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Dude, You Got RPG in My Peanut Butter

(old man Kona sits in a rocking chair next to a fireplace)

Ya see kids, back in my day, you knew what a game was when you blew into it a few times and plugged it in. Platformers were platformers, beat-em-ups were beat-em-ups, shooters were shooters, and RPG’s were RPG’s. Nowadays, you don’t know what you’re getting! Played this one game called CAD: Modern Warfight and guys were leveling up like Final Fantasy! This is all too much for an old veteran like myself. Did I ever tell ya the time I was in the great console wars of ’92? Barely made it out with my thumbs. Best friend wasn’t so lucky, and he’s got two wooden ones to show for it…

(but seriously folks…)

After Role Playing Games struggled so hard to garner a large playerbase in the past, games with RPG elements seem to be everywhere today. Experience, hit-points, skill trees, sub-quests, loot drops, chances are more than one of these is in the game spinning in your xbox right now. What’s up with the ubiquity of RPG elements all of the sudden? More importantly, do these elements enhance or hurt the games they appear in?

Honestly, I’m actually pretty on the fence about this. For every Deus Ex and Infamous that does it well, you have a bunch of games like GTA: San Andreas(a fat meter? Really?) that make you wish for simpler times. Done right and you’re rewarded with a highly customizable experience that allows you to tailor a character exactly to your playstyle. Done wrong, and you’ll be stuck doing some crap you don’t feel like doing to get stronger (i.e. grinding) or even worse, not mattering in the first place since you have max stats by the end of the game. Maxing your stats actually has its own set of pitfalls in and of itself. It’s entirely possible to end up with a game that gets substantially easier as it progresses, thus obliterating the difficulty curve.

In my eyes, the biggest offenders of all are online First Person Shooters. Levels and experience are outrageously unfair to new players or people with only a little free time. For an industry that strives so hard to make games “more accessible” they really drop the ball here. As a new player, one has to contend not only with learning the maps and controls, but also seasoned players who have better weapons and run 3x faster than you, in silence. Contrast this with a game like Quake or Counterstrike where everyone enters on equal footing, where skills and smarts are the ultimate deciders of victory. If you must include levels in your competitive FPS, Gears 3 does this best, awarding the dedicated with purely superficial player and weapon skins.

Another problem I have is with the disconnect experience levels create within a story’s narrative. Even some of my favorite games like Deus Ex and Mass Effect are guilty here. Does it make any sense at all for your character, an elite solider, to be unable to hit a tank with a machine gun at 10 paces? Or maybe Heroguy™ can use Assault and Sniper Rifles with ease, but has to leave behind an awesome pistol he found because he hasn’t bought that talent. I’m sorry but this isn’t fun, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense either.

Are there any instances where sucking at the beginning of a game actually makes sense? Sure. In Infamous, Cole starts off very weak, just learning his powers. By the end of the game, Cole is quite confident in his abilities after killing thousands of bad guys, making him the savior or villain he was destined to be. One of my favorite instances of this comes from Shenmue. Ryo, being the son of a master martial artist, is quite respectable with his skills. Most common thugs are no match for his training. Through the months he spends tirelessly looking for Lan Di, he encounters other masters and hones his skills to the point where he can defeat more seasoned fighters. All the while, he knows he’s still not strong enough to defeat his father’s killer. Last but not least are sports games. Game modes like Road to the Show and Nba2k’s My Player are a perfect fit for experience and levels. Real life athletes dedicate their lives to improving their skills, so starting off as a diamond in the rough and fighting your way up to the big leagues feels right.

This is how you do it, guys.

So if its so difficult to integrate RPG elements into games properly, why does everyone keep trying to shoehorn it into everything? There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, games like every other form of entertainment is a monkey see, monkey do industry. If one successful game has a specific feature, you can bet your ass that you’re going to be seeing it in EVERYTHING for the next few years—regardless of how well it actually fits. Second, there seems to be this tendency this generation to take those little addictive elements from MMO’s and apply them to anything within arms reach. Achievements and trophies are structured specifically to give the player micro-highs like one gets from ding’ing in WoW. Adding experience points in every game just reveals the bullshit for what it really is: videogames as a virtual skinner box. Just like the experiments psychologist B.F. Skinner ran on his rats, game developers desire to trap gamers within a constant behavior-reward cycle. This steady stream of instant gratification mixed with more long term rewards is the exact same bottomless pit that MMO’s and social networking games trap their players within. Click, treat. Click, treat. Click, click, treat. Click, click, click, click, treat.

The question is, does anyone really like being jerked around like this? Weren't games already fun enough in and of themselves without needing to be tricked into playing? All I’m saying is, how about using RPG elements where they fit, instead of freaking everywhere. Hell, if you guys really want to keep ripping off RPG’s how about starting at the story? Far too often when games are almost finished the writers are wheeled in to tie together the firefights and minecart rides into something faintly resembling a story. You want to keep a gamer engaged? Give us captivating adventures with interesting characters. I mean, that is why people play RPG’s isn’t it?

I'll leave you with this quote by Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid:

"That kind of reward system is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme. It's considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don't get bored and give up on your game. That's actually exploitation...Developers should provide activities that interest players rather than stringing them along with little pieces of candy so that they'll suffer through terrible game play, but keep playing because they gain levels or new items...a lot of modern game design is actually unethical. They are predicated on player exploitation...developers should design innovative, ethical and personal art because players are hungry for inspiring new games."
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About konaone of us since 10:16 PM on 10.21.2011

Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.