No reason to stay old-school
As I was thinking about this topic few weeks back, I was thinking of games that have jumped ship and introduced some sort of role-playing mechanic into their usually-non-RPG gameplay. It was also then that I was considering games that have yet to do so. Starcraft 2 came to mind, as an old-school PC RTS with a hardcore following and an e-sports mainstay. The only RPG elements found in that game are the experience points you earn from winning games and moving up on global leaderboards.
However, in an interesting twist of fate, an article popped up online saying that Blizzard is introducing a full blown RPG experience in its upcoming expansion. Experience levels, ranks, rewards - all of the things we usually associate with an RPG. Moreso, they are doing so as a response to comments by a well-known esports player saying that Starcraft 2, old-school PC RTS and an esports staple, is dying out. And it is doing so because there is no reason to play the game, unless it is your livelihood.
RPG as an experience
For the purposes of this blog, the term "RPG" refers to a video game in which a certain mechanism is present. The mechanism in which a player is rewarded on a consistent basis with experience, which unlocks persistent rewards for their character, allowing them to become more powerful overtime. In more familiar terms, I define "RPG" as any game that has any combination of Experience Bars, Levels, Character Points and Skills, but not limited to those elements.
In the good old days...
Ever since the days of pen/paper RPG's, the early mechanics of an RPG were clearly defined. Players wanted to be powerful, but not too powerful. Players wanted other players to know what gear and stats they had. Players wanted something to show for all the hours they put into their games. Players also wanted to have clearly defined roles that set them apart from their peers.
These elements became more and more profound as the RPG made its way into electronic gaming. Technology allowed for players to explore more worlds by themselves, gather awesome gear, and level up their characters with new skills.
With the arrival of the internet, players could now take to the virtual worlds their virtual selves, show off their gear, while maintaining their own characters and being in control of their own experience.
For a while, "leveling up" and "experience" were terms only used by RPG players in RPG games, which were mostly about walking around dungeon crawling, slaying monsters and gaining loot.
We must go deeper...
The RPG mechanics represent the IDEAL REWARD SYSTEM FOR A VIDEO GAMES
. Yes, all caps. In essence, you are being rewarded with experience for doing something. Experience is a virtual commodity that represents nothing. And because it represents nothing, it can be applied to anything. You can gain experience from killing monsters, other players, performing certain actions, standing in one place, playing cards, etc etc etc. Any sort of action can be rewarded with experience. When that experience is quantified and tied to a level system, you are giving a person a clear structure of rewards that is easy to understand because it has been in use for last 30 or so years. You do something in the game - you gain experience - you level up and become somewhat stronger than before.
It is a system that many of us wish we had in real life. Where our every action, no matter how tedious or miniscule, meant something in the long run.
Recently, I'd say around the time the last generation of consoles were introduced, more and more games came out that had some sort of RPG mechanic in them. These games were not traditional fantasy action RPG's, or Japanese RPG's... they were games in genres that people do not usually associate with RPG's. Driving games, first and third person shooters... they all were turning to the RPG system to communicate player progression to the player. You were now gaining experience for driving a perfect lap in Forza, for killing enemies with precision in first person shooters in Halo 2. RPG's were no longer limited to fantasy/heroic setting.
RPG as a meta-experience.
Soon, it was clear that players liked to fill up empty experience bars and having level numbers to tell them they have progressed in the game. Sony and Microsoft both sought to introduce RPG mechanics to their online multiplayer services. Xbox Live gives you a persistent person over Xbox Live, complete with avatar that you can buy gear for, experience points in a form of Achievements that show how much you have accomplished, and recently, a giant number next to your name that shows how many years you have been with the service.
Sony, not to be outdone, straight up opted for levels and experience bars for their users for completing similar objectives in games on their own console.
Facebook allowed millions of people access to new forms of video games... and most of those games had bars, experience points and levels. Why? Because that is the easiest system to implement and it has been proven to work. And it worked so well that it propelled Facebook-RPG makers like Zynga to stratospheric financial proportions. People that never played a game in their life were getting addicted to simple games with RPG elements because RPGs are designed to do just that.
You are no longer wasting time in a video game. You are "levelling up".
You are no longer levelling up your just your wizard in that one game though. You are levelling up a race car driver. Or your farm. Or your Space soldier. Or your Special Ops Operative. Or your tank. You are levelling up your persistent online persona, in the form of Xbox Live, PlayStation or Steam account, or even Origin, AppleID and any other system that tracks your gaming progress... in the form of bars, experiences and levels. There are even meta-game tracking services like Raptr, that track your gaming identity across all possible platforms imaginable.
Even going further, you can now earn points and experience from doing actual real world things like going to places, and "checking in" with mobile applications like Foursquare. Social meta-RPG, I supposed should be the name for this.
In the future...
What does this all mean? What can we expect in the future?
I expect last few gaming genres to adopt some form of RPG functionality to their games. It is almost inevitable now. People want to show off their progress, be that in terms of their loot, their lap times, their kills... anything that will make the time reflect upon themselves. Just like Blizzard is turning one of the oldest surviving RTS to an RPG-enabled oldest surviving RTS in an effort to save its (allegedly) dwindling popularity... other will follow soon. Certainly, games designed around the experience points and levels, such as MMORPG's and Action RPG's will still deliver more bars and a deeper bar-filling experience... but for how long? I predict you can soon expect to see Level 50 Exhaulted Train Conductor as a title. Or a Sims/Foursquare hybrid, where your phone will track your every move, from peeing to eating a peanut butter sandwich, and award experience points based on those activities. You could be a level 24 Office Worker with a Chaotic Allignment because you eat a lot of meat.
What does this mean for the video game industry as a whole? Does this mean the oversimplification and degradation of the experience? Does EVERYONE like filling bars with experience?
What do you think? Comments and suggestions are welcome.