Most people who read this regularly are aware of how much I love Role Playing Games. I love them for their emphasis on story and player interaction with the story through their mechanic. It is fun to play through these games and be truly immersed in a brand new world and its story. However, these games are far from flawless. Being video games, they can only do so much in terms of simulating a world. Since all games are just computer programs, they have to be represented in ways that a computer can easily process and display. In the old days, the limitations caused by the technology of the time inspired a number of RPG genre conventions. That was way back then. In the modern day, many of these technical limitations no longer exist because of the way technology constantly evolves. Developers are no longer bound by the technological limits of that past and are capable of doing much more with their games.
However, many of the old conventions and styles that were seen back then, once used to abstract many of the things that were (and sometimes still are) difficult to represent any other way, are still present in the RPGs being created in the here and now. A few days ago, I had a conversation on Twitter with escapistmagazine.com contributor Grey Carter about some of these mechanics that have withstood the test of time. Specifically, whether or not it is worth it to keep these mechanics around. In this week's post, I will apply my analysis to the topic and see if video really did kill the radio star. Is it time we rethought RPGs and how they act in a mechanical sense?
As usual when writing an article like this, it helps to define what I am referring to so that we are all on the same page. When I refer to an RPG, I mean any story-focused game with a strong sense of character progression and/or customization. This can mean anything from the Final Fantasy games of old all the way to more modern games like Fallout: New Vegas or Mass Effect 3. I will be taking a look at how these games use old school mechanics and why they use them in the way that they do. Then, we will see if it is possible to do things differently now, either making the game either more immersive or improve them in terms of control, role-playing, or entertainment value.
One of the biggest conventions of the RPG genre is the use of skill points as a way to represent the player character's proficiency with regards to certain disciplines, both in and out of combat. In a (semi-)turned based RPG, it makes sense for characters to have stats that represent their ability to perform certain actions successfully, be it firing a gun, casting a spell, swinging a sword, hacking a computer, or talking their way out a dangerous situation. Since it is difficult to have much in the way of player input in a turn-based game, skill levels are the only way to differentiate one player's character and style from another player's. The only way to show player progression in a turn based game is to increase their character's stats and skills, which affect overall damage output and chance of success. Considering the technical and mechanical limitations of such games, implementing a system of stats and skills the determine how talented the player is makes total sense.
When we move into a three dimensional, action-oriented space, this quickly becomes irrelevant. In an action-RPG like the more recent installments in the Fallout franchise, shooting mechanics and player skill are now factors in the success of the player. However, in these games, there exists a system of stats and skills that influence the outcome of confrontations and events. Improving weapon skills increases the damage output and accuracy of weapons governed by it while doing the same to non-combat skills allows the player to do more with them via Speech checks and minigames. Sadly, I do not think any of this is necessary. Since we now have a fully realized world with combat comparable to (though not better than) many First Person Shooters and minigames that require player skill to execute properly, it makes less sense to abstract these elements. For RPGs like these, it may no longer make sense to even have skill levels and points for the character since the player's own skill, which will improve over the course of the game, can be taken into account. This can even be extended to non-combat scenarios. Lockpicking and hacking can be done through minigames as demonstrated by recent titles like Fallout 3, whose lockpicking is widely regarded as one of the best infiltration minigames of all time, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which had a very interesting and enjoyable hacking minigame (sadly marred by a few questionable design decisions in the game) and the best conversation mechanic I have ever played with. Fallout 3 also had a hand in proving that skill points in these non-combat aspects of an RPG are completely arbitrary. In the game, it was impossible to even make an attempt to pick a lock unless the player had a high enough Lockpicking skill to do so. This makes even less sense upon realization that these higher level locks are genuinely tougher to pick. It is more logical either make the game more difficult, or a have a skill that governs what locks the player can pick. Having both is excessive. Though I understand that many would be wary of introducing player skill as an element of play, since it has the potential to leave some players out due to a lack of it, this is why modern games have adjustable difficulty as a way to equilize the imbalance between skilled and unskilled players. In the end, it is a design choice to be made by the creators of the game. I just believe it is worth thinking about this decision when going forward, since some games simply have no use for these mechanics.
The other common trope used in RPGs that I will be going over is the concept of vendor trash. By vendor trash, I mean items the take up inventory space, yet only serve the purpose of being sold to merchants for money. I can understand why developers do this even today. It makes no sense for the player to kill a wolf and have it drop five gold coins. To facilitate immersion, they would instead have a wolf drop a pelt that the player can then sell to vendors to make money. Though this concept is immersive and makes sense for a world, it is not exactly fun for the player to have to carry around tons of loot that takes up valuable inventory space which could be used to carry more useful items like weapons, armor, medical supplies and food. While I am a fan of forcing players to make meaningful choices, it is hardly meaningful to force players to choose between picking up a new sword or picking up a gold ingot that can be sold for money used to purchase a new sword.
In my opinion, vendor trash still has a place in RPGs, but it should be handled differently. Since vendor trash is effectively just gold waiting to be cashed out, it should be in a separate category and take up no space. While some may argue that it is not immersive to carry all sorts of vendor trash and not have it weigh the player down, I would argue contrary to that. When a designer forces the player to interact too much with the underlying systems of a game world, they start to lose their immersion. Thus, it is important to balance ease of use with simulation, which is far easier said than done. Also, by that logic, it would be unimmersive to allow the player to store tens of thousands of gold coins in their inventory without taking up space.
It is also possible to use vendor trash in other ways. For example, in Final Fantasy XII, which has the unlimited inventory space that many JRPGs do (as an interesting side note), did away with random animals dropping gold coins when they die (as an abstraction of taking their pelts) in favor of vendor trash. What they also did was introduce a new type of good in the vaious shops called Bazaar Goods. How it worked was that when the player sold cetain combinations of vendor trash to dealers, it would unlock certain items and item packs in the Bazaar. The game explained that selling vendor trash to various stores introduced these component items into the economy, allowing people to use those items in the construction of new ones to be put up for sale. This was an interesting way of making seemingly useless items have more purpose beyond just being gold in item form. After all, people would start making items with the goods that adventurers would gather and sell. Designers should put more thought into systems like this because RPG players will usually end up interacting with the economy very often. It is worth it to make this experience as painless, yet interesting, as possible.
To be fair, both of these mechanics were in place well before RPGs existed in video game form. Old RPGs, both from the West and from the East, take inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop games in that vein and are, as such, deeply entreched in the way people think about RPGs. Back then, they had use as a gameplay abstraction to otherwise realistic events. While a healthy respect for tradition is always a valuable thing to have, I feel like it is necessary to analyze old ways of thinking to see if they are still necessary in the modern era. When technology and game design evolve, some of the old ways of thinking no long apply. In the cases I outlined above, both mechanics still have merit in modern games, but they may need to be tweaked a little in order to make them more palatable. Though I am sure there are other examples of outdated mechanics presisting longer than they should have, I cannot think of any more that need discussion. Nonetheless, it is important to do an analysis like this if we want to improve this medium as a whole.