Josh Bycer just said publicly on Gamasutra something that I’ve been thinking for a while: RPG dynamics are spreading to all kinds of other games. While I disagree with a number of his arguments about the specifics of this trend, it’s clear that it is happening. RPG elements and dynamics are making their way into everything these days, from shooters (randomized loot in Borderlands, character progression in Call of Duty), to puzzle games (quests are now ubiquitous in online casual games), to action games (skill trees as a core character development dynamic), and even builders (quests, randomized loot, and stat progression). The question is, “Why?”
[Aside: I noticed a similar trend recently with AAA action games now including stealth: Assassin’s Creed always had some stealth in its DNA, but The Last of Us, and even GTA V had significant stealth components. Stealth is not easy; to do it right takes a lot of polish on the AI, character controls, animations, and UI. The reason why developers/publishers are making this investment? My guess is that needing larger sales numbers, they’re trying to broaden their appeal by giving players multiple play-styles through which to experience their content.]
Oddly enough, I would argue that the rise of always-online gameplay goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of RPG elements into other genres. Sure, there are outliers (Puzzle Quest had a minimal online component and was arguably one of the first to really hybridize RPG dynamics with radically different gameplay), but most of this has happened in the server-driven world of the last few years. I don’t think this is a coincidence. As games shifted from shelf-filler to online hobby, they needed to extend the experiences that were available. PvP has always done this for online shooters and strategy games (other players are endless content), so why did they start dipping into the RPG well?
In part, they needed to incentivize players to create accounts and use accounts that were tied to the always-online world. Not only could you not reliably make RPG dynamics part of a sometimes-online, sometimes-offline experience (infinitely hackable) and maintain the competitiveness of your online world, it turns out that giving players carrots is a great way to get them to do things. Again, shooters already had some tools here, with leaderboards and clans, but as games became services, every available way to hook the player and to wrap them up for as long as possible became a key element of competition. Progressions in general, skill trees more specifically, and especially experience grinds serve the purpose of keeping that carrot dangling in front of the player’s nose – easy to see, but hard to reach.
The advantage of online communities for players is that endless PvP content; the advantage for developers and publishers is that in a server-secured world, every player has to pay. When we published Titan Quest, we could look at our online usage statistics and spot that out of every 100 players (online only, single-player sessions didn’t get captured), 95 of them were playing with a pirated copy. When I wrote about that online, it created a minor stir (mostly because someone mis-identified me as the CEO of THQ), but I also got confirmation from a number of other developers and publishers that they were seeing about the same rates. I don’t think it’s random that the percentage of paying players in the free-to-play, freemium model is quite similar, at around 3-6%.
In fact, there’s very little that’s getting published anymore that isn’t in that server-secured model, and of those models available, freemium is definitely accounting for the greatest mass. So, when you’ve got players online and you want to keep them engaged for as long as possible, where do you turn? Why, MMORPG’s have been doing this for years! RPG systems can be cheap and effective ways to extend content: give players the same gear, but with better stats. Stick a new color on it, or a different particle effect, and it’s a whole new asset! Scale up an enemy, give them a new name, and now you have a new enemy! Give players an endless grind that nets them a 2% competitive advantage, and they’ll do it. Particularly with freemium, games-as-a-service, if you can maximize player lifetime while minimizing production costs, you’re more likely to break even.
It’s a little more complex than that, of course. It’s not all about cynical manipulation to extract as much money as possible. The reality is that all designers are beggars and thieves. We take things that work from other games and re-deploy them, re-shape them, and hope that they work in our games. Game developers have been ripping off RPG’s for as long as there have been RPG’s. If you think System Shock isn’t a shooter/RPG hybrid, you’re fooling yourself. Let’s not forget that Doom (the granddaddy of all shooters) came from an RPG campaign.
The ubiquity, though, has definitely increased. Even as we get fewer and fewer actual RPG’s (or even Action RPG’s) – because those things are really hard and expensive to make – we’re getting more and more RPG dynamics in other genres. Tencent made a version of NBA2K for China that wrapped all kinds of MMORPG dynamics around basketball, of all things. In fact, the core components of RPG grinding (experience, quests, resources, slot-machine loot, repetition) have become staples of most freemium games out there. At some level, this is because those dynamics encapsulate the things we want out of a game: we want a goal (quest); we want to be rewarded for accomplishing that goal (loot); we want to get better (stats); and then, we want to do it again so that we can see how much better we are.
What RPG’s do that other genres (action games, particularly, but also shooters and other genres) used to not do is to reward time investment without regard to skill. Sure, certain levels of skill require time investment, and sure, RPG’s can require skill, but what RPG dynamics offer the freemium space is a way to map time into power. It’s reliable, testable, and proven. It can be done (relatively) simply with spreadsheets and graphs. And, once you monetize time, you’ve got a business. This is what is at the heart of this spread: RPG dynamics extend play time through simple, procedural progression. Whether your’e competing in the freemium space or the AAA space, that’s a win, but in the freemium space, it’s essential.