Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Decline of RPGs

The first video games I played were Tetris and Mario Bros. A puzzle and platform game respectively. But my love of video games in general came with RPGs. Those Role Playing Games that allow you to customize your character's strengths and weaknesses and battle enemy foes using physical attacks and magic. There was strategy involved but you were not scripted to playing the game a set way.

If any series cemented what RPGs were all about it was Final Fantasy. Although there were RPGs before the first Final Fantasy game was released no other series has done it better than developer's Square's (whether they were Square Soft, Square Enix or just Square) long loved series. But I'm beginning to wonder about the health of RPGs in today's gaming environment and whether or not Square has given into the pressure of making the games more action oriented and faster paced.

In order to see the decline of the RPGs, let's start at the beginning. Most of the very first RPGs had a similar system of battle. You had three or four characters standing in a line facing any number of foes (also standing in a line) and you each took turns in the battle. A menu would pop up of available moves and the player entered whatever commands they wanted to see their characters preform. Playable characters also had designated jobs or job skills and no matter how much you wanted that magic user to use a sword they were never going to be very good at it. Your warrior would always be your muscle man. Your healer would always be a girl. Your black mage would always be the shy dorky one.

One problem with early RPGs was that you wouldn't always know when your characters would take their turn. There was nothing more frustrating than having a character with low hit points get killed off before one of your other characters could heal them and all because of their turn order. That curative spell now gets redirected to a character that doesn't really need it and it's a waste of magic points.

Then along came "attack gauges" or "turn order line ups". These allowed you to see when in the order of battle which characters would act first. If you notice that all the enemy are going to strike before you even get a turn then there's no point in trying to save a teammate if they're going to get struck down before you get a chance to heal them. You turn(s) would be better served striking at the enemy with the characters you do have or shoring them up for the next turn. It was a balancing act of attack and defend. There was strategy involved and the player had to think ahead in order to survive some tough boss battles.

So now players had "turn order" displays to better help them battle enemies, but characters where still standing in a straight line at the start of battle. In the 'guise of making RPGs better, developers now instituted what I call a "roaming" nature to the battle. Instead of drawing a line in the sand of where each team would stand and fight from,characters now roamed about the battle field. But enemies roamed around as well. At the start of a battle a character might be in front of the enemy but later on they could isolated and surrounded by the enemy. While this did make the battle systems more "active" and faster paced because you not only had to keep track of commands issued and the order they would be performed you had to keep an eye out for enemy movement so no one character gets in trouble. The problem with all this movement was that a lot of information was being displayed on the screen and a battle could get very distracting to a player if they paid attention to every blip and dot that showed on the TV.

Some time after "roaming" was introduced to RPGs developers decided that it was just too much for games to handle so they started to create games where the computer controlled the movements and commands of some of your party members. No longer would players have to concentrate on keeping three or four characters alive and active on the field. Now they only had to concentrate on one. Those characters that were previously designated as "healers" "warriors" or "magi" were now locked into those roles and that was the only thing they could do. The gamer had one character they could customize and grow however they wanted to. Everyone else's destiny was written in the programming code.

You would think that RPGs could go no further in eliminating the human player from the game, but they have. Final Fantasy XIII is a perfect example of that. When a battle starts there is an "auto battle" option available. What this command option does, is have the computer pick the best attack options and programs them in for you. One click of a button and your character will execute three preprogrammed commands. And your other characters are left to whatever commands the games programmed them for. But there's a twist. If you team is in need of healing, you either have to use potions yourself or you have to switch your whole team to a different "paradigm" in order for one of the AI controlled characters to heal you.

What a "paradigm shift" is, is a pre-programmed set of class skills for your party. Unfortunately, you might be in a position to want to throw a lot more fire power at an enemy at the same time you might need someone to heal the group. Having a paradigm shift that gives you both is impossible. Instead of three strong attackers you now might have one attacker, one support person and one healer.

For me, all of these changes have created a disconnect with RPGs and the characters that inhabit them. I don't care as much about Lightning or Hope as I did about Cloud or Vivi. Vanille is more annoying than Rikku ever was. And I don't care if Snow gets to save Sara as much as I cared if Tidus got to save Yuna. The games are still RPGs. You can still customize your characters (albeit down a very limited, straight forward path).

RPGs were like Chess games for gamers. There was thought and planning involved. They took hours to play and had a story line that merited the time invested in the game. Now a days is seems it's all about throwing the player right in and GIVE THEM ACTION ACTION ACTION!!!!

Maybe you don't think RPGs have changed. Maybe you're right. Maybe it's me that has changed. I'm older. I've got more things and responsibilities going on in my life so my expectations for RPGs might naturally have changed. But there's one problem with that. I've finished Final Fantasy X but I still love to go back and play it. It stills brings the same emotions and excitement out in me as when I played it the first time. Now some scenes in the beginning are more poignant than they were the first time around because I know what's going to happen. With newer RPGs I'm just not feeling that. It's like developers are saying "we've got to hook 'em first with action and make the game easier to play to they'll stick with it". To be honest that's not usually why gamers get involved with RPGs.

I will probably always love RPGs. They haven't messed them up enough where I'm turned off the genre as a whole. I have learned to be more cautious with my expectations and purchases for games in that genre. That didn't use to be the case. I would buy any and every RPG I could find. The first game I finished to the end credits was Legend of Dragoon. That is an RPG worthy of (and set up for) a sequel. I have since gone back and restarted that game as well because I miss it.

There is a saying that "if it's not broke, don't fix it". I wish developers would have listened to that as they have evolved the RPG style of game. While, attack gauges and turn orders are nice they still keep the integrity of the RPG experience intact. When the game starts to control more characters than the human playing it, I think they've gone to far. Hopefully this is only a trend and this "decline of RPGs" is only a pothole on the road to some great RPG games to come out in the future. Long live Vivi!


metallicorphan said...

attack queue order is used in Blue Dragon,i think it works quite well

and i don't think anything says automatic,like the Gambits for Final Fantasy 12...that game pretty much played itself if you set the gambits up correctly(i actually liked grinding in that,and by the time i defeated the end of game boss,i was massively over levelled..and hardly got hurt)

the move about and attack,are more Action RPGs...true RPGs are as you say FF9 and the like(FF9 which i am replaying now with a friend playing at the same time in the U.S and i am giving her tips)

can't say i am overly excited for when Final Fantasy 15 comes out(as 14 is the MMO),there was a time when i couldn't wait for the next FF game,times have changed

i do wish that Mistwalkers 'The Last Story' was coming to the 360 though,that looks great,and my kinda game...unfortunately its only for the Wii

Pengwenn said...

Oh, I have a Wii but I've never heard of that game. I might have to do some research.

I was thinking about Blue Dragon for the attack queues but I couldn't remember if Chrono Cross had something similiar too.

I could have gone into JRPGs vs. RPGs but most of my friends are FPS gamers so they wouldn't understand. And then there's games like Mass Effect/KoTOR/Fable/Borderlands that have RPG-like elements but I don't know if they would qualify as an RPG. It made me think that a "TRUE" RPG game couldn't exist in this day and age.

Whiner said...

While it's true that gamedevs continue to experiment with the medium, the old ways are NOT gone - there are plenty of RPGs being released these days where you control whole parties, or have turn-based combat, or even go back to the WAY old-school style of people standing in a line taking their turns.

You just need to look a bit beyond the biggest, most expensive, most hyped-up, most aimed-at-non-gamers releases. :)

Check out the Eschalon or Aveyond series just for starters. There are TONS more games like these, those are just a couple quick links. Most of these games come out on the PC or the DS, not the PS3 where everything is all about the billion-dollar graphics...