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Felipe Pepe, driving force and editor behind the upcoming CRPG Book, has shared an editorial/rant (by his own admission) on Gamasutra. In the article, Pepe traces a brief history of role-playing video games to explain why the genre is so hard to define and then proceeds to explain why he thinks an excessive reliance on visible stats has stifled the evolution of the genre. I don't agree with everything in the article, but it's a good read and a good starting point for a debate.
Here's a number of snippets that I hope encapsulate at least a few of Pepe's points:
So now we roughly have three lines of thought:
Dice-Rollers: RPGs are driven by character skill! (muh stats!)
Role-Players: RPGs are driven by role-play! (muh immersion!)
BioWarers: RPGs are driven by choice! (muh romance!)
Roughly speaking, about 99.8% of AAA games out there now has "RPG elements" - which usually are nothing more than a bunch of lazy, pointless stats for you to grind, level up and hopefully feel something other than sheer boredom. But it sells.
At the Classic CRPGs PAX panel last year (it's cool stuff - watch it!), after asking what RPGs meant to each of the veteran designers there, the host asks "but what an RPG means to a consumer?"
Josh Sawyer replies: "Stats." And the whole room laughs.
Because it's true, players think like that. They are petty and narrow-minded (I know, I'm one). But it's also a joke - as we estabilished, Call of Duty has as much - if not more - stats than the latest RPG.
Perhaps this is will be a more common design choice as technology improves... a fully simulated RPG, free from visible hit points, attributes and DPS. Take a powerful axe blow to the arm and you lost that arm and a lot of blood - better find a wizard or a cyber-arm somewhere, or say goodbye to that two-handed sword, unless you are REALLY big and strong.
Again, I love my massive walls of numbers, but each has its place. There are so many paths beyond that, it's a shame how little we dared explore!
These things aren't exclusive. The genre is quite healthy nowadays, having some stat-free RPGs won't eliminate the other styles. Is good to have games of each kind, instead of fighting to sell to the widest audience possible or to fit the unspoken RPG genre rules - "MUH STATS!"
Outside of Gamaustra's comment section and a couple of RPG-focused forums, the only person who seems to have picked up the article and written about it is Frayed Knights' developer Jay Barnson, who offered a few thoughts on the matter on his personal blog:
What we want is to draw just a few lines and then point out in a 90-degree arc and say, (From here out past the horizon and beyond is RPG. Go forth and bring back samples of the wondrous variety to be found here!) And instead, we mostly just cross-pollinate with the other genres and come out with more hybrids and make the lines blurrier and blurrier and necessitate more lines.
But the truth is and Felipe knows this maybe better than I do that this has always been the case. When we talk about (old-school RPGs) we tend to talk about a handful of favorites. We forget all the stillborn attempted evolutionary branches that failed for any number of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with the quality of their ideas. The truth is, there were tons of games back in the 80s that could have been the template for future RPGs that do not represent our concept of (classic, old-school RPG,) and a new, updated version of the title wouldn't be considered an RPG today. but back then, we didn't care.
Or maybe we did. I don't remember. I have to browse through ancient back issues of Computer Gaming World to recall the discussions back then. Go back far enough, and even the name (RPG) or (Role-playing game) didn't exist, for tabletop or computer games. You just had games that simulated some aspects that people enjoyed from playing Dungeons & Dragons or similar games. What aspects scratched that itch varied from designer to designer.
Personally, my thoughts on the matter aren't quite coherent yet, but I do have a couple of ideas. First, we should stop worrying about prescriptive definitions of RPGs and start looking at what characteristics the title that use the monicker have in common. There will always be outliers that end up being remembered as RPGs because of particularly powerful marketing campaigns or the history of their developer, but I'm still convinced that we'll manage to figure out what (broadly) constitutes a role-playing game in the common consciousness. Only after doing so we can start reflecting on why the genre has a strong fanbase in spite of being so difficult to define and on how we can offer more pointed and effective descriptions of a title's gameplay.
Secondly, it's honestly not that big of a deal if a title isn't an RPG. If a title is better served by another set of gameplay mechanics, storytelling conventions, or even UI presentation (Pepe talks quite a bit about how stats are present in all games but only a few choose to present them upfront) to achieve its aims, then its developers should absolutely feel free to walk away from traditions and genre conventions. In many ways, a lot of the anger provoked by "non-RPGs" recently is the result of a misalignment of expectations, which is sometimes caused by marketing and other times by the players' own assumptions on a franchise or a studio's output. The words "role playing game" are often a crutch for both developers who don't want their games' weak points to be scrutinized too closely and players who don't want to accept the idea of a developer serving a different audience with different preferences. If nothing else, I hope to see that particular usage of the genre in common parlance disappear in the future.