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The RPG Files: Action, Accessibility and the Future of RPGs

Columns By Christopher Coke on October 21, 2016

Action, Accessibility and the Future of RPGs

As MMO and RPG players, it’s easy for us to fall prey to tunnel vision. We read websites that focus on those interests and news directly related to our favorite genres. It’s a natural but short-sighted approach to being a gamer, especially if you want any hint of where those genres are about to go. Today, we’re going to look at action games and why they have more to do with the future of RPGs than anything else in years.

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I’ve written before about the slow steeping of other genres with RPG elements, a bleed out effect that I think makes every game that does it well better. The opposite effect has also occurred. AAA RPGs are less strategic and more button mashy than they’ve ever been. Even a game like The Witcher 3 which was lauded for its emphasis on more challenging was still at it’s core an only semi-strategic action battler. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have all but abandoned their RPG roots in terms of combat (who didn’t guess that pause-and-play would be pointless when it was revealed in Dragon Age: Inquisition?). With combat making up such a huge percentage of the average AAA RPG, many only wind up feeling like RPGs in the surrounding systems; character progression and dialogue, character creation and freedom of choice. Put another way, if you could cut most of the RPG out and pretty much have the same game.

Action games and modern mainstream RPGs are kissing cousins. You can now count on your average action title to have your staple RPG progression hooks: experience, skill trees, weapons, upgrades, unlockable abilities, the works. Add to that that many have huge worlds with hidden secrets and are becoming less and less linear as time goes on and you can begin to see where I’m coming from.

So why should we as RPG gamers care? Because action games are the biggest influencer of the RPG genre. They’re simply more prevalent and, as a result, make more money for publishers. They’re also, frankly, easier for the average gamer to wrap their head around, what with their simpler system and movie-like cinematic storytelling. When publishers look at their data, they clearly see an accessibility there they want to capitalize on. This is exactly what happened to the MMO genre following World of Warcraft. Right or wrong, publishers see dollar signs painted across the A-word.

Accessibility in itself is a very good thing; more gamers should be able to play more games. The problem is that it is too often a code word for simplification. Action combat is more accessible because A) it is easier, B) you don’t have to think as much, and C) it’s offers instant gratification. Strategic thinking is the antithesis of many of these systems, which is why we’ve seen the death of meaningful pause-and-play in AAA RPGs. It’s why we’ve seen stat systems streamlined and choices stripped down to cosmetic varnish. No one can truly mess up their character. Even the “dozens of endings” seen in many games are often just different takes on the same base ending. It’s a shame and it’s limiting the future of the RPG genre in the mainstream space.

None of these things make a bad game. That’s important. I loved The Witcher, and Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. It just means that the AAA space has its heart set on delivering a certain kind of game. It means the the evolution of major RPGs is going to focus on bringing more players in and not necessarily on advancing what we know RPGs to be; they’re going to shift left, into a space that starts easy and, hopefully, gets much deeper as time goes along (though few have actually pulled this off).

And there is a golden lining, something we should all celebrate. As RPGs embrace becoming action hybrids in the mainstream, the indie space is now thriving with RPGs that are actually moving back in time in order to move forward. The rise of CRPGs is a direct reaction to the codification of AAA RPGs into action hybrids. Tactics RPGs are also making a comeback. Just like in the MMO space, indie devs are looking to the AAA and discovering that there’s a whole audience who is left wanting, even if they do love parts of these big games.

That is exciting news. Even if the average indie team doesn’t have the funding of a major development, they have something more important: freedom. They can experiment and take risks major games just won’t. The same thing is occurring in the MMO industry, and just as there, it makes smaller games that much more important to watch.

AAA games are still great. This trend isn’t about the decline of the mainstream RPG. It’s about the rise of the indie, straight into the space left in AAA’s wake.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.