Several years ago a variety of games started adding things like experience, skill building and other forms of progression as elements to their roster. Games like Grand Theft Auto San Andreas allowed you to ‘pump iron’ to make progress, online shooters like Battlefield 2142 tracked your progress and allowed you new ranks and skills as you progressed. Games were touting their ‘RPG elements’ in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the sea of similar shooters and action games … rather than actually being innovative.
Life has come full circle, or so it seems based on a couple of statements by senior folks at Bioware. The first one seems harmless enough at first, saying that they ‘want Call of Duty’s audience’ … but here is more of what senior producer Fernando Melo said:
We have data that shows there are a lot of people that enjoy playing RPGs although they won’t necessarily call them RPGs. They’ll play Fallout, Assassin’s Creed and even Call Of Duty, which have these progression elements – you’re putting points into things – but they don’t necessarily associate that as an RPG. So we think that if we expand that out we’ll attract a much bigger audience.
To an extent I understand what Melo is saying – there are so many cross-genre elements in games today that it makes little sense to categorically exclude something anymore. I find myself struggling at times to describe games – they are so often some form of strategy-RPG-action-simulation-fantasy-whatever hybrid that singling out a genre unnecessarily narrows the audience.
There are also games like Hearts of Iron III. This is a pure example of ‘Grand Strategy’. Not real-time strategy, not RPG, no action, shooter, arcade, casual, or anything else. It is uncompromising in how it represents the genre. And that is a GOOD thing! Genres exist to serve specific interests, and broad-basing only dilutes the focus. So you end up with a game that loads of people like but that offers little depth in any specific area – like Mass Effect 2 or Oblivion.
Now in a recent interview at Gamasutra, here is how Mike Laidlaw starts out:
For me, I guess, fundamentally, there are more people who are ready to play RPGs than realize it. These are people who will play FarmVille. These are people who have shot enough people in the head that they’ve leveled up in Medal of Honor. They’ve gained XP and have received awards as a result. That’s an RPG mechanic. They’ve played [Grand Theft Auto] San Andreas and they’ve run enough, and gotten buff enough, that their endurance is a higher. They’ve leveled.
Again, similar sentiments, which isn’t surprising. But Laidlaw goes further when asked about a statement by Peter Molyneux about the need to further streamline and hide RPG elements to allow games to appeal to more gamers and make more sales. Here is what he said:
there were decisions that we made as a team that said, “Okay, this is, I think, more welcoming.” Not “dumbed down” or anything like that, but welcoming.
When someone goes out of their way to specify ‘not dumbed down’ it sets off a trigger in my mind, which was confirmed in the preceding paragraph:
So I think there’s more people out there with RPGs, and then it’s honestly on RPGs to try to figure out how to take the mechanics that people are actually loving in other genres and say, “No, no, no. We had those years ago, but we understand that they kind of were scary.”
OK, so suddenly Bioware, a developer who has sold millions of EVERY game they’ve made since 1998 is having to make core changes because their game mechanics are ‘too scary’ for people? So who are they trying to appeal to? Oh wait –
These are people who will play FarmVille. These are people who have shot enough people in the head that they’ve leveled up in Medal of Honor.
So Bioware’s goal is to make ‘Angry Birds RPG’? Seems like a pretty low set of goals …
Seriously, though – Laidlaw seems intent to try to pretend that they aren’t making a RPG for long enough to get people hooked into the basic game and THEN do more RPG-like things. In fact, there is nothing at the start of Dragon Age II to identify it as a RPG:
starting the game, your character walks up, says something kind of over the top, and immediately starts exploding Darkspawn. I haven’t set my decks at all. I haven’t spent points.
What it does, is it lets you get into the game and go, “Okay, cool. This is what their combat is like. I get that.” Then the next thing you do is build your character.
This seems harmless but it is insulting to pretty much everyone. And it gets worse:
Then you level up and you start spending points, and the RPG mechanics are introduced in a way that’s gradual, in a way that welcomes someone who would otherwise maybe go, “Whoa! Too complex!” and shut it off immediately, and lets them slide into it without even recognizing it ?? which frankly, ideally increases the overall RPG customer base, which means we can make more RPGs, which means I can play more RPGs that I don’t know the ending to. I like that.
So what Laidlaw is saying is that RPGs are too complex for people, in spite of MILLIONS of people playing them through the years. So is it that people are simply too stupid for them? Are they ashamed at seeming elitist in being a RPG rather than a ‘meat & potatoes’ shooter so they make the gameplay more action-y and bloody and get people to play in spite of it being a RPG?
Also, reading the last paragraph from the interview shows you that Bioware is doing everything possible to make the game seem like it isn’t a RPG – easing people in slowly, avoiding long decision-making periods, keeping away the numbers games, and so on.
In other words, dumbing it down. There is simply no other explanation. That doesn’t mean that Dragon Age II will BE bad or dumbed down, as indications are that it has maintained adequate substance to keep the hardcore RPG fan engaged. But the scary thing is that what he was espousing is Bioware’s design mandate – RPGs for the Farmville generation.
Most RPG fans liked Mass Effect 2, but few loved it. The reason? The few RPG elements in Mass Effect were seriously dumbed down and all that was left was a story-based cover shooter with a few dialogue choices. And those choices are all that allow it to be called a RPG – because there is a thriving genre that has great stories and action … it is called Adventure Games.
The good news is that most real RPG fans haven’t looked to Bioware or Bethesda for anything of substance in more than 5 years – good thing since their games have regressed from the genre significantly. Most fans look to either European developers (Risen, Drakensang, Divinity 2, etc) or indie developers (Eschalon, Avernum, Depths of Peril, Avadon, etc) – and this year looks to be an awesome year for games from both of those sources.
Bioware will continue making good games with great writing … but their days as anything like a ‘RPG leader’ have long since been over. The RPG isn’t dead, fortunately, but don’t look to Bioware to make them anymore.