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The RPG Conundrum
by Fox English on 03/25/11 06:05:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Criticims of the overall RPG genre is a popular subject, but they still seem to be one of the two primary targets of indie developers as their dream to make (the other being some form of FPS/hybrid). In line with this claim, I am developing my own RPG, Shadowdawn Genesis, and in doing so I have done my fair share of research into the plans of other independent game developers, noticing this shared trend and what it is developers (and players) are expecting from it.

But what is it about the RPG genre that attracts so many fledgling, starry-eyed young gamers to attempt their own? How is it such a hotly contended point of debate among more established industry veterans and critics, when at the end of the day, it is a very niche genre that only has a few breakout titles that pretty much did their best to bury their RPG origins to get that popular? Not to mention, a good, solid RPG that does not rely on some external gimmick to sell is hard to make - requiring a lot more work than possibly any other genre to add assets to and balance well (though many designers these days seem to throw the latter to the winds).

Console RPGs

Often called JRPGs (which in itself has an unfairly negative connotation these days) this genre of game was championed by Nintendo of America with the original Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, even going so far as to interjecting now long-forgotten Howard and Nester cameos into the former. Not to be outdone, SEGA also released the original Phantasy Star for its horribly overshadowed Master System. They were simplified, more freeform versions of slower, number intensive PC offerings at the time such as Curse of the Azure Bonds and Ultima: Warriors of Destiny. Not to say they were superior or inferior, but they just had a more streamlined approach to gameplay. Still, not many actually owned PCs at all in the late 80s (I distinctly remember the Commodore 64 being Nintendo's main competition at the time), so to a vast majority, RPGs were a completely new experience, and if not for this easier-to-digest level of entry, they may never have obtained the popularity they do now.

Now, I see post after post calling them out for being stale, for not evolving, for always being the same story and same game over and over again - statements that just simply are not true, often spoken from someone who feels they have "grown up" out of them while focusing on either the lowest common denominator (Final Fantasy) or only finding the offerings made for all ages. But indie devs almost unanimously want to make this kind of game - and not just that, but make it as an homage to the long lost 16-bit era at the perceived peak of its innovation. Though I don't believe for a second that JRPGs stopped evolving and producing superior content at the dawn of 32-bit (look at the excellent Suikoden and Wild Arms series that came out since then, among others like Valkyrie Profile and the Tales games), I believe that the reason this genre is such a popular target is that it "seems" easy to make while having a lot of room to write stories. Tile-based maps with clearly laid out spacing requirements, limited movement, small minimally-animated pixel sprites, and in many cases an almost linear anime-like parallel in combat skills and plot development. It's a well-known game design document polished to a shine, and many tools to make such a game like RPG Maker, it's hard to resist - especially if the dev has no programming skill and just wants to write a cool or funny story. Of course, the genre is so much more than that, and it frustrates me that few want to evolve it from its strengths - relying on the nostalgia and tried-and-true design just to tell a story.

Of course, there are many games that try to innovate tried and true elements of the genre and often end up more niche than normal - but given how often I see people analyze the same things in a "I can't believe no one thought of doing this before" way, makes me realize that not very many people actually try to research other games aside from the most well-known.


So-called Western RPGs are notable for decades long attempts to recreate their inspired origins as tabletop strategy games. This meant that they were very intricate, number heavy games where positioning and tactics were much more important than (most) console games, but dice rolls were still a fundamental shared aspect of the two. In the end, even the best strategies could fail if luck was against you; this, I feel, is one of the core tenants of RPGs long forgotten - power levelling so loss was impossible started RPGs down a path of no return towards action games with or without confirmation windows (which could be seen as extra button presses to arbitrarily slow things down). In a sense, this approach to playing and making RPGs made Experience Points, which seems to be a definitive element of RPGs by many accounts, an obsolete and unnecessary method to stagger player progress.

For awhile, PC RPGs had a heyday with the marriage of RPG rules and RTS-like controls, which was where I was more interested in them. Not that I like RTSes, but it seemed to be the best way to micromanage parties while still keeping the strategic element in full focus.

Recent trends have shown that PC RPGs are becoming less RPG-like and more true action games (not even necessarily adventure games, depending on how limited exploration is). Of course, some people are satisfied with characters that have multiple lines of character-developing dialog... but we don't need an RPG to do that, contrary to popular belief, which is the crux of the problem. RPGs do not equal story, and story does not equal RPGs - this is just a circumstance of how the genre has evolved over time.

This is not to say I believe RPGs have to be turn-based or anything like that, as I fully endorse true action RPGs (not hack and slashes), but now with people asking for the removal of numbers and rules, and removing "slow" or technical aspects of RPG gameplay that frankly is what MAKES the genre an RPG, it makes me seriously question just what it is these people are expecting? Are people afraid they're going to miss out because they don't want to deal with the systems in place? I mean, when I grew up, if I didn't like how a game played, I just didn't play it - I didn't care how awesome the story was or how cool things looked or how popular it was. You don't see me playing any iteration of Call of Duty, which always looked like a good game, but I just wasn't interested in it - and I wouldn't dare tell anyone what to change so I can selfishly enjoy it while many others are already more than happy with how it is (or was, depending on who I talk to).

So what is it about them?

For a genre that has trouble even settling on its own definitions (the name itself means practically nothing in the grand scheme), I ultimately feel that its the commonly used comic book-like characters and settings that make RPGs such a huge draw to younger indie devs. With vast casts of interwoven characters having superpowers (also known as magic, the Force, and demonic possession depending on the setting), they are a game-based canvas that has gained similar affection and creativity draw I've also seen in the best of aspiring comic artists and writers. Non-RPGs rarely have such character-focus aside from the primary character, but when they do, you'll find fandoms everywhere for them - without the unifying term "RPG" they are just easier to overlook.

JRPGs were literally created as an interactive manga/anime based on Western RPG gameplay at the time, which started pointing me in this line of thought, and Western RPGs followed suit to compete, giving more "character" to their often entirely player-rolled characters of the time. From a newcomer developer perspective, RPGs seem like they would be easy to make - create a list of skills, stagger them appropriately, have a lot of story written, and make a cool character design (or three) with cool weapon names.

The question I have to pose is, do these kinds of games really HAVE to be RPGs?

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Kamruz Moslemi
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Part of the draw is nostalgia as these titles were the favourites of many in their youth, part of the cause for a call for change is disappointment in the most popular iterations having embraced some, to western gamers, dazzlingly unpopular conventions.

As to the definition of what makes a JRPG, my personal one is very simple, the offsprings of the Dragon Quest template. You know, a Fight/Magic/Item menu meant for combat, lots of filler battles that can be beat by choosing fight over and over again which are seemingly there only there to level you up and draw out time. Lots of unfocused filler static exposition and a game length in the 50-100 hour mark.

There is the very definition of what most people hate about the JRPG genre right there, and the body of work that continue to fall into that category is and continues to be very densely populated. Add to this the fact that in these types of games static exposition has begun to taken up such an overwhelming lion's share of attention that battle is relegated to a minor role to the point of most developers just giving you the option to make that "choose attack to win" procedure be automatic.

There is the crux of resentment right there, and when so few designers can comprehend how things were allowed to go so wrong they obviously would desire to fix it. Because there was a time when these games were a lot of fun. Now, if people hated them from the start and they evolved to be even more contrary to their tastes then it would be a completely different story.

Fox English
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In your third paragraph you brought up an interesting angle I hadn't thought about before.

Story may have been brought to the forefront of typical JRPG game design at the cost of battles because it seems like many of the larger games are all about their graphics, which really shine when telling stories. Considering the point that console, non-handheld RPGs have drastically slowed down in production due to graphic requirements, it's safe to assume this is a main consideration of a AAA JRPG's development process. Designers may have the perception (I can't say if it's true or not) that the players just want to see the next cool character or environment or CG, and making the battles too hard would get in the way of their perceived enjoyment of the game - if this is true, that would explain a lot of recent developments. The only truly hard JRPG in recent years, Demons' Souls, countered this by having almost no story and all areas practically open from the beginning.

It almost seems like RPGs suffered the worst with the over-arching industry trend to make less punishing games. RPGs, Japanese or not, were once all about the art of failing, picking up, and trying again with a new/better strategy or simply levelling up. But it's hard to find large game studios willling to risk angering the demographic by making their game actually challenging in a thought-provoking way, especially if an enormous amount of the development budget is in the shiny stuff that challenge would keep impatient players from ever seeing.

But in the end, it feels silly that this has to happen, and it makes sense for indie devs to want to bring "true" RPGs back to the industry's attention. It's ok to have a spotlight hog to get people interested in the genre for the first time like the 32-bit+ Final Fantasy series once in awhile, but not every RPG has to be like that. There is almost no point to an entry level style RPG if there's nothing to advance up to anymore.

Kamruz Moslemi
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RPG's were never really about the challenge, if you think about it. Almost any older and newer RPG can be beat with an appropriate investment of time, and time alone. No matter how tough a boss or dungeon was in the older RPG's all you needed in order to beat them was to grind a few more hours, gain a few levels and suddenly they were all pushovers.

The JRPG, as we call it, is mostly a casual genre in Japan and has never been much about difficulty or battle depth. Here, in the west, what you find is that once the genre fell out of favour with the casual gamers the only ones remaining who continued to care about them were the core gamers.

And we know how that lot operates, they are vocal and they like their games with a good amount challenge and depth, so no wonder they are complaining. Its all pointless though, no one of importance is listening, the best thing one can do is, if having the opportunity, just make the type of RPG that they desire themselves.

Fox English
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I guess I meant that the term "challenge" in that it was a parallel to the manga-based influence of early JRPGs. Every character has the potential to win any confrontation, but sometimes they rush too fast into the fray and need to go on a training mission to get to that point - a theme seen in a lot of sequential stories. In a very basic sense, a player not used to RPGs rushing through would die repeatedly at the same boss and see the game as "hard", but they were really meant to experience some form of humility and work harder to achieve the goal before facing the challenge again. The earliest JRPGs were all about finding limits in fairly wide open maps and training to surpass them, even if the individual combat strategies were minimal at best. If you had been given the Rainbow Drop at the start of a new game in Dragon Warrior/Quest, it wouldn't have mattered one bit because you'd have died long before ever reaching the gates of Charlock Castle, as an extreme example.

So yes, it is really about time, though in some cases, like the original Final Fantasy and its instant-kill-touch enemies and Warmech/Death Machine right before one of the final bosses, it is also luck.

Is it justifiable to have a game that requires you to level up and STILL makes you fail for not using the right strategy? In action games it's all about strategy since the hero is generally the same throughout the game (minus wielded weapons and health meters), but the fact that a hero party in an RPG may not be as strong or much stronger at any given boss than expected also adds to the balancing issue. An overly effective set of RPG boss strategies would mean very underlevelled characters could race through without ever needing to spend time levelling and thus nullifying the very need to build characters to begin with... and having no strategy requirements at all nets us the "press attack to win" problem you brought up earlier.

Well, it's fun to think about, anyways.

james sadler
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FF8 was a little different in that the enemies leveled with the character to a degree, though this was kinda annoying at times.

Joe Cooper
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This reminds me of something I made a while back.

It was an experiment to see if I could make a game around drilling signs, and I came up with a menu battle game where the choice of spell is based on your confidence in knowing the signs, as well as a generic element system. (Hence the grid; left to right is difficulty. The right-most is maximum risk; all three words must be translated to a sign correctly.) So the grinding task of memorizing signs is integrated into the decision making process.


There was no avatar leveling as it was the player who'd level; the game would try to adjust itself to the player so that it would feel like an equal struggle to use only the easy or only the hard signs.

In hindsight, the decisions are a bit opaque because you can't see the enemy's health, and the "Fight" button there is 100% superfluous and ought to be removed.

But it seemed to play well enough even after hours of play making it, and now I know the sign for Russia.

Rebecca Phoa
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I think that people who want to make RPGs genuinely love them: warts and all.

What the problem is that the powers that be think that RPGs can be everything to everyone which I think is a massive problem. What it does is that it dilutes them and soon these games that used to be able to sit comfortably in their own part of industry are now are trying to compete with the Call of Duties and the Maddens--of course they are going to get lost since these latter titles are clearly more popular with more people.

So the idea is how can we create an RPG that can sell like Call of Duty? Good luck! Bioware thought that Dragon Age 2 could solve the problem, but there is much more polarization over this title than the company cares to admit. It is neither here nor there; an old school rpg trying to act like a modern action game and hitting neither area properly. Not to say that there aren't new converts--there are, but at the expense of what?

The thing about JRPGs is that they are another person's answer to the same question. If wikipedia is to be believed, the Japanese were inspired by Wizardry--an old school WRPG. So obviously, they loved something in these old games that ended up creating the likes of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, which if you listen to the vitriol aren't RPGs.

Robert Boyd
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There already is a JRPG that sells like Call of Duty. It's called Pokemon. And for crazy selling Western RPGs, you need only look to World of Warcraft.

Rebecca Phoa
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"1UP: It's safe to say that there was a lot of people who expected "Origins 2," and to have more of Origins' gameplay (which in itself hearkens back to Baldur's Gate 2's gameplay). Dragon Age 2 is obviously not that; it's you taking RPGs in a different direction. In light of that, I'm curious: do you think there's still room for a more, "grognard"-driven RPG in the vein of BG2 in the modern marketplace?

ML: It presents an intriguing thought experiment: is it viable to have a game that's closer to Baldur's Gate 2 in terms of the raw mechanics and execution? I don't think there's anything preventing it. However, I do think that, as a genre, if RPGs can't evolve and can't change -- and I know people yell at me for daring to use the word "evolve" -- but if they can't change or experiment, then the genre itself is going to stagnate. Not only in terms of mechanics, like in rehashes and stuff, which I think we mostly manage to avoid, but the bigger problem is that if we don't have RPGs that present a different type of experience, then we kind of encapsulate our potential audience to people who enjoy just that experience, and we drive others away. In of itself, that runs the risk of genre death -- it becomes too referential or too reliant on people understanding that STR means strength which feeds into accuracy which results in damage done, and so on. You end up in a case where, the genre eventually burns out, or falls flat, or becomes too risky to take any risks in development, and so on and so forth, and that's not something I want to see happen."

Thank you for informing me. Tell Bioware too.

Fox English
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I'll agree with the sentiment, I am one of those that makes a game out of love for the genre after all :)

I am not as harsh on RPGs as many I see elsewhere and actually find their scope of diversity one of its big draws, though there are some attempts that just don't do it for me. Still, the fact that a game with pure dice-rolled turn-based action can be classified in the same breath as a real-time button and skill combination system means I'll pretty much never get bored or see them truly stagnate.

But there still has to be some attempt to keep it as an RPG. Pulling away from statistics entirely, numbers, this abstraction layer that keeps it from just being a pure smash-and-bash platformer (or in the opposite scope, a visual novel with no combat at all), and people arguing they are outdated or need to evolve... I think they are missing the point of what the spirit of RPGs are and are really trying to make a completely different kind of game. It's true not all systems play the same, but the fact there are any systems in place at all that balance players vs. other players and enemies outside of (generalizing) reaction speed and who can find the best weapon fastest is why they are so interesting.

The followup comment (the interview snippet) addresses the concept that RPGs are inherently esoteric; the fact you have to have played an RPG to understand them is not really a fault of the genre, but of the designers not properly explaining the rulesets within each game (aside from core definitions in instruction manuals/in-game help). Bioware's answer to the question misses the point by trying to marginalize their meaning into something superfluous and takes yet more steps away from the balancing act that RPG statistics actually are. I used to really like Bioware games at the turn of the century, and to think they feel that these rulesets are what is holding the genre's future back is really troubling...

Mark Harris
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That's not even a little bit what he said in the interview. He said that if you only adhere to the same rulesets, the same mechanics, the same structure, the same progression, etc. then the genre has the potential to become stale. When you are known for only one thing then only the people who like that thing will even think about your game. That is bad when you are trying to expand your audience (and sales for that matter).

I get it, people loved BG and on some level they just want a prettier version, but my word a company tries to do something different just to play around with the scope and mechanics of the genre and it's "troubling"?

Have any of you even played DA2? It's a bit faster and "streamlined" but it's still very much an RPG. Still plenty of numbers, still stats and armor and spells and all that jazz, dwarves, elves, weird other made up races, kings, dukes, religions, crazy powerful shape-changing witches, beings of pure evil, beings of somewhat less evil-ness, story.... literally every single RPG trope ever invented is present in the game. It just happens to play differently then BG, or even from Origins. If you want challenge just crank up the difficulty and watch yourself get slaughtered.

Listen, I understand where you're coming from, since I grew up in the console JRPG heyday and I loved all the FFs and Dragon Quest and Phantasy Star and the tacts like Shining Force. Wonderful fond memories there. I love me a good ol' fashioned turn based RPG (Lost Odyssey anyone?) but let's try just for one second to let people do something different that plays around with what an RPG should feel/taste/sound/play like without all the absurd backlash.

If you don't like the game, that's fine, just say it, but all the hubbub over Bioware (as if they are the only company on the planet making RPGs) is just ridiculous.

By all means, make whatever RPG you want, and if it's good I'll play the hell out of it, but can we let other people make what they want without our high-horse condescending comments about how the trend is "troubling" or this crap about them abandoning their roots and all that nonsense?

Being a AAA dev right now blows, especially when your peers bitch and moan that none of the big pubs innovate at all and stifle creativity and then whenever you try something new and different (regardless of how well you do it) you catch flak for changing something that isn't broken.

/end rant (just had my coffee and got a burst of energy :-D )

Rebecca Phoa
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I don't know. RPGs have always relied on people who knew exactly what they like. They are niche and will always be niche. Their complexity is what makes them unique. If we need to train people to play them, then that is what needs to happen.

What I'm seeing is that RPGs now are made for people who don't care enough to learn complexity and appreciate them for what they are.

I am not against the dialogue wheel; the art style; combat animations; or increased combat speed; the newish crafting system; the fact that every romance interest is mechanically bi. I can accept that Friendly Fire was a contentious issue and that pushed them to make the decision they did on that.

What I am most offended with what happened with DA2 is that they took the DAO and removed key parts of the functionality of that game.

They truncated a very good tactical/iso camera that worked well with the gameplay setup they had in the PC version; they removed the skills which weren't complicated at all. I get that they wanted more iconic companion appearances which is fine, but now there is no point to the loot grabbing if you can't use half of it.

All Bioware needed was time.

Fox English
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I didn't like Dragon Age Origins for various reasons, so I probably won't even bother with DA2. My comment had nothing to do with the game (and I haven't even read anything about it so no preconcieved notion of how it plays), so please don't assume this has anything to do with an opinion of it because I have none.

I am all about evolution in RPGs, but his wording of how to do so for the GENERAL developer community is what bothered me. I could care less about his history as they've always been hit or miss. His comment directly attacks the foundations of RPGs (not the experiments to evolve various aspects in his own game) which is what disappointed me. It has nothing to do with being on a high-horse, or being condescending, as I hardly care about the company at all. Bioware is not a sure buy for me, I never bought Mass Effect or ME2, I probably won't get DA2, heck I missed the Throne of Bhaal and Jade Empire, so yes they are free to make whatever game they want. I'm not a regular customer. I know I said I used to really like their games, which probably could have been worded better because it sounds like I am just a disappointed fan, but in reality I haven't bought that many of them.

Perhaps you're right that it is a bit strong of wording on my part, but you stated it best, they should make the games they want to. But, telling others that RPGs are going to die (this could only be what he meant by genre death) because they want to remain RPGs is a bit over the top.

EDIT: Genres are genres because they maintain a certain foundation of gameplay. There is only so much change you can make before it becomes an entirely different genre - which is no different than "genre death" if all games in a certain group evolve the same way.

I do want to add that nostalgia can only go so far for me. That's not where I'm coming from at all in any of my comments or this article. I've lost interest in certain games I grew up with because the ones that truly did evolve the genre without abandoning what defines it have replaced my old favorites. Most of my actual frustration with RPGs stems from seeing a game older than 10 years that reached the peak of a certain design to critical success and then was never taken further.

Mark Harris
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The man said that if you get so rooted in repeating your successes that you fail to experiment or change anything or push a boundary then you sit on a treadmill while everyone else continues the race.

Regardless of whether or not you like their games the fact remains that he is abso-freakin-lutely correct. That is why Bioware is still selling millions of copies of every single game they produce and you'd be hard pressed to find a decent JRPG anywhere on a sales chart outside Japan. The landscape is significantly different then even a decade ago and it's because nothing about JRPGs has changed in 30 years. You have even said yourself that you're trying to make an RPG that's different from what anyone else has made. If there is no need to experiment and evolve and change then why bother being different? Just slap a copy-paste story onto copy-paste mechanics and copy-paste some art.

Full disclosure, I like Bioware's games. They aren't perfect by any means but I enjoy the experiences. Take that for what you will. I don't think DA2 is the best game ever (Vagrant Story FTW) but somehow implying that what they've done with DA2 is in any way a detriment to the role playing genre is absurd.

@Rebecca : Yes, that is his exact message. If we make a prettier BG, or even a prettier DA:O, then we run the risk of selling to the same people over and over again, many of whom are going to get bored when we serve them the same leg of chicken every day for 10 years in a row.

I know we all have specific gripes about both DA:O and DA2, the camera thing is annoying but I get it they did it because it was f'ing with the environments they wanted to build, yadda yadda yadda. We can have a debate with them all day on their design decisions.

I still think he's right, though. Play around with the mechanics, the game, the difficulty, the inventory, whatever. See if you can retain the hardcore RPGers like you and me while bringing in a few people who didn't even know they liked RPGs. It's still a solid game, as was the predecessor.

Nintendo did the same thing with the Wii, are we going to start in on them next? The Wii isn't my thing so I didn't buy one but good on Nintendo for being bold and going out and finding new gamers. Maybe one day they'll see DA 3 blasting awesomeness (with a reinstated tact cam of course) on an HD console or PC and then be sitting here with us in ten years bitching about whatever new age crap people are doing that totally defies what we liked about game X.

Fox English
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I actually agree with the basic idea of evolution and innovation, my problem was that it sounded more like the underlying framework of statistics was at fault and holding the genre back. I'm sorry, but I truly feel if you eliminate the one thing that seperates an RPG from an action/platformer, it's no longer an RPG. That belief appears to be where our point of view differs and maybe explains why it seems so extreme that I would take the stance I did to his remarks.

Why I didn't like DA:O had more to do with how difficult it was for my chosen character build to beat bosses without cheating the system and not really getting into the characters aside from Sten. I don't even go onto forums or read reviews to talk about games so I have no idea what the common complaints of either game is, but I reserve my judgment of DA2 until I actually, if ever, play it. :) The ONLY reason I haven't played it yet is because I didn't really feel the original, so incentive is a bit low to go forward.

I don't have an all time favorite game, but I'd have to say Ultima VII from my previous list - which is NOT a JRPG, to point out the fact this comment wasn't ever about defending JRPGs vs. Western RPGs - is probably as close as it'll get. It's not perfect in any case, terrible AI and pathfinding, easy to break quest lines, and generally too easy with limited equipment choices ranging from useless to ungodly broken, while retconning or outright forgetting certain elements of previous games in the series, but it did some things I have yet to see other games really do well.

I actually respect your opinion and get what you're trying to say, but I feel you are taking a bit defensive stance to one seemingly misinterpreted remark I made to an interview snippet that concerned me coming from someone who has a lot of weight to his opinions and influence in public (coming from mega-publisher EA + well known developer Bioware). Like I said before, it's not the fact he or anyone wants to change the genre - I have said my intention to do so myself - it's the fact he called out the one thing that IS the genre that is at fault for its inevitable stagnation. I think he's wrong, but there's no way I'm just going to take what he says, you say, or even what I think for face value until I see results from actually taking action. Talk is cheap.

I do want to say that plenty has changed about JRPGs in 30 years or I wouldn't still be playing them; the games I'm playing right now are absolutely nothing like Dragon Quest, and there are some games that have sold that well if not better in the West - Pokemon and Final Fantasy. The fact that the lowest common denominator games sold so well doesn't really speak well of the point that Dragon Age is in the same camp - sales doesn't always mean quality, but this is an entirely subjective argument. If we're going to play that card and try to trivialize any evolutions made to any subgenre's mechanics, goals, accomplishments and gameplay requirements because that is the status quo to bash on them, then the same restrictions and perspective must be applied to its cousins to have a fair footing. I have to be extra clear on this, I never once said JRPGs are not without faults, even the deepest ones. I can objectively look at any game, even my favorites, and say "god, what were they thinking?" and with games I don't like, I will also give a fair credit to what they did right. Most of the times it's just that the whole package didn't blend right that turns me off to a product. This is what happened with Dragon Age: Origins.

I can't really argue anymore on this point because I feel like this has been one knee-jerk response to what was originally supposed to be an objective look about the whole genre and not picking out one particular company or even game's efforts. If Bioware's lead designers wants to stop making RPGs and still call them RPGs as if to prove some point, that's their business, but it doesn't affect me at all until they make the GAME fun and enjoyable outside of being an RPG/faux/debatable-RPG.

Mark Harris
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The DA situation is an example, you can plug a hundred different games into the same argument and it doesn't change a thing. I only kept with this example for consistency and because I was chatting with Rebecca about some specific mechanics.

There's nothing knee jerk about any response, and the defensive nature fits a defensive argument. I am defending the idea that change and innovation are not only okay, but necessary. You embrace the idea for your game, but deny it for others. You've narrowly defined what YOU believe RPGs to be and then hold everyone else and everyone else's games (and opinions) up to that standard. Those who don't fit your mold are wrong. You specifically stated that the argumentation for change (in this specific instance) is the wrong direction for the genre. I provided a counter point. If that's defensive then I'm not surprised.

The larger problem, which you may have extrapolated if you weren't so hung up on whether or not I was defending Bioware, is that the industry is constantly in this nostalgic schism that holds back any meaningful sense of continuity. Long time players and developers are quick to laud the "good ol days" or define for themselves and others these rigid categorizations into which games should fit. At the same time they sit around bitching and moaning that no one innovates anymore. The hypocrisy train has been running circles around this site for a while now and that is something I find "troubling".

So, honestly, it has nothing specifically to do with you. Your comment, off-handed as it may be, hints at a far more upsetting undercurrent throughout this site and I would assume by extension the development community. It's like looking for a new car but being upset it doesn't look/feel/run exactly like your old one. One will never be happy that way.

Anyway, at this point we can agree to disagree. You don't like the way some people would make changes to RPGs but you do like how you're making changes to RPGs. No prob, that's your opinion and you are welcome to it. I'll sit over here and disagree. And probably eat some pumpkin bread, since my wife made some and it's delicious. For me the next great invention is sending real stuff over the internets, so I can share mah breads.

Looking forward to checking out your game when it's finished. Good luck with the rest of development!

Sting Newman
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There are two major splits in among rpg 'gamers':

1) People who like old slow western RPG's.

2) People who like JRPG's and action games.

i.e. Tales of symphonia has a battle system that is action oriented and it is _awesome_.

The problem is western RPG's have been fundamentally bad and were designed by AD&D nuts - i.e. by people who are essentially non gamers.

Action gamers are the true 'core gamer'. The problem with many western RPG's is that they PRESENT THEMSELVES AS ACTION GAMES. If you're going to be slow you HAVE to go turn based. The pseudo-hybrids like dragon age cause a rift because THE CAMERA PRESENTS THE GAME LIKE AN ACTION GAME. So it ACTIVATES the "I really wish this was an action game" part of a gamers brain, with only the AD&D tards pining for 'role-playing'. Video game rpgs have always been about the battle and dungeon crawling, never about the 'role-playing'. The roleplaying was always second fiddle (see final fantasy 1 and dragon warrior if you doubt this). For those AD&D nuts who entered gaming on the pc with slow crap combat mechanics (Eye of the beholder, Ultima, Baldurs gate, etc). These are the people who dislike JRPGs and action games (i.e. essentially non gamers) they want D&D recreated on the 'puter screen but those are not what make a good VIDEO GAME.

Many 'oldschool' players who loved the rpg's of the SNES era know that some RPG's have strayed too far from sound interactivity, Final fantasy starting from about FFX onward started stripping out and stripping down items/spells/loot. Many JRPG's dumbed down their battle systems. Final fantasy started to lose me around FF9, I thought FF9 was going to be much more of a testament to FF1, instead of a story about some psychelic space monkey.

Give me a re-imagined FF1 grinding through caves and fearing getting "xxx'd' or "rubbed" out, everytime you met wizards you were like "Oh shit!"

The truth is game developers don't know what many of their more discerning fans want and the masses aren't intelligent enough to know what makes a good RPG... The desire to make RPG's is really about the progressive dumbing down and moving away from classic console RPG mechanics. The lack of exploring and deepening of those mechanics. Instead of today where more and more of everything is being turned into putrified turd and all the money is spent on the bling, VA and the story and the actaul _GAME_ the battle system/items/strategy are stuck in the backseat.

Everyone forgets that games are about being games, I've watched the trend as graphics advanced that games have moved in the direction of being movies or TV shows wrapped in a game engine. While some cinematic elements are great - that's not what I and many other gamers came for, we want a BALANCED GAME where the story/cinema/characters ALSO has good mechanics and depth.

Modern RPG's are spread too thin with mechanics that are not fleshed out at all. This is because of the rise of MMO's, MMO mechanics stop designers from coming up with their own.

Everyone in the industry _has given up_ on their own or older good designs in chase of the $$$.

I've never seen so much sheep like behaviour in the game industry which seriously started gaining momentum around the beginning of the PS2 era... God of war/Devil may cry (pS2) was copied by capcom for its new castlevania. It's like the developers have just said 'I give up we'll clone X' or gotten a message from on high that 'we have to do more 'western games'.

I really think there are two things at work:

1) The talent is difficult to replace / find.

2) Newer talent was raised on garbage games and so emulates that garbage.

It's disturbing because it shows _they don't understand what makes a fun game_.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I stopped at "The problem is western RPG's have been fundamentally bad and were designed by AD&D nuts - i.e. by people who are essentially non gamers." On what planet is an AD&D nut a non gamer? This sentence makes no sense.

Alan Rimkeit
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Wow Sting, this is an extremely condescending and insulting post....

Sting Newman
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It IS insulting but it is also TRUTHFUL Many developers have attracted audiences who fundamentally do not like interactivity, interesting decisions, exciting combat animations, etc.

One only has to look at real life comments on biowares boards to see the divide between "slow and realistic" vs "gamelike and fantastic".

There are those who want good VIDEO GAMES and the other set wants D&D role playing, the problem is that bioware is trying to cater to both with dragon age 2 so you get huge divides.

Mark Harris
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Truth is in the eye of the beholder... and you seem to be squinting VERY heavily at the moment.

James Gambrell
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You are defining VIDEO GAME in a very limited way. If your definition of "what makes a fun game" were true, the massive catalog of "great" Atari, NES, SNES etc games would never have stopped selling. We loved those because they were all great GAMES right?, actually. We loved them because they were the latest and greatest interactive video thing at the time. I'm sorry but the "gameness" of a video game isn't critical to every gamer. Many players want more of a simulation-in which case "gamey" elements can actually be a negative, others want a movie, others want a chat room, others want a sport, etc.

Kamruz Moslemi
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To play devils advocate, Japanese RPG developers are at the end of the day doing nothing more than giving the Japanese consumers exactly what they desire and demand. Dragon Quest continues to be the least changed, most derivative archetype of the genre and yet it continues to also be immensely popular.

Japanese developers are based out of Japan and so naturally prioritize domestic sentiments above those of the foreign. Despite Final Fantasy VII making the genre chic for a brief period in the overseas market most of the sales and profits continued and continue to be generate in the domestic market, so they need to pay their dues to the bread givers first and foremost.

Despite the wide spread western, often selfish, resentment towards this behaviour of letting their heeds go uncalled, this is really no different than the creators of Western RPG's designing their games with their overwhelmingly western audience foremost in mind. Take a look at the Japanese sales charts for western RPG's and you see how poorly they usually fare there in comparison to the average sales a DQ or FF and then the strategic reasoning behind such a decision begins to make sense.

Sting Newman
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I don't believe the "that's what the consumer wants theory". I believe that most of the masses buy games out of habit. So that would mean most gamers are just hungry for anything no matter how bad it is because the time between releases is long and there are always fresh bodies who don't have a decade or more of games played behind them.

Kamruz Moslemi
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The time between Japanese releases of RPG's is most certainly not long. Much like shooters in the west there are new releases frequently. Only most of those releases never make it over or are even considered for being brought over to the overseas market for various reasons so we are never exposed to the entire body over there. Also most of these releases are for handheld platforms, both handheld consoles as well and mobile phones.

There is hunger for RPG's just as they are designed today in Japan, and there are a lot of titles to satiate that demand.

Mark Harris
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To some degree, Kam, yes. However, the population of Japan is like 120 mil while the population of the rest of the world is 6+ billion.

Japanese culture is also very unique, it's a niche country. Selling a niche genre in a niche country is not going to get you very far.

So, for small companies that are really happy just with static or stagnating Japanese game sales (according to recent trends) continuing to iterate on DQ will suffice. However, for large companies with ambition outside of Japan there is a need to understand other markets and develop games that appeal there. The JPRG is not resonating quite the way it needs to in the wider world, and that is a big problem for major Japanese game companies looking to grow outside of their beautiful, unique but limited island(s).

Kamruz Moslemi
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The Japanese developers are traditionally at their best when not developing for a market that they do not understand. Don't get me started on how comically hapless they have been when trying activally to appeal to a certain demographic, especially a western one.

In fact I am repulsed by the whole prevalent attitude of this and that developer needs to appeal to the sentiments of this and that demographic instead of that other one because the former is bigger and has more money.

You know why I hate it? Because that is something a marketing person or a executive would think, you know, a person with zero appreciation for the creative process or the craft, they are just selling and making products. You know, them consumers, they do like the colour red, so you better make it be red or else it wont sell worth a damn. They are never concerned with the merits of design, just what makes the most money. When I voice my opinion that something needs to be changed I do so because I can argue the merits of the change in terms of design appeal, not in terms of profit potential, that is the difference.

This is why the Japanese always go wrong when trying to actively appeal to a demographic whose tastes are foreign to them, because such moves are forced by management and motivated purely by profit and marketing concerns, they are not the result of a creative director's musing over into which direction he should take his next title.

Bear in mind also that the RPG genre is largely a niche genre in the west. Think about how many companies, employing how many people making how many games combined there are in the west who specialize in making RPG's.

Now compare that to the same number of Japanese developers and you will see a clear divide, and that divide is funded almost entirely by Japanese consumers who, despite claims of having shrunk in populationm still support a very large body of domestic RPGs than the larger western market is able to sustain overseas produced varieties.

In fact if you take a look at the western market, and its impressive size you'll see that currently, in home consoles anything not falling into the shooter category can be categorized as a niche in terms of relative size of audience and developers.

What then, should all of the home console developers rethink their stake with the paltry North American and European audience pool in favour of catoring to the much more impressively populated 1bn Chinese consumers? Now there is the largest market for just about anything in the world for you. Throw in the Indian market and you have 1/3 of the world covered right there, amirite?

No? Then what if the western home console market begins to shrink and everything goes mobile? Should they all try to flood the Chinese market with MMO's because those are popular in China? Sure, they can try, but they are guaranteed to fail because the Chinese market is a strange beast indeed, and it is already flooded with domestic developers who understand their users better.

The Dragon Quest template JRPG's are what they are, that will not change as along as they sell, so live and let die I say. The best Japanese RPG developers are making much more interesting efforts that fall outside of that template and have world wide appeal such as in Demon's Souls.

I'd shudder to think how that one would have turned out if some market minded persons were allowed to influence its design by committee, nothing as well cherished as it turned out, that is for damn sure.

that is why the most talented Japanese developers should stick to what has always made them great, just making a great game according to their own vision, not attempting to geared or marketed aggressively to any particular demographic.

This is the method by which they produced the staggering body of classics which we are all fond of and learn from to this day.

Mark Harris
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And so ends all discussions. If it's good for business, or for making money, it sucks and has no bearing on games....

That's the most absurd proposition on Earth. You design games for different reasons, to appeal to different demographics. If you want to appeal to a large market you need to learn it, what drives it, what they buy, and sell that to them.

You're damn straight every developer in the world is trying to figure out a way to capitalize on China, and increasingly on India. Now, factoring in disposable income vs. margin vs. install base blah blah blah India and China are not a good investment on the home console front, since most of the population can't afford a home console and in China you aren't even allowed to sell them. You can't sell games to people without the hardware to play them.

The PC is different, and anybody worth their salt is looking at any way to get through the Chinese government blockade and find their spot in the F2P frenzy. Will China always be a state-locked free to play MMO shuffleboard? No one knows, but you'd have to be retarded to look at the second largest economy on the planet and not try to find ways to sell them a product.

Like I said, developers that are okay with just producing for Japan are welcome to do that, and I'm sure they can be relatively successful with it. However, anyone looking for more needs to understand and develop for other markets. The whole niche/culture argument means nothing when 2% of the outside market is larger than 100% of the domestic market. You can afford to be niche and still double your sales worldwide.

I don't get where all the business hate comes from. I mean, I sort of get it, some business guys can royally screw up a game/studio/whatever. But without those same guys games would not be as popular and sophisticated as they are today. Even garage-programmed old school NES games can suck, and games that come from big business mega publishers can be great.

I think the whole myopic, Japanese devs should just stick with designing for Japan and hope some people somewhere else like it approach is what let the rest of the world catch up to and surpass most of the large Japanese devs in the first place.

For a couple decades Japan WAS worldwide video gaming, and now they are a relatively small fraction of the market. For someone who grew up enjoying Japanese made games I'd rather that not be the case. There are so many wonderful minds all over the world, I really don't like to see any market sit and spin domestically when they can be thinking globally and (cuz i'm selfish) providing more awesome games for me to play.

Kamruz Moslemi
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I did not say that Japanese developers should stick to developing for Japan, that would be developing for a certain market in mind.

Look, let me explain it this way. If I am designing a game It does not ever, not even once cross my mind what this or that demographic likes. I approach it in a purely universal way, I think about what would make the game better to play in general to gamers at large, not just a tiny rich subsection.

Perhaps that is no different that just thinking in terms of what would make it a better title for me personally as my sentiments are of course biased towards myself because I understand my own likes and hates better than anyone else's.

This is how all of the best Japanese developed games have come to be, and continue to be made when allowed to. A designer designs for himself, because that is what they understand.

If a manager then walked in and stated, sorry Sonny Jim, scrap all that, you are making this shooting game instead because shooting games are big with so and so demographic, then I am no longer designing a game, I am trying to capture market potential.

Notice that this is what you are referring to when asking for "thinking globally" and with globally you really only mean thinking North American, because that is the biggest market, right. There is designing according to your own sentiments, which is what is employed by great designers when making a worth while title, and then there is trying to reverse engineer something popular with a certain crowd just so that you can capitalize on it.

Japanese developers were already making global hits by designing according to their own sentiments, not necessarily making anything specific to any market. I think what you miss today is exactly that because since the 7th generation begun they have not been allowed to do that by upper management, which is why the big Japanese studios have had such a exodus of frustrated talent.

This is also why people perceive Japan having been overtaken by western developers. Great Japanese games never stopped being coveted globally, but they did stop being made in favour of what you are asking for now, games marketed to shallow demographic interpretations.

Maybe it is just me, but designing something free of creative restraints, other than how my sentiments are arranged is the stuff of passion, but being told to imitate something just because it is popular, that is the stuff of a paycheck occupation.

Mark Harris
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Except when it's the designers themselves, when looking to whom their games appeal, are asking the question.

No one is going to work as hard at or do as good a job with any project that wasn't his/her own idea. That is the nature of things. So, Bobby Business saying "make a shooter" isn't going to beget good games.

However, a designer that makes games, and sees that his games only appeal to certain people, may take a step back and ask himself why. Why do these people like my game but those people don't? That's what I mean by DESIGNERS thinking globally.

Some are perfectly happy making their game and if it sells that's great but if not then whatever I made the game I wanted to make. Others are going to want to understand which design decisions are limiting the appeal of their games and maybe try to adjust.

And as far as I can recall Japanese games (especially the JRPGs) started to falter well before the current Western focus. Anecdotally because people like me, who used to forgive their inherent and frequent annoyances because they were the best games on the market grew tired of the same ol' insanely over-dramatic tween angst routine. The rest of the industry matured along with the average gamer, while the Japanese game makers (especially JRPGs) stayed mired in the rut they created for themselves.

Kamruz Moslemi
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I don't refer to JRPG's when discussing this issue. They are products of a entrenched genre. That is to say they are a lost cause, we might as well be discussing the merits of the shooter genre in the west.

Designers automatically think about the issue of appeal, only on their own terms, but it is not part of their function to think about design in terms of profitability, that is a marketing way of thinking. Good design does not equal popular design. Metroid Prime was a first person game with shooting, and in terms if design it was a fantastic effort, but you know what, it was never as popular as the straight forward first person shooter.

Think about something like Bayonetta and Vanquish, both were made according to a free spirit of design and as a result only sold a modest million units. A marketeer might look at that and say that if they have chosen to make a title aimed at the COD crowd they could have gone for selling 10-20 million units instead and deem the titles as failures. But the games were enjoyed by a million games at least regardless of not being marketed to any particular demographic, they were just good, but not immensely popular according to the zeitgeist. If they had been specifically made to be popular with the zeitgest chances are that they just wouldn't have been any good at all.

I know this because both were made by Platinum Games who is made up of talented Japanese designers who fled CAPCOM, and they upper managements pressure to market to this and that and wanted to do games free of creative restraint. This is where Japan's future lies, I have yet to see one example of a Japanese developed or commissioned western market focused game doing that well, either commercial or critically.

Joe Cooper
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I'm suspicious of anyone who wants to make a JRPG and also complains about them being "press attack to win". Having played these old games recently there are plenty of interesting decisions in the battles, changing states, etc. That they lack combat maneuvering isn't shallow, it's parsimonious. This - the battle and the equipping and placing materia and whatnot - that is the game. Back in the day, Final Fantasy sequels had stories pulled fresh from their rears with no connection to the previous Final Fantasy because Final Fantasy sequels were sequels to games, not stories.

The stories could enrich them a lot, and make the games super memorable. We all remember FF7 and Chrono Trigger in large part because of the art layered on top.

But one really ought to at least respect the game underneath if they want to make that. There's a million other ways to tell a story if one wants to.

In either case, if one wants to recreate that glory they probably ought to look a bit past the superficialities; the fact that there was a menu battle system, the SNES graphics, etc. and consider that they made games, and enriched them with art and stories that sometimes pushed the limits of what their gizmo could do.

And there was a lot of great music.

Fox English
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I agree completely with this and believe this sums up what I was trying to say a bit more succinctly.

And I hope it didn't come off that I feel that JRPGs are so simple in my own post (I know it was brought up as a comment from another poster afterwards, and can't tell if this comment is directed at me), because I was trying to advocate in the second section that JRPGs (and RPGs in general) ARE more than "press attack to win" which is a commonly held criticism by others. My question was more to upcoming developers if they really understand what RPGs are and if it really is the best fit for their game concept, and not just because it feels like it fits their theme.

Joe Cooper
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Oh, no, not directed at you. That was unclear. I posted cause of other comments, but it's also kind of a general statement cause I see these sorts of mental blocks every time the topic comes up. I just read another article by an indy dev here who was making an RPG and made a comment to the effect that games ought to have combat maneuvering because duh. So he made an RPG-ish tower defense game with SNES style graphics.

I don't want to sound judgmental toward anyone in particular, it just feels like watching shadows on a cave wall.

Kamruz Moslemi
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The "press attack to win" stereotype is not unfounded. A game is the sum of its parts, and the majourity of the 80-100 hours in a RPG is spent doing exactly that, just grinding through yet another largely meaningless padded on encounter.

For the first about 40-60 hours of FFXIII I was hardly ever challenged by any encounter. If ever I made an attempt to do anything beyond pressing attack it was because I recognized that if I used a slightly different attack I could end the encounter in one turn instead of two and save a few minutes of my life from being wasted.

Of course then I arrived at Grand Pulse which was roaming with dangerous critters, and all the reins on character abilities had been lifted and there was something more to do than walk forward, press attack to win and watch cut scenes. So there was more to do, certainly, and battles that required strategy and dexterity to win were in existence, but when you sum the entirety of my time with the game the experience was mostly just diluted to pressing attack to win.

My biggest problem with RPG's in adulthood has been that I feel they are designed to waste my time without giving much of any merit in return for the majourity of their duration, but to each their own.

Joe Cooper
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It's all worth thinking a lot about. I agree the stereotype isn't _unfounded_ but one has to look deeper than stereotypes if they want to learn something.

I've seen the exact same "press attack to win" feel in a plethora of games that are either not labelled "RPGs" or at least aren't menu-battle games.

You note that "battles that required strategy and dexterity to win were in existence", and while developers do fluff games with battles that don't, it is worth noting that one can make such battles with the menu-battle interface.

So it seems like a red herring to me.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Bad pacing is certainly not a red herring, it is I think the crux of the issue for many people who continue to complain about the genre. Personally I enjoyed FFXIII despite all of its faults because of the high production values. Unfortunately few RPG's from Japan these days can compete on that ground, so I'll just pass on them. I have better uses for a 100 hours of my life.

Joe Cooper
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No, I mean the menu driven battle interface and anything that makes it an "RPG" is the red herring but that a fair bit of the whole experience - battles that aren't interesting - could stand to land on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

Why do these games have to be so long anyway?

This has me thinking.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Well, that got me beat as well, best theory I can put forward is tradition, but then the 8-16bit RPGs mostly clocked in at around 30 hours. FFVII was the one title that pushed that boundary, and did so by having a lot more exposition, cut scenes as well as filler. There is, as far as I know, no widespread clamoring for these types of games to be shorter in Japan so they just continue to hover around the 80 hour mark.

Anyway, as for the menu driven combat, I do not see any inherent flaw in such an approach, but what I find annoys me is the prevalence of a lazy implementation. You see, all RPGs are at some level menu driven, or rather driven by the act of choosing from a list of choices. Alas Japanese RPG's often do not bother attempting to abstract away their list of Fight/magic/item choices into something a bit less awkward than a straight up menu.

Take something like Vagrant Story, or even Fallout 3 for an example of how to do this. In those games you can attack opponents by aiming at their different body parts. But instead of having a "Attack" menu item that then nests into a list of choices they abstract away such silliness and instead present the choice in a much more elegant visual manner.

In Vagrant Story you push the attack button and a sphere showing your weapon's range extends and then you can move the stick to highlight any opponent body part falling withing that range. No awkward menus or lists. Fallout 3 does it the same way, you push the trigger to freeze the game while choosing which body parts you want to attack and then just push the trigger button for how many times you want to do it.

Usually what disappoints me most about most JRPG's is not that I want them to be more like western RPG's, no, not at all. What does disappoint me is how little work they would have to do, to without changing what they are much at all manage to appeal both to their own fans and expand their way out of their current niche in the west.

Things like control abstraction and pacing are important in the overseas market, but whenever I see a Japanese developer wanting to target westerners they fail to take the most subtle and easily achieved approach and instead shoot themselves in the foot by choking themselves with the most shallow interpretation of what the western market wants, you know, guns, grit and brawn.

Sting Newman
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"The "press attack to win" stereotype is not unfounded. A game is the sum of its parts, and the majourity of the 80-100 hours in a RPG is spent doing exactly that, just grinding through yet another largely meaningless padded on encounter."

What you call a meaningless encounter we call dungeon crawling, diablo was 99% combat and it is one of the best games of all time. The thing is to GET THE COMBAT RIGHT. Most RPG's today are awful in terms of combat so it 'drags'. Not only that they've splintered the 'gamers', one kind of gamer wants a movie the other wants a game.

The people who want a GAME in their game are getting screwed by cinema/story types.

Kamruz Moslemi
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I'll not comment on its quality, but Diablo is a game about finding loot. That is its main drive dynamic. Take away that main rewarding draw keeping people's fingers tapping on the mouse button and all you are left with is the monotonous and insipid click mouse to win gameplay that comprises the majourity of that title.

Darren Tomlyn
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But WHY is not WHAT or HOW. What we're looking for first, is WHAT - so we can then figure out HOW. WHY is the least important - since it can be fully, and completely, SUBJECTIVE.

Hakim Boukellif
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"Alas Japanese RPG's often do not bother attempting to abstract away their list of Fight/magic/item choices into something a bit less awkward than a straight up menu."

I fail to see the point in abstracting away something that is already abstract. Choosing an action from a menu is pretty much already as abstract as you can get, the only way to go further is by trying to pretty it up by making it somehow seem less abstract, which just creates ambiguity that's usually undesirable in a turn-based game of numbers.

I also disagree with you on Vagrant Story's battle system being elegant. It's unique and interesting and I enjoyed it, but at the same time was kind of clumsy. The constant mental switching you have to do due to being able to select an attack target at leisure, yet this being immediately followed with requiring rhythm-game-like timing for chaining. The way it resorts to menus anyway when taking actions that aren't attacking or defending. The ambiguity and unpredictability of when turns start (which game does appear to use, even though it's not explicitly shown to the player).

In comparison, the traditional RPG system: getting a menu whenever a characters gets a turn, selecting an action from that menu, selecting a target followed by the character performing that action on that target. It's consistent, easy to understand, transparent (except for some statistics magic, but this occurs in any game that has a factor of chance in it) and unambiguous. How is that not elegant?

Kamruz Moslemi
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Menus are not elegant because they are a lazy and archaic manner of representing choice. They are also slow, tired, and off putting in this day and age. Half of Vagrant Story's genius was the fact that it was underneath it all still a turn based RPG, but managed to abstract away that fact and made its presentation work. Also it managed to make normal attacks both fun, challenging and interesting by introducing the chaining mechanic, especially since each weapon had its own timing, and the game allowed you to customize your attacks.

It in my opinion remains the best battle system in the world of RPG's, from any design angle I try to analyze it there is something for everyone to learn from. Vagrant Story is a text book example for aspiring RPG designers to learn how the same old mechanics can be presented in much more elegant ways than the old fashioned Dragon Quest layout. It also demonstrates how one can have turn based combat and still make the act of the simple sword swing a lot more challenging and exciting than choosing "Attack" and watch a canned animation take place.

It is hard to discuss the value of elegance in interface methods with people who cannot recognize or appreciate such things even when it is in front of them. When Steve Jobs saw the demonstration for a window based computing interface in the XEROX labs all those years ago he recognized right away that this, as opposed to the old fashioned command line method, was the future of computers, yet some power users dismissed it by saying that there was nothing wrong the command line method and it was more efficient for their work methods.

If it were up to them we'd all still be staring at walls of text, alas the elegance of the window based system won out because it was more intuitive and was a much more elegant abstraction of interfacing with a computer, which helped expand the audience and transform computers from an niche tool for technical wizards into an everyday item.

When Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone back in 2007 some of my coworkers had a similar attitude, its just a another touch phone, who cares, buttons were much better way of controlling phones. They were blind to how Apple had taken touch controls which had been around for decades and created the perfect elegant interface abstraction for it, and here we are today and Apple has steam rolled all over the type of phones my coworkers, who worked with phones for a living, thought remained the superior choice to that new iPhone gimmick.

A good designer understands what makes a interface elegant, it is not just simplicity but equally so elegance of presentation. Menus have zero value of elegance in the modern world of video games. Sure, Vagrant Story had menus, as do most games today in some form, but that they reserve for the least often used actions, the actions that you spend the most time with should have the most elegant and transparent presentation and Yasumi Matsuno and his team understood this 10 years ago like few do today.

It is a damn shame, as the easiest way to lose the interest of impatient gamers is by way of inelegant interfaces.

Mark Harris
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While not perfect (what is? ), Vagrant Story was an absolutely fantastic game. It is probably my favorite game of all time. I'm not even going to get into any technical reasons why since I'm talking about my feelings about the game and my personal opinion of it.

It just did so damn many things right.

Darren Tomlyn
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Again, you are mistaking applications for definitions - in this case, the HOW with WHAT.

Unfortunately, without a thorough grounding of a fundamental understanding and knowledge of games in general, the recognition of the difference between the two is being lost.

I advise you to read my blog.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Sorry mate, I tried to read your blog, I earnestly did, but for the life of me I cannot grasp neither tail nor head of any of it.

From what I could grasp you are going for a abstract academic approach. I see games with a much more grounded perspective though. The only parts that interest me in game design is the underlying mechanics that drive it and the aesthetic quality of their surface level presentation.

Hakim Boukellif
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"Menus are not elegant because they are a lazy and archaic manner of representing choice. They are also slow, tired, and off putting in this day and age."

I'm sorry, but I can only interpret that as "it's easy to implement and has been used for ages, therefore it's obsolete", which is not only silly, but also has nothing to do with elegance of design. A user interface is elegant when it's intuitive, efficient, consistent, gives the user all the information he needs without overloading him with it and there's no ambiguity about what's going to happen if a certain is taken. Considering that RPGs are games with a low amount of operations (Attack, Defend, Skills, Use Item) but a high amount of operands (magic spells, items), it's very possible to fulfil those criteria with a menu-based interface, and in fact, many of them do.

Also, I do hope you see the irony of first mentioning slowness as a negative point of menu-interfaces (despite this being a game-specific implementation issue) and then praising Vagrant Story in the next sentence.

"Half of Vagrant Story's genius was the fact that it was underneath it all still a turn based RPG, but managed to abstract away that fact"

Abstraction or obfuscation? In a turn-based game of numbers, clarity and transparency are most important. What merit is there in trying to hide the nature of the system?

"It is hard to discuss the value of elegance in interface methods with people who cannot recognize or appreciate such things even when it is in front of them. When Steve Jobs saw the demonstration for a window based computing interface in the XEROX labs all those years ago he recognized right away that this, as opposed to the old fashioned command line method, was the future of computers, yet some power users dismissed it by saying that there was nothing wrong the command line method and it was more efficient for their work methods."

Just like it's hard to explain the merits of CLI to someone completely enamoured with graphical interfaces to the point that he refuses to acknowledge anything else. Certainly, WIMP was revolutionary and has been a great boon for the development of user interfaces, but there are still many contexts in which CLI is faster and more precise.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Yes, everyone loves menus, why don't we have a sit down with a room full of designers and game reviewers and try to explain to them how a static blue background with the words "Fight/Item/Magic" is not only a better approach but also more appealing than the one employed in Vagrant Story and other games which do a better job of the aesthetic presentation of their mechanics.

I am talking about window dressing, aestetics, presentation, visual appeal. You know, the difference between serving a person a haphazardly cut piece of meat on a crude clay plate and ask them to eat it while sitting on a stool in an empty public restroom, or giving them the same piece of stake, only cut professionally to be enjoyed in a posh restaurant.

In both instances you are asking a person to eat a stake, but it should be clear which instance leads to the most pleasurable overall experience. Anyway, you like menus, fine, I think they are a terrible interface method which puts my lot with the current zietgeist, not that it counts for anything per say.

If you disagree good for you, there are a lot more games for you to be pleased with.

Hakim Boukellif
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I guess you were talking about "elegance" in the sense that a tuxedo is elegant, whereas I was talking about "elegance" more from a usability point of view.

Still, making something look pretty is fine and all, but in no case should aesthetics be favored over practicality in user interface design.


Certainly, CLI is hard to use for your average Joe. That is, however, completely irrelevant, as it does not apply to menus which are very easy to use (as long as you can read) and has nothing to do with the point I was trying to make. What I was trying to say is that just as it's flawed to think that just because something has worked well historically, nothing is ever going to replace it, it's equally flawed to think that just because a new alternative exists, it's going to make any current method obsolete.

Anyway, the thing with menu-operated RPGs is, is that they are pretty much already as abstract as they can get. Going any further means either obfuscating for the sake of aesthetics or reducing the amount of control the player has.

Mark Harris
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Not to a general user. CLI might be more efficient but is hardly easy to use for you average Joe.

The idea behind abstracting some of the menu layers out into the environment/gameplay mechanics/etc. is that it allows smoother play. You have more immersion and blah blah.

IE : Is it better to have my screen edges blur red when my health is low or to take my eyes off of what I'm doing to find a health bar somewhere on my screen?

Is it better to map different commonly used features to A, B, C, D buttons or to have the A button open a menu from which I can select those same features?

It is, of course, an absurdity to argue that in every instance abstraction is the answer or vice versa. However, menus are a play stopper, so in the interest of keeping the player playing I'd say that clever abstraction of menus into active play are normally very welcome.

Kamruz Moslemi
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What he said.

Remember that menus themselves are an abstraction, but often not the most elegant of the sort.

Eric Schwarz
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My personal definition of an RPG has less to do with tabletop gaming and more to do with open-ended character development and growth, both with regards to narrative and gameplay. RPGs are unique compared to most other titles in that they are governed by universal systems: both player characters and NPCs have the same stats, the same die rolls, the same classes and skills, etc., and the games that truly exploit those systems for all they're worth end up being the best RPGs. On a mechanical level, an RPG distinguishes itself by allowing players to increase stats and skills in meaningful ways which have an impact upon combat as well as the game world; if there is no consequence, trade-off etc. to the decision, then you're looking at an action game with a little extra flavour customisation. On a narrative level, an RPG should try its best to blend together those character development systems with its world and story, with the player being able to choose from multiple plot resolutions, and take multiple paths to complete objectives, all of which offer up new and interesting play experiences. The absolute best RPGs will find ways to combine mechanical and story elements together (for example, Deus Ex's characters commenting on your stealthy completion of an objective, or Dragon Age tying Blood Magic into significant story events and background lore/world design).

RPGs are attractive for developers because the RPG is one of the few genres where a lot of freedom in design of the world and characters is possible, and fortunately, RPG fans tend to be far more open to new ideas than fans of other genres. RPGs are, on a surface level, memorable for their stories and characters, and I think this is the allure that many developers go for. While good characters and story are important to an RPG, as in any other game, it's actually the underlying mechanics that are important, and how the game is able to capitalise on the universal ruleset that governs its world. It is these rulesets which create the unique, memorable experiences players have in RPGs.

Allow me to explain. I'm going to have to be a bit of a jerk to you, but with good reason.

It's become common over the last decade to reduce the importance in numbers in the RPG genre, under the presumption that they are overly complicated, get "in the way" of role-playing, and represent an artificial barrier to players. We have fewer stats and abilities than we used to, fewer character classes, etc., and generally the numbers we retain have less impact on the game, both in terms of playing and in terms of story. The general rationale for this is, if it's not to simplify development, that reducing the importance of numbers makes a game more accessible and streamlined, and that players don't like to rely on random elements because it's frustrating. I think such statements criminally misunderstand the roles of numbers in RPGs in the first place, and unfortunately, many people who are at the forefront of developing RPGs have been making these misunderstandings on a regular basis over the last decade, and it has been killing RPGs. Judging by your article, I think you have made the exact same misunderstanding.

The whole point of having universal numerical and algorithmic systems governing the world is to provide a consistent ruleset for everything to operate under, in order to allow players to succeed based on the skills of their characters and not based on their own abilities. The numbers exist (or should exist) not because they're "for nerds", but because they provide the player with an efficient, logical and predictable way to understand the game world, so that they can go ahead and make rational decisions within that world. Other genres, like shooters and action titles, don't have to rely on these systems, at least not in an overt way, because they aren't about an abstract representation of the player within the game world (in the form of player character/avatar). A shooter or an action game is centred not around a character who exists independently of the player, but rather, it is centred around a character who exists as a "puppet" for the player, a gateway for the player's raw mechanical skill to take form in the digital space the game provides.

What do we take away from a game like Fallout? Surely, it's got a compelling world, and characters, it's got good writing, and thematically the story has a lot of undertones and parallels which resonate with us even today. This is important, but has nothing to do with Fallout being an RPG; these themes, characters, etc. could have been imparted just as easily in any other game genre. See, what really separates an RPG from other types of games is what unique experiences players take away from them. How did I solve the problems presented to me? What sorts of creative solutions did I find within the open-endedness provided by that universal ruleset? Did I choose to blow up a door, or pick its lock, or steal its key, or find a back way in? Did I go through the game beating everyone I met to a pulp, or did I try to play the diplomat? In the end, how was the world affected by the decisions I made, and how did characters in it respond to me? Fallout isn't a great RPG because of its characters, story and world, it's a great RPG because it provides the player with established rules, and then it lets the player forge his or her own path within those rules. This is what so many RPGs miss these days, and what is lost when we start to talk about how we need to "streamline" things. These rulesets aren't just complexity, they're possibility.

Fox English
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No offense, but I think you must have skimmed everything that I wrote because it seems like we agreed on everything you typed here but your reply seems to be written in a way that I was diametrically opposed. Actually MY personal feelings of what RPGs are have been kept to a minimum while musing over the point of the article: what are indie devs seeing in the genre that makes it such a universal end-goal to make, and are they really understanding where they came from and what they are? Most of the points you are arguing against I brought up as objective observations of the evolution of the primary genre-split, but later would bring up the pitfalls of seeing things in those ways and listing perceptions of the community based on other blog entries here and those who I talked to in person about the genre (including many that do not play RPGs at all).

EDIT: I just found a more illustrative version of my stance was posted as a reply to Rebecca above, which may explain why it may have been overlooked in the blog. So many comments I'm forgetting when I typed these thoughts >_>

I only mentioned streamlining and entry-level systems as a generic definition of a common (but not all) console RPG. Actually I didn't misunderstand the importance of numbers at all (from your point of view), as I pointed out in the final paragraph under cRPGs in a much more condensed way than your reply. It's possible I just didn't clearly write this important point on how vital these underlying systems are, but it is there (In the article, I used the term balancing player vs. player or enemies, but I chose to ignore the other application of these rulesets in interactions with the world - such as the most common example example of a Strength requirement to open a broken door, to keep the point concise).

That is not to say that I have nothing against (nor am I for in any way) simplifying the number systems in place on a game to game basis, but the call by others to eliminate these numbers altogether was half the reason I posted this blog. It frustrates me that people who criticize RPGs for the one unifying trait ALL RPGs should have (and do have) can't realize this very important point, and it's pretty obvious this genre is just not meant for them as a player or a developer.

I suppose my final point in the closing paragraph was written as a red herring and if you'll notice between the lines, I never once say why -I- want to make an RPG. The attraction of character/narration was my theory of what brings so many other individual developers to the table of RPGs, and why the actual systems in place are constantly attacked - my observation was that devs THINK RPGs are all about characters and they aren't seeing how important the world-balancing systems are that they are so quick to want to dismiss or streamline.

It could also just be my style of writing :)

Eric Schwarz
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Thanks for the clarification, I appreciate it. It's also half-true that I wanted to go on a big rant, so don't take it too personally. :p I owe you a apology for going on a tangent without taking the time to go over your article in greater detail.

I understand the point about indie developers, and to clarify my own statements, I believe much of the desire to create RPGs, as you said (and I think I missed, as it came right at the end of your article), comes from a misunderstanding about what RPGs are and what they are capable of. Creating an evocative, compelling, engaging world isn't at all something limited to RPGs, but we associate RPGs with these things, and many indie devs don't really realise what makes them tick in the first place.

Of course, there's also the issue of many, many JRPGs not really being RPGs at all, but rather more like adventure games with battle systems, but that's another article I suppose. :p

Fox English
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Oh no need to apologize! You spelled out many aspects I was only lightly touching on so this sort of "rant" is a good thing ;) I just wanted to clarify that in fact I couldn't agree more with you, and was afraid my article was written in such a way it came off the opposite. I am fairly new here to posting here after all :D

As for many (not all) JRPGs being more adventure games, I can see your point and that definitely is another article. My own game may appear to be an obvious JRPG but only superficially (the art style); it's going to be interesting how it eventually is received.

BTW, I have to say that I love Deus Ex since you mentioned it; to say that game and all of Ultima VII weren't a huge influence on my whole outlook of RPGs is an understatement.

Kamruz Moslemi
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JRPG's, and when I say that word, JRPG, I refer only to the games of Dragon Qeuest template, were much more adventure games in the days of yore than they are today. I should know as free form adventuring was always my favourite part of the earlier games. Adventuring has taken a backseat ever since plot was given the star role of those types of games however.

That being said, it is strange to hear the definition you two have for what makes a RPG, and what makes a RPG great. It seems to be very clearly rooted in your favourite titles in the genre, Fallout and Deus EX. These are very western approaches to RPG design with their open ended mechanics and plot. Or rather the prevalence of choice, which is a recurring theme in RPGs designed in the west.

I dont really have a definition of what makes an RPG, I do not believe that it serves any purpose to sit down and define the boundaries of a genre that has so much breadth. If I were to read up the design of the sort of game, which I would recognize as being RPG, which I would like the most then it would look a lot different.

I never cared for plot in games, not when it is static and certainly not when it is open ended. Being able to see how my choices affect the world has never intrigued at all, I couldn't care less as that pertains to plot, which has no value to me. The choice of how to tackle obstacles in the world via a list of alternatives according to how built my skillset I also never really cared for. Choice never gets me excited, I rather there be one way to tackle none enemy obstacles but it be a very well designed one because it got all of the focus. Thus the only time I enjoy choice is in free form adventuring, as in where I want to roam towards next, and during combat, as in how do I want to skillfully apply my skills to fell a foe, which is to say I enjoy depth in combat mechanics.

I guess my affinities are very much geared towards east in that regard, but this just speaks of how much room there is within the border of that vague moniker, RPG. It is hard to define what it means, but all designers who want to work in it know exactly what their favourite RPG would look and play like and can at the same time easily identify the fruits of someone else's vision clearly as being a RPG as well.

Fox English
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Since my personal opinions seem to be important to discuss this topic properly, I just want to point out that I enjoy a good JRPG (using your definition) as much if not moreso as any other kind of RPG. I'll be up front and list my favorite RPGs ever (in no particular order): Dragon Quest VII, Tales of the Abyss, Legend of Mana, Ultima VII, Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, Suikoden II, and Persona 3. I have a hard time finding anything in common with any of those games, which is why talking about the genre as a whole fascinates me, and I have to fight myself not to drop everything and replay any of them just by bringing them up. Some of those games are/were fairly popular, while others are the black sheep of their respective series. And to further define where I stand, I actually didn't fully enjoy any of the Fallouts. Fallout 3 and Deus Ex are actually extremely different games despite their similarities on the surface. In any case, I have an extremely broad love of RPGs as a whole, and I am 100% behind you on being unable, or in my case unwilling, to define what they are.

I am going to assume that you refer to "plot" as in outside of the initial motivation to proceed and an ongoing story/pointer to the next location, since every RPG I've ever played has a goal to achieve aside from adventuring and exploring new frontiers, even Dragon Quest. I feel that this ongoing plot generally is used to help players who are easily overwhelmed and get lost playing these games, a far greater number than usually posts in these sorts of topics. At least, I believe that was the ORIGINAL intent of focusing on plots in RPGs (Japanese RPGs really took to this trend around the release of DQ4 and FF4). As time went on, they started overshadowing practically everything, and for me it doesn't take long for me to see that a game is shallow and boring despite whatever story concept they try to lure me in. I guess my point here is that, if a game has a plot, so be it; that won't make or break my opinion of it. But it STILL has to be fun and have good mechanics behind it. Often if it has both and done very well, they will be games I'll probably love forever.

I'm curious what your opinion of the PC version of Ultima VII: The Black Gate (and to a lesser extent, Serpent Isle) is. It seems like this game in particular has a very unique approach to free form adventure that few Western games ever tried to replicate then or after. This game was insanely popular in Japan as well, and I can see a lot of similarities to the JRPG design of the time (1991/1992). I actually haven't gotten into any of these huge open world sandbox-like games like Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls, and part of it is that the choices offered aren't really interesting. But U7 just does things differently. Maybe it's too subtle of a difference to notice right away, but there just doesn't seem to be a pretentious "weight" behind the openness of the game and everything you do in it just seems natural, not baited, kind of like how the Adventure genre used to play.

Well, in any case, when my game is finished, I'd really like to hear your critiques on it. I am doing something very experimental given my dominant background with JRPGs (all kinds, not just the DQ template) but not really willing to restrict the design to just those kinds of games, or just a Western template as well. From the very beginning I wanted to make an RPG that hasn't been made yet, and I don't mean anything to do with plot/story. I have no idea how it'll be received, but I wanted to try.

I really do like how personal RPGs are to each individual. I feel that's one thing no other game genre really does well.

Kamruz Moslemi
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While I did possess a PC in the early 90's, and due to the sisters three conspiring to prevent me from having what I desired the most, a SNES, I also played quite a lot of games on it yet no RPG ever found its way into my hands, so I have never played any of the Ultima games. Games spawning whole new genres like Dune 2 and Wolfenstein 3D/DOOM where receiving most attention then and since I only learned about games through word of mouth RPG's were never brought up.

I do know the significance of the Ultima games though, Yuji Horii has gone on record to say that the original Dragon Quest was basically designed to be the console's answer to the series.

My personal favourites tally FFIV, FFVI, Vagrant Story and Demon's Souls. I also enjoyed FFXII very much for being such a strange and unique title. Fallout 3 is a interesting case for me. The laughable testing and QA standards of Bethesda had meant that I always did a wide circle around their titles. I also generally stayed away from modern western RPG's as their most popular themes had always put me off, such as I mentioned above, I never cared for freedom of choice in problem solving and I certainly have no affinity for morality systems, branching plot or conversation trees.

So I should have just skipped Fallout 3, but you see, I have always had a strong love for post apocalyptic settings. One of my dream scenarios for a game has always been one where you get to free roam in such a setting. So when they rolled out that trailer showing the beautiful destroyed world I was intrigued.

So I did ultimately, despite the shamefully frequent hard locks and glitches, enjoy Fallout 3, but for all the wrong reasons. I got interested in it as a free roaming post apocalyptic game and that is how I played it, which meant I ignored all of its other shortcomings such as the lack of interesting choices, pitifully ugly characters and a very poorly written story. I could sort of dig the fighting system though because it reminded me so much of Vagrant Story, and pumping a opponent full of bullets and see them explode in slow motion never quite got old. There is something for JRPG's to learn from here, which is to say making combat interesting in terms of pure aesthetics.

Alas, ll I wanted to do in Fallout 3 was to explore the vast world and I did eventually visit every corner of it. The change of setting in the sequel meant I passed on that one as well. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that I wish more developers were building a visually interesting world around their RPG and would let players just roam around and explore free of any contrived plot hooks.

So since my vision for personal perfect RPG is on such a grand level it is something entirely beyond the scope of what I can achieve on my own, so have never tried. Maybe one day the fates will conspire to place me in a position where I am tasked to design a RPG with the appropriate resources then I will get to. But I am always interesting to play a game, especially an RPG, that aims to do things differently, so let me know whenever your title is ready for release, and if it finds itself on a system available to me then I'll be sure to check it out.

Or better, if you can divulge the information then why not let me know right now the platform and name so I can keep a lookout myself?

Joe Cooper
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Some of my favorite showed up in y'all's lists; Legend of Mana, FFIV, FFVI.

But Legend of Mana seems notable and relevant. The art is beautiful, as is the music and reading the dialog is a joy, but the game-play was some of the crudest I've ever seen and was just plain boring. Very much in the "press attack to win" category.

It was a game I literally bought cause of the cover, and that foreshadows how I wound up enjoying it.

But I did enjoy it. A lot. Played through it a few times.

I supposed there is room for such products that are more interactive art pieces than games, but then so many people try to build such things with these painful, "epic" stories with heaps of false pathos dumped on top.

Grand this, Epic that, Knights of the Seven, the Four Pieces of Eight, The Five Warrens of Beatty, etc.

Then they invariably involve "quests" that are the fantasy world equivalent of cleaning the gutters.

I think the word I'm looking for is "bad". Bad writing. Bad art. Yet art is the point when someone makes an RPG to "tell a story".

This is a very persistent theme I see whenever people default to the RPG when they have an epic story in their heads, including amateurs and indies especially, that they don't actually have a good story to tell and have very limited imaginations; the kind of people who take a word like "fantasy", which means "unrestrained imagination", and treat it as meaning "use these stock characters to tell this stock story and DAMNIT VAMPIRES DO NOT NEED FLASHLIGHTS STOP BREAKING THE RULES".

It may be the case that the fact that RPGs are a default tool in people's minds means that people with no imagination - people who mindlessly go with defaults - are overrepresented.

But now I'm just venting.

Fox English
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Kamruz: Though it's a ways to go, the title is Shadowdawn Genesis. I've been developing it for the Xbox 360 and PC for now, but there are some openings to expand to other platforms that are just waiting for me to pitch a demo (still, no gaurantee yet). It's a shame you never got to try Ultima, though, it's hard for me to find a more dedicated fanbase! Well... not counting the final two releases, VIII and worse IX. Of course, some of the interface is really archaic nowadays for the earliest games, I think I can only tolerate VII anymore.

Joe: I had written such a long reply about Legend of Mana that Gamasutra decided to eat, I don't think I can write the same thoughts out again lol. But, I actually found the gameplay enthralling for this game. It may be clunky but there was a LOT to find, it truly was a game that gave back what you put into it. My first playthrough was so short and seemed to have nothing at all going for it to the point I had no idea what just happened, but I could tell I was missing a huge chunk of content and immediately had to try again. In that way, it succeeded where a lot of games, especially RPGs, fail: practically EVERYTHING was optional in this game, even the primary story arcs! Even games with heavy insistence on choice and karma or whatever fail to go so far as to change the main plot the player experiences. It was a novel idea at the time that had just barely scratched the surface. Sure, the art (and in my case, the music!) really attracted me and kept me into it, but there was always something more to experience. The biggest problem for me was how combat was such a boring blank slate at first, it didn't seem like there would be anything more to it, but then you learn maneuvers along with typical special attacks and it really opened up. The downside and why I think gameplay was perceived by most to be so boring was that nothing was really hard enough until the very end of certain arcs to warrant learning all these - unless you played Nightmare mode. Still, I always felt this idea was abandoned too soon, I kept hoping they would have done a LoM2 just to polish the idea up after this introductory game.

Your vampires and flashlights comment made me laugh far too much, I know exactly what you mean lol. I can't objectively say my game's story will be any good, but I did make an effort to avoid gameplay gimmicks such as "find # pieces of Y" to proceed along the main plot opting for a more natural timeflow of events. As for art, well, I am fully aware there is a large demographic that absolutely despises this artstyle for whatever reason (mostly overly zealous fandom), so I am prepared for that criticism, even if I'm sure they'll assume I chose it for all the wrong reasons. :)

I'll keep an eye out for your blog (I saw your post before)! It sounds like your game's theme is exactly what I was trying to illustrate here.

Kamruz Moslemi
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I found the site for your game and watched the gameplay video. You are right, you are going to put a lot of people off by using a faux manga style, this is a very bold decision, especially when considering what that style has come to be associated with today outside of Japan.

I do however commend you for not doing the one thing I have come to despise the most in terms of lazy presentation in Japanese games that use large 2D portraits during dialoug scenes. Which is to say that you opted not to go with a big headed chibi representation of your character sprites on the actual field.

In addition, when it comes to games that use large 2D portraits for dialoug I usually find that it makes the presentation a lot more impressive when the character art actually animates, the more frames for each differing pose the better. It is time consuming to animate something that large, but I find that since they take up so much screen time and space giving it due attention will have a large impact.

Another much more subtle thing that impressed me in Symphony of the Night was that while the dialoug was taking place you could see that the tiny field sprites were actually animating in accordance to what was being said.

I assume that video is from an early build and you have yet to begin putting on subtle visual polishes such as smoothing away the abrupt way in which the dialog boxes come and go in favour of a fast transition of sorts.

I cannot really tell from the quality of the youtube video, but it seems to me that you are going for a full 2D sprite based presentation. I really like this as I have always found a shame that games that try to keep their gameplay moored in 2D go for 3D visuals. I've also always thought that hand drawn 2D graphics possess a charm that polygonal graphics can never hope to attain. So why when the opportunity is ripe not try and use them. Alas my dream of playing a fully 2D Castlevania or Metroid with highres sprite graphics on my TV will forever be just a dream I suppose.

Anywho, I think I can venture a guess that this is going to be a digital release. While I do have a 360 that I picked up used for the sake of the odd Japanese game that either runs significantly better on that platform, like Bayonetta, or is exclusive to the platform, like Deadly Premonition yet that is by far not my favourite system and I've never bought any digital releases for it. In fact I have never even connected it to my network. So I hope you get a deal going for a PSN release as well, but if not I'll see what I can do to sample the game anyway.

PC is out of the question for me though, I converted to Mac a long time ago and generally gave up on the platform anno 1997 as being a very inelegant platform, especially for gaming.

Joe Cooper
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The anime style doesn't bother me either. Honestly, the industry has moved so far towards the Space Marine Commander Dragathor theme that it'd probably be bold and daring to make a game about a straight-laced white cop who gets paired with Eddie Murphy.

That said, the "large demographic" I think is actually a rather small slice of geekdom who actually cares and you might a substantial number of people could not care less.

My project's a lot smaller :( I made some games in Java as study projects, and now I'm trying to make a 2-month "pilot project" on iOS.

Using Facebook as a sort of dev blog at the moment.


"especially when considering what that style has come to be associated with today outside of Japan."

I _just_ got that. Hahahahah.

Fox English
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Thanks for checking it out. I specifically avoided the chibi style sprites because every single recent 2D Japanese RPG uses them. I had to stand out somehow! The code is actually there to animate the large dialog portraits, but I hadn't updated the previous animations since putting the newer, cleaner style in place so they appear static. Symphony of the Night is one of my references for the game artistically since it is the closest game to the style I was going for, so I know exactly what you are talking about with the animations behind the dialog. All in good time!

But yes, the video is from an early build, even a month later everything has been polished quite a bit and there's still a lot more to go. And as you guessed, menus and dialog windows haven't been given their transition effects yet but it IS on my current to-do list, so hopefully that will happen this weekend. :) The entire game will be 2D sprites, and it's games like Castlevania and some of the final 2D RPGs on PS1 that inspired me to do so. I always asked myself "what would a pure 2D game made for HD consoles look like today?" and this is what I came up with so far. My next project is a so-called "Metroidvania" with the same goal (a game I keep debating whether to make first since it requires so much less difficult animations to draw) so hopefully that will be something you'll be able to look forward to :)

Once the first level is completely polished with all events in place, I'll be shopping it around. If I can avoid digital distribution I'd like to, but for now it's my only choice. PSN is my primary target outside of 360 if stuck only going digital, and I think I have a good chance with one of my small publisher contacts.

Anyways, I guess this blog finally got bumped off the front page so these replies may not be seen, but it was fun reading yours and so many other comments. It gave me a lot to think about!

Kamruz Moslemi
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We don't need no stinking first page. But come now, a Symphony of the Night type game not requiring as many complex animations? Do you remember how fluid Alucard moved and the absolutely staggering number of animated enemies in that game? It perplexes me to this day whenever I go back to play that masterpiece one more time. I think a RPG is easier to make in that regard.

Anyway, good luck with you endeavour, hope to see it on a console near me in the near future.

Fox English
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Haha, just to clarify, that comment was meant to refer to the fact I have to currently animate up and down in my game as well as left and right, and not a declaration that I intend to cut back on the detailed animation style that inspired me. :) Castlevanias had the luxury of only going two directions, so it wasn't as difficult in the long run!

Kamruz Moslemi
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It also had the luxury of being able to pull assets out of a decade's worth of Castlevania games, so my heart goes out to you if you are trying to outdo them.

Fox English
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Well, you know what "they" say, aim high! Thank you for your well wishes in any case, I hope the end result is worth the wait. :)

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem with (c)RPG's is very simple - and a symptom of the same problem affecting games in general:

Their application has become confused with their definition.

(To understand the basics of that, I suggest you read my blog - (click my name) - not gotten that far yet, (3 parts), but the foundations are there).

Narrative/plot etc. are part of the application, and have nothing at all to do with the definition of game whatsoever, which many people fail to understand, unfortunately - (though this was the argument that got me involved in all this to begin with).

I could just give you my take on cRPG's - which would be ultimately based upon the contents of my blog so far - but I don't think it would be fair just yet - I'm working my way towards that though - one step at a time. A few people are almost there in understanding it, (such as Eric Schwarz above), but still get tied up at some point by applications.

One of the biggest problems with cRPG's - is that, by linking such things specifically with CHARACTERS - i.e. a specific KIND of 'playing piece' - we're automatically defining them by an application that no longer matters at this level - the media being used. Because of that - the greater definition for the type of game is also being lost - since there is nothing stopping the same thing from existing with, and being applied by cars or spaceships etc.. This is, again, a by-product of the confusion caused by the extra level of abstraction gained by using a computer, therefore technically rendering the description of 'role-playing', in relation to other such games outside of computers, incorrect and inconsistent.

Given the amount of inconsistency surrounding games and cRPG's - it shouldn't be surprising that there are so many problems...

Fox English
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As I replied above, I do not personally feel that characters = RPGs, this was just a theory on why so many new developers seem to be attracted to the genre (it's hard not to notice how many want to write a story and use the RPG template for that). I actually spelled this out in my most concise sentence near the end of the PC RPG section: "RPGs do not mean story, and story does not mean RPGs."

I have my own viewpoints on what RPGs mean to me, but it seems like we agree for the most part. In fact, my final observational theory about strong interwoven characters being the primary draw for OTHER developers is exactly what you are talking about here, and my final question resonates perfectly with the point of your blog: do these games really have to be RPGs? I'm actually asking, "are you making your game an RPG, because you have been told or think that the only games WITH characters and fantastic stories are RPGs?" while making them try to consider what the genre (or underlying game outside of the story) actually is. I would have liked to make it more clear that this entire theory at the end of my article is illustrating the misperception of the development community as a whole, not just indie devs.

On another devil's advocate note, maybe all this confusion in the industry about definitions is just evolution at work. It takes and magnifies the part most used and discards the part least used, whether that is for the better or not. If so many devs truly believe and use the application that RPGs = story and everything else is an unnecessary distraction to be culled (that Bioware interview snippet above makes me sad), there's not much hope for the actual "game"s framework. Eventually this line of thinking would lead to a very empty, if not flashy-looking, experience - and the signs of this have already taken hold in the recent game (not just RPG) offerings.

Darren Tomlyn
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I recommend you read my blog - you'll have a far better understanding of where I'm coming from, and yes, we pretty much agree.

But I see the problems with cRPG's as just a small part of a much bigger problem in general, and without fully understanding and recognising that - treating cRPG's in isolation really isn't going to work. It's taken me two years in total to fully figure everything out - and my blog here is the result of what I've found.

It's not evolution - it's just pure misunderstanding and inconsistency, based on misperception of the language in general - especially when how we use the language is part of the problem - (because of how we use it to describe other words themselves).

Yes - this is all merely a matter of linguistics at the end of the day - nothing more.

There is ONE specific thing, that cRPG's do that is special - that they should be defined by. This one ingredient, however, is NOT just limited to cRPG's, which is part of the problem caused by it's perception of being defined by characters, as I said. This one, single, element SHOULD, of course, be the reason people want to make such a type of game - but because this element has NOTHING whatsoever to do with the basic game-play itself - it means that every other type of computer game can therefore also become a cRPG - (if it uses 'characters'). But it's not perceived that way. Nor is it APPLIED in a consistent manner either at this time, as far as being a type of game in itself is concerned. The latter is by far and away the biggest area of inconsistency with cRPG's at this time.

(Hint: Games are defined by the behaviour of the PLAYER - not the game!)

As I said - read my blog - though it'll take a while before I finish laying all the groundwork for when I start talking about cRPG's themselves - (which is what I'm aiming for).

Mark Harris
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Inconsistency is the spice of life. :)

Darren Tomlyn
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But language, of course, only functions when it possesses a minimum level of consistency - which is why we're having all these problems in the first place...

As I said - cRPG's are just a symptom of another problem - which happens to be affecting the English language in a fairly basic way - of which the word game itself is just a symptom - (i.e. noun, verb and adjective).

Mark Harris
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Actually the fluidity of language is its greatest strength. Many of the most influential works of literature in the history of all timez has defied the consistency of language in order to transcend it.

A modicum of consistency is important for general meaning in everyday discourse, but originality is the key to making something memorable. Now, there is no originality if there is no consistency from which do differ oneself, amiright?

In all things moderation, including moderation.

Darren Tomlyn
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Only within the basic rules of the language itself - which is the main reason English especially has lasted as long as it has. Sheer inconsistency is the enemy of language, and that is the ultimate problem we have here - words which now have an individually subjective meaning.

The word game, in itself, has become so subjective - cRPG's are a symptom of this.

The two main reasons for this is that how we describe words for what they represent is failing to do it's job, regardless of how the words are USED, and we are mistaking how words are applied for what they represent - again, even though it is inconsistent with how the language is USED.

Most of our languages - (though not all, but most) - DELIBERATELY separate definitions from applications for a very good reason - because what words represent can normally exist independently of such an application - therefore we use other words in combination to represent such an application for this reason.

Just as we don't DEFINE the words furniture, or table as the word metal - because what the two words represent exist separately, independently of the language - and therefore use the two words in combination to give them such an application, (metal furniture or table), the same thing goes for video games, and computer-based Role-Playing Games.

As I said - read my blog - though I've got a way to go before getting round to cRPG's...

Mark Harris
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No need, I've been there before.

This is not a science, and subjectivity is fine. The discourse about language won't do anything to help the "problem" because as soon as you lay down a groudwork someone will come along and abuse it.

That's what I'm getting at, for every set of rules born there are a million subjective arguments out there ready to pervert it. Meaning has been established without the need to quantify those meanings, and without quantification those meanings are mutable and fluid enough to bend with the ever changing discussion.

In the end, we understand each other just fine, and since we're not talking about the weight tolerance of a support beam the quantification is merely a shell. Design and appeal is not a science.

Darren Tomlyn
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No. The English language has been ABLE to change so much for one main reason - it's basic RULES allow it to do so CONSISTENTLY. Yes, there are a few 'minor' rules here and there, but they're not the problem.

The inconsistency you're talking about - how we USE the language - is NOT the problem here - of course how the language is USED has to change as humanity does etc. - if it didn't any language would lose its purpose in future rather quickly - (and become more of an academic language - needed for history etc., as many languages have become over time).

How a language is USED is what matters! If people use the language to mean something, then that is what it means - yes there can be some inconsistency there, but that's the nature of humanity. This is what you're talking about.

But that's NOT the problem here!

The problem here is that the PERCEPTION of language is not consistent with its USE!

The reason for this is, as I've said, what words are DESCRIBED as representing - in dictionaries/encyclopedias etc., is not always consistent with what the words MUST represent, based on how they are USED.

I could describe the word furniture as representing metal all I like - but if I don't change how I USE the word to match such a description, then the description would be wrong, and cause problems! Likewise if I consistently use the word metal in combination with the word furniture in order to give it such an application, but still describe furniture as being metal, then that wouldn't be consistent either - especially if I get some wooden furniture too!

How could I possibly understand WHAT the word furniture represents, if I call it metal, or wood, or just single or double, without knowing or understanding chairs or tables etc.?

As I said - the difference between a words definition and it's application is a BASIC, SIMPLE part of how language FUNCTIONS - language cannot function without such a distinction, which is also why we're having so many problems with games and cRPG's.

Read my blog - all of it.

Lee Brazil
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In their earliest form, RPG's were primarily a series of puzzles disguised as combat enmeshed in a coherent context that provided added meaning to the actions of the somewhat persistent named units as those units advanced in potency. This was true for table top and computer based games. Later, both table top games and computer games became much more story and then character focused. It was probably a somewhat inevitable development as the genre evolved out of the hands of the original grognards.

As an aside, what passed for a character early on for table top gaming was pretty minimal. It was basically a name, the idea that the unit was persistent (along with a persistent miniature), an indication of the units level and class, and some sense of its history. Today (except for true grognards), the demands for high quality context (the overall combination of setting/character/story) are substantially higher.

Matthew Dorry
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I enjoyed one or two RPG as a child, such as KoTOR, but I can't stand them at this point. I don't need to go into why I can't stand them, but I can tell you thought I recently had about their relevance. In a nutshell, they're horribly redundant. Companies spend thousands--Even millions--on teams of engineers and designers to represent on a tv/computer screen what can essentially still take place on paper. The experience of an RPG has always been that of giving commands to pokemon with number sheets, so to speak, instead of any raw one-to-one actions wherein the player is the character

James Gambrell
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This thread seems focused on defining RPGs by their statistical combat systems. I'd say that is a really minor aspect of what makes RPGs great games, even going back to early games like FF3.

What really defines the RPG genre is the clever embedding of puzzles inside character, story, and combat elements. The best RPGs blend these elements together in a way that makes you feel like a real character in a real world.

A good RPG requires the player to sit back and think, like a puzzle game, but rather than thinking about some abstract puzzle they have no compelling reason to care about (Professor Layton), they are thinking "How do I optimize my talent points?" (Character) "What sequence of abilities will beat this boss?" (Combat) "How can I locate this person who killed my sister so I can get revenge?" (Story).

When you do this RIGHT, and set it all in a beautiful and interesting world, the player feels like he is really in the world, playing a well defined role (RPG), using his skills and abilities (Character), to advance the story and defeat challenging enemies.

When you do this WRONG, the player feels like he is mindlessly following quest target arrows from point A to point B, mindlessly pressing "attack" over and over, and mindlessly interacting with glowing objects.

Note the operative word, "mindlessly". RPGs are not action games, so they can't challenge the player with button-pressing dexterity. They aren't pure puzzle games either, so they can't rely purely on that either. So you have to deliver some kind of challenge that isn't purely action, and isn't purely puzzle. This is difficult to do because it requires real creativity.

A good example of this is how you can get Minsc out of his cage in the beginning of BG2 by choosing dialog options that get him angry enough that he rips through the bars. This is a little puzzle that plays on your knowledge of Minsc's personality.

The difficulty with doing this today is that the gaming audience is much more diverse than it was in the 90s. Unless your mom can beat it without getting stuck, its too hard. The ONLY solution to this problem is to design the game to be played at multiple levels. Not just harder enemies and easier enemies, but really different play styles. Design one class for people that need handholding, and another class for people that hate handholding. Put in options to add or subtract hints. It is amazing how many AAA games fail to put in these options, but just something as simple as turning off glowing sparkles on quest objectives, or being able to tell the helpful goddess-spirit on your shoulder to STFU (ZELDA!) can yield a huge increase in enjoyment for certain types of players.