Five or six years ago, someone might have taken a look at the properties dominating the gaming industry in terms of both sales and buzz, and seen mostly shooters clearly atop the pile. Quite a bit has changed since then and now RPG titles are just as prevalent, influential and groundbreaking as any other genre. It makes sense though, since some of the first computer games could best be described as role-playing, whether it be text-based games like Zork or games for the die hard graph-paper-types like King's Quest and Ultima.
The amount of commitment and dedication to gaming that those first titles demanded wasn't easy to come by, and with the mainstreaming of the video games industry into the billion dollar business it is today, priorities have changed. Instead of designing games specifically for their target audiences, developers and publishers are making it their goal to appeal to the average gamer.
What this means for franchises like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and now The Elder Scrolls is that the complex and intricate gameplay mechanics that have defined the genre are being tossed aside in favor of a more "user-friendly" approach.
We here at Game Rant aren't against progression or evolution of gameplay, and we have little interest in debating whether the changes will result in a 'better' game.
Instead, we're wondering what this means for the modern RPG, and whether it has a chance of existing in its current form, or will inevitably be twisted into something that no longer possesses the qualities that defined the genre.
Mass Effect will likely be remembered by many of those who played it as a dream come true. We've long been told about the size of the game worlds that consoles could make possible, but BioWare's science fiction epic delivered on more promises than we could have ever expected.
Aside from bringing a memorable and successful next-gen RPG experience to the Xbox 360, Mass Effect seemed to give players a real sense of power in shaping their own interactions with the game's narrative. Major characters could be killed, crew members could be saved or spared, and personal relationships could be forged or destroyed. Players were also allowed to progress through the game at their own pace, taking as much time as they liked exploring the various planets of the universe.
An incredibly robust inventory, weapon and armor system allowed different ammo types to be equipped for dealing with different enemies, and armor could be upgraded, adapted, bought and sold from different vendors across the universe.
Sure, the menu system built to deal with all of these item and upgrade options was at times cumbersome, but many found the amount of choice better than a lack of it, and we'd be remiss if we didn't confess that more than a few hours were spent collecting matching sets of armor for our entire team. Just because you have to save the world doesn't mean you can't look good doing it, right?
Unfortunately, BioWare responded to fans' complaints of the bulky and confusing menu screens by removing the system entirely for Mass Effect 2. Instead of various ammo types and upgrades that could be put into yours our you team's weapons, players were given the oversimplified choice of fire or ice selected on the fly. Instead of personalized and upgradeable armor, Commander Shepard's armor was confined to a basic model and a handful of boosts, giving players the ability to change the appearance and paint scheme. Your team's armor could no longer be altered, modded or upgraded in any way.
Weapon upgrades became nearly inconsequential, and the looting system - a staple of any self-respecting RPG - was completely eradicated. All of these decisions were made to change Mass Effect 2 from a niche RPG game to a role-playing shooter, a property BioWare felt would be better overall. Shooters are far more popular among the mainstream, and the cinematic presentation of the game had the ability to be an instant hit with modern gamers, if only the 'clunky' RPG mechanics were removed.
In the end, the changes worked. The game became a much better shooter, and the shooting corridors, shooting galleries, and shooting boss battles led to a much more 'streamlined' game. But did simplifying it improve the experience, or cheapen it? There was no managing of loot, the collection was solely for recreation, and upgrades could either be gained by simply buying them, or researching them through mining methods that made the original game's systems seem exhilarating.
Take into account the complete removal of any planet exploration, and the case could be made that to define Mass Effect 2 as a space RPG would be somewhat misleading. The first game's shooting seemed to be more of a diversion from the story and conversations than an equal element of gameplay, but ME2 could be better described as a story-based third-person shooter.
We're not saying one is better than the other, but feel that BioWare missed a major opportunity. Instead of proving that an RPG could be made into a cinematic, story-driven adventure game with competent shooting, the developers simply avoided the task by changing the very nature of the game.
We have our own hopes for what we can expect from Mass Effect 4, with a return to classic RPG elements at the top of the list. But given everything we know about Mass Effect 3, that is seeming less and less likely. On top of that, our interview with Mass Effect 2's Lead Game Designer Christina Norman showed that the second game was closer to the story that BioWare intended to tell, which for obvious reasons is a bit disappointing.
On the flip-side, BioWare's other RPG, Dragon Age: Origins, held incredibly close to its PC roots, basing its gameplay around pausing before combat, and assigning tasks for team members based on their class. Along with the strategic min-maxing of combat came a full-fledged looting and inventory system that was at least as deep and nuanced as that of Mass Effect.
At first, it seemed that with the two series BioWare was giving their fans the best of both worlds: one simplified action title for the masses, and a hardcore RPG for the genre's loyal fans.
Sadly, that isn't the case. You see, development on DA:O actually began before Mass Effect, so the timeline of release dates is a bit confusing. For Dragon Age 2, BioWare has employed more of the lessons learned with the Mass Effect series, most notably the changes that led to increased revenues and fewer complaints. We're not being cynical, just realistic.
Again, the first component of gameplay to be removed was the player's ability to decide their own race and origin story. Some might say that this is not an essential section of an RPG, rather an extra chance for cuztomization, but a role-playing game becomes somewhat of a meaningless title when players are forced to play the role the developer wants.
The choice of forging your own origin and identity has been taken away, but players still have the option of deciding what class of fighter they will play as, be it Mage, Warrior or Rogue. Still some choice, but taking away freedom and ability to create your own motivations and origin seems to be moving us backwards, not advancing along with game technology. But hey, choosing your own player class is still something, right?
And so, we arrive at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The next game in The Elder Scrolls series which already appears to have the potential to set a brand new standard in RPGs, or the game with the most potential for completely changing the framework of the genre. Extensive menu systems, skill trees, combat based on dice rolls more than actual attacks - it's all being shown the door this time around.
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.
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?
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.