @Lane – some advice for P3, when you hear chains rattling and a character says “Death is coming… ” they’re not fuckin around, gtfo.

    @DG – which version of FFII did you play? I played the PSP version and I never had to beat myself up. that may be because I was spending a lot of time in the Arcane Sanctuary though.

  23. That’s the very last thing I’d want from Dragon Age.

    I need player input. I don’t care whether it is reletively straightlaced by the numbers X amount of EXP = 3 points to spend in a skill tree, or whether it is something slightly more realised like slotting Materia into a weapon or slotting spheres into a grid.

    I don’t care what form it takes, just so long as it isn’t automated, because I find that extremely unrewarding.

    Choices.

  24. @NooB – what we’re suggesting ain’t automated, it just gets rid of menus. you still choose to increase your strength by electing to beat something to death as opposed to BBQing it. you still choose what spell you learn by buying specific spellbook.

  25. @Lane: I really like all the interface improvements they’ve made in P3P (they pretty much took all the good parts of P4 and improved on them), but I think the game suffers a bit from not having the cutscenes play out with in-game models. Still a great game, though, if you don’t mine a little bit of emo weeaboo-ness.

    @Breaka: I played the PS1 version, which I think is pretty much the same as the PSP version. I didn’t HAVE to his my characters on the head, but once I found out it improved your stats, I couldn’t resist!

    Also, for Blazblue, I don’t think that’s so much character progression as player progression. Everything’s available to the player right form the onset, but it’s up to the player to learn how to use it. I actually think that Crackdown (1 and 2) was a good, if simplistic example of what you and Lane are talking about, where if you use your fists, your strength levels up. If you run enemies down with a car, your driving skill increases, stuff like that. It needed a few more options, but the principle was sound.

  26. @Breaka: that is automated. You’re just describing using the gameplay mechanics, the game still levels you up automatically based of experience levels. Now of course that’s slightly preferable to pre-baked levels, but only slightly. Still seems rather dull to me.

  27. Just commenting to say that this was a great read and a great discussion. I fall somewhere in the middle of Breaka/Lane and SN. So my arguments would be redundant and diplomatic to the point of being a little boring.

    Consider this post the equivalent of Facebook’s “like” button.

  28. @Ethos: No fair, redundant and diplomatic is my shtick!

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