The Action RPG Problem
The "Action RPG" genre is the current trend in the RPG industry; the issue with it is that contrary to its name, it is not representative of the main experience of the game. Consequently, it can be confusing both for developers and consumers to simply describe an RPG as an "action RPG." Let's take a few games that have all been described as action RPGs as examples:
- The Witcher 2. The main experience is Narrative.
- Skyrim. The main experience is Sandbox.
- Dark Souls. The main experience is hardcore Dungeon Crawler.
- Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The main experience seems to not be properly defined.
So all those games have completely different goals for their main experience, and as such would appeal to different type of players, but still they all have been described as action RPGs. That's an issue because action RPG is not a real subgenre; instead, it's simply the current marketing slang for "it is cool to play it on consoles."
In term of mechanics, it usually comes down to one of two things (and sometimes both!):
- Pressing a button triggers a "basic" attack; there is no such thing as "auto-attack."
- Pressing a button triggers a dodge or parry.
And that's usually it, which is far from being "experience defining," and that's the risk:
- For the developers to simply describe their game as an action RPG, and as a result maybe mix multiple experiences without realizing it, and end up with a diluted/undefined experience.
- For the consumer to buy a game simply because it's called an action RPG and end up with an experience that he might not enjoy.
Ever heard someone say, "I bought The Witcher, but it's boring -- there's too much dialog!" or "I bought Diablo, but the story sucks!" or "Damn, why is the main campaign in Skyrim so lackluster?" Well, the reason for this is simple: the people who bought those games didn't realize they were buying a subgenre of RPG that focuses on an experience they don't like. They wanted awesome narration, deep character evolution, and pure action, or maybe more freedom.
And marketing doesn't help with that, as every RPG released nowadays is described as an action RPG.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Of course, there is no doubt that this trend started because marketing needed a way to market "RPGs that are cool to play with a pad." The thing is, in the end, it simply roughly describes what kind of combat you might expect, but not the core experience of the game. And as the trend grows, we can safely expect that in a couple years (if that's not the case already) every RPG will be an action RPG, making the label basically useless.
In the end, it is understandable that marketing a game as an action RPG is sexier than as a "Narrative RPG" or "Sandbox RPG" -- but it's still confusing nonetheless. If you are a developer, don't simply describe your game as an "action RPG," and if you are a consumer, don't simply buy a game because it is called an action RPG; try to understand what the core experience in it is, and see if that's what you want.
The type of combat you have in an RPG does not define your core experience; combat is only a support for that core experience, which is either: story, sandbox, or character evolution.
The Breadcrumbs Technique
So now you have your main experience nailed. You know what you are aiming for. Now what? Here is what I suggest:
- Define your experience in detail. What I described above are only high level guidelines, but there are multiple variations. For example, like I said above, the narrative RPG genre can be sub-divided again between the games where you can create your character (Mass Effect) and the others where you cannot (The Witcher). This typically will have a huge impact on how your narrative works, the first one being aimed at the player "being" the character and forging it, while the second is aimed at showing a portrayal of a character, allowing the player to get intimate with his/her personality. When you finish Mass Effect, you created your Shepard, but when you finish The Witcher, you know who Geralt is.
- Make sure that everyone in the team is clear about the type of RPG you are making and what the main experience is; this will put everyone on the same page, and ensure that you get feedback and suggestions that are aimed toward that experience. For example this should avoid suggestions like, "What about adding this and this from Diablo?" when these are clearly features aimed toward the character evolution experience, while you are making a narrative RPG, and thus focusing on creating an immersive character and story experience.
When you're ready, use the breadcrumbs technique.