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All the Tedium, None of the Heart: Enough with Boasting "RPG Elements"
by Craig Stern on 11/04/09 10:48:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Dear fellow game developers: I have a special request for you. Unless your game is actually some form of RPG, stop saying that your game has RPG elements.

So the player of your top-down shooter game has to spend coins in order to purchase the double shot instead of just nabbing a power-up. Guess what? Your game has nothing to do with RPGs. The fact that you give the player experience points or make the player purchase upgrades from a store doesn't make your Galaxia clone a blood relative of Planescape: Torment. It isn't a selling-point, and it cheapens the RPG genre to pretend that it is.

Your game does not have RPG elements

There are a lot of games out today that claim to boast RPG elements. Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw claims to have lost count of them. Google hasn't: as of the time of this writing, it returns 34,200,000 results for the phrase "with rpg elements." That's over 34 million, for those who have trouble discerning large numbers.

Not all of those results represent individual games, but their sheer numerosity suggests that "with RPG elements" has, in fact, become something of a cliché. A similar search for "with FPS elements" returns just north of 100,000 results, and "with puzzle game elements," less than half that. RPG, for some reason, is considered a uniquely chic genre to plunder "elements" from.

Even Cliff Blesinzki is jumping on the "with RPG elements" bandwagon. He stated over the summer that he wants to make Gears of War 3 with RPG elements. I quote: "the future of shooters is RPGs." Yeah--and the future of hot dogs is ice cream.

Can we just be honest with ourselves for a second? Really, deep down, most of these games don't feature RPG elements. They feature RPG element. Singular. Because they only take one RPG element out of many. What's worse, they don't even take one of the better ones. I bet you that this is what Gears of War 3 is going to do: you'll get points after each level that you can put into things like accuracy, damage, armor, and movement speed. Ta-da--now there's stat progression! It's an FPS with RPG elements!

If I may briefly analogize, this is like saying that Zelda: A Link to the Past is a game with top-down shooter elements because Link can shoot projectiles at enemies with his bow, and he must dodge enemy projectiles. Is that technically true? Sure, insofar as that's something that shooters do. But it's a trivial observation. There is nothing ground-breaking about it, to be sure, and since it affects the gameplay only sporadically, it won't make the game appeal to shooter fans. Used in this way, it's a calorie-free marketing phrase. It tries to borrow the glow of a well-loved genre without honoring its heart.

You wouldn't know it from looking at these "RPG elements" games, but there are other elements that characterize RPGs besides stat-building. For example: extensive dialog, character arcs, party-building, exploration, puzzle-solving, and a focus on narrative. The best RPGs give you a variety of meaningful choices that have long-term effects on the game. RPGs that neglect more than a few of these elements, by contrast, tend to be crap. Why, I ask you, would you want to crown your game with a mantle of crap?

As Chris Avellone so elegantly put it just a few days ago:

"An RPG is a game that provides character progression, opportunities for exploration, the ability to confront or fight adversaries and obstacles to achieve rewards, and, most importantly, gives choice in everything from character construction to action and dialogue choices in the game, and the game reacts to those choices in measurable ways."

At the end of the day, I'm not opposed to games that borrow RPG elements. You want to make an FPS where you create your own customized character, with unique skills that affect how you deal with challenges? You want to include dialog trees, with choices that affect how others view and react to your character? You want an engaging, deep narrative that plays out according to the player's choices? Great! I applaud you and support you in your efforts. Just don't make a game "with RPG elements" that attempts to reduce the genre to its weakest charateristic.

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Bart Stewart
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Craig, that's a well-written opinion, and it's one to which I'm sympathetic (I enjoy deep RPGs), but let me ask the obvious rebuttal question: if a numbers-driven "accumulating character stats" RPG mechanic can be added to an otherwise non-RPG game in a way that makes some sense, is it really better (as your opinion seems to urge) not to have any RPG mechanics at all?

I can easily agree with you if we're just talking about bolting a simple character attribute mechanic onto an otherwise non-RPG game. If character advancement in some form isn't integrated with all the other gameplay features, then sure, it just seems like a fairly cheap way to be able to print "now with RPG elements!" on the back of the box.

But let's assume that the numbers-driven "character stats" RPG mechanic actually does work with the rest of the game's elements. Suppose that it's not just there for flavor, but that it has real (if minimal) effects on gameplay, dialogue and even story, despite not including other things traditionally associated with full-frontal RPGs (exploration, party development, roughly equal emphasis on story/narrative as on action, etc.). Is it your view that this limited use of an "RPG element" is always guaranteed to make a game worse?

If having just a character advancement system -- as long as it has some meaningful integration with the gameplay -- helps to make a game more than just another mindless shooter, is that really a Bad Thing?

Or can half a loaf sometimes be better than no loaf at all?

Luis Guimaraes
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Stats progression mostly kill games based on skill...

Thomas Whitfield
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I stopped reading the boxes and the ads years ago. (Is it just me or has rhe print on the backs of game boxes gone microscopic?)

On the other hand I have no problem with them stating "RPG elements" as long as it is clear which ones.

I've found over the years even right out FPS with no bullet pointed "elements" have a lot of RPG in them. I play very differently than my friend X and my friend Y.

As an example. Rainbow 6 Vegas (1 and 2). The closest to a RPG element they get is weapon loadout choices... however. When I play co-op or Terrorist hunt with fiends we make a good team because we do things so very differently.

Our solo single player experiences tend to be very varied in games because of our playstyles. It doesn't have to be Fallout or Dragon Age for RPG gameplay. If we look back to the old AD&D goldbox games, there was only the RPG we brought with us. 99% of the game was nailed to a board, immuteable by choices outside combat tactics.

I have a hard time faulting the marketing people for claiming RPG elements, where most games have real RPG elements because of playstyle, even in the most scripted game.

My Niko Bellic (sp?) is a much different person then my Brother's Niko Bellic, even with scripted sections of the game.

Mike Weldon
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Well said, and I agree whole-heartedly. In response to Bart's question I would suggest that that is nothing inherently wrong with stat-progression, only that it often seems to be a tacked-on feature to gain one more bullet point on the box.

If your game has a small number of abilities, and through the course of the game you will have had to put points into all of them, then the act of choosing which one to spend points on becomes a meaningless. I've even seen cases where there were certain abilities that you have to choose at some point or else you can't progress. On the other hand, if your game has a whole slew of abilities, all of which have a measurable but not required benefit, and that you can't possibly choose them all in one play-through, then I would say you are doing it right.

The RPG tag implies that two people can play your game have have a somewhat different experience. This gives them something interesting to talk about other than "What level are you on?" All too often it gets shoehorned into a game as an afterthought. As if they take a mostly completed game, gimp all the abilities while offering a means for the player to choose which ability to un-gimp. That is missing the point entirely.

Andrew Hopper
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Unfortunately there are two differeing definitions of what an RPG, the one defined by its combat mechanics and the one defined by its dialogue mechanics, and we end up with this muddle in the middle. Here is what is missing from most games with so called "RPG elements" and "stat progression". Progression and stats need to have a tangible effect on the fundamental way in which the player plays the game. Most FPSs with RPG elements simply buy time with a linear progression towards a single playstyle, instead of having different end results where the player is actually playing the game differently than someone who is customized differently. Team Fortress uses RPG elements better than most games, and it has practically zero progression other than getting the new items, which are then customized in to create new playstyles.

From a gameplay standpoint, "RPG elements" work best when the elements in question breed their own form of "emergent gameplay" by allowing the player to define their playstyle in ways the deveoper might not expect by giving them the freedom to define HOW their stats progress.

Jonathan Howland
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My question is how does tacking on "with RPG elements" lessen the actually RPG genre? If these small additions are so insignificant (much like your Zelda/FPS analogy) how does that delute true blue RPGs that are unmistakeably in their own genre?

Honestly, and as Thomas pointed out, I don't pay much attention to the little bullet points to an extent that "with RPG elements" is just a harmless little tagline (that, incidentally does given me an idea of what features to expect). That being said let me bring up my question directed at the main thesis of this: How are traditional RPGs lessened by elements being used to describe aspects of otehr genres? Are some people so blind to the RPG genre that these "faux" RPGs would misrepresent the genre in such a detrimental way?

Tom Newman
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Agree 100%, but it is a slippery slope as many non-RPG games now DO have RPG elements. Anyone on this website knows it's pretty much just a bullit-point the marketing team can add to the back of the box, but the confusion lies with the more casual crowd who may either be dissuaded by anything to do with an RPG, or RPG fans who get suckered into buying a FPS (or any non-rpg genre) just because the player's stats increase as the game progresses.

Kevin Reese
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I also agree 100%. 'RPG-Elements' is such an over-stated phrase. By the murky definition of the term, pretty much every game could be considered to have elements of an RPG.

Perhaps the most erroneous use of the 'ARPG' and RPG-Elements label was with Space Seige earlier in the year. Boy was that a stretch to say that game had RPG qualities.

Simon Fraser
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Since it was invented, the term "RPG" has become consistently more and more diluted. Diablo is ostensibly an RPG, for example. It sure doesn't fit the original definition of RPG (Dungeons & Dragons - type games). People have needlessly argued over this for years.

It's semantics. It's insignificant.

RPG has come to mean - in some circles - a game involving numerical character growth. Likewise, "RPG elements" can mean elements of numerical character growth.

That is just how it is. That is just what the term means now. It's not important.

A more interesting and relevant question would be: Does adding stat progression (a.k.a. "RPG elements")make a game less or more fun?

I think it makes them more fun. Yes, as mentioned in Yahtzee's article, it can lead to stupidly weak guns that stupidly get less weak, but that's if it's implemented badly.

At its best: It adds replay value by giving you the chance to play the game different ways. It gives you that pride of having a character who feels really powerful as you advance (and if you feel you're doing a good job assigning your points, you get that fiero from building a BETTER character than other people's characters). It can make the game feel deeper, and make you feel more involved with your character. Half-Life is a great game, but the only attributes your character has are current ammo, health and armour. It doesn't feel like it's your own character because you put nothing of yourself into it. Whereas a game where you can assign points, you feel like it's "your" character because you "made" it, so you're more attached. You wouldn't play your friend's saved file in InFamous, but you might in Half-Life or Gears of War.

One negative aspect is the limiting factor. If you specialize in pistols, you never get to try out the game's awesome shotguns. Or you need a shotgun for one part, and your character sucks with it, so you feel weak. Or in a game like InFamous, you might never try out all the powers. You have to play the game more than once, or you don't see everything, possibly missing out on your favourite power. Some people don't want to play the game more than once.

Chan Chun Phang
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@Simon Fraser

Actually, I'll disagree that there is a limiting factor, in the core definition of RPG elements. It's just that not many has bothered to attempt tackling it.

Take for example: FFXI. You can train in anything, and there's no hard limit to the total levels of your classes (contrast to classic D&D where you've a max of 20 levels regardless of multi-classing). You don't have to start completely from scratch just to try out a new class.

Take for example: Guild Wars. Granted your first profession is fixed, but you can dynamically allocate skills and stats at any town, and change your 2nd profession when you hit the cap. (not sure if it's repeatable)

The only issue I've yet to see tackled is multiple storyline branches, but I disagree that it can't be tackled either. Given that story branches are often marked as chapters, I see no reason why a game cannot dynamically allow "new game +" to start at said checkpoints, hence letting players better experience branching paths without the tedium of rolling through unwanted sections.

(EDIT: One close example could be Diablo II, though that didn't have actual branching elements so it isn't exactly counted.)

Andre Gagne
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I see the OP as saying to clean up the marketing...

Ofer Rubinstein
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It is a little amusing since RPG stand for Role Playing Game, and compared to table top RPGs, computer games barely have any Role Playing in them(some would claim they are non existant). Including games like Oblivion and etc, which are hardcore RPGs.

Simon Fraser
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@ Chan Chung Phang: The limiting factor I refer to is in things like Resident Evil 4 (Yahtzee's example), where you level up individual guns and then you can't get those levels (or money) back to spend on something else. You can't level up all the guns every time, and you can't reallocate the points spent, so you're stuck using, for example, the shotgun that you put all your points into.

Guild Wars and FFXI are straight RPGs, not games with "RPG elements" - and though I haven't played FFXI, I would argue that it does possess the same limiting factor - yes, you can improve at any job over time (right?) but you still have to start at level 1 when you change classes. BUT, since it's a real RPG, that's what you expect. You know you're going to be a fighter, a warrior or a wizard and you don't expect to play all 3 in one go. With something like RE4, though, losing access to certain weapons simply because you've leveled other ones can feel limiting and frustrating.

Guild Wars eschewed the limiting factor entirely because of what type of game it is. Whereas WoW wants you to spend hours grinding up to the max level when you want to try out a new class (because it has to be a time sink) Guild Wars wants you to get right into the PvP, so they give you full freedom to do so.

The limiting factor is appropriate sometimes, and bad other times.

I think it might actually be a good design choice in RE4, because it fits with the series' theme of limited resources and tough decisions (even though RE4 scaled back on those themes a lot compared to previous RE games).

It's actually not that big of a deal though. Most games benefit from this specialization, since it lets you play the game differently the next time through. It can be annoying, but it's never a huge issue.

@Ofer Ribinstein: I think the computer gaming community should simply accept that "RPG" when referring to video games, doesn't mean the same thing as "RPG" when referring to pen-and-paper RPGs. I've argued since I was a kid about what games can really be considered "Role Playing", and at some point I realized that it actually just doesn't matter. :P

In modern video games "RPG" or "RPG elements" usually means you have stats that go up over time, nothing more.

Luis Guimaraes
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I really don't like any kind of stats progression in any kind of skill based game, there are some possible bad situations:

a) It just turn the game not to be skill based anymore, but yeah it would be called role-playing, since it's not you playing anymore, or you're character is powerful or not, everything you face is up to him to overcome.

b) It just makes no sense, you get more damage, they get more health and vice versa, nothing really changes, so what's the point? And enemy stats progression is the most poor form of difficulting up.

Of course there are some better cases, where you get new abilities rather than just number-up whatever. So you can find your way to play those abilities in a smart and unique way. You improve your game, not the numbers.

But then, gone are the days where you had that freedom, game today are about making the player think they can do something, make them feel overcoming obstacles, say "oh, idiot, you can walk using directional key, good job! you're awesome! you know all those names you learn in the History class, you can be proud of what they do, because you won't do anything by yourself! Congratulations!"

Marc Sanders
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If you want to split hairs, technically most (you might even be able to make the argument that ALL) video games are role-playing games, as the player assumes the "role" of a character / entity. So... yeah.

I see the point you are trying to make, but I don't blame people for saying "the game features a stat-based progression mechanic" as "RPG elements," because most people understand what they mean. In that respect, it's a pretty useful label.

Craig Stern
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If you define role-playing so broadly, then that makes the label meaningless. If RPGs are to be regarded as a distinct genre, "RPG" has to stand for qualities that aren't universal in games.

"Stat leveling" is as easy to say as "RPG elements," and it doesn't conflate the genre with a single mechanic.