Why Did Everything Become an RPG?

How abstraction took over the game industry

Why Did Everything Become an RPG?
Doom Eternal. Source: Bethesda.

My current project is finishing up the writing of my next book on RPG design. One thing I didn’t think about when I first started writing was just how much the genre’s cues and qualifiers have proliferated out to everything else. Today, if we were to split hairs, we could lump everything from God of War, Call of Duty, and Gran Turismo, into the RPG genre alongside the likes of Final Fantasy, The Witcher, and The Elder Scrolls. Even though RPG design has spread, that doesn’t make every game that focuses on numbers an RPG, and that is the subject of today’s piece.

RPG Progression

RPG design at its very core is about abstracted or avatar-based progression. What the player is actively doing — clicking, pushing buttons, actions-per-minute (APM) - is not what determines who wins or loses, but rather it is the choices and decisions they make. When you play a game like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, entire battles can be won or lost based on what you do during one turn. Characters and options grow over the course of playing the game — adding more abilities and power for the player to use.

The role of RPG progression is that as the player is doing something in the game, fighting enemies more often than not, they are gaining experience, which in turn will lead to them leveling up and becoming stronger. An RPG leveling system is one of the easiest things to understand in terms of power — if I’m level 10, that means I’m 9 levels stronger than someone at level 1.

An abstracted design philosophy provides several key advantages over games that are reliant on the player’s reflexes and APM to win.

The Abstraction Buffer

The first reason why RPGs have become one of the most popular game systems to implement is that they provide another means of playing a game if someone gets stuck. If I compare action games from the 2000s like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta to action games today such as God of War 2018 and Elden Ring, the latter provide the player with other ways of getting around a challenge. If I’m playing Devil May Cry and I get stuck at a boss, I’m not moving on until I figure out how to beat that fight.

In a game like Elden Ring, if I get stuck, I can try a different build, use summons, get help, go and grind for more health, etc; there are workarounds. There is more variety in games with RPG systems than those that just focus on action or shooting, or any other genre. Being able to add RPG elements to any genre provides more ways of tweaking and creating new characters than just focusing only on action elements. The very best Gacha games know that just creating characters around power doesn’t make them worth picking up, but building them as unique elements to the gameplay does.

This also has an effect on forcing the designers to come up with different challenges that can go up against the characters they create. In Arknights, having six-star characters means nothing if you don’t know how to use them, and there are people who just play the game with the free characters and master the stages with them.

While this helps from a creativity standpoint, our next point takes us to why this design is so addicting.

Progressive Numbers

What makes RPG design so addictive is quite simple  — we like to watch the progress. Whether it's raising our damage, getting a level up, or just literally watching a number go up, progression is very addictive. This is at the heart of so many mobile and live service games — all teasing and tempting you to roll on that banner or get that fancy weapon so that your characters become better and those numbers keep going up.

Even though there is a limit for someone to understand just what value they are getting out of going from 4,343,343 to 4,645,912, we are still addicted to progression. When I post the sister piece to this one talking about the money of RPG design, there is more to discuss about how RPGs have been used to get people hooked on videogames. Any way that a player can see their character getting progressively stronger in some respect can be used to keep them playing. At its most basic level, I see this addictive gameplay out of the idle genre — where it is literally just watching numbers with very little input from the person playing.

Even in the most complicated or system-heavy RPGs, it all comes back to squeezing every ounce of power, health, DPS, etc., out of a character or team. With that said, despite so many games using RPG systems — or labeling themselves as RPGs — when I stop and think about it, they’re not really RPGs.

What is an RPG?

Despite so many games featuring live service designs, gear ratings, equipment rarity — everything that you would see as a part of an action RPG or just RPG design - they’re not technically RPGs. In reality, these games use RPG progression systems but are not a part of the genre.

The problem, and what I ran into when writing my book, is that the term “RPG” can mean thousands of things these days. Are we talking about a JRPG, CRPG, tactical RPG, SRPG, ARPG, or any game that features RPG progression? Some of you may say “well, an RPG is about being a role, hence a role-playing game.” Here’s the problem with that — literally every game that has ever existed is about the player inhabiting a role — we’ve been space marines, plumbers, chefs, doctors, lawyers, and painters; the list stretches infinitely.

RPGs are about providing multiple ways of playing, and forcing the player to decide between them. Source: Steam.

The reason why this is important is that as a designer, you need to understand what genre your game is a part of, and more importantly, who is your target market. Even just confusing CRPG and JRPG can hurt your marketing, let alone the other subgenres.

A friend of mine and designer of SRPGs Craig Stern made a post about this on his site and his definition I feel is one of the best. In order for a game to be considered an RPG, the player must be able to make important decisions about the growth of their character. This takes us back to the heart of TTRPGs and pen-and-paper games, where people can spend hours building, fine-tuning, and coming up with their character. Building a mage is fundamentally different compared to building a warrior. While yes, you can make the act of resetting a character easy to do, building that character should require tough choices. Do I make my archer go for rapid firing or heavy shots? A fire or ice mage?

When I talk about how games have taken on RPG systems, they have specifically taken the progression, but not the choices. If your game has a perk or passive tree a mile long, but it is just a straight path of upgrades, that’s not an RPG. The many “idle RPGs” on mobile don’t count either, as there is no real choice or decision-making that goes into it;  the character with the highest power wins. Some people will argue that there can be choices at the very end of the game’s content when everyone is using the most powerful characters and gear, but that doesn’t excuse the 99% of the content where there aren’t any.

Great RPG design is about giving the player lots of amazing choices but then forcing them to decide which ones to focus on, and which ones they will have to ignore for the time being. This is where RPG design becomes very replayable — how many of you reading this have created different characters in a game like WOW or Skyrim? The goal isn’t to design one or two really great playstyles but to create multiple ones that each lend themselves to a different and viable way of playing your game.

The Money of Numbers

For the next piece in this series, I’ll talk about why there is a financial interest in adding more RPG design to other genres, and where it takes us to murky waters in terms of the ethics of monetization.

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For more on RPG design, you can find that in my upcoming book “Game Design Deep Dive Role Playing Games”.

If you would like me to consult with you on your design or playtest your game, please reach out. If you enjoyed this story, consider joining the Game-Wisdom Discord channel. It’s open to everyone.

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