On the (rapidly vanishing) RPG niche.

One thing I have noticed over the last handful of months, is a sense of increasing anger and rage and hatred from “RPG” fans towards “casual” gamers, especially as more and more game developers and publishers are turning their efforts to catering to those “casuals” and less towards the “hardcore RPG” group that saw a lot of love at the turn of the century.  RPG purists feel that they are being ignored and dismissed by major “AAA” game companies as a rapidly vanishing niche.

Well… there is a reason for that.  Because they are.

What “RPG purists” (who are really purists in the same sense that video game RPGs are really RPGs… but that’s a rant for later) are looking for in games are increasingly not what the majority of gamers want to see; while said “purists” are bemoaning the fall of story and narrative in the video games that they fought so hard to see (replaced by “mindless shooters” like Call of Duty) and are nigh comically missing the point.

Yes, it does seem that companies are abandoning the RPG, and it’s not hard to see that on the surface.  In 1997, Squaresoft released Final Fantasy VII, and demonstrated to the general populous that yes, games CAN be driven by a narrative and not solely gameplay, and that yes, gamers can and even should expect more from a game’s story than “our princess is in another castle.”

And before some Final Fantasy VI fanatic completely loses their mind, I am not saying that FF7’s story was the best.  Not even close.  It was the one that finally pushed RPG’s into the collective conscious and set the expectations for narratives in video games.

Look at Square/Enix now.  It’s like they can’t run away from their roots fast enough.  Deus Ex?  That’s not the Final Fantasy I grew up with.  Hell, the Final Fantasy series is running like hell from the traditional RPG.  In their last four numbered titles (I refuse to acknowledge the existance of X-2. Like the last two Matrix movies, Final Fantasy X-2 never happened, got it?)… two of them (XI and XIV) have been MMOs and the third (XIII) played more like an interactive movie rather than a game.

Or how about Bioware?  They were supposed to be Squaresoft of this generation.  Baldur’s Gate… Neverwinter Nights… Mass Effect… Dragon Age… hell, they even made an entertaining Star Wars: Extended Universe game!  If that’s not the touch of a minor god, what is?

Now look at them.  Mass Effect couldn’t have slipped out of their RPG clothes faster if it had been named Sos and Victoria.  Mass Effect 3 plays like a shooter with RPG elements rather than the other way around.

Even the current golden child of “RPG purists”, CDProjekt Red, are facing grumbling from some fans that they’re about the follow the same route after the Witcher 2 turned towards a more action oriented combat system than the strategic system it used in the first installment.

How did this happen?  How could gaming be about to take such a tragic step back?  How could RPG purists have fought so hard to see gaming become a legitimate storytelling medium only to see it on the verge of falling back into the Stone Age of jumping over barrels to save your girlfriend from an angry gorilla?  How could we have possibly lost after coming so far?

The answer is that storytelling in games hasn’t lost.  In fact, it won.  It won long ago, to the point where game companies don’t even try to fight it anymore.

About the only way you can get away with not having narrative progress in your games is to sell it in the Apple App Store or host it on Facebook.  Anywhere else, a game simply must have a story to tell.  Even the “mindless” Call of Duty series has a single player story campaign.  They’re never very long… they often aren’t even all that good… but every single game in the series has one.  It’s certainly not because they want to put it there.  If Activision felt they could drop the story campaign and focus entirely on the multi-player battlefields, they would retroactively go back and delete in the previous patch.  But they don’t.  Why?

Because (and this may shock the RPG purists), they feel that a Call of Duty game without some sort of story that ties into their multiplayer campaign, gamers would not be the slightest bit interested… and they are probably right.  If for no other reason than to set the stage, CoD must have some narrative behind it.

Hell, we have reached a point where Nintendo feels compelled to give the vast majority of Mario games (outside of the ones that are programmed specifically for the nostalgia value) some sort of story line.  Let me reiterate: a game franchise based on a fat, Italian stereotype plumber getting pulled down a fucking drain pipe, feels they have to give those games some attempt at a logical narrative, or the game won’t sell.

Ladies and gentlemen, the war for stories in video games has been over for years, and game companies surrendered unconditionally about a decade ago.  In that sense, the RPG purist won the battle so resoundingly and with such overwhelming force that they never even realized the fight ended.  They’re still marching, looking for the enemy, not realizing they ground the enemy to dust just from marching forward.

Well, if that’s the case… then why are so many developers running away from what RPGs stand for?

It’s actually pretty simple.  Now that damn near every game on the market has some sort of narrative driving it, the battlefield has turned to gameplay, and that is frankly where computer RPGs have traditionally stunk to high heaven (sorry, FF6 fans, but really… even that wonderfully told story had a gameplay system that was painful to suffer through at times.  I really am sorry, but it’s true).

Believe it or not, most gamers really don’t like having to load up a spreadsheet to itemize seventeen pages of inventory, cluttered with inferior garbage they keep finding on the ground, scenario specific items that are useful for maybe one battle (and then never again), three stacks of 99 potions that stopped being effective the moment they hit level 20, but can never quite seem to get rid of because every monster in the game drops at least one of them, a page devoted entirely to “key” items that you can’t actually “use” (the game doing so for you at “key” points in the story), etc… etc…

Even inventory clerks don’t like bringing their work home.  Not too many people like playing Microsoft: Excel, especially for $60 when it comes pre-packaged on most PCs nowadays.

Side quests, mini-games, and optional dungeons are another point of contention.  For most gamers, it’s seen as a cheap attempt to make a game feel longer than it really is at best, and aggravatingly narrative breaking at worst.  “Yeah, Cloud, we have to get the Black Materia as quickly as possible before Sephiroth finds it and destroys the world!  What’s that?  You wanna go to the casino and fight arena battles for ten hours to get a new Limit Break?  Yeah, that sounds like a perfectly efficient use of our time!”

Or what about random item generation?  How the hell does anyone think that is a good idea anymore?  Certainly not gamers as a whole.  “Okay, I brought Tali because I know I need a high decryption to even have a chance to break into this locker… Sweet!  Nice job, my little quarian hacker goddess you!  What did we find… a Hydra II?  Really?  That was worth putting in that locker?  What retarded Blue Suns mercenary thought that was valuable?”

Hell, even World of Warcraft is seeing the writing on the wall, and steering players towards set vendor rewards rather than RNG loot tables.

Elements like these (and there are others, like how droll and tedious most RPG combat systems tend to be) are why the RPG niche is shrinking… they are things that RPGs have done for so long that “purists” feel they’re supposed to be done that way, or the game isn’t a “true” RPG.

Unlike story in video games, the general populous is not the least bit interested in RPG gameplay elements, because by and large, those elements are terrible.  They were things that most gamers put up with because they felt the story was more important than clunky mechanics.  Now that they don’t have to… they don’t want to.

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