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Vince
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« on: January 27, 2008, 03:57:01 PM »

What's a role-playing game?

NOT AGAIN!!!! Yes, again.

The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that nobody can agree on what a computer role-playing game is. If you are told that a new shooter is announced, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect. If you are told that a new RPG is announced, that tells you nothing at all. Japanese or Western? North American or European? Action or story-driven? Sandbox? Dungeon crawler? Original or licensed? Who's the developer? With shooters it hardly matters who makes them. I'll be surprised if Far Cry 2 won't play like Far Cry 1, yet the difference between the same looking Knights of the Old Republic games is huge.

So, hopefully, this handy guide will explain what role-playing is and isn't and help you understand the RPG market. Without further ado...

Obviously, role-playing games are about playing a role or two, but what does it really mean? Every game puts in a role of something or someone. Doom puts you in a role of a brave, ass-kicking, silent but deadly space marine who really doesn't take no for an answer. Windows' Minesweeper offers you to play a role of a brave ninja cartographer who uses nothing but his wit and logic to map an unforgiving minefield. So, "playing a role" definition can't help us here as it's big enough to put every game under its roof.

Playing a role in the CRPG context means making decisions fitting your character. Let's say you're playing a thief and you're facing a well guarded gate. A warrior may decide to fight his way through here, but a thief may decide to find another way in. That's the core difference between RPG and adventure games, for example. In adventure games you make no decisions but progress from point A to point B to point C in a very specific, set in stone way. The Monkey Island brilliant series, The Dig, Full Throttle, etc – each playthrough is exactly the same.

Here is what an Escape from Monkey Island walkthrough looks like:

# Look at the brazier of hot coals and use it.
# Then pick up the pile of hot coals.
# Turn to the loaded cannon on the right and kick the coal to it.
# Go to the Harbor and pick up the popped inner tube.
# Then go to Melee Town, into the SCUMM Bar, go to the back and look at the balloon.
# Talk to the dart players and get them to hit the balloon.
# Pick up the Jerky Pretzels at the drunken sailor's table.
# Now go to the Governor's Mansion, and use the inner tube at the funny-looking cactus.
# Offer the pretzels to the catapult operator and when he leaves, tinker with catapult controls.

As you can see, it's a very specific business that requires sticking with someone else's plan. If you didn't pick up those pretzels, there is no way you can stop the catapult. Mind you, I’m not criticizing the adventure genre, I’m just pointing out the key difference.

Compare the walkthrough to a Gothic 2 quest:

“How to get into the City of Khorinis:
The city guards are wary of convicts and thugs from the mountains and wont let anyone in. There are several ways to complete this quest.

- Buy farmer's work clothes from Lobart and tell the guards that you work there.
- Talk to Canthar by the crossroads and buy his gate pass OR trade it for a favour
- Bribe your way in at the cost of 100 gold.
- Explore and find a hidden, but rather dangerous way in through a mountain ledge”

I was also told that if you find enough herbs, you can claim to be an alchemist's assistant, but I’ve never tried that. 

Anyway, as you can see, you play a role not by following a predefined path and moving from one cutscene to another, but by actually deciding what to do, when, and how. Mind blowing, huh?

Next stop – the skills? Are they really necessary? Can’t I make decisions without skills role-playing my character as I see fit?

You can’t.

Let's say your character is exploring a long lost temple. He sees a strange tablet, covered in long forgotten symbols. Your skills (lore or languages) determine whether or not you can read, understand, and gain knowledge from the tablet. If it was up to the player, it would be impossible to resist the temptation to learn the ancient wisdom and cultural phenomenon known as "awsome powahs" simply by saying "No, I don't think my character can understand that. Sorry. No powahs for me, I guess".

Here is another example. In front of you is an ancient tower of doom and gloom. You are thinking of climbing it. How do we determine if you can climb it? Ask you? Well, of course, you want to climb it. Surely there are “awsome powahs” inside. That’s where your CHARACTER’s skill kicks in, rewarding the fittest and creating different experiences for different characters.   

Without skills you can do anything and everything. Your role becomes generic: an all-powerful hero who's good at everything. Skills narrow your role down and help you maintain it. Remove character skills or replace them with the player's skills and you will end up removing the role-playing core from the game and replacing it with Counter-Strike.

Can you block? Can you dodge? Can you make that difficult shot? Can you convince someone? Can you walk unseen? Your character skills are the answer to these questions. In the end, skills are what creates different playing experiences. They don’t hinder your progress, they give you more options. Anyone who played Diablo 2 can see the value of a robust skill set and different characters and thus experiences it creates. Diablo 1 had 3 classes and a very basic character system which limited character development possibilities and in the end limited the game to 3 original classes. Diablo 2 had 5 classes and a very detailed character system which created at least 15 viable and different builds that had to be played differently.   

The only alternative to that is make-believe:

"After beating Shivering Isles, you essentially become the new Sheogorath. Excellent opportunity for role-players to take advantage of:
* Pretend to have appointed one of the people living in the houses to be the new Duke of that realm, since you have now become Sheogorath.
* Wear your regalia and stroll around town, but don't forget your escorts!
* You can change things in your realm if you want, say one day your feeling sad, change the weather (hopefully it will start raining) to make the realm better fit your melancholy mood.
* If you really want to pretend you have become a god, turn the difficulty all the way down. This helps to increase your invincibility as a god.
* Fight off creatures when they attack the towns and defend your realm.
* When there are intruders at the Gates of Madness, go there and watch the fight, as if it were a show!"

Last, but not the least, your character’s skills and abilities can even alter your character’s speech, adding yet another layer of different experiences to your playthrough. Fallout’s low Intelligence dialogues or Bloodlines Malkavian dialogues options illustrate this point perfectly.

So, what do we have so far? Play a role by making decisions fitting your character based on your character's skills and abilities. Let’s explore that “making decisions fitting your character” part a bit. That’s where a lot of RPG candidates fail and that’s what separated action adventure games like Knights of the Old Republic from true role-playing games like Arcanum, for example.

If a game lets me create a combat-allergic, silver-tongued thief I expect to be able to play the game in a manner fitting this character. The last thing I want is to be thrown into situations designed for fighters and requiring a frontal attack approach. Bloodlines does a great job in the “decisions fitting your character” department in the first half of the game, but unfortunately the last third of the game is a straight shoot ‘em up. Here is one of the first quests:

Surf's Up: Getting explosives from a local gang.

kill everyone (always popular)
sneak in (the game offers you a lose board in the fence and an option to turn off the power – you aren’t afraid of the dark, are you?)
seduce your way in if you are a female and get the explosive for, uh, free.
talk your way in and use your persuasion

While the "call a nuclear strike" option is missing, we can agree that the game covered pretty much all reasonable options there. That's the key difference between Bloodlines and Oblivion, for example, where all characters end up playing in the same manner.

In the end, you may disagree with my arguments and definition. At very least, it gives you a good idea of what kind of game we are making. As an extra bonus for reading that far, here is a short, but handy dictionary for RPG beginners:

Japanese RPGs –  endless and repetitive combat interrupted by cutscenes featuring teenage characters with spiky hair and angsty attitude. Sometimes the cutscenes form interesting settings and great stories. Combat is often turn-based, so it’s quite possible to find a real gem there.
 
North American RPGs – at the moment it means licensed, “next-generation” pure action or mostly action, but always real-time games. “Mostly action” games come with 10% non-combat activities allowing you to role-play fighters with some non-violent hobbies on the side.   

European RPGs –  them Europeans ain’t cultured enough to appreciate the beauty of a vanilla fantasy game featuring an epic conflict of good vs evil. So they try to make something different and unique. Sadly, the Europeans seem to be under the impression that action-focused and real-time is definitely the way to go.

Original – reference to a setting that, hopefully, doesn’t include elves and dwarves.

Licensed – reference to a setting that’s based on a licensed property like Dungeons™ & Dragons™, in which case the likelihood of running into an elf™ is 99.9%. There are rumors of an RPG based on Aliens™ where a spaceship filled the aliens ™ is crashed somewhere on the Sword Coast™ and the aliens™ start eating elves™. I’ve already pre-ordered.

Immersive – a buzz word. Ignore it when you see it.

Next-Generation – a concept used to describe a game offering pretty graphics, but no gameplay; quickly becoming a synonym with Western RPG.

Action RPG – game revolving around killing stuff; quickly becoming a synonym with Western RPG.

Sandbox RPG – a free-form game revolving around exploring a large land, adventuring, and looting, without paying any attention to the main quest, which often revolves around exploring a large land, adventuring, and looting.

Dungeon Crawler – a game designed by people who think that dungeons are the most awesome aspect in any RPG and the rest is meaningless garbage. These games offer you endless chains of dungeons to explore and loot. 

Roguelike - the opposite of "next-generation" games: great gameplay, no graphics whatsoever. In the words of Moloch: "I believe it not!"

Story-driven RPG – a game where story is actually important. In fact, it’s so important that anything else, including your freedom of choices, is secondary. When a game starts and you are quickly explained that you are a huge emo who will follow his father/brother/another emo anywhere, odds are you’re playing a story-driven game.

Classic – a game built around meaningful choices, dialogues, and role-playing as described in this article. If you don’t like "classic", pick any other word.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions?

« Last Edit: January 29, 2008, 07:54:45 PM by Vince » Logged
cardtrick
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« Reply #1 on: January 27, 2008, 04:22:36 PM »

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions?

Good read. As expected, I agree with most of it and disagree with some. I expect that will be typical among the people excited about AoD.

For what it's worth, my personal quibbles:

Action RPG – game revolving around killing stuff; quickly becoming a synonym with Western RPG.

I disagree with this. I think an Action RPG is a game in which player skill plays a large role. Yes, there is often a lot of combat, but that's not the crux of the matter. TOEE is all about killing stuff, but I don't think it makes sense to call it an action RPG. Similarly, The Witcher has less combat than NWN2 or even MOTB, but I still consider it an Action RPG because of the real-time combat heavily influenced by the player's timing.

Classic – a game built around meaningful choices, dialogues, and role-playing as described in this article. If you don’t like classic, pick any other word.

I don't like classic. In fact, I would say that "classic RPG" should be almost synonymous with "dungeon crawler." I'm not sure what term I would use here . . . "Fallout-likes," maybe, or "Last-Gen," or just "Good."


Play a role by making decisions fitting your character based on your character's skills and abilities.

I know this is your preference and that this is the way AoD will be. I think it's important, too. However, it does neglect one additional dimension, which is "making decisions based on your character's personality." I would still consider a game an RPG if your choices were more often between different philosophies or personalities than between different applications of skills. PS:T did this quite a lot. Many decisions were based on your character's alignment, goals, and beliefs rather than on his stats. Similarly in MOTB: often your choices are moral, rather than skill-based.

Now, I know this gets kind of a bad rap, which is largely Bioware's fault: they're the king of personality-based roleplaying, typically offering several different dialog options, especially ones suited to certain personality archetypes: greedy, bloodthirsty, noble, and sometimes disengaged/uninterested. Of course, their flaw is that these choices rarely have real consequences, and often don't even result in different responses from NPCs, so that this is barely a step up from the Oblivion LARPing you talked about.

That said, there's no reason it has to be that way. Interesting consequences could be implemented just as easily for personality-based choices as for skill-based choices. I think it's overly limiting to define an RPG solely in terms of character skills.
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Vince
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« Reply #2 on: January 27, 2008, 06:39:07 PM »

Action RPG – game revolving around killing stuff; quickly becoming a synonym with Western RPG.

I disagree with this. I think an Action RPG is a game in which player skill plays a large role.
What would you file Diablo 2, Sacred, even the old Stonekeep under? I'd say that within that class we can identify two sub-classes: one that favors the player and one that favors the character, but it's the focus on action that unites them both.

Quote
TOEE is all about killing stuff, but I don't think it makes sense to call it an action RPG.
Dungeon crawler, I'd say. You can also sneak in/disguise and avoid combat a lot in ToEE and once you get to the temple's factions, you can do a lot of scheming, so while it has a lot of action, it's not all the game offers.

Quote
Similarly, The Witcher has less combat than NWN2 or even MOTB, but I still consider it an Action RPG because of the real-time combat heavily influenced by the player's timing.
My turn to disagree. The way I see it, action RPGs offer nothing but killing. I'd file The Witcher under story-driven games. At the end of chapter 1 they throw you to prison no matter what. It's unavoidable. Why? Because the story says so. And so on.

Quote
I don't like classic. In fact, I would say that "classic RPG" should be almost synonymous with "dungeon crawler." I'm not sure what term I would use here . . . "Fallout-likes," maybe, or "Last-Gen," or just "Good."
How does "true" sound? It has a nice elitist ring. Smile

Quote
...However, it does neglect one additional dimension, which is "making decisions based on your character's personality."
Good point. However, since we are talking about a definition here, we have to go with min requirements. Making decisions fitting your character is a must-have feature, while making decisions based on the personality is a nice-to-have one.
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Priapist
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« Reply #3 on: January 28, 2008, 12:45:21 AM »

A few random thoughts:

Action RPG tends to be a misnomer. When people say "Action RPG", the generally mean "Diablo-like", and when you get down to brass tacks, the action component of Diablo is altogether unsatisfying, and couldn't stand on it's own legs as an action game. In reality, the term is used to describe games where there's very little gameplay, but excessive rewards. If you look only at the gameplay components, Diablo and Dungeon Siege are quite different. One is like an incredibly simple version of Gauntlet, the other is a vastly simplified tactical game. But that's irrelevant, because the gameplay is irrelevant. The common ground is the XP/Item treadmill, not the "action", and that would make them poor Dungeon Crawlers.

Mount & Blade on the other hand, would be well termed as an Action RPG. The clear focus is on the action combat, which stands on it's own merits.

Ultimately though, is it really worth the distinction? It would be like fighting to get immersion back to its real meaning, or educating people that "addictive" isn't a positive quality in anything. Genrefication is an iffy subject at best, and when it comes to games, it's just no longer a tool to aid and inform the consumer, it's been hijacked by marketing and is just another piece of the hype.

The other danger of genrefication is that it attempts to force everything into an existing mould. Games like Blade Runner, Jagged Alliance, Quest for Glory or even Grand Theft Auto have a lot in common with some of the better RPGs, but it gets silly if you try and force them into the RPG genre. And it would be similarly stupid to ignore them due to some prejudice against "non-RPGs".

I think you're best off simply networking, like the age old "how do I know how good a game is if I don't listen to reviews?" conundrum. Find people with similar tastes and insights, ignore genre boundaries and simply discuss what's good and what is shaping up to be good.
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« Reply #4 on: January 28, 2008, 07:22:29 AM »

Surprisingly enough I can largely agree. I am obviously more open to make-believe. Within reason I think that features that support make-believe are a good additon to RPG's (although not a minimum requirement). However I do think that offering a convincing setting (and usually a story, motivation, ) is really essential. Of course one could book creating a convincing and interactive world for the player to move around in as a prerequisite for choices and consequences.
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« Reply #5 on: January 28, 2008, 09:06:10 AM »

I think some comment on the influence of MMORPG's is necessary to round things out.  Their massive influence on interface design, and reliance on grinder quests has had a really negative impact on not-online RPG's.
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« Reply #6 on: January 28, 2008, 10:34:26 AM »

What would you file Diablo 2, Sacred, even the old Stonekeep under? I'd say that within that class we can identify two sub-classes: one that favors the player and one that favors the character, but it's the focus on action that unites them both.

That sort of definition equates action-RPGs to dungeon crawlers, does it not? Wherein you kill loads of stuff... in a dungeon. Consider the original Rogue, for example. I'd think labeling it a dungeon crawler, but not an action-RPG would be correct. So the term "action-RPG" should be read as "a cross between an action game and an RPG", a genre hybrid.
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Vince
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« Reply #7 on: January 28, 2008, 10:47:56 AM »

What would you file Diablo 2, Sacred, even the old Stonekeep under? I'd say that within that class we can identify two sub-classes: one that favors the player and one that favors the character, but it's the focus on action that unites them both.

That sort of definition equates action-RPGs to dungeon crawlers, does it not? Wherein you kill loads of stuff... in a dungeon. Consider the original Rogue, for example. I'd think labeling it a dungeon crawler, but not an action-RPG would be correct. So the term "action-RPG" should be read as "a cross between an action game and an RPG", a genre hybrid.
I humbly disagree. Icewind Dale is a fine dungeon crawler, but you can't really compare it to Diablo 2, for example, as IWD offered a lot more than plain monster killing.
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JarlFrank
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« Reply #8 on: January 28, 2008, 12:40:33 PM »

Well, I'd say Diablo-likes are quite close to Roguelikes [one of the subgenres you missed, Vince] and mixed with quite a bit of Dungeon Crawler. They usually feature randomly created terrain, which is one main aspect of Roguelikes. Actually I'd say Diablo is a Roguelike minus the complexity of, say, having to care for food or getting awfully pwned because you're surrounded.
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Vince
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« Reply #9 on: January 28, 2008, 01:07:00 PM »

Well, I'd say Diablo-likes are quite close to Roguelikes [one of the subgenres you missed, Vince]...
Forgot about the roguelikes. Thanks. I'll add them to the article.

Quote
They usually feature randomly created terrain, which is one main aspect of Roguelikes. Actually I'd say Diablo is a Roguelike minus the complexity of, say, having to care for food or getting awfully pwned because you're surrounded.
Well, let's look at reasons and motivations. Why would someone play Diablo 2? To kill things and make a badass character (loot and uber skills). I think we can agree that nobody plays roguelikes for these reasons, and so, while they do share the randomness aspect, anything else is completely different. I do agree with your definition though: action RPGs - roguelikes without the complexity.
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Hazelnut
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« Reply #10 on: January 28, 2008, 03:13:42 PM »

Howdy folks. Nice article Vince, but I feel that from the point where you introduce the make believe example (inclusive) it could do with more polish. Gotta go and pick up my daughter now, but if you want more constructive criticism PM me.

Quote
I don't like classic. In fact, I would say that "classic RPG" should be almost synonymous with "dungeon crawler." I'm not sure what term I would use here . . . "Fallout-likes," maybe, or "Last-Gen," or just "Good."
How does "true" sound? It has a nice elitist ring. Smile

It does, but it would surely cause more confusion and arguments than assist defining the category. The best alternative I can come up with is "pure".

So you're making a pure RPG then? A PRPG.
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Vince
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« Reply #11 on: January 28, 2008, 05:10:28 PM »

Howdy folks. Nice article Vince, but I feel that from the point where you introduce the make believe example (inclusive) it could do with more polish. Gotta go and pick up my daughter now, but if you want more constructive criticism PM me.
I will be grateful for your comments. So PM or post here.
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RampantCoyote
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« Reply #12 on: January 28, 2008, 05:13:43 PM »

Ultima Underworld was the first great action RPG, IMO, and it did not have an emphasis on combat. At least no more so than any other RPG. And every RPG worth playing has an emphasis on player skill - just not on the player's action-game skills. Good decision making, risk management, resource management, and tactics have been staples of RPG gameplay since ye olde days of Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. It's just not as sexy, apparently, as requiring the player's Super Mario Brothers turtle-hopping skills.

I may use the term "traditional" instead of "classic," as for me a classic is a game that has stood the test of time. Traditional referring to the general style of Computer RPGs that once roamed the earth before all of 'em wanted to be Diablo.

Incidentally - I believe jRPGs are actually descended from Ultima III, which was kinda the first RPG that really hit it big in Japan. So... you may mock them for the evolutionary branch they followed, but their family tree goes back to a real classic.

But still - it was a very amusing post, my lame quibbling aside. Thank you for the grins. Smile
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« Reply #13 on: January 29, 2008, 04:31:32 AM »

I wrote a huge post for this thread yesterday, but it devolved into rambling crap. Hopefully it will turn out better this time.

I would define an RPG purely by the presence of a system. If the game is build so that the presence of a system is integral, then it is an RPG. I think the definition that Vince has here is for a subgenre of RPGs (I tend to call them 'hardcore' RPGs) - not for RPGs in general. Also, to distinguish it from, say, an RTS game where system can be important - there should be a clearly defined main character that the player controls.

System needs its own definition. Something along the lines of 'an abstract layer of mechanics and rules which drive the game'. I think that's broad enough, yet doesn't include things such as health bars in an FPS or whatever (they don't actually 'drive the game', as such), though it's perhaps a little vague.

That's the core of what I had to say, minus all the bullshit. I think that system needs more examination in the same way that the indie PnP community has looked at it - though we're using different definitions of system by necessity (the lumpley principle just isn't going to work). I wrote a big long post that I never posted for similar reasons as the last one on that, too. This is as good a place as any to summarise it.

A good system as at least these two things: a way to resolve conflicts, and a reward/punishment mechanism. The resolving conflicts thing is easy enough - happens functionally in most cRPGs (except, perhaps, action RPGs) - there are probably many more and possibly better ways of handling it than most games do, but it's done in a workable manner for the most part.

Reward/punishment systems are so far generally crap, IMO, a leftover from using traditional PnP systems. By primarily rewarding killing things, killing things becomes the main part of play. Killing things gets pretty dull, so a system that better rewards more worthwhile past times than slogging through hordes of enemies would be nice.

Definitions on what an RPG is tend to be a matter of agenda anyway - people define 'RPG' to mean the sort of RPGs that they enjoy, and RPGs that don't fit that are labeled bad RPGs. I think that's a little silly. RPG as an umbrella term which encompassed all kinds of subgenres makes more sense to me, and I think that this is what this definition manages.
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Hazelnut
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« Reply #14 on: January 30, 2008, 08:54:55 AM »

Okay VD, here's my constructive criticism of you're already very good article.

"The only alternative to that is make-believe" I think is ambiguous because you've been talking about skills and many aspects of their use in gameplay for a while beforehand. It's this exact point that jarred me when first reading, possibly I wasn't paying enough attention though. Anyway, maybe replace with "The only alternative to skills defining what your character can or can't do is make-believe"
Maybe adding something about gameworlds being consistent and having rules could be worked in here.

Some reference to virtual LARP-ing as it's often referred to, where basically the roleplaying is purely in the imagination of the player and not supported by the systems implemented in the game. Essentially the game simply becomes a prop for the make believe, kind of like dressing up clothes.

Regarding altered dialogue options, this could be expanded on along the lines of: Ideally this can significantly alter your options and the way NPCs react to your character.

I also have some issues with the dictionary of RPG terms:

To me an action RPG is one where parts of the game, most commonly the combat, require some kind of real time response. Reaction time and player skill becomes a factor in the prowess of the character being played, to a greater or lesser degree. You don't just make decisions, but also take part in the execution of resulting actions. I always think of this as an analogue of action films with the fast paced 'action'.

Sandbox RPGs are more akin to world simulations, and attempt to present a seamless world in which to play.

Classic should be called pure as I've already said. Classic RPGs bring to mind the Ultima & goldbox games, rather than Fallout. That's possibly my age talking there though.  Embarrassed

Possibly another term could be added: Combat RPGs. Not in common use, but I think sum up games where the roleplaying options are oriented purely around how your character kills things. The Diablos are an example of this. Most dungeon crawlers are combat RPGs too.

That brings up another good point - almost all RPGs are a mix of these categories.


Hope that helps, I'm sure at the very least you can get a glimpse of how bad the article could have been if written by me.  lol


I'd also like to take my first stab at a simple, concise, definition of the term RPG (for the tl;dr crowd) to see what you think:

Role Playing Games present gameworlds that play significantly differently depending on the way that the player decides to build, develop and play their character(s) in the game. This can range from choosing different conversation paths, different killing methods, different affiliations to NPCs/factions, or different ways of meeting objectives. RPGs will have a mix of one or more of these, providing multiple ways to define your characters role by the way they interact with the gameworld. The important factors for successful implementation of any of these role playing elements is that the choices and decisions made by the player result in consistent reactions and consequences in the gameworld which provides satisfyingly different experiences to the player as a result of their choices. Additionally it's important that there is some enforcement of the available choices by the game systems so the whole experience doesn't devolve into choosing from all options at each point, making the role being played irrelevant. One of the biggest reactions the gameworld can provide is the closing off of options once decisions are made. This dynamic nature of RPGs often provides for re-playable games since the player experience can differ significantly on each play through.


« Last Edit: January 30, 2008, 05:12:32 PM by Hazelnut » Logged
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