From Talking Heads to Downloadable Endings: Modern Console RPG Trends

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

Image from Penny Arcade

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?

Summing Up

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.


  1. I tend to disagree with the idea that we’re not in a golden age of RPGs. I haven’t really played a hard-core RPG since Final Fantasy 7 until last year when I disappeared for three months and played 100 hours of Fallout 3. Then late last year and beginning this year I put in about 80 hours into Dragon Age Origins.

    While I wasn’t crazy about Mass Effect, I did play it all the way through and I’ve been amazed at how integrated my choices in the first game are when I’m playing Mass Effect 2.

    Between Fallout 3, Dragon Age Origins, and Mass Effect 2, I think we’ve had three of the best roleplaying games ever put out on consoles. Yes, I loved Final Fantasy 7 and, at the time, games like Dragon Warrior and the older Final Fantasy games were great, they don’t hold a candle to the sort of actual “role” playing we’re getting in games like Dragon Age, Fallout 3, and Mass Effect. In those games, the choices I make define my character. I can think like my character and make choices based on a personality that I originally made up and then grew as I played. No older game has captured that like these games have.

    The addition of downloadable content is actually a bonus. I’ve always wanted games that continued to grow if I wanted to keep playing. Now I have that. Granted, the hour per dollar value of the Dragon Age expansions weren’t great but I loved the downloadable content for Fallout 3.

    I think its a great time to be a lover of console RPGs.
    .-= Mike Shea´s last blog ..DM Tip Twitter Archive: January 2010 =-.

  2. numenetics says:

    Generally speaking, you may have some points, but for shame on not even mentioning Dragon Age. Especially if you’re lamenting a lack of tactical games.

  3. You may have me on the Dragon Age thing, it’s SORT OF a tactical RPG, though it still relies heavy on Action over the tactical part. Its still what I would call an “action rpg” with some tactical elements. I mean, yeah, the tactics slot thing is original, but still relies on action to win combat battles.

    I do agree, though, that all of those games you mentioned are great games, I’m just pointing out that they are all VERY similar when you get down to it.

    On downloadable content…
    NOOOO!!! You should be UPSET they are making you pay for this downloadable content, not happy! You already spent 60 dollars on a game, and now they are holding back content from the original game disc because they know you wants it. All those missions in fallout 3 and borderlands should have been included on the damn disc, if you ask me, since they were obviously made at the same time.

    It’s one thing if downloadable content does something like Half Life 2: episode one and episode two where it is episodic sequels to a complete game, but most of those borderlands add on packs are side missions that should have been included and do nothing for the story, and fallout 3 didn’t even really HAVE an ending, they are making you pay for it. Not really fair, if you ask me.

    …thanks for reading, though 🙂
    .-= MDoggie´s last blog ..From Talking Heads to Downloadable Endings: Modern Console RPG Trends =-.

  4. The problem is the audience I think. I would love a new deep, intelligent, difficult-to-master turn based RPG. But how many would buy it? It’s a niche genre now. Unless more more gamers are educated to the joys of that style of play, studios won’t be able to sell enough of them. The indie scene may be the answer here. If someone can make an indie RPG that storms in the way Braid did, turn-based RPGs may make a comeback.

    One good trend you missed is player-targeted toolsets. Bioware have been championing this, starting with Neverwinter Nights and now with Dragon Age, but Bethesda are catching up slowly too. A big part of tabeltop gaming is the creativity of players and GMs and toolsets tap into some of that same drive for video games, sometimes leading to a great deal of excellent player-made content.

  5. Hmm – quite a bit of different stuff here.

    Before I get into specifics, I strongly feel most of these trends owe their existence to one major root cause: piracy and lack of good taste on the part of most gamers. 🙂

    The PC, as a platform, still has many of these things you talk about:
    1) Strategy RPGs
    2) Free downloadable content
    3) Indie development, unique ideas

    However, developers have shied away from PCs. You can blame it on piracy, no standard, etc but the fact remains they have shied away from it.

    So from a purely console point of view… I’d have to agree with much of what you are saying. But from a PC point of view, I’d suggest you play more games on the best platform around… and more importantly, pay for them 🙂

    1) The games are cheaper
    2) More of the content is free
    3) The graphics are WAY better
    4) Many of the current/recent games support 360 controllers if you don’t want to use a M&KB
    5) Patches/fixes come out much quicker
    6) Much more user-generated content
    7) Much more customization, tweaking, etc

    There are downsides, of course. Many of my friends recently tried Borderlands on the PC instead of opting to get it on the 360. We had a horrible time getting the networking to work. We didn’t get to play co-op for a week or more. Of course, this has all been patched but it took how many months? I think PC FPS games also has a higher concentration of cheaters, aimbots, etc – these are just easier to do on a PC platform.

    But, its frustrating as hell to play Modern Warfare 2 on the 360 when there is a known glitch that ruins 90% of games while the PC version has had it fixed for a week. MS hasn’t “approved” the patch yet for release on XBox Live. Say wut?

    Now, to get into your specifics:

    “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.”

    Actually, the consoles of today are several years behind what PCs have been doing for a while. Everyone was so excited with Goldeneye and Halo that they could “shoot people in a game over the magic internet!” Meanwhile, PC gamers are laughing because they’ve been doing that for 7 years.

    PC gaming RPGs allowed saved characters and decisions to carry over to sequels since the 80’s. What Mass Effect has accomplished has nothing to do with technology or consoles, it has everything to do with brilliant developers. Of course, having a hard drive on a console has quite a bit to do with it… but again, PCs have had those… since the beginning of time. 🙂

    “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.”

    I think the Wii has shaken things up quite a bit. Sony’s Arc and Microsoft’s Natal are probably direct results of Wii’s success. The “uninspired gaming” on the Wii has everything to do with the system’s very low system specs and Nintendo’s unwillingness to support/promote mature/adult games. But please don’t tell me that Wii Sports isn’t effing amazing and inspiring. That, Raving Rabbids, and several other games are awesome on the Wii. Different, more casual, but awesome. Don’t confuse your cup of tea with everyone else’s.

    “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. ”

    Again, I strongly have to reiterate what Mike stated – “Huh?” Some of the best RPGs ever made have come out in the last couple of years. If anything, I see it as one of the genres with the most and best innovation each and every year. And I’m not even talking about Fallout 3 – I hated that game. 🙂

    Trend #1 Responses:
    Borderlands and Fallout 3 are nothing alike. Fallout 3 is a mediocre RPG with horribly-implemented FPS mechanics. Borderlands is a solid FPS game with mediocre RPG mechanics. The story sucked in Borderlands because it was a shooter with RPG-like mechanics… not an RPG with shooter mechanics.

    You don’t see an plethora of RPG titles (like you are describing) on the 360 and PS3 because those systems, and their demographics, are not conducive to those types of titles (FF Tactics, for example). The controllers are made for first person shooters. This is why you see mainly action-related titles on those systems and still see more traditional RPG titles on the PC and DS. Look at the DS’s controls – you can’t do action titles on it. As for the PC, there have been a few great strategy RPGs in recent memory. The demographics on the 360/PS3 just doesn’t have a large enough install-base to justify these niche titles. I think we may see more of these as XBL and PSN arcade games (a game like FF Tactics and Ogre Battle… great games, btw).

    Trend #2 Response:
    I pretty much agree with you. The only thing I can say is… vote with your wallet. Companies develop reputations and we, as consumers, have to ensure they pay the consequences for doing so.

    Trend #3 Response:
    I don’t think this is a conscious “let’s introduce RPG elements to enrich the title” type of thing. Instead, I think its more about replay value and longevity. People want to collect, achieve, progress, etc. Developers are feeding into that and it keeps people playing their games… which leads right into…

    Trend #4 Response:
    … people paying for add-ons to games several weeks or months into the future. All of the hard work on a new title is shipped. Its just asset creation for DLC. I see absolutely nothing wrong with this business model at all. As for your example of Fallout 3, I couldn’t bring myself to finish that POS so I have no idea what the ending is like… but I heard it sucked. Thats what people get for playing through that tripe. Fallout 3, itself, is one big piece of full-priced DLC for a little ‘ole game called Oblivion… talk about suckers. 🙂 Other than that, I have never heard of a game selling the ending to it as DLC. Just don’t buy any more of Bethesda’s titles… I know I wont’ be after this unless they are on sale on Steam.

    By the way, check out King’s Bounty on the PC if you haven’t already. Its a really good and relatively unknown game. If you liked FF Tactics, Ogre Battle, or HOMM, you’ll enjoy it.

  6. Good points made, sir. I just never buy the piracy argument with PC gaming for it’s failure. I think its the same reason why the ps3 didn’t take off in the beginning; the friggin insane price to start gaming. (By the way, I own a ps3 now after a strange craigslist swap of my old Wii for a PS3…word is still out if this was a good trade). If I can play borderlands on the xbox 360 for the 200 core price and then a 60 dollar game, I’d much rather do that than an 800+ price and a 50 game. Sure, the graphics may only be at 80% of the PC’s theoretical graphical pushing… but its the same game, isn’t it? Piracy has been around on PC’s forever, in fact, piracy used to be WAY more prevalent when gaming on the PC was a good rival to consoles. Now, with services like Steam, its much harder to pirate than it used to be… still, PC gaming is nearly dead. Piracy is on the xbox 360, the wii, handhelds, etc, and it doesn’t seem to sink those gaming avenues. I HAVE a nice gaming quad-core rig, and I just don’t really find the same games on the PC anymore fun than on the xbox 360. You can also blame the HP’s, compaq’s, etc for introducing the cheapie PC’s they sell to be nearly useless gaming rigs with the horrible integrated graphics cards. Working as a tech for a long time, people were asking about “gaming” all the time on a PC, and it was tough explaining to them that after buying this computer, THEN you would have to buy a dedicated 3d card, and probably more RAM, etc. It just is a much harder avenue to continue to sell PC games when the main computers bought in store aren’t very gameable. I could probably run Counter strike on a new one bought in a store just fine, but Borderlands would run choppy as hell.

    But yes, there’s some definite advantages to PC gaming if one can afford it. User generated content is always better on the PC. Theoretically graphics are way better, I know… but, the cost to get there is a very niche market, and there’s enough blame to go around to why that is. Controlling FPS’s on the PC have always been more precise. In some way, I feel the game makers for PC’s in the days of LAN parties put themselves out of business by not pushing computer makers to include better 3d graphics on the average PC. They didn’t, and I think it was a big mistake. There was almost this weird “daring” by the programmers of Crysis which openly said, “We DARE you to build a computer to show off to friends that’ll be beefy enough to run this!” I mean, Crysis sold, what, under 200,000 copies and now some of the biggest games sold on a PC are the dinky ones made by popcap? Seems like they went the wrong direction.
    .-= MDoggie´s last blog ..From Talking Heads to Downloadable Endings: Modern Console RPG Trends =-.

  7. Totally agree about PC community shooting itself in the foot. And yes, while piracy has been around forever (my uncle ran the largest bootleg Commodore 64 warez BBS in the world back in the day), I think the ROI was much better back in the day. Like you said, you didn’t have 100s of artists, dozens of programmers, marketing, post-release support, a plethora of machine configurations to take into account, etc. And, lets face it – the internet wasn’t as pervasive as it is now. This means that you could make a good game, not have to sell that many copies to make a buck, and the people downloading it for free didn’t hurt you.

    Nowadays, that just can’t be said any more. The % of piracy is way up (granted, its hard to get figures from before) and I really feel its because its too easy to pirate on the PC. Everyone has broadband and it literally takes a bookmark and press a button.

    And while I feel piracy is pretty big on the 360, MS actually does a pretty good job of banning modded consoles on a regular basis. It isn’t nearly as easy (or abundant) on the 360 compared to PC.

    But yea – PC builders, lack of developer support for mid-range cards, confusing naming schemes on 3rd party cards, etc.. it all leads to trouble.

    Here’s to hoping Steam and can save it 🙂