Sunday, March 11, 2012

Role Playing... Not Game?

The more I think about Role Playing Games, the more I start to feel that there is something not quite right about them. I've already discussed why I find most contemporary RPGs boring, but the more I play them, the less I feel like I am partaking in a traditional gameplay experience. I feel like I am no longer playing a game, or rather that Role Playing Games are not actual games. While there are exceptions, Role Playing Games generally fail one of the four "rules" that I previously proposed as a requirement for a game: they require no skill, present no challenge, or contain no goal, or lack several of these defining characteristics.

i got my character sheet already guys, let's play

Before we delve deeper, let's take a closer look at my personal definition for a game. I believe that games are a form of entertainment that people play in order to preoccupy themselves and have 'fun'. In order for something to be defined as a game, I believe it must fulfil all of the following:
  1. Have a set of rules -
    Games are always structured environments. There are always actions that a player can, and cannot do, that are defined by the game world. You cannot pick the ball up with your hands in soccer. You can shoot at the monsters in Doom with your available weapons. You cannot jump in Bulletstorm. If games did not have these definitions they would cease to be games because distinguishing a winning condition and a losing condition would be impossible.
  2. Present a challenge -
    Why do games challenge players? There are a multitude of reasons, but I believe that a game's difficulty is there to provide some sort of mental or physical stimulation for the player. People play games to have 'fun' or receive a positive reinforcement from overcoming a particular challenge, either by thinking actively or performing a physical action. Being challenged allows you to learn from the encounter and grow as a person, which is a generally enjoyable experience.
  3. Require a skill -
    A game does not have to be very difficult, or require a lot of practice, but it must have a set of skills that players can acquire and improve within the game world. Soccer has a very low "skill ceiling"; the minimum required skill being the ability to walk. It does, however, have a strict set of skills that the player can improve upon to become better at the game, like ball control, speed, and accuracy. Games without a skill involved would be shallow, because with nothing to learn or improve upon the potential excitement is greatly reduced.
  4. Contain a goal -
    This is what separates traditional games from 'sandbox games' or toys. The player needs a clear goal to work towards, something that will give positive reinforcement when the player is doing well, and negative reinforcement when they are doing poorly. If you were to remove goals from games, then there would be no point in playing them. If scoring more goals than your opponent does not cause you to win, then why score goals, or play the game at all? Sandbox games may be more suited to 'gameplay without goals' but because games are defined by their rules and challenges, they ultimately require a quantifiable outcome. 
I am certainly not alone in defining games. Here are just a few examples:

some people are actually boring enough to write about games

"A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." - Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

"A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context." - Clark C. Abt

"At its most elementary level then we can define game as an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is an opposition between forces, confined by a procedure and rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome." - Elliot Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith

So we've defined games. Then why are Role Playing Games not games? Well, I'm afraid to say that Role Playing Games violate rules 2, 3, and 4 at a fundamental level. In essence the 'gameplay', the feature that defines an RPG as a game, is either non-existent, or borrowed from another game system to give the illusion of being a game. Take Mass Effect: it is repeatedly described as an RPG, but what exactly makes it an RPG? The actual game system (the challenge, the skill, and the goal) are all within the realm of Mass Effect's third-person cover based combat. Everything else is fluff. So while Mass Effect is a game, it is so because of the combat mechanics, not because of the role playing choices.

To take it further, what separates Gears of War from Mass Effect? The obvious difference is that Mass Effect has the standard role playing mechanics: you can make decisions regarding dialogue that shape your character, as well as the standard number progression of RPGs. Neither of those things, however, defines gameplay. What makes a Role Playing Game unique to other game systems fails to make it an actual game.

Role Playing Games lack any real challenge. Looking at the core mechanics of shaping the player character, it is impossible to lose; or rather it is impossible to make the wrong decision. This is obvious, as 'role playing' is all about shaping a character unique to the player, a system that explicitly requires that there be no optimal play. Role Playing Games are usually characterised by their story, the narrative, the dialogue, and the choices shaped by the player. They have about as much challenge as a movie, or a book.

this might surpise you, but i play games in order to play the game

While a lot of Role Playing Games might have actual challenges within the game, those challenges are not part of the role playing system. The skill and challenge in Mass Effect comes from the third-person shooter gameplay, but wouldn't that make Mass Effect a third-person shooter game, instead of an RPG? Dragon Age: Origins was a game that I enjoyed very much, but not because of its RPG elements. I enjoyed the tactical nature of the gameplay and the difficulty presented by correctly wielding your party's abilities to overcome obstacles.

When an RPG has actual game mechanics that are represented by playing a role at the player's discretion, the game mechanics are artificial. That is to say that any success or failure that exists in a Role Playing Game is not defined by a player's skill, but whether they had invested enough time, or whether they had known what to do in advance. Most of this difficulty can be seen in games like Pokemon, and MMORPGs, where if you fail you simply need to invest more time. Or perhaps you now know what is coming and can actually prepare for it.

This leads me to my next point: RPGs require no skill. Look at the game systems that are unique to Role Playing Games. For something like Star Wars: The Old Republic, there is no identifiable set of skills that a player can learn and improve at: you either know what button to press when, or you do not. You cannot improve your reflexes, or your strategy, or your problem-solving abilities. Your ability to win or lose in SW:TOR is defined purely by the amount of in-game hours you have invested compared to your opponent.

rpg grind, not quite as good

I do not have a problem with investing time to improve one's skill at a particular endeavor, but unfortunately that is not what happens. Instead what takes place is a "mindless grind", a process that requires no skill and presents no challenge with the ultimate outcome of making your equipment improve. You haven't become any better at the game, or learned any new strategies or abilities; you've simply increased the numbers associated with your character, making you 'stronger'.

Let's go back to soccer as an example. Say that, instead of spending your time practicing the applicable skills (ball control, speed, accuracy, passing), you could win the game simply by pressing the number one key on your keyboard over and over. You haven't really become any better at the game, you've simply created a situation where the amount of time invested is more than the other player.

My final point is that role playing games do not have goal-based gameplay, beyond finishing the plot or making your numbers higher. The level of gameplay is on par with reading a book, or working on an Excel spreadsheet. This is not a bad thing, it just means that RPGs are more comparable to sandbox toys like SimCity or Minecraft. However the RPG elements’ lack of a win or loss state is important, because feedback that consists solely of rising numbers means that the player has no motivation for playing (beyond some form of autism or obsessive compulsive disorder).

this is a good game

So Role Playing Games aren't games. All along I’ve been playing with a device specifically built to give little challenge, in order to maximize the emphasis of the narrative and the choices the player makes. I suppose this is a better explanation of why I find them so dull. This kind of false labelling really hurts me because I have certain expectations when I play a game, and to have those expectations subverted in such a polarizing fashion makes me wonder why games have moved in such a direction, or why people choose to partake in such mindless exercises.


  1. There are a lot of different kinds of RPGs (JRPGs, Bioware style RPGs, Bethesda style RPGs, Dwarf Fortress types), so it's hard to make generalizations. I think though that some RPGs are games because the challenge isn't mastering twitch-skills, but mastering the game mechanics themselves. Like learning how to code, you have to figure out how discrete systems work together and manipulate them to achieve the end result you want. Dwarf Fortress is a particularly great example of this since the game itself is not difficult, but learning how to play it is.

    I think there's another element of RPGs that resonate with ppl but that you don't address. That is the possible of emergent gameplay. You seem to be speaking more to Mass Effect 3 right now, and Bioware games aren't so great at emergent gameplay, but games like Skyrim or DF give you the opportunity to play the game in unforeseen ways. They're more like story-generators than they are classic games (like Go or Chess).

    Anyway, lots of people like RPGs, presumably for causes beyond being autistic or having OCD.

    1. I'll give you DF (which I don't consider to really be an RPG), but Skyrim does not have emergent gameplay anymore than Counter Strike.

      I definitely agree with the first point, and this article was really difficult to write just because of the sheer volume of different styles of RPGs. You really don't see this in any other genre, and it kinda made me felt like RPG is a hollow term that people slap on to things with levels, choice, or story. This kinda added to the idea that I felt like RPG itself wasn't an actual game term, but almost like an add-on.

      But yeah lots of people play RPGs and I'm sure they enjoy it for things like the story, or self-insertation, or fantasy, or whatever. I just felt as though to play and enjoy the game mechanics of the RPG itself requires a disconnect from what would be standard enjoyment of a game.

    2. I'm offended by the idea that Skyrim is a "story generator" in any manner other than generating interesting bugs.

  2. Ostensibly the "game" part of an RPG is management - managing time, managing tactics, etc. I'm opposed in general to the "default" RPG concept of 1-4 people under the player's control. If it's about a single person, it should be an action game - more reflex control, more immersion, more responsiveness. Compare WoW to Demon's Souls, for example. If it's about multiple people and coordinating tactics, it should be a strategy/tactics-RPG like FFT, because movement and positioning are another complicating layer on top of "elemental weaknesses" and "number-crunching".

    There is nothing that a "base RPG" does that a hybrid cannot do better, because "base RPG" doesn't actually mean anything as a game concept. It is a collection of vague mechanics that are all present in other games at this point.

  3. I think Extra Credits did an episode on it or something, but yeah, game genres are messy. Categorizing games based on their fundamental themes would probably be a better choice (e.g. 'action', 'exploration', 'thinking' etc.) instead of grouping some games together because they're controlled from a first-person perspective and others because they have level-based progression. We're probably too far down the road to go back now though.

  4. Yo what happened to this blog? Well I guess RPG - G isn't such a bad thing. If it's the game part I guess they should just be visual novels with a gameplay aesthetic. Whatevs

  5. Sorry, but you missing the very core of what games about. Games are fun, so simple. Your definitions means something only to you. BTW using your definitions mean the early era of games was not games at all.