Although nostalgia will never let us fully admit this, many of the classic RPGs that graced that 8-bit era don’t hold up very well… there I said it. Try to play the original Final Fantasy without biting off most of your own digits in pure frustration, I dare you. It’s not that the stories weren’t worthy of praise, they simply couldn’t sufficiently be done on the technology of the day. Sure, games like Earthbound and Chrono Trigger during the 16-bit era still make for amazing gaming, but it was the technology of the console itself that allowed the game creators to tell their story without limitations; cartridge size allowed for a more complete story to be told, and console processing power allowed for graphics and sound to be more immersive.
These days, the power of our modern consoles has the ability to do amazing things never thought possible even ten years ago. Mass Effect has an amazing and sophisticated dialogue system where the decisions you make affect everything from the cutscenes to the way other characters interact with you. Hell, it even affects the gameplay of the sequel. We’ve come a long way from text boxes, kids.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing some of that promise fall short. The Wii promised innovation and changes to the way we play, and yet, has lead to uninspired gaming. We should be in yet another golden era of RPG’ing with so much power that can be utilized, but we’re not, and the problem all boils down to money. As the 3D era turned into the HD era, many game companies were figuring out they needed a larger budget to finish their creations.
Remember beating an old NES game and the credit list was about six asian names you couldn’t pronounce? They didn’t even bother scrolling the text as the names could all fit neatly under the “conglaturation you is win!” screen. Those days are as gone as the Arch Deluxe sandwich. Video games became harder to self-finance and still make it to mass market in order to compete with all the other hi-def, Dolby digital, god-fearing modern console games. Publishers like EA took advantage of this and began to buy up smaller gaming houses. In turn for the financing to make Cabela’s Game Hunter 33: Shoot That Bear!, the publishers had more sway over the product that was being created. The creative people aren’t in charge anymore, and we should all be worried about this.
Video games have been found to be such a tappable market for moneymaking that EA having a bad fiscal quarter affects the entire Dow Jones. It’s not a few guys in a basement anymore, its a CEO and boardroom environment now. The “suits” making the decisions on the games you play aren’t pushing the limitations of anyone’s imagination, instead they only care about how a game affects an earnings report. Because of this sad fact, there are too many questionable trends happening in gaming, and this year doesn’t forecast to be much different. Here are some that I’ve particularly noticed:
Trend #1 – A “Safe” product
With the millions and millions of wing wangs tied up in future gaming real estate, publishers want a product they are reasonably sure to get a return investment on. In the RPG world, this seems to be culminating lately in the “me too plus one” attitude. Each game seems to be taking the “If you like Fallout, try Borderlands!” philosophy. Not that both of those games weren’t amazing, but they could have been each others sequels with such similarities to one another.
Action RPGs seem to be replacing all other types of RPGs. I couldn’t name you a recent strategy RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics on a modern console, but I could name nearly a dozen action RPGs that are heavily blended with first person shooters. These types of games still have some sort of dice-rolling and number crunching under the hood, but the average player couldn’t tell. These games generally control exactly like Halo or Call of Duty and even have options to auto create one’s character. “Don’t worry about all that scary RPG stuff, kids, you can even level up automatically in case all that customizing gets in the way of the shooty bangy stuff.”
Most of the end results have been extremely well-realized and the results turn out fantastic, but these games are very safe as entries into the RPG world. These games are shooters first and RPG’s second. The Nintendo DS and the PC seem to be the only places these days one can go for a gaming environment that still has the full gamut of RPGs. Of course, it comes down to money. Publishers are more likely to green-light a traditional RPG on a handheld since the development costs are so much lower. The end result is the public still able to find the hardcore stuff, but these games aren’t getting the same budgets and polish they should be. Many of the handheld games pay homage to the great RPGs that dropped on the SNES and Playstation era; in fact, some of them ARE simply remakes of your favorite classic games. Chrono Trigger was re-released for the DS last year with great success. Still, there’s a sadness in the realization that the era of the hardcore RPG on a home console seems to be waning.
Trend #2 – A “Safe and Lame” product
Just as many times, the corporate decision to avoid risks has led to some seriously lame gaming. I’m sure some decisions made have ultimately forced a story to be tighter, or a game to work better, but there are just as many examples of this leading to a game nobody wants to play.
Take, for example, the famous behind-the-scenes spat between Will Wright and EA during the creation of Spore. Will Wright wanted to turn Spore into as much of a game rewarding creativity in creating a creature as it was a fun multi-layered game. If a creature had legs in the front of its body, it was supposed to affect the interactions with other Spore inhabitants. EA, however, wanted this to fill the cuteness gap that was laid down by games such as Pokemon. They wanted every creature to roar and be colorful and cute. The science underneath the game wasn’t terribly important as long as a 5 year old could have a dumbed down but accessible experience. The end result? Yeah, we all know EA won that argument, and ultimately made a game nobody really liked. A giant creature wasn’t any slower than a little one; the game simply cared about “leveling up” instead of a creature’s evolution. No matter how many limbs your character has, it doesn’t really walk around any differently: it’s either “peaceful” and tries to woo other creatures with singing (like Michael Buble) or “super pissed off” and beats the hell out of the rest of the world with clubs (like Americans….with clubs). It’s no wonder Will Wright left EA soon after the crapfest this game was hit stores.
Trend #3 – RPG elements everywhere!
The flip side of this coin is the introduction of soft RPG elements into all types of games. Developers are beginning to understand that nearly all games can be enriched by giving the gamer more choices within their play environment. Now almost every sports game includes an RPG element. I know many of you haven’t bought a sports game in, well… ever. However, if you would pick up any sports game published this year, you’d be surprised at how many RPG elements are included.
For many years the Tiger Woods golf franchise has included the ability to create a golfer to look and play however you’d like. These games include a career mode where you take that golfer through the rigors of a tournament schedule. The better the character does in events, the more you can level up various aspects of their playing. On top of that, you can buy better golfing equipment in the clubhouse to make your character hit farther and more accurately. If you think about it, that’s just as many RPG elements that get wrapped around many Action RPG’s these days.
In the most recent NHL hockey game from EA Sports, you can create a character to suit the position you want to play. If you are a goal scorer, you can create a lean and fast skater. A defenseman, then, can be bulked up to knock the hell out of the oncoming team. With this character, you can then join up with friends and have an entire team of human-controlled players, and take them online and play them against other human-controlled teams. On top of that, you can even go a step further and play in entire leagues and seasons of human-controlled teams. Much like the pen and paper dice-rolling RPGs, these games encourage as much cooperative teamwork as they do competitiveness. Whatever you thought you knew about sports games, you probably only now know half of the picture.
Trend #4 – Downloadable content-a-plenty
So, you’ve spent months in waiting for a game like Fallout 3 to come out. When you get it, you are wowed by all of the adventuring and customizing you get to do. Then, after hours and hours of leveling up, you get to the ending and… sucker! The ending is only the prelude to the downloadable content you’ve gotta buy to get the real ending. That $60 Fallout 3 disc was only an investment to get the pleasure in buying more Fallout 3, hooray! Guess what, most downloadable content is too expensive and sucks!
Gone are the days in which game makers include all of the stuff for a game inside the package you purchase. Per policy of Microsoft, some expansion packs cannot BE free even if the game creator wants them to be. Bungie, for example, was required to charge something for the various map packs that came out for Halo 3. As started with Half-Life 2: Episode One, game makers can theoretically get games quicker to the public with smaller episodic gaming. Telltale Games has made an entire business model of various episodic smaller games which cost the gamer less. Most of the time this “extra content” was obviously created at the same time the game was, and just held back to charge more and contain less. Are you guys trying to actually fool anyone by this?
It seems money is at the heart of many of these big trends. On one hand gamers’ demand for a better experience has added RPG elements in games that would not normally have them, and has led to positive results in immersing a gamer into a world. These RPG elements allow one to care about a created character in everything from a dungeon crawler to a golfing game. You can take a created character online and interact virtually with all sorts of people and have a better experience in the process. On the other hand, it seems like developers aren’t pushing the boundaries of these new consoles enough. Sure, we get some games which really push the envelope, but it seems like another company will just turn around and steal that same idea, tweak it a bit, and slap some extra crap in and call it a new game. Although we are getting a new Final Fantasy soon, most RPGs are made with the intention of appealing to an audience that prefers to go “pew pew!” with guns rather than get immersed into a story. I loved Borderlands, but did anyone really feel the story was acceptable? It was an FPS first tied in with some RPG elements.
We need more games which embraces the “dice rolling” element of RPGs, not hides it behind a shotgun with power-ups. On top of this, it seems most gamers are becoming complacent with non-complete video games which are deceptively short in hopes that they pay for downloadable content. I realize development costs are through the roof, but $60 for a game needs to be the ceiling for whatever we buy. Oh, and make sure to actually give me a ceiling in the first place, and not try to make me buy it with Microsoft Points. If you sell me a game, have the decency of giving me a proper ending to it (I’m talking to you Fallout 3). We should be tired of being pandered to and exploited by corporate jerkfaces who assume that they can get away with selling half-assed games for exorbitant amounts. Until then, I think my Mass Effect 2 is asking for more money.