Skyrim, Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3: Are RPGs Evolving or Dying?

Mar 21, 2011 by  

Elder Scrolls 5 Skyrim RPG Better Worse

There’s no reason for us to bet against Bethesda, especially considering how many lessons they’ve learned from past games, but it isn’t the tweaks to the user interface that has us worried. RPG menus are extensive and sometimes cumbersome by necessity, with any quality game having a great deal of information to deal with. Making the systems easier to navigate or access with the press of a button seems like an inevitable step, and we can’t wait to see how it functions for ourselves.

RPG combat has always been many things, but realistic isn’t anywhere near the top of the list. Swinging a sword or staff at regular intervals while watching numbers fly out of an opponent’s head doesn’t exactly immerse a player in a fictional world, but it’s worked so far. It’s worked because realistic combat isn’t the priority of RPGs, the priority is leveling up and refining a character from a base set of predetermined skills.

Or, that was the foundation of the genre so many years ago, but not with Skyrim. For the newest entry in the series, the developers have decided to remove all restrictions of player class, and allow players to upgrade their characters however they see fit. Skyrim‘s director Todd Howard sees the adjustment not as a cop-put, but as a solution to the age-old problem of players being forced to choose a class before fully understanding the differences.

Instead of players having to choose the type of character they’ll play as, Howard and the team have put together a brand new system that he feels does the impossible – removes any necessity for the player to choose a single class:

“You just play, and your skills go up as you play and the higher your skill, the more it affects your leveling. So it’s a really, really nice elegant system that kind of self-balances itself.”

The positive aspects of the change are obvious: players can choose to develop their own characters to possess their favorite abilities from every class. No longer will players choose to go the spell-caster route, only to find that they’re much weaker in hand-to-hand combat than they would like. A change we fully understand, since nothing is more frustrating than finding out that the class you’ve chosen is designed for a completely different game style than your own. Removing the distinctions nips the problem in the bud.

But we have to ask – is that still role-playing? While some might say that the removal of artificial classes gives players even more freedom to define the role they wish to play, others could argue that Bethesda has completely removed the roles themselves. We don’t even know ourselves if the change is for the better or worse, since it’s a safe bet that a majority of players will craft the exact same type of character for Skyrim.

It’s only natural for players to want the best of all worlds, but that in itself is somewhat of a betrayal of one of the role-playing genre’s main values. If a large number of protagonists possess the same strength with weapons and talent for magic, then the differences in each player’s campaign that distinguish RPGs from other more-linear genres will rest solely in player choices.

Elder Scrolls 5 Skyrim Changes

Bethesda has described the various ways that their new Creation Engine will give players an unprecedented amount of control over their own story, so at the very least, the developers are compensating for the loss of character classes with expanded story branches.

Then again, player choices in directing the story were the biggest factors in Mass Effect‘s game design, and we’ve already seen what the developers did to that in order to make it more appealing to the action-craving masses. If choices have a chance of really mattering in an RPG, then it would seem that Bethesda and The Elder Scrolls are the most likely to preserve their potential.

That is an awful lot of responsibility to place on a single game franchise, and even if they maintain the high levels of story and depth in their own games, there’s no guarantee that other more financially successful games will follow suit. Who knows, within a few years, The Elder Scrolls may be the last true RPG that hasn’t been greatly or subtly changed to make a game designed for a narrow audience into one that has mass appeal.

But the biggest question then is: should we still call them role-playing games?

What’s your take on the current selection of big-budget role-playing titles? Do you struggle with the same uncertainty that we do, or do you feel like any improvements will be for the better?

[poll id="20"]

Please leave us your thoughts on Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Skyrim, or any other franchises in the comments, since we want all of the insights we can get.

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  1. Fable 1 went from an amazing albeit short rpg to something that can’t even be called an rpg in fable 3. The Final Fantasy games…not even going to get into how disappointing those have become. Even the star ocean games. All are becoming watered down, cheap aspects to make a couple more bucks. I want a rpg I can sink my teeth into. I really hope Witcher 2 and Skyrim stick to their roots instead of trying to appease the masses. Oblivion had some good going for it (I hated playing morrowind and haven’t some far off monster ‘dodge’ 5 of my shots just from a roll of a die) and some bad stuff (no epic wins/monster level with you.) Overall, Oblivion was an amazing game and I have high hopes for Skyrim.

  2. The second was better for the simplified inventory and gear system. Furthermore, you could still customize shepard quite a lot, moreso if you picked up the DLC’s.

    A good RPG does not depend on forcing players to manage inventory ridiculously. It depends on allowing the player to make choices, in the role of the character, that affect the universe they exist in. And ME2 delivered in spades.

  3. I mean you really think that looting enemies and managing inventory is what makes a “Role Playing Game”? What are you playing the role of? A warehouse stocker who robs corpses in his free time?

    Yes, these things do take place in many RPG’s paper or CRPG and are more common in CRPG but looting enemies is actually more of an action element in my opinion. practically every FPS has loot. Inventory is obviously common in RPG’s but it’s not really integral. Not nearly as much as the ability to interact with other characters and shape the world around you.

    • You cant do that in Mass Effect 2 though. I continuously see people leaping to ME2s defense by claiming that the story, characters and choices is where an RPG is made, but even ME2 fails badly in this regard.

      ME1 wasnt stellar, but it was still built in the form of a Bioware RPG, but with a heavy (if clunky) shooter element. In ME2 everywhere you visit is a one off shooting gallery, where you occasionally stop to engage in conversations with now even more limited options.

      Youd think now that they take away player customisation by giving you a pre-defined character, they would make up for it with variance in conversation, but they dont. So often you will be simply asked to choose between two options, neither of which change the direction of the conversation WHATSOEVER and merely define if Biowares Shepard is acting bitchy or pleasant.

      People really need to stop clinging to this idea that ME2 qualifies as an actual RPG on any level. At best its the weakest of weak hybrids (like the series was supposed to be) with the shooter element completely taking control with RPG being little more than an afterthought (its how they designed the game – rip the RPG out first developing the game as a shooter and then reinserting said pathetic RPG elements afterwards).

      Just accept it: there is discontent because at its core, ME2 is little more than a bland shooter with a dialogue system, and a disjointed, disposable mission based plot.

      The game is little more than a long string of excuses to shoot your way through box filled corridors. Occasionally stopping for new, RPG lite “cinematic” conversations (or jumped up cutscenes with the illusion of choice and effect).

    • “the ability to interact with other characters and shape the world around you” is hard to do without there being a vast selection of items. For instance, different combat scenarios have to involve different tactics and different equipment for the player to really feel the difference. Quests and missions will also often include items of various kinds. It’s extremely hard to create a satisfying world without the different items that would be common and/or necessary. We are materialistic beings, and we need our items (check out George Carlin on “stuff” for further thoughts on that) :P

      Also, the thought that developers have been making enormous efforts to create things that were neither wanted nor necessary seems a bit far-fetched to me.

  4. I would say that RPGs are evolving. RPG fans who did not like the consolization of ME2 and DA2 (myself included) should not worry; evolution has its share of dead ends and streamlining will most likely be one of them. Bioware’s pendulum swung towards streamlining, the next round will swing back towards customization and those other goodies rpg fans like.

  5. Did you guys play oblivion at all? there wasn’t really any classes in the game to begin with, well there were, but you could always just make a sword wielding archer that shoots fireballs. The leveling system actually seems pretty much the same as oblivion just taking out the make your class function, which be honest we all did anyway.

    I personally couldn’t finish mass effect 2, i loved one, two just seemed like i was doing the same thing over and over and over again, i never felt i was making progression as a normal character does in an rpg, it felt more like i was playing halo 4 or something along those lines.

    For me it doesn’t much matter, i just won’t be purchasing any more bioware games.

  6. What you call intricate and complex, I call tedious and time consuming. And as for exploring planets. In ME1, what you explored were barren, desolate patches of planets with nothing to do but scan something occasionally.

    ME2 gives you planets to EXPLORE, with missions, and things to shoot. And I prefer the system of giving me money, rather than giving me useless loot to sell. Cuts out the middle man.

    And there is tons of variation in your armor, though a lot of it is via DLC which sucks.

  7. DA2 is an arcade fighter game, not an RPG. Want an RPG? Play Witcher 2 when it comes out.

  8. In regards to Dragon Age 2. I didn’t mind the change in combat but with regards to taking away the customization from your party..WOW! By limiting customizing your parties total gear, they took away 9/10ths of the point of treasure hunting and looting…There was a lot more gameplay in Dragon Age:Origins just from sitting in the inventory screen and optimizing your parties gear. Also taking away 2 handed weapons from warrior and only daggers, etc for rouge…GEEEEEEZ!!! I hope that the developers at least take a hint from mine and many other similar remarks on this and rectify this issue……Thanks..

  9. Dragon age 2 reminded me more of BG2:SOA then Dragon age did, not the gamplay but the story.

    I only have the xbox title but the combat is not bad, you can still pause and play. as for Dice rolls, they are becoming antiquated and useless. i would much rather damage de determond my my stats and wepons then the roll of a dice.

    yes I would have liked to see more areas then just the city but, a game can only do so much.

    as for ME2 i loved the combat and areas, but hated that i had no invantory. I was glad to see the mako go though. the Story was strong as were the cast. and that to me matters much more than the game play

  10. This summarizes everything I’ve been feeling since I bought Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2, I feel cheated on both games. Like I want my money back cheated. This makes me sad because of how true it is…

    • Exactly. I’m seriously conflicted on both, since I loved Mass Effect so much more than most people, it’s nice to see the sequel get such great praise. At the same time, in my mind the first game was far more special an experience than the much more linear and streamlined sequel.

      Being able to run around the Citadel, through the Wards, into the Nightclubs, and all around missions areas like Noveria. Then to see each area turned into little more than shooting galleries, broke my heart.

      Similarly, I’m loving Dragon Age 2 as an action game, since it is definitely a great example of mixing entertaining combat with a cool story. at the same time, it differes from the original in much the same way.

      That’s the basis behind the title of this article: these so-called ‘RPGs’ are becoming better at certain things, but those things are being placed ahead of the RPG elements that helped earn the two series their fanbases.

    • Well I quite liked Mass Effect 2 and felt it was true to Mass Effect 1 in the things I found important.

      Dragon Age 2 however just turned that franchise into a game that looks like a lame console arcade fighter that is clearly aimed at a demographic other than RPG’ers… and judging from large number of hostile independent reviews I have seen (i.e reviews not bought from by EA/Bioware) I am far from alone in thinking this :-)

  11. Completely disagree. What’s wrong with having the option to learn what you want? Just because you are free to customize your character doesn’t mean it’s not role playing. What your saying is that these worlds need to be so restrictive as to only allow a single path for people to enjoy at one time. When in reality Role Playing is customizing a character in a world that is not our own, and the very definition of customizing is that you can do as you like, and thus take on the ROLE of someone else as you imagine them. This is exactly what ROLE PLAYING is. No two characters are alike this way, where as in restrictive worlds characters are limited to class and homogenized to the point that you can just say Ranger, Magic-Use, etc and everyone knows what that means. What fun is that? you’re playing the same Role as thousands of other people. I would much rather define my own path with as much customization and options as I have in real world.

  12. This is the dumbest topic I have heard of….How many western rpgs are out there? Now how many Shooters , WW2 shooters , Racing games etc..?
    Point is the genre is just getting started , the development time for
    a rpg is alot longer than average so it takes longer to evolve.
    Are all racing games perfect ? Are some sequels to shooters a let down..?
    I think the future of gaming is choice , not just same old, same old shooters with different window dressing etc.

  13. well i recently purchased da2, which i wish i never i felt i was shown the beginning of a new era by da-o but no.. it reminds me more of fable 1,2 + 3. Kids games easy and simple . all i got to say is please release do3 with a bit more depth, fable is good dont get me wrong, just im not 12 any more kicken a chicken for fun just dont do it for me any more (but i did enjoy it :D)

  14. I think it’s way too early to speculate on Skyrim. I can safely say however, that how the Elder Scrolls series evolves depends solely on its fanbase. If the fans want a more freer experience that allows them to develop supercharacters who can excel at everything, then that is what Bethesda will give them. Bethesda is not catering to “generic RPG fans”. The Elder Scrolls series first and foremost delivers a massive sandbox world and I think that is their main focus, not adhering to a strict definition of what constitutes a role playing game.

    You have valid criticisms of ME and DA but I think it’s too early to say anything about Skyrim.

  15. I haven’t played any RPG except the Mass Effect series, but I bought Fallout 3 and left the game in frustration after 2 hrs of trying to play. The game has depth and I like the inventory system and leveling up. What I totally disliked was how slow the characters moved and the combat system was so rubbish. VATS is just not for me. The action should be simple. I point the gun at the guy, I shoot it and it hits him. Why do RPGs have to have dumbed down action? RPG means Role Playing Game, not Rotten Playing Game. The decision making, leveling, looting and inventory are all great, but the swift action only compliments it. Look how great a game Borderlands is. Or just look at Mass Effect series, though I do miss the inventory and loot in ME2, which are gladly making a return in ME3.

    • “What I totally disliked was how slow the characters moved…”

      Huh? Movement in Fallout 3 was pretty realistic. Why expect super fast arcade game style movement in an RPG? Also VATS is entirely optional, you can play the entire game without using it just fine. My only wish was they had a cover mechanism for the combat.

  16. As a proponent of classless leveling systems I’d have to disagree with the Skyrim part. My favorite of the implemented systems, the one in Arcanum was entirely classless, and yet, the number of unique character possibilities was comparable with if not greater than it was in many other more traditional systems (previous TES games included).

  17. The Classless systems can work well, White Wolf, for another example, did an excellent job, it just depends on how it is done.
    My biggest problems with Obliv were the fact that I had to manually aim instead of my skills and the luck of the ‘dice’ doing that work and that horrendous character generator. Oi! I don’t know if their goal was to make it so people spent insane amounts of time on making their character or they wanted people to just all be hideous, so no need to put any time into it at all. Just go with the defaults cause playing with it will only make it worse.

  18. Without Skyrim, It would be better
    Witcher 2, Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect would be better

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