Modern CRPGs are console shooters. And that pisses me off. But how did they get this way? Last week I wrote about some features I'd like to see in a classic-style CRPG. I've been thinking more along these lines, thinking carefully about all of my favorite CRPGs and attempting to isolate the elements that so endeared them to me. What I've discovered is that this exercise is futile. You cannot create a good game simply by taking out the best gameplay mechanics from different games--what's more important is how well a designer has been able to build an attractive and coherent homology. I don't much like the term, but I like how Barry Brummett defines "stylistic homology" as "the signifying system that is a style is held together by formal properties such that one could look at a new article of dress, for instance, newly designed, and identify it as Edwardian." I think we could easily do the same for individual games or even whole game franchises, assuming it's well-designed. For instance, World of Warcraft has such a coherent homology that I'm sure most players would be able to look at screenshots of a city they hadn't personally visited--such as the Undercity--and realize it was from WOW and not Guild Wars 2. If you bear with me a moment, you can also see that this concept extends beyond just artwork and into gameplay. Even before you ever played a monk in WOW, for instance, if you're familiar with the other classes then you already have a pretty good idea of how the talents, abilities, and so on will play out. I think it's the sign of a great game when you can introduce something as radical as an entirely new class and not have the rest of the game fall apart.
Unfortunately, the problem is that such coherence comes at a cost. The same factors that allow us to already have a pretty good idea of what the monk will be like are the same factors that lead to boredom and disinterest. And man oh man, am I bored with WOW and Skyrim.
Styles, Edwardian or Victorian or whatever, inevitably change as we become bored with them. A truly clever developer is able to recognize when the reigning style is growing stale, and then swoops in with something fresh (but just as compelling). As merely a critic, it is obvious to me that both Skyrim and Dragon Age II are the discotheques of the 1980s. Pretty soon, anyone who still listens to and dances to this music will feel as ridiculous as they look.
That said, I think it's always a mistake to think something radically new will appear, though that's always how it's presented in the marketing. "Revolutions" in videogames are notoriously anti-historical, refusing to even consider that what they think makes them so novel has been done many times before. I'd go so far as to say that nothing of real consequence has changed about games since the 1980s. It wasn't like kids playing Donkey Kong weren't just as impressed with the graphics or immersed in the gameplay back then as a kid today playing Halo 4 is today. Please don't kid yourself into thinking that the industry has made any "progress," or done anything else but simply go along laterally, temporarily embracing and later abandoning one fashion after another. I'm sure plenty of New Wave fans of the 80s felt that their music was more "advanced" than disco, just as some heavy metal fans of today feel their favorite bands are much "heavier" or more musically sophisticated than Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. In truth, though, there's nothing like that in the music itself, but just in our waning and waxing affiliations with different groups of fans.
If we can expect games, though, to follow a similar style cycle as clothes and music, then I expect what we're seeing now with all of these "old school" Kickstarter projects is the resurgence of 70s culture in the 90s. If my predictions are accurate, at least some of these games will do surprisingly well, and we might enjoy a brief appropriation of these older styles for awhile, though I don't think we'll get a massive shift in mainstream gaming.
I'm starting to think that MMOS and shooters are becoming more like sports than videogames anyway; at this point, the rules and expectations have solidified to the point that talking about them becoming obsolete is like saying basketball or football will be obsolete one day. Of course, there will be changes, but I expect there are plenty of people who'd be happy to continue playing (and more importantly buying) shooters for the rest of their lives. Contrast that, then, with the relatively short-lived phenomenon of fighting arcade games of the 90s, when seemingly every male between the ages of 12 and 24 were obsessed with learning every combo of the thousands of Street Fighter II games on the market. I'd be happily proven wrong on this, but I don't see shooters experiencing the same fate of being doomed to niche gaming and the occasional nostalgia-fueled retro release.
The stylistic homologies I think we're stuck in now, at least regarding CRPGs and MMORPGs, is best shown by looking at Skyrim and Dragon Age II on the CRPG side and Tera and GW2 on the MMORPG. What's happened to CRPGs, at least with major releases, is an increased tendency to make them as much like the reigning genre of shooters as possible, going so far as to use the same engines. To someone like me, playing Skyrim is a lot more like playing Doom than a true CRPG experience such as Ultima VII. This shift towards shooter-ization began very early, of course, with games like Ultima Underworld (1993), Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994), and Might & Magic VI (1998). Now, of course, you can't find a CRPG that doesn't look like it's just a shooter with some grafted on "CRPG elements," and, what's worse, the console-ization of the shooter has homogenized the whole industry into one fast food joint after another. I greet the new Halo or Black Ops game with the same enthusiasm I would greet the Brand New San Diego Bacon Burger with Olives at McDonald's. Sure, it's a "sandwich revolution," yadda yadda, whatever. Yawn.
A lot of these issues are caused by fear. There's a growing fear within the industry, I think, that one day we'll reach a point where's consumers will simply be satisfied with their current consoles and games and stop buying new ones. We've seen this already on the PC with WOW. Instead of striving to make new games and hype them as something extraordinary, Blizzard took a more sensible (if cynical) route and just keeps selling the same game, month after month, to millions of satisfied fans. It seems there's a point where producing new content (what most developers want to do) is replaced by maintaining existing content (what I assume nobody really wants to do). It's like our game designers are these creative types who keep wanting to offer up new versions of basketball and football or new sports altogether, when the public is increasingly demanding that they quit messing with it.
I'm convinced that the only way WOW is going down is if Blizzard decides to do something truly stupid--which they've gotten close to several times before--and alienate their fanbase with radical gameplay changes that piss people off. I think they could keep the same engine for another ten years or more, since by now the fans probably don't even see the graphics (much like basketball players don't spend a lot of time marveling at how shiny the court looks).
Where we DO need to see more innovation, namely the single-player CRPGs, is where we get it the least. Other than the shift to shooter-ization and console-ization, I don't think we've seen anything worth talking about. The current CRPG fan, with his slavish devotion to games like Skyrim and Fallout 3, leave me wondering if any of them have bothered to play any of the classics. I am tired of playing Doom and trying to con myself into thinking it's a role-playing game. It's not. It's Doom. Skyrim is Doom. I don't hate Doom. But I do hate that Skyrim is Doom, and I can't play anything but Doom no matter how much I spend on "new" CRPGs. We're talking here about a genre whose titles are so similar that you have to get into "story" and "characters" and other bullshit that really have no business being in the game at all. At least if you're talking about how the game handles cover and shield recharges (or whatever), you're talking about something that is actually part of the game and not some pretentious "story arc" that would make a fan fic author look like Shakespeare.
Before someone starts accusing me of not appreciating good stories in the few games that have them, such as Planescape: Torment, I do. But that game is one of only a handful I can think of where the way the story unfolds is directly connected to the gameplay, and not merely grafted on. I'm talking, of course, of the death gameplay mechanic in that game and how it needs the story to justify it. That's actually an interesting application for story. A game like Mass Effect 3, though, does the opposite, merely putting us in the movie and letting us move the camera around a bit in between scenes.
Here's an idea for those who love stories in games so much. Watch a great movie, like Seven Samurai, with a game controller in your hand. Keep pressing buttons and moving your thumbs about during the movie. I promise you will enjoy the characters and story in this game a lot more than Skyrim.
So, I've bitched enough. But what sort of stylistic homology would I like to see in CRPGs?
First, I want us to take several giant leaps back from shooters and consoles. I do not want to play Doom, and I do not want to play a CRPG with a gamepad. If the gameplay is simplified or action-oriented to the point where it's playable on a gamepad, count me out. If you want to copy another game, I'm fine with that, but make it Wizardry or Rogue or Pool of Radiance. If you want to bastardize another genre's gameplay mechanics, please take from strategy games, not shooters. The intensity should come from the thought I am asked to put into the game, not the rapidity with which I can mash buttons on a controller.
Second, I want a story that either directly ties to the gameplay or stays the hell out of my way. There's a reason why so many RPGs (paper and videogames) have cliched plots like "kill the evil wizard/dragon/witch who's brought on eternal winter to the realm." That's because the story is not important. What is important, by contrast, is how you go about killing that wizard, building up your resources, abilities, and fortunes. Ideally, that evil wizard will begin to arouse some real hatred in us by the time we get to him, at which point bringing him down with a finger of death will be extremely satisfying. You don't arouse hatred in a player's heart by showing cutscenes or dialogues that paint the wizard as a real asshole. You do it by having him affect the gameplay, taking some or all of the player's money, for instance, or something as simple as a slow spell. Imagine a game where periodically the evil wizard forces everyone in the realm (including, of course, the players) to pay a 40% tax on all their property, losing items if they don't have the money. Are you telling me you wouldn't be foaming at the mouth hysterical by the time you finally got to that asshole's inner sanctum?
If you must have characters, they should exist primarily to reinforce the achievements and failures of the player. They should act exasperated if the player sucks, making fun of him or giving advice. Even if the player is good, they should encourage him to do better. I'd love to have a Gordon Ramsey like character in the party (or perhaps as a king) that would constantly berate and make the player feel like a nob whenever they do anything stupid or incompetent. Imagine the satisfaction you'd feel as you gradually began to impress him, until at the end he's offering to make you his executive sorcerer. The key to a character like this, of course, is not giving him static screens or dialog, but tie his responses directly to the gameplay. We get a bit of this in some of the new casual games, though I still think developers are more concerned with stroking egos than setting a high bar and forcing players to rise to it.
I'd like to think that most players feel letdown by a game that does too much ego stroking or hand holding, though. I personally find it embarrassing to play a game where I'm stuck controlling a "bad ass" main character. It's degrading to me; like the designer is saying--"Hey, little wimp, don't you want to fantasize about being He-Man and stomping all those bullies who pick on you? Don't you wish you had abs like that?" I'd rather play as a party that gets its ass kicked until I finally figure out what I'm doing and still barely manage to make it to the end. I don't want you to make me feel like a real man. I want you to let me be one.
Don't think that having me kill a dragon in the opening scene of the game is going to impress me. It does the opposite. It disgusts me that you think you need to pander me, because I'm so insecure and idiotic, that I need to be patted on the head and told how "big of a boy I am!" I'd rather be locked into a 15-minute fight with a rat and barely manage to escape with one party member still conscious. Show me that you respect me as a mature gamer and have set a very high standard for me to reach. Just @$@ give us that chance and to hell with what your marketing people or focus groups or other charlatans that all we want is candy.
Would more people like basketball if you changed the size of the baskets to twelve feet across and put a targeting reticule on the ball? Yet that's precisely what's happened with CRPGs. It disgusts me, and it should disgust you. CRPGs are not the genre of the elite anymore. This is the genre of the spoiled rotten brat.