PCRPGs: Man the Lifeboats!

The Few, the Proud, the Niche

There's no denying it, I belong to a very vocal and impassioned group of gamers; the PCRPG (PC Role Playing Game) gamer. I belong to a group of gamers who love to create a character from scratch, adjusting and tweaking said character's attributes, abilities, skills, etc. for hours on end before I venture my little avatar into the game world. I belong to a group who enjoys playing a quality CRPG more than once because I want to experience all avenues of character development and story. I also belong to a group of gamers who, according to many doomsayers in gaming journalism and development, say that PC games, and PCRPG's specifically, are a dying breed. (Console games are the wave of the future, and the future is here,) they say. Now, I will not argue that console games are the growing gaming platform of choice for a large portion of the gaming populace, but I will argue that PC games, especially PCRPG's, are not a dying breed but are here to stay.

(Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.)
- Matthew Arnold

The voices of doom for the PCRPG have sung before in the past. Back before 1996, one would have to search far and wide to find a PCRPG that was new. The days of Ultima and the Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box games were gone. Nintendo and Sony Playstation were going strong, and PC games mainly consisted of flight sims and action games. Then something happened. Diablo, from Blizzard Entertainment, was released and sold not only to PCRPG gamers, but also action gamers and anyone who enjoyed an easy to play and fun dungeon romp. True, Diablo was not a hard-core PCRPG, but that did not matter. What mattered was that the masses enjoyed Diablo and its high sales reopened the PCRPG market. PCRPG's were not dead and the PC once again proved to be a viable and profitable gaming platform.

Quietly, yet hot on the heals of a reborn PCRPG market came another game that would prove that PCRPG's could not only be fun, but also open-ended, thought provoking, and provide a pretty accurate model for displaying consequences for one's actions. Fallout took gamers out of the dungeons of old and slapped them into a subtly campy, 1950's interpretation of a post-apocalyptic future where the player was tasked with a basic endeavor survival. But it was not only his survival he had to worry about, but the survival of his fellow vault dwellers. Moral choices were strewn throughout the wasteland and the player could tackle quests in pretty much any way they saw fit. Fallout was a true role-playing game and fans of the genre could not have been more pleased.

However, despite Fallout's critical acclaim and growing, passionate fan base, it was another game released in 1998 that slammed the idea home that PCRPG's were here to stay. That title was Baldur's Gate. BioWare managed to create a fun and engaging Dungeons and Dragons experience for the PC gaming public, and it illustrated to game developers that PCRPG's could, and did, sell well and that there was a hungry consumer base who longed for big, in-depth PCRPG's.

But now it's 2004, and the same folks who decreed the death of PC gaming and PCRPG's back in the mid 1990's are repeating themselves today. Consoles are the big (it) factor in today's gaming market, no denying that. But to say PC games are dead, especially PCRPG's, well, that's just plain short sighted.

Somebody's been hopping the fence, again.

One big clue that PCRPG's are not dead is the increased depth and complexity of recently released console RPG's. Case in point; Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic from BioWare. True, no hard-core gamer is ever going to confuse the depth of game play of SW: KOTOR with the depth of Fallout or Baldur's Gate, but there is no denying that SW: KOTOR's open-endedness, character creation, and story are heavily influenced by PCRPG development. It is this type of crossover development that helps to reinforce the PC's viability as a gaming platform.

Now this next example is going to seem out of left field, but bear with me. This next game, released on the PS2, not only lets the player create their own character, stats, attributes, and even look, but also allows them to go down either the good or evil path, create relationships with NPC's (Non-Player Characters), and develop their character in an in-depth storyline that branches in a few different directions. Sounds like an RPG, doesn't it? Even a PCRPG. What is this (RPG?) Believe it or not, it is Smack Down: Bring on the Pain. I'll pause until the laughing and verbal abuse subsides.

Smack Down: Bring on the Pain has a lot of the elements that makes for a good RPG, no matter what the platform. Like I said, it allows the player to completely create their own wrestling avatar, choose a path of either good or evil, and complete quests given by NPC's to further the storyline. Call it a fighting game or action game if you like, but at its core, Smack Down is an RPG an RPG that got a lot of influence, whether on the surface or not, from PCRPG's. And the more people who are exposed to this type of play-style, the more likely it is to stir gamers to further explore the deeper RPG experiences.

But how is this going to help maintain the PC as a viable gaming platform? In the broad picture, games like the above help to bring in more gamers. When these gamers are exposed to the deeper intricacies of RPG game play, and if they enjoy it, then they are more likely to pursue similar gaming experiences. This may eventually lead them to PCRPG's, or it might just make them more demanding for deeper console RPG's. In either case, it makes the demand for RPG's greater on both platforms.

Poke it with a stick, see if it moves.

Most people who played KOTOR on the Xbox loved it, as well as the people who played it on the PC. If nothing else, PC gamers will at least get RPG's that were ported over, and that is one way the PCRPG gaming industry might stay alive. But another is the realization that the PC gaming market is still big not as big as console, no, but big enough to garner a lot of cash. Games like the Sims have proven that PC games can be big money. And once again, when we look at the fundamental game play of the Sims, we can see a PCRPG. Granted, there are no actual quests or even a story line, but the player does make their own character and develops that character through interactions with other NPC's. RPG-lite, true, but still a basic RPG at its core.

Future mega-hits will also give resurgence to the PC gaming market. Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 are two games that everyone is anticipating to be blockbuster hits. And anyone who plays FPS's (First Person Shooters) knows that these types of games are best played on PC's. However, since the gaming public is far more sophisticated than even five years ago, some RPG elements will find their way into the above games. Multiple ways to solve a situation is one RPG element. Another is finding loot that enhances the player character. Still another is NPC interaction. And finally there is story depth. Gamers are not as satisfied with just running around endless corridors shooting at anything that moves in their FPS's. The story has to be interesting and the player needs to be immersed and convinced that what they do in the game world matters.

Lastly, one genre that practically guarantees a lock on the life of PC gaming is the RTS (Real Time Strategy). Numbers don't lie, and some of the best sellers in the PC gaming market have been RTS's. To add to this, RTS's simply do not translate to console gaming. While an FPS can be faked into a control pad for a console (not with much success, in my opinion), there is no good way to transfer the point and click game play of an RTS into a console it's just too slow and awkward.

RTS's also provide another boost for the PCRPG, and that is that today's RTS's boast more and more RPG qualities. Take Blizzard's Warcraft 3, for example. The player gets a hero unit that not only collects experience points and levels, but also loot the hero can carry that augments his combat capabilities. Even Command & Conquer: Generals from EA gives the player's General character opportunities to level up and acquire new capabilities. I suspect that future RTS's will have branching story lines that are directly related to the player's choices during battles and whether or not the player won or lost those battles. The lines between RTS and RPG are definitely being blurred.

Why should I care?

What makes an RPG appealing? To me, an RPG is appealing because it allows me to step out of my life and play in an alternate life. It is both personal expression and play all mixed into one. It allows me to transgress without having to worry about real world repercussions. I can be bigger, stronger, fiercer, sneakier, deceiving, heroic, etc. without leaving the comfort and safety of my home. It allows me to experiment with (what if) possibilities in a simulated world where I can be the hero, the villain, or something in between. The more a game allows me to do these things, the greater my suspension of disbelief and the greater my enjoyment of the game. It is the reason why so many games that are coming out have more and more RPG elements in their design. The more immersive the experience, the better the chance the player will enjoy the game. It is these qualities that keep me interested in the genre, and I believe it is similar qualities that keep other fans of PCRPG's seeking out new adventures.

I can see the light.

It is games like the ones I described above that refocus the gaming community towards the PC, which will also allow PCRPG's to keep from being swept under the carpet. Gamers rarely focus on just one genre of game, and it is because of this gaming diversity that PCRPG's must continue to be developed. There is a market for them and developers, judging from past development history, eventually come to that realization. Sometimes it takes a lull before that one breakout hit surfaces to reignite the PCRPG genre. All it takes is a publisher and developer to think outside the box and not put all their eggs in one basket be it solely console or solely PC. Who knows who will publish the next Fallout, Baldur's Gate, or Ultima series? I just hope it is sooner than later, and I've a hunch it will be sooner.