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Author Topic: Old Man's Ramblings: RPG sub-genres  (Read 12717 times)
Vince
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« on: February 04, 2008, 10:17:00 AM »

Now that we've discussed the concept of role-playing game, let's take a more detailed look at different RPG types or subgenres. A few things to note first:

1) I'm not trying to define the genre or the sub-genres for you. There are many ways to sort and organize an imaginary pile of all kinds of RPGs. Some people, for example, will define action RPGs as games using players' skills and reflexes instead of the character's, or will prefer to sort games into real-time and turn-based. I'm simply offering you what makes sense to me and I invite you to discuss and argue these obviously very important matters until heads start exploding.

2) Keep in mind that while RPGs are normally a mix of traits, usually only one or two are dominant, and that's what I'll use to categorize games. Take Temple of Elemental Evil, for example. The game has a bit of everything: combat, quests, dialogue trees with skill checks, choices & consequences, double- and triple-crossing, non-linear design, elven porn, bugs, but in the end, tactical combat and dungeon crawling are the most dominant aspects of the game. It was never designed to be the next Fallout or Baldur's Gate and it can't be directly compared to either of those games.

3) What's in a name? Whether or not "action RPG" is a misnomer isn't important. It's a label describing a specific genre. Feel free to replace it with "hack & slash" or "mindless & pointless violence".

Now that I've enriched your life with this knowledge, let's finally jump to the point:

Action RPGs - games that offer nothing but fast, real-time combat. You kill monsters, collect items, level up, kill bigger and badder monsters, collect better loot. Rinse and repeat. Nothing distracts you from killing, looting, and levelling. Silly things like story and characters won't get in the way of your action. Choices mean "which item compliments this build more". The goal is to make an ultimate killing machine in the chosen class, capable of cutting through anything the game throws at you like a hot knife through butter, achieving the prized "IT'S OVER NINE THOUSAND!" power status.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the concept of killing things in real-time as the main attraction isn't a novelty, but a 25-year old veteran. Two biggest events are Gauntlet, an arcade 1985 game, and Diablo, a 1996 game that started the clone war mentioned in Star Wars. Condor Games pitched the idea of "Gauntlet with better graphics" to Blizzard and although the idea was laughable, Blizzard decided to give this craziness a shot, bought Condor and renamed it into Blizzard North. The idea was laughable because in 1992-96 huge behemoths like Darklands, Star Trail, and Daggerfall ruled the RPG world offering so much more to players. Ironically, the dinosaurs died, sticking with the the evolution program, and were replaced by waves of Diablo clones: Nox, Darkstone, Revenant, Lionheart, Space Hack, Harbinger, Blade & Sword, an army of Dungeon Siege games, Sacred, Fate, Loki, Silverfall, Restricted Area, Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, Titan Quest, that outstandingly horrible MageKnight game, Space Siege, Rise of the Argonauts, Mythos, and circle-completing Hellgate.

Diablo 2 still remains the king of the genre, offering brilliant and unmatched design.   

Tactical RPGs - the smart cousin of action RPGs. The focus is on using slow, turn-based tactics, not real-time speed and reaction, to kill things. Instead of clicking and watching monsters exploding like gore-filled pinatas, you plan, calculate, and ponder. If action RPGs are a party of 8-year olds, screaming and beating each other with rubber foam baseball bats, tactical RPGs are old men's "we aint got nothing but time" chess parties. Being ambushed in that ToEE's tower - your low-level pre-fireball party against 3 times as many enemies including strategically placed crossbowmen and spellcasters - and then trying different strategies for hours and amusement is every tactical RPG fan's wet dream. 

The Japanese gave the world Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy Tactics. The North Americans raised the bet with Wizard’s Crown, Pool of Radiance, Jagged Alliance, and Temple of Elemental Evil. The Russians made a grand entrance with Silent Storm, adding destructible environments to the overall tactical awesomeness. Then turn-based tactics became uncool, first on the PC, then on the consoles where action battle systems slowly replaced turn-based systems which were dubbed "an archaic exercise in tedium." Now turn-based tactical games can only be found in museums or handheld consoles where they tend to sell very well.

If you want to play great TB tactics of the olden days, get Jagged Alliance, Silent Storm, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, or XCOM.

Dungeon Crawler - This time the focus is on dungeons. You explore dungeons, find hidden doors and passages, fall into bottomless pits, play with pressure plates, trigger traps, fight the denizens, and look for treasure as you are descending further and further for one reason or another. It’s not about tactics or killing, it’s all about the dungeons and staying alive long enough to see the super VGA sunlight again.

The first dungeon crawler was a wargame scenario revolving around crawling into a castle via its dungeon. The scenario proved to be a lot of fun, calling for bigger and better dungeons and less wargaming and eventually leading to Dungeon Master, Wizardry, Might & Magic (before Heroes hijacked it), Anvil of Dawn, Stonekeep, and the mother of all dungeons crawlers – Daggerfall.

Daggerfall made you fear the dungeons. It was no longer a quick hit-n-run business. For the first time ever in video games history I entered dungeons without being sure that I’ll be able to return. Descending to yet another level greatly increased both your chances of never coming out and a feeling of great accomplishment when you finally emerge from a dungeon weeks later. Levers, pits, flooded levels, air shafts, climbable walls, huge underground halls made playing Daggerfall a very special experience. Buggy? Sure it was buggy as hell, but what great RPG isn’t?   

Story-driven RPG - the focus is on the story. After all those years of killing monsters and looting dungeons for the fun of it, you have a higher purpose, like stopping ancient evil once and for all (or at least until the next sequel) by killing monsters and looting dungeons. While the advantages of having a good story to follow are obvious, stories are restrictive by definition and every now and then the control will be yanked away from the player and handed to the storyteller dude. That’s when you’ll be betrayed, fall in love, will be thrown in jail, do something stupid, decide to travel to the ends of the Earth, gain awesome powers, kill all party members, be defeated even though you are capable of wiping out armies due to an unbalanced combat system, allow your enemies to escape you again, etc. That is the real reason why Aeris died, in case you are wondering. No, it wasn’t your fault, son. 

If you’re looking for some interesting story-driven RPGs, I’d recommend Planescape: Torment (simply the best), Mask of the Betrayer, the first two Realms of Arkania games, the Baldur’s Gate games, the Witcher, Knights of the Old Republic games, and for good measure, Betrayal at Krondor and Betrayal in Antara.

Sandbox RPGs – the focus is on exploring and adventuring in a “visiting all kinda places and looking for work and fun” way. Here is a huge land with hundreds of places to visit and loot. Have fun, see you in 6 months.  The sandbox reference means that much like in a real sandbox, you can do whatever the hell you like. Such games are open-ended and over-abundant side quests usually add a lot more than optional and extremely patient main quests.

I’m pretty sure that 1992’s Darklands was the first and the best sandbox game, but I could be wrong.  Other notable games of the genre are Daggerfall – second only to Darklands, Morrowind, indie Mount & Blade, and Gothic 3.

Classic RPGs - the focus is, surprisingly, on role-playing. A role-playing game focused on role-playing. What kinda nonsense is that? Anyway, classic RPGs offer choices & consequences. Anything else is secondary. It doesn't matter whether the game is turn-based or real-time, first person or isometric, filled with action combat or Hamlet-approved monologues; as long as the focus is on making decisions fitting your character and enjoying ass-biting consequences, we're talking about classic RPG here.

In classic RPGs non-combat gameplay, filled with dialogue trees and skill-checks, often becomes the main attraction, overshadowing combat and even saving games with uninspiring or plain bad combat. You rarely follow a story; instead you craft your own story using the overall theme and easier-said-than-done goals ("find a waterchip").

Best games of the sub-genre: Fallout, Arcanum, Bloodlines, Prelude to Darkness, Mask of the Betrayer.

Roguelikes – games that are too cool to have graphics, unless you think that ASCII worlds are real pretty. What’s ASCII? Well, let me put it this way. You won’t have to worry about advanced shaders, bloom, and anti-aliasing when you’re playing an ASCII game.

As the name suggests, Rogue (1980) was the founder of the sub-genre, offering you to fight your way to the bottom of a dungeon and a very good chance of dying before getting there. Twenty eight years later we have hundreds of roguelike games, offering every setting known to man, but Nethack and ADOM are probably the most well known and well polished representatives of the genre.

So, why should you play crappy-looking games straining your blinded by frequent exposure to bloom eyes? For the freedom to do anything you can think of. Roguelikes offer unmatched interaction with everything: environment, items, even easy to piss of deities. You will lose hundreds of character (no, you can’t save your game and thus you’ll die many, many times learning what you should and shouldn’t ever, ever, EVER do the hard way), but finally mastering such a game will give you more satisfaction than beating Heavenly Sword in a day.   
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Tuomas
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« Reply #1 on: February 04, 2008, 02:45:15 PM »

Nicely done. I think Torment fits in both the "classic" and "story-driven" categories, though.

(I think it would be great if you included this and other rambling articles in the AoD manual. Smile)
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zhirzzh
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« Reply #2 on: February 04, 2008, 05:41:54 PM »

I would put bloodlines in story driven. Past Santa Monica, the game is linear; driven by the next mission you are given. Of course, the whole game goes downhill after Santa Monica.
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Mehler
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« Reply #3 on: February 04, 2008, 10:01:35 PM »

Good read! You should do more articles explaining non-linearity, multiple-solutions, and other things.
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Vince
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« Reply #4 on: February 04, 2008, 10:06:34 PM »

That's the idea.
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CandyStick
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« Reply #5 on: February 05, 2008, 01:43:59 AM »

I agree with most of it, but that Classic RPGs part just doesn't seem right. Isn't classic something that uses well established standards? Wizardry, Might & Magic, Ultima, Dungeon Master, those are the pioneers of the genre when it was becoming popular, the classics. Very few rpg's coming out at that time focused on story/quest based choices & consiquences. To me Fallout and Arcanum are a part of the new wave of rpg's that focused on those exact things. I just don't see how labeling them as classic is appropriate, since their gameplay focus is very different from the classics.

Also, the dungeon crawlers. Many of those games have a really strong focus on tactical combat, sometimes more so than on puzzles and dungeon exploration. Icewind Dale and Gold Box series for example.
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GhanBuriGhan
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« Reply #6 on: February 05, 2008, 04:27:27 AM »

This is certainly useful, especially in acknowledging that RPG and Classic RPG are not the same thing. That used to be the source for much misunderstanding in our Codex discussions, I think. I am not sure if "classic" is a good name, as there are really so few good examples of this style and they are from different times, while "classic" implies there was a whole age at the dawn of the genre where nothing but RPGs in this mold were made. How about choice-driven, character-driven, or decision-tree RPG's?
I am not sure dungeon crawlers deserves a category on their own. Most are action RPG's, some are sandbox, some are tactical.


Personally I would prefer a system of descriptors instead of a fixed classification, although it gets a bit unwieldy.

Combat style:
Hack and slash (Diablo click n' fight)), Action (Gothic, MW), real-time with pause, Turn-based

Story linearity:
Linear, branching, sandbox

Character style:
Main character & Party, Full control party, single player

Character creation:
...with given character, ...with free character creation

Character progression:
skill-based, skill-use base, Exp-based

Degree of player input:
Character skill driven, player skill driven, modulated player skill (e.g. target wobble)

Viewpoint:
top-down, isometric, 3D-isometric, 3rd-person, first person, free camera, fixed camera.

Story design:
Linear, branching, modular ¦ continuous, chapter-based ¦ multiple endings, single ending

Game world design:
seamless world, location based, level-based

Setting:
high fantasy, low fantasy, low magic, post-apocalypse, historical, Sci-Fi, etc...

 

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"Merely killing those being mean to me. It's not my fault it's everyone in the world of AoD". (Vahhabyte)
Vince
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« Reply #7 on: February 05, 2008, 10:12:29 AM »

I am not sure dungeon crawlers deserves a category on their own. Most are action RPG's, some are sandbox, some are tactical.
What about Icewind Dale or Wizardry? Wiz isn't actiony, isn't tactical, and isn't a sandbox.

I agree with most of it, but that Classic RPGs part just doesn't seem right. Isn't classic something that uses well established standards?
There are 20 definitions of the word, but the first one is good enough for me:

1.   of the first or highest quality, class, or rank

Quote
Wizardry, Might & Magic, Ultima, Dungeon Master, those are the pioneers of the genre when it was becoming popular, the classics. Very few rpg's coming out at that time focused on story/quest based choices & consiquences. To me Fallout and Arcanum are a part of the new wave of rpg's that focused on those exact things. I just don't see how labeling them as classic is appropriate, since their gameplay focus is very different from the classics.
Well, concepts evolve. How would you define "classic literature", for example? 

Quote
Also, the dungeon crawlers. Many of those games have a really strong focus on tactical combat, sometimes more so than on puzzles and dungeon exploration. Icewind Dale and Gold Box series for example.
Some, not many. That's why I put ToEE into both categories. Not sure how tactical IWD is.
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GhanBuriGhan
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« Reply #8 on: February 05, 2008, 10:36:56 AM »

I am not sure dungeon crawlers deserves a category on their own. Most are action RPG's, some are sandbox, some are tactical.
What about Icewind Dale or Wizardry? Wiz isn't actiony, isn't tactical, and isn't a sandbox.
I haven't played either so I don't know  Smile . Maybe you are right, but it's clearly gonna be a category with a lot of overlap with others. Which is acceptable, of course.

Quote
I agree with most of it, but that Classic RPGs part just doesn't seem right. Isn't classic something that uses well established standards?
There are 20 definitions of the word, but the first one is good enough for me:

1.   of the first or highest quality, class, or rank
But that's a classification based on quality, and thus taste, not on gameplay, as seems implied by all other categories and your own definition. But its semantics. Your extended definition is clear enough, so the label isn't really important. Only it would be nice to have a labele that doesn't have to be explained every time you use it in a discussion.
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TheLostOne
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« Reply #9 on: February 06, 2008, 12:13:32 PM »

It's funny because I just had a discussion about RPG genre catorigization recently on the Fallout3/PC board on Gamefaqs.  I felt like part of the reason we (Fallout fans) have such a hard time getting through to critics and mainstream media is because the games we're fighting for lack a defined subgenre.

I arbitrarily gave Fallout games a "pRPG" label (for being modelled after PnP roots).  This is why I think it's so important that we clarify this stuff:

Quote from: LOSTONE on Gamefaqs
The reason behind my argument is that I think the current method of labelling and comparing RPGs is fundamentally flawed. Right now we have a game developer coming in and completely changing Fallout. When fans raise this issue the response is that, "It's still an RPG we're just doing it 'our' way."

If the genre were better defined we could argue this point and refute their statement logically. As it is, however, we're limited to saying things such as "It's not a true RPG." or "It's a shooter with stats, not an RPG." which gets us nowhere because from their perpective, the game is obviously not a shooter it's an RPG and the shooter combat is controlled by stats.

If we had defined lines though we'd have a much stronger position. Continuing to use my arbitrary label for the sake of this discussion, let's say Fallout was labelled a pRPG, and the aspects of that subgenre were defined as sticking to its PnP roots as closely as possible => no player based skill, and everything controlled by character skill. Then we could point out that Bethesda isn't just modifying the combat and perspective, but they're actually performing a genre shift, which is one thing you DON'T do with sequels. Spinoffs sure, sequels no. They would not be able to say they are making a pRPG, and they'd have to admit they were making an aRPG or p/aRPG hybrid.

This defining of lines and categories would make the Fallout fan's position more clear to others. No longer will it be, "Oh they're just stuck in the past and can't move on." Instead it will be, "They are fans of the genre, and they're not getting a sequel that holds true to the genre." Even if people prefer the new direction, they could understand when correlations were drawn.

What if Blizzard said Diablo 3 is coming out, but it''s turn based and combat isn't really that much of a focus anymore? People would flip even though to me that sounds like a better game. That's because they want a sequel that's part of the genre they like to play.

Game journalists that aren't Fallout fans don't understand our plight. If the lines were drawn it would expose exactly what's happening and make it clear even to those who aren't emotionally involved. As it stands, however, Bethesda is just "making progress" and "innovating". Ugh.
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