A Slime Draws Near. Command?

A Slime Draws Near. Command?

What makes a console RPG an RPG?

To determine what makes a console RPG an RPG, we need to talk about a game’s criteria for success and failure.

My success or failure in Super Mario Bros. hinges on hand-eye coordination and reaction time. Whether or not I kill that Koopa or get killed by him depends on how quickly I hit the A button. In HALO, my success or failure depends on how accurately I can shoot at targets and how well I can make use of cover. If I shoot better, or with a better weapon, and keep my opponents from shooting me too much first, I’ll progress along just fine.

In Final Fantasy, my success or failure hinges on which party I select and how I outfit them. I have a wide variety of weapons, armor, magic powers and miscellaneous items to choose from. Later games in the series have introduced more development choices as I advance: which powers should I train in when I level up? Which piece of Magicite should I equip? How should I split up the party at this decision branch?

Timing is never as much of an issue as choice is. In Dragon Quest, as in baseball, there is no clock.


In most RPGs, execution is automatic. When I enter a battle, several choices pop up in a menu in front of me. I can choose to attack an opponent, or I can choose to do something else (use a power, use an item, etc). But once I make the choice to attack, it’s out of my hands. An algorithm I never see, taking into account the weapons I equipped and the training I selected, determines whether or not I slay the monster. There’s no such algorithm in Super Mario Bros. If I land on the turtle’s head, it dies.

So while platform jumpers, first-person shooters and fighting games prize quick reflexes and good coordination, RPGs prize resource management. That doesn’t sound very sexy, so let me rephrase: RPGs prize choices. RPGs reward players who can deliberate over decisions. RPGs value the choices you make in the armchair.

The apotheosis of this type of thinking comes in World of Warcraft, the most successful RPG (video game or otherwise) in the history of human civilization. World of Warcraft feels like a very frantic game when you’re playing it, clicking all around the screen. But the difference between successful and unsuccessful WoW players has nothing to do with how fast you click. It has everything to do with which talents you select when you level up and which items you equip. The game even spells out a lot of this information for you, in terms of refresh rates and percentage buffs.

Could use some more data.

Could use some more data.

An RPG is a video game which values choices prior to the heat of the moment more than choices in the heat of the moment.

22 Comments on “A Slime Draws Near. Command?”

  1. Jimbo Jones #

    To call Zork an RPG is to miss what makes an RPG, an RPG. Forget whether reflexes are rewarded or not; the canonical element defining an RPG is character development.

    Wikipedia backs me up on this one very early in the first paragraph of the CRPG article, and continues to do so rather frequently throughout. But forget the One True Wiki for a moment; that was an afterthought. My immediate and instinctive reaction was “wtf, dude, that’s an adventure, not an RPG.”

    Enchanter and Spellbreaker came closer to being RPGs, if you squint really hard and look at them from the wrong angle – after all, you do learn lots more spells during the course of your adventure – but the spells are used solely to solve puzzles; they’re not really stats in the, well, statistical sense.

    So, to recap… Zork? King’s Quest? Leather Goddesses of Phobos? Not RPGs. Fallout? Wizard’s Crown? Ultima? Diablo? RPGs. Why? STATS.


  2. perich OTI Staff #

    @Jimbo: I think the stats angle is a good one to consider, but I don’t know if that’s the sole defining element. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

    I wouldn’t call Legend of Zelda an RPG, for instance, and you certainly build up your health (heart containers) and attack power (sword type). Games like Crackdown and the X-Men Legends spin-offs all track several stats (fighting power, endurance, speed, what powers you have and how developed those are), but very few people would call them RPGs.


  3. Other #

    Are strategy games like the SimCity, Civilization, and Warcraft series RPGs? They certainly are video games which values choices prior to the heat of the moment more than choices in the heat of the moment.

    The role being played is more of a puppet master making peons dance rather than playing one of the characters on the screen.


  4. stokes #

    Maybe there are a few necessary elements. One is what Perich details above: decision making is valued above motor skills. Another would be stat building. I can’t think of a single RPG that doesn’t fetishize stat building.

    But both of these would apply to Sim City, and to Desktop Tower Defense, and common sense rejects both of these as RPGs.

    The missing ingredient, I think, is exploration. RPGs need to have a map for the player to move around, typically with some sections that can’t be accessed (or that are, at least, prohibitively dangerous) until the characters have attained a certain level of skill and/or obtained a particular plot coupon. Usually this prompts game designers to add mazes (or something mazelike) to the game, although this needn’t necessarily be the case.

    Incidentally, although I don’t really play RPGs anymore, I do still read the reviews. And it looks like one of the best ways to make your RPG suck is to make any one of these aspects overly linear. The combat (the main locus of decision making) should require a wide variety of strategies and responses, the stat bulding should allow a wide variety of character development paths (and, on a more cerebral level, there should be more than one “right” way to build your character), and the maps should have a lot of mazelike sections, hidden treasures, shortcuts, and the like. If there’s only one combat strategy, and only one stat to build, and only one direction to go, you end up with the worst of all possible rpgs. (No disrespect is meant to the linked game, which is obviously a satire/art-project, and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to achieve.)


  5. stokes #

    You could probably also say that the stats in an RPG need to be grindable. Which is kind of funny, because everyone I’ve ever talked to about RPGs hates grinding for stats with a passion… but there you go.


  6. perich OTI Staff #

    @stokes: I love that link.


  7. perich OTI Staff #

    @Other: since tabletop RPGs descended from tabletop strategy games, you might say that console RPGs are a sort of “personal strategy” game. Tactics for an army of one, if you will.


  8. Jimbo Jones #

    Perich said:
    Games like Crackdown and the X-Men Legends spin-offs all track several stats (fighting power, endurance, speed, what powers you have and how developed those are), but very few people would call them RPGs.

    Actually, IGN classifies X-Men Legends as an Action RPG.


  9. Jimbo Jones #

    @stokes: Thanks for that link. That’s hilarious. :)


  10. John Bejarano #

    @stokes: Actually, I’m not sure the map exploration or multiple stat building elements you describe completely exclude Sim City. As for exploration, I can’t just build all over creation at once, I have to start in one area that’s safe and easy to build on before I can expand my city to more difficult terrain. Plus, the type of city I want to build can exhibit innumerable different combinations of stats that I find important (e.g. high-density vs. low-density, symmetrical vs. oddball-shaped, orderly vs. libertarian, well kept vs. run-down, etc.)

    A very interesting topic, tho.


  11. perich OTI Staff #

    Actually, IGN classifies X-Men Legends as an Action RPG.

    “Dogs and cats, living together – mass hysteria!”

    I’d be fine with X-Men Legends as an example of the new games that blur the line between classic console RPG and action smash-em-up.


  12. Sillyweasel #

    And what about games like Kingdom Hearts? True, I can get magic, better equipment, collect money and items by killing monster types, level up etc, but I don’t know about anyone else, but I end up playing those kinds of game almost exclusively in action mode and bashing my sword into things more than bothering with items and magic except when entirely necessary (because Donald and Goofy are retarded 90% of the time). Whereas in contrast, practically every other Squaresoft/SquareEnix game I play I use so much magic eventually I forget there even ARE attack options until I get a limit break or the equivalent of such.
    And that’s not even bringing in the jumping around the screen like a platformer aspect.
    My largest gripe in KH2 was the severe abuse of quicktime events in EVERRRYYYYYTTTTTHIIIIIIIINGGGGGG, I’m sorry, if my enjoyment of this game is hitting something with my sword object, I don’t find it fun to be FORCED into quicktime events as the ONLY way of defeating said boss. It feels cheap, and above all, annoying because I have NO choice but to do something except by pushing a certain button RIGHT then to see a short movie of a hydra’s head being cut off.


  13. Tom P #

    @perich: I think it’s interesting that the original console RPGs grew from the tabletop RPGs but the 4th edition of D&D clearly grew from the evolution of video games — particularly WOW. As someone who isn’t a fan of WOW, I really, REALLY hate 4ed. The role stuff is way too constricting.


  14. Gab #

    In defense of 4th Ed., some of the changes did indeed help make some things less “broken.” Eg. druids: between being able to summon a creature to attack, having a familiar with a good melee attack, and having their own main action, druids could, essentially, do three actions every turn before, plus every individual under their control could move. Now it’s one major, one minor, and one move action per turn for EVERYBODY, no more of this separate stuff for attached entities, so they have to choose if sustaining the creature summoned is worth it every time and if someone needs a heal or if the summoned creature should attack, as well as who/what needs to move the most.

    I’m not saying 4th Ed. is perfect, but like with a lot of things that get upgraded, some aspects are better, while others are, yes, totally screwed up (like multi-classing, oh my friggin’ GOD…) (and saving throws bug the crap out of me, too…). It’s not all of either, though.


  15. perich OTI Staff #

    @Tom and @Gab: D&D 4th Ed. is the best tabletop RPG on the market at unifying intended play experience and rules execution. It’s the game that most knows what it wants. Indie games like Mouse Guard, Don’t Rest Your Head or Dogs in the Vineyard may fight it out for the #2 and #3 slots, but D&D’s really, really good at producing a small range of play experiences.

    Of course, if those aren’t play experiences you enjoy, that’s a big market closed to you.


  16. Gab #

    ::geeking out::

    I prefer 4th Ed., but I’ll admit it’s probably because I roleplay as opposed to rollplay, so my DM and fellow players usually just tell me what dice and stats to use when I need to actually roll something. As such, mechanics don’t really get to me all that much, and I am not remotely an authority on the subject. Also, as a player, while I liked Dogs a lot, I like 7th Sea more. Lots of potential for swashbuckling badassery, like, “I’m going to swing from the chandelier and hook his tankard onto my sword.”

    And while we’re on 4th Ed. a bit:



  17. Tom P #

    @perich/@Gab: I disagree that 4ed is good at rules execution. In their desire to keep people from breaking the system one way, they broke it in the other direction. Monster defenses scale up way too fast for PC powers — which is why every book includes “patch” feats. They insisted they wanted to remove “must take” feats and abilities from the game and then immediately re-added them in PHB2 with weapon/implement expertise which is nothing more than fixing the math they screwed up in PHB 1.

    I agree that 3/3.5ed had it’s issues. Multiclassing was entirely broken and druids were insanely broken, but they could have done something else other than turn D&D into tabletop WoW. I’d agree the combat system is much better with the removal of instadeath and the upgrade to saving throws.

    Multiclassing can work, but you have to think WAY outside the box to get it right. Like my Eladrin Taclord multiclassed with Wizard — but to make it work I had to have a warlord with a 14 str and 18 int.


  18. Gab #

    Whoa, so what stats did he totally suffer in? Wis? Or is he buffugly?


  19. Tom P #

    The 18/14/11/10/10/8 build with the 8 in dex and the 11 in cha.

    You can do it as Multiclass Swordmage which gives you longswords as implements. Or you can do it as wizard with the Eladrin feat from Arcane Power that gives you longswords as implements, which eventually gets you to the wizard of the spiral tower PP which, itself, gives you longswords as implements so you get your feat back.

    If you use a longsword and choose weapon attacks that target non-AC defenses, the math scales just like implement attacks and your primary damage comes from your multiclass abilities — along with all the awesome stuff that taclords give the party. If you take Melee training from PHB 2 to do melee basics with your int, you almost don’t notice the lack of strength.

    The problem, of course, is you need to spend 4 feats on multiclassing which prevents you from taking the aforementioned math fix feats so you lag behind the rest of the party and the bad guy’s AC.


  20. Gab #

    @ Tom P: Hm… Interesting. With dex being where you tanked it, doesn’t that kind of hurt your melee, or does the Melee feat help nullify that? I don’t have the PHP2 on my person and don’t have it memorized, so could you explain it to me? I’m stuck at a melee character with low dex- my tiny understanding of “mechanics” says this doesn’t make sense, but you obviously got it to work, so now my curiosity: ’tis piqued!

    My 4thEd character is pretty homegrown because it’s a necromancer with a skull as an implement- most of my spells are adaptations of the inferno pact for warlock, or stuff my DM and I came up with together that seemed appropriate for the skill level I was reaching. And he sort of fudged things so I could have a familiar (a mini-Boneyard, GOD is that thing awesome) without multiclassing because, and I quote, “Multiclassing sucks really big whale balls, so we’re going to avoid it at all costs.” But maybe what I wanted to do with the character is what would have made multiclassing suck so much. I mean, whale balls? Yikes. ;p


  21. Tom P #

    Non-ranger melee characters don’t really need dexterity for anything. All of the warlord’s attack powers use strength. The only thing dex adds to a warlord is AC, which is offset by the high intelligence since int can add to AC in place of dex.

    I was really surprised they didn’t include a necromancer class in the undead book they put out a few months ago. I guess if you took the “Summoner” wizard build from Arcane Power and replaced the living creatures with undead ones you could get pretty close.


  22. Gab #

    Oh, believe you me, I had the undead book on pre-order from Amazon. Soooooo pretty… I gave it to the DM, though. :(


Add a Comment