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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).
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?