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Why RPG Isn't a Rigid Term

Posted by Stradden Friday February 19 2010 at 11:47AM
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Hello again all. Is it Friday already?

So, last week I went on a little tirade about why we weren’t going to de-list Star Trek Online. I talked about the first M in MMORPG, and I guess I made the mistake of offering to give my similar rant on the RPG part of the acronym this week. Little did I expect a bunch of you to call me out on it this week… You know who you are *shakes fist*.

So, we all know what the acronym RPG is supposed to stand for: Role Playing Game. Those three little words have caused me more personal grief than many of you might find reasonable, and there’s a good reason for that… It’s because no one can really seem to agree on what exactly it means.

There are some who believe that (for an MMO) it means getting into character and staying in character throughout your gaming experience. There should be tools provided by the developers for this purpose. Anything that hints at a linear experience isn’t an RPG.

Then, there are those who believe that RPG should be a rigid adherence to the games that have always fallen into that category: from Dragon Warrior to Baldur’s Gate. RPG is a gaming category definition that must be rigidly adhered to. It should be third person, use a map and an action bar. I should talk to NPCs and get quests.

Let’s not forget the folks that fall into the category of: If you play a character of any kind in the game, you’re playing a role so it’s a role playing game. These folks are fewer and further between because this argument breaks down most easily when you consider the fact that almost every game available on the market today would be an RPG under this definition. If you look like an FPS, don’t call yourself and MMORPG.

So, where do I personally come down on this topic? After much soul searching and thought, I’d decided that I’m going to sit firmly on the fence and say that everyone is a little bit right.

I consider RPG to be a loose term that shouldn’t be rigidly defined. I believe that, over time, that term has evolved to encompass a lot of different perspectives. As an avid pen and paper DnD player, I see the value in getting in to character. As an old school RPG fan, I can see the validity in wanting to see more games with the RPG moniker sticking to the old formula, and I see the point to be made in the argument that it’s really just about immersing yourself in a character experience.

The thing is, the term has evolved so much and means so many things to so many different people, that one single set of rules can’t really govern it. So, the way I see it, it really comes down to something that’s going to tick off the people who want a firm definition so that they can tell me how stupid I am for listing game X or game Y: it’s about the spirit of an RPG. Things like: does your character progress? Do they change, Do they follow a story? Is the game world persistent? Is your character?
Answers to these questions and more help me to decide if a game should be listed at Like it or not, our little genre is growing up and we have to be willing to accept it in its many different shapes and sizes… Even if we don’t necessarily like the results.

Slapshot1188 writes:

I would have to disagree somewhat.  To me.. a RPG means you are playing the role of a character.  As such, terms like "Player Skill" should not be used.   I am playing a Ranger Character.  He has used his bow for 20 years and can shoot an apple off his little sister's head.   The odds of my character hitting a target should in no way, shape or form rely on my twitch skill ability.  Those are fun games.. but they have roots in FPS with some RolePlaying elements added.


Again.. at the heart of any RPG must be a mechanic where YOU the player are experiencing the world as the character NOT a mechanic where the character is you...

Fri Feb 19 2010 12:20PM Report
japo writes:

For me, in order for a game to RPG, I have to have some sort of control over my appearance and skills.  I look for other thing too....but these two are what I need first.

Games like Half-Life (FPS) which present compeling story lines that draws me in and place me in a "role", are not true RPGs because I can do nothing with my character other than move him from one place to another.

Fri Feb 19 2010 12:26PM Report
Palebane writes:

Dragon Warrior was in first person =p

Fri Feb 19 2010 1:22PM Report
Robsolf writes:

IMO, if there were rigid lines for what is an RPG and what isn't, then all video games would fail.  You only ever have so many options, and for anyone, it's about picking the closest answer for yourself, or for the character making the choice.

Even PnP games are often suspect, as most DM's do not flesh out an entire world when starting a campaign.  And I doubt most would have some entertaining system in place should I decide that my lvl 4 rogue is going to forego the planned adventure to open his own sandwich shop.

Fri Feb 19 2010 1:48PM Report
Amathe writes:

When you use RPG by itself, to me it means something like pen and paper dungeons and dragons, where you play out a role.

When you put the letters "mmo" in front of it, to me it means any one of hundreds of videogames all using iterations of the same formula: pick a class, do quests, fight bad guys, level, get loot, in which only about 3% of the players ever act out a role. Only in that case you do it with or at least surrounded by lots of other people.

Maybe in the latter case it should mean Really Predictable Gameplay.

Fri Feb 19 2010 1:54PM Report
rscott6666 writes:

I agree with slapshot in general.  However, even when agreeinng on what RPG is in this context., it doesn't mean that games can't be half RPG/half action.

For instance Deus Ex depended on the character choices some, and player skill some.  It was 50/50.  A RPG/Action game mix.

Other games may be 10;/90, or 80/20 RPG/Action mix.

Fri Feb 19 2010 1:56PM Report
UnsungToo writes:

When video games came out with RPG's i was a bit confused, because Role Playing to me was acting out Dungeons and Dragons. We took on the physical role of our character and actually acted it out.

So when the rpg video games came on the scene The first thing i thought was "HUh? How does this work. How am I suppose to act this out?" LOL

Now, it's still the same thing, I try to take on the persona, I just don't physically act it out anymore.



Fri Feb 19 2010 7:33PM Report
Rasputin writes:

Stradden, it is my opinion that you are a coward. You don't dare to take a stance, not on MMO and not on RPG, and that results in utterly useless blogs.

Grow some balls and take a stance - or are the advertisers in the way?

Fri Feb 19 2010 8:07PM Report
Kyleran writes:

What the heck, lets just list every game with a multi-player aspect as an MMORPG, if we're unable to come up with a decent definition.

Fri Feb 19 2010 11:28PM Report
nate1980 writes:

I agree with this blog. While we all can point out games that represent the traditional meanings of what an RPG is through example, we now have 3 decades worth of examples of how diverse the genre really has become. I agree that we must keep the spirit of RPG's in mind when passing judgement. I'm pretty flexible in my personal definition, as long as the game has character progression and customization it could qualify as a RPG.

Sat Feb 20 2010 12:05AM Report
Nesrie writes:

So your answer to what an RPG game is, in terms of this site, is not to say you decide based on your perception of how these qusetions, some listed and probably more, are answered in your opinion. So yeah, you're never going to get anyone not to hassle you about the RPG element because your answer is the worst kind of answer ever, it a definition that works for one person and no one else.

Personally, I don't really care what comes after MMO, RTS, G, RPG. I think they all make it to this site so maybe you could just say when the site was made, we were looking at MMORPGs, now, it's just MMOs in general, but we don't want to change the name of the site.

Sat Feb 20 2010 1:34AM Report
Unprodigy writes:

It's clear to me that a roleplaying game is any game in which players assume the role of characters distinct from their selves, taking on simulated abilities and flaws, and interacts with a simulated world where their actions and decisions cause permanent change.

As such, a typical driving sim wouldn't qualify as there's no character just an avatar for the player, no artificial skil modifiers just the player's ability to operate the game's approximation of driving input, and every failed race is just a few button presses away from a restart.

A fighting game may have true characters but their personalities and appearances are for passive entertainment value, not personal investment. While there are striking differences between the fighting abilities of characters, they are roughly balanced against one another. The ideal is for player skill at inputting commands and understanding timing to be the only real determinator in battle. Even those games that include stat progression do so only as an optional mode designed to keep solitary players amused while not engaged in the meat of the game, playing against other human participants. And, of course, losses and wins mean nothing more than bragging rights, mostly.

On the other hand, a game like World of Warcraft does just barely count. Certainly one gets to create a relatively unique character that is identified solely with oneself, yet has abilities, flaws and appearance one's true self. It runs in to a bit of trouble with the permanent changes, as anything killed comes back shortly and few things about the character beyond the intial choice of class and the basic progression of class level can not be changed to some degree. It's saved in this regard by the simple fact of being an MMO. One can never change the effect one has on the player community, for good or ill, without a lot of effort, and even so the old perception will never quite go away. Even changing name or server won't make the old reputation fade away,  it just won't be as immediately felt.

Sat Feb 20 2010 3:14AM Report
Unprodigy writes:

Oh, and achievements, and mounts and pets. Those kinda count as permanent changes, I guess. >_>

On reflection, I'm beginning to think all MMOs have to at least be mildly RPGs in order to work. A personal avatar that one feels connected to but has restricitions and abilities other than what one has in real life, which has some form of progression and ability to affect or be affected by the game environment in some permanent way seems to be essential. Without these elements we lose distinction between players, we lose reason to continue with the game past the point where simple enjoyment of the game mechanics suffices to entertain, and we lose feeling like our play has any meaning or worth.

Sat Feb 20 2010 3:26AM Report
Daar writes:

I dont know about you guys but whenever i played d&d pen and paper i always imagined it from 1st person perspective. And imho mmorpg is an oxymoron because to be an rpg it has to be emersive and the player/s must have cause/effect choices to make where as in mmo's that emersion is absent not to mention theres no real story arcs in mmo's or consequences for that matter.

Sat Feb 20 2010 1:07PM Report
Dreadstone writes:

I agree with Stradden, basically each person has their own definition of what an RPG is and only they will know if a game meets their definition.  Probably the best that could be done is define what isn't an RPG and that would be done in a lowest minimum requirement manner.  If a every character you can roll in a game is played the same way it isn't an RPG.  RPG at its base meaning will tell a perspective player that when you choose one type of character it will determine your playing style.  There will be differences in the way you play in WoW if you choose a warlock instead of a paladin.  You will make different choices in STO based on whether you roll a tactical officer or a science officer.  Beyond that it is just a matter of opinion.

Sat Feb 20 2010 8:52PM Report
Isane writes:

Very SImple , an RPG is a "Game". Where you have the opportunity to play a role within the context of the World and gaming environment provided to you in which you play the Game.

THat can be any number of environments, the key here is that developers use the RPG tag but then do not enforce this. So in reality the games are not RPGs. But provide an environment in which you can Role Play.

The lack of gamemasters and real immersion mean most MMORPGs are not what they pretend to be. And never have been.

Sun Feb 21 2010 9:22AM Report
Reianor writes:

Personally  I separate terms Role Playing and RPG. One is about getting into character 'n stuff, while the other is the only relatively-agreed upon name for genre of video games where elements like characters growing in strength, quests, configurable party, findable artefacts, non-linear gameplay (another largely mixed-up term) and other such things are mostly presented.

As I reckon those two terms got mixed-up by a terrible accident related to that genre forming in video games and somehow borrowing words "role playing" from "non-video" games, which I think originates sometime well beyond the time I got into PC gaming (which was around the time of BG2-SoA).

Still, there are names and there are things, and it's good to remember that they aren't exactly linked together by a universal rule, in practice such links are personal and consequently don't necessary match those of other people.

Damn human communication system and it's compilations...

Sun Feb 21 2010 7:15PM Report
Reianor writes:


It's not that easy to define.

Just an example of the top of my head  - Final Fantasy 7. You don't even get to "Roll" a character there. And it isn't exactly rich for customization options or play-style alterations.

The whole jRPG (sub)genre is mostly like that. Heck in rare cases you don't even get to name the main character and there's even a popular trend of not renaming him/her/it when the chance is given.

Still a LOT of people consider it closer to RPG than an action-RPG sub-genre...

You get the drift... It's hard to find a definition of minimal requirements for not being an RPG that wouldn't be debated as well.

And then even if you do manage to define them there's no chance for a single definition to become universal. And even if it did, what about games that carefully avoid those restricting factors but still aren't close enough to be called RPG by everyone?

Heck, people still defy basic and widely agreed-upon definitions that they were taught back in early school. There's no way this society can agree upon a universal definitions of complicated terms like an RPG.

Sun Feb 21 2010 7:54PM Report
CymTyr writes:

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has their own tastes. I find it interesting that Mass Effect 2 has MMO credits at the end, when it's a single player game.

I have heard people call NeverWinter Nights an mmo because it supports persistent worlds. I've even heard of Diablo 2 referred to as an mmo. I can understand the NWN logic, but not D2. You're never in a world beyond a max of 8 total players.

That is my opinion. See how I do not perceive a game with online elements as an mmo when others do? I respect their opinions, but keep true to my own.

Ultimately, I think we as a gaming community have to be more tolerate of others' beliefs and just stick with what we perceive as our own definitions. You don't think game X is an mmo? That's fine, I've seen games listed on this site that I don't think are mmos either. Should you crucify someone because they disagree? No, you should not. Somewhere along the lines people forgot that constructive debate never involved cutting each other down for having differing opinions.

Sun Feb 21 2010 8:27PM Report
biofellis writes:

You guys seem to forget that definitions are fine in variety. There are more words in the dictionary with more than one definition than only one definition- I'd bet good money the number of words with 5 or more is in the hundreds.

You listed three (3) definitions. They're actually pretty easy to separate by context as well.

#1 is based on play style. It buils areound it & encourages it- and can actually be applied to almost anything really- hence definition #3.

#2 is based on game mechanic more or less.

#3 as mentioned before is the 'over-active imagination' application of #1

So- Why is it so horrible we have these 2 definitions? I dunno.

At least we're not defining online checkers to be an mmo...

Oh, I happen to have tackled this prob earlier this month.

See what you think

Sun Feb 21 2010 10:37PM Report
PoopyStuff writes:

RPG is a rigid term because it stands for something.

Calling "role playing game"


if the game doesn't allow you to play a role, then its not a rpg.

its very simple


Sun Feb 21 2010 11:05PM Report
NightCloak writes:

@ PoppyStuff - The issue with broadly defining the genre like that arises when you can say you assume the role of a rectangular defender against a ball in Pong.

I halfway agree with the OP. The genre is a bit cloudy in definition, but MMORPG is a bit more specific. Some games that are listed dont fit the bill, but honestly why does it matter?

This website is already fragmented into the different target audiences of the varied true MMOs listed. Why not include games that loosly qualify or are stretching the limits? All it does is increase the community and broadens the audience of the website.

I am not really going to give my definition of RPG as its basically a moot point. The key issue is why does a strict definition need to be?

Genres in general are created to loosly categorize groups of similiar products to give an idea of what the person has to expect from the product.

Mon Feb 22 2010 10:17AM Report
just1opinion writes:

More and more as I read (and respond) to these arguments about MMOs and RPGs and MMORPGs, I realize that what really needs to happen in the world of gaming, is that we need to eliminate "genre" labeling altogether. Perhaps advertisements and boxes should list, rather, FEATURES. Because when it comes right down to it....who of we gamers won't gladly play ANY game that is FUN. If we can enjoy playing it, because it has features we like, and we're having we really CARE what "genre" it's labeled?  I'm beginning to think labeling games by genre is probably going to get to be like labeling people....completely useless, unnecessarily prejudicial, generally wrong, and often offensive. STO an MMO, call Fallen Earth an FPS, call WoW a tricycle, for all I care. Fact of the matter is....most of us at the end of the day, don't really care what you want to CALL a game, as long as we can have FUN playing it.

Mon Feb 22 2010 12:21PM Report
wootin writes:

@Girlgeek - only if the tricycle has training wheels.

KIDDING! Well, mostly :)

To the OP - RPG is a term that is under the control of those who make games. So, if they want to get members of the gaming market who play RPGs to play their game - they put RPG on the box :( 

And therefore, trying to analyze the games labeled RPG is an exercise in futility - the labels have been applied by marketing on the broadest of generalizations, and you're not going to track through that jungle any time soon.

To me, Slap and Uni have it 90% or more right. But let's remember that there's supposed to be a story involved. Even if it's a "main quest", the concept of a "role" is dependent on there being a story in which you have a part. Otherwise, you're just playing a class in an online adventure game - an MMOCAG?

That's how I'd characterize about all of the games out there now. On the flip side, I just read about A Tale in the Desert (arguably and punnably a "sandbox" game), and that seems to actually fit the concept of an RPG better than most to me.  In that game , your character plays a role in building a civilization, one that you  freely choose and pursue to that end. In this role, accomplishing tasks and making contributions advances your character, much in the same way that advancing a storyline grows your character in an adventure game.

So it's pretty neat to see something that seems to fulfill the "pure" view of an RPG, without really having any of the conventions of the other games labelled MMORPG.

Tue Feb 23 2010 12:28AM Report
wootin writes:

@ my last post - to clarify, I meant "trying to define the meaning of the term RPG by analyzing the games labelled as such is an exercise in futility". Sorry, late here :)

Tue Feb 23 2010 12:30AM Report writes:
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