I like RPGs. I think it’s safe to say that the genre has had significant impact on my life, and in a sort of roundabout way had its fair share in shaping my personal growth. That is a pretty bald statement by any account, and to some it might seem a little ‘out there’ but I think a lot of gamers can probably name a genre or a game or two that truly made an impact on them at some stage in their lives. Genres are like people though, they evolve,they grow, and sometimes the change is subtle at first and we don’t really notice it, but looking back at things in the here and now, we’ve come a long way baby.
My first true video game RPG was Baldur’s Gate, the year was 1998 and I was 13 years old.Of course at the time I wasn’t the most discerning of gamers and there were lots of things I didn’t know about the business, I suppose it was a blissful sort of ignorance I find myself wishing I still had to some extent, but that’s a different discussion entirely. Strangely enough, I hated the game initially, the reason being my best friend at the time would play it for hours ‘with me’ at his house, which really meant that he played a lot and I kind of… watched.This went on for about two weeks, and I honestly do not think I have ever been as bored as I was at the time, I even left the house and came back an hour later and my friend hadn’t even noticed I was gone. When he was finally finished with the game, he practically forced me to borrow it, and despite my protesting he kept insisting. Boy am I glad he did.
The game blew my mind, the amount of choice, my (perceived) impact on the story through my choices, the rich and engaging world, all wrapped up in amazing characters and some of the best video game writing I think I’ve ever seen, and the like of which I am not entirely sure I will ever see again if truth be told.
Of course now, fast forward 14 years (wow, now I feel old) the genre has come leaps and bounds, and in some cases merged with others to create a hybrid with the best of many worlds, so looking at the past and the present, is it possible for us to predict the future of RPGs?
The world has changed significantly since 1998; I have changed significantly since 1998. and so have you, what was new and innovative then is increasingly archaic by our standards now, the bar is simply higher, and the money, the risk and the potential downfalls have never been greater than today, with some studios living a hand to mouth existence scraping by, by the skin of their teeth and the future of the company resting on the success of one title.
Another huge change that has come about is that games are no longer considered a niche thing, it’s become mainstream, and for the games companies these days it’s about making money, and money is made by making your game appeal to as many people as possible, and as accessible to as many people as you possibly can.
That is why we will never see games with the sheer amount of content that Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, Fallout 1 and 2 etc boasted. The closest thing we get to those now, are Bethesda’s mastodonts Elder Scrolls and Fallout.
Or is it?
We may see very few 100+ hour RPGs these days, and possibly even less so in the future, but something else has risen from the ashes of those huge dinosaurs of old, MMORPGs.
To me, MMORPGs are the natural continuation of those games, but it is an incarnation that is still somewhat in its infancy, but given time and a few reiterations, that feeling of journeying down the mines of Nashkel with an addled Ranger, an overzealous Druid, a nervy Warrior and a spunky Thief (Bonus points for putting names to those classes) can be recreated.
We have come a long way when it comes to MMORPGs, from MUDs to EQ, to WoW, EQ2, Rift and so and so forth, but only recently has the RPG part of the name found its way back into a genre, largely dominated by World of Warcraft and largely devoid of the elements that would classify it as a true RPG, items with stats does not an RPG make, I am looking at you Blizzard.
An RPG is about more than items, it’s about feeling heroic, and getting emotionally invested in your character, for some, the character is a representation of themselves albeit an idealised version.
My biggest gripe with most modern MMORPGs is that they do not make me feel very heroic, or particularly invested in my character, take a walk through Orgrimmar, New Taranthia, Sanctum or even The Imperial Fleet Station, there are literally hundreds of heroes out there saving the world every 5 minutes and they all look alike, bar the odd colour tint/particle effect. With that many heroes you start wondering why any villain would even bother trying to take over the world in the first place.
Did I ever feel personally invested in my Undead Priest? My Blood Elf Paladin? My Guardian Cleric? No.
They were an empty shell, a husk if you will, who silently ran around collecting rat tails, or killing 10 Ogres on request.
I will tell you what I did care about; I did care about my Aquilonian Priest of Mitra, I do care about my Sith Sorceror, and I will care about my human Guardian of Divinity’s Reach this coming weekend.
What do these characters have in common?
They all had personal stories that even though other Aquilonians, Sith Inquistor’s and Humans of Kryta, shared it with me, it was always just mine, the dialogue choices were always mine, and my companions and the relationships with those, were all mine.
Now, I am not saying I didn’t feel heroic when my guild and I downed Ragnaros for the first time, I absolutely did, and for at least 2 hours after that, that is, until someone else also killed him, and the next time someone else killed him, but I never became as personally invested in the character as one would expect, and certainly not to the degree that a traditional RPG would otherwise make me.
You can argue that ‘it’s an MMORPG it’s not supposed to do that, go play DDO trololol’ but why shouldn’t it? What is wrong with demanding more? More individuality, more content to truly immerse yourself into your character and its world, and that’s not to say that this kind of content would have to be a single player experience within a multiplayer game, not at all, the best stories are the ones where are a team of unlikely heroes struggle to overcome supposedly insurmountable odds but ultimately triumphs over evil, that is a heroic feel, but it has to be coupled with solid and interesting game mechanics, story isn’t enough on its own merit. Any healer who’s ever done a 5-man WoW dungeon knows that you don’t feel particularly heroic playing whack-a-mole with health bars for 45 minutes.
Thankfully, it seems the developers are starting to become aware that emotional attachment and that feel of wanting to log in and ‘be the hero’ is part of that vital player retention that they are all looking for, it’s all about hooks – and the latest example of this is The Old Republic. The game differs from the competition by having fully voiced questing, a massive personal story arch based on your class and companions who travel with you, and have morals, ethics and a story of their own, caught up in the maelstrom of events in your wake. The personal stories adds that bit of spice that gets you invested from the get go, you want to progress the story, you want to see what happens next, and above all, you care. Simply by giving your character an actual voice BioWare instantly connects you to the character you’ve made, and while I am not saying that the stories are perfect, it is a step in the right direction. In the case of The Old Republic though, the personal story has perhaps been emphasised too much at the cost of other forms of content, but that is a different discussion altogether.
TOR wasn’t the first game to do this however; Age of Conan sported a similar system, albeit not as intricate, based on your race. The story was perhaps less compelling than that of TOR but it was a great start and I know a great many players enjoyed that extra connection with their character, and I believe it is a direction that these games need to continue to build on.
In 2012, we gamers are going to be spoiled for choice. We get Guild Wars 2, Tera, The Secret World and perhaps, just maybe ArcheAge, in some way each of those break the mould a little bit more of how we are used to playing MMORPGs, and take us a little step further in the direction of our golden oldies, increased immersion, a heroic feel and the want to log in, and be the hero.