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Following the Spread of RPG Mechanics in Game Design
by Josh Bycer on 06/12/14 02:50:00 pm   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.

 

(Reprinted from Game-Wisdom)

RPGs are a fascinating genre to analyze: it's one of the oldest genres on the market, not limited by platform and has a huge variety of designs.  But what I find interesting is how the mechanics and systems of the genre have spread and thrived in completely unassociated genres.

While replaying Odin Sphere, a question popped into my head that has been asked countless times: "What is a RPG?" And while many of you will be quick to answer, there is more to examine under the surface.

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Action vs. Abstraction:

From the 80s to the majority of the 90s, action and RPG titles were completely separated by how much actual control the player had in the game. The definition of abstraction can vary based on what we are talking about, but for video games we can say the following:

Abstraction: Breaking down a complex action into an easier represented event.

When you play a RPG like Baldur's Gate, your actual input doesn't matter in terms of controlling the character's actions. I couldn't press the arrow keys to control how a character bobbed and weaved to avoid sword slashes or correctly timed the raising of a shield. Instead, the character's attributes and armor value factored into the abstracted results of combat.

On the other hand, there is very little abstraction when you are playing an action game like Devil May Cry. You are in complete control of Dante's offensive and defensive capabilities: There are no dice rolls or stats to affect whether you win or lose.

Segmented design between genres was the status quo for much of the 80s and 90s. But starting from the early 00s, the wall started to break down and in the process, made the determining qualities of a RPG harder to spot.

Going back to Odin Sphere, the player had complete control over attacking and dodging as in an action game. However, the player's health points and attack strength were based on two different abstracted leveling systems.

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RPG mechanics can be seen in everything from Skyrim...

This kind of combination of action and abstracted systems was the basis of the Action RPG or ARPG sub-genre.

Now, going back to the original question: What is a RPG? Chances are that most of you responded with something along the lines of a game that uses abstracted systems.

But if we just leave it at that, then that actually opens up the door and allows me to say the following crazy statement:

God of War and Call of Duty are as much a part of the RPG genre as Dragon Age and Skyrim.

The Spread of RPG Design:

In my article: The Abstraction of Skill in Game Design, I talked about how the degree of abstraction in game systems over the last decade has made action games more RPG-like and RPGs more action-like.

This in turn has lead to games like Borderlands which was a first person shooter with RPG abstractions of leveling and weapons. Or Dark Souls which was a stat influenced abstracted RPG with player involved movement and attack.

Because of the change of genre conventions and design, we can create a new definition for the RPG genre and abstraction:

RPG: A game built on player-influenced abstracted systems.

The term "player-influenced" is important as it provides a way to distinguish game designs. Just saying the term "abstraction" is not specific enough, as every video game ever made has some level of abstraction built into it.

No one questions why Mario jumps so high or Nathan Drake can be that accurate with a variety of weapons. Since the designers abstracted the concepts to make the titles more appealing.

However player-influenced abstraction means that the player has control of the abstraction at play based on their actions and choices. In a pen-and-paper RPG, the designers described the act of leveling as the person through training and continued use becoming better.

In other words, a swordsman would become more comfortable swinging a sword and could better use it for more powerful swings, not that their sword attacks magically did more damage after leveling up.

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...To the leveling systems and upgrades of Call of Duty multiplayer

Going back to God of War, by collecting red orbs the player could distribute them to a number of Kratos' abilities.

As time went on, the player would do more damage with his blades of chaos, not because they were hitting the button harder but because of the abstraction of leveling up the weapon.

Also by using the term “player-influenced abstraction" we can also rule out certain games. Team Fortress 2 for all the items, hats and weapons available would not be considered a RPG in any aspect. As while there was plenty of abstraction at work, all of it was not controlled by the player. My heavy without items will do the same damage and have the same chance at critting as everyone else's heavy.

Another example would be The Binding of Isaac, while the game offered the player a huge variety of items that greatly affected the experience; none of them were actually influenced by the player. In the sense that the player could not control the upgrading/downgrading of items.

Regarding my article, it's important to remember that adding more or less abstraction based on the genre doesn't create "the perfect game." There are plenty of action gamers who don't want to have to grind experience and RPG gamers who don't want to button mash their way to victory.

The spread of RPG mechanics has been interesting and in the right design can improve the respective titles. Yet even with the spread, we still have a number of RPGs that continue to refine and build new mechanics.

As more RPG designers borrow elements from different genres it will be interesting to see how the once rift between JRPG and CRPG design will change. And if that means that we'll see more games that push the definition of a RPG then I'm all for it.


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Comments


Theresa Catalano
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There's no more confused gaming term today than "RPG." You said "Chances are that most of you responded with something along the lines of a game that uses abstracted systems." I think you'd be surprised to how many people RPG means things like "fantasy game," or "games with multiple choices," or "games with storylines." Some people stubbornly define it as "role playing game," or a game where you feel like you're playing the role of a character, which of course makes no sense.

For me, my definition has always been close to yours. For me, an RPG is classically defined as a game that is primarily driven by statistics, which is another way of saying abstracted systems. But I would go a step farther and add that "primarily" in there. The problem you seem to have noticed is that ALL games have statistics, all games have abstracted systems. If we leave out the "primarily," the definition becomes too inclusive which makes it meaningless. When you've reached a point where you're saying "God of War and Call of Duty are as much a part of the RPG genre as Dragon Age and Skyrim," that's how you know you've failed.

Personally, I wouldn't call Skyrim an RPG at all. Nor Dark Souls. Nor Borderlands. Skyrim and Dark Souls are primarily action games, and Borderlands is primarily a shooter. They may have "RPG" elements, but those elements aren't the primary way in which you interact. Persona is an RPG, or Etrian Odyssey, or Shin Megami Tensei.

Well, that's the way I USED to look at it. But recently, my thinking has become different. I hate that term "role playing game." It's too much of a misnomer... it's too confusing that it has "role-playing" in the name, when that has nothing to do with how the term has classically been used. And "role-playing" has nothing to do with gameplay in particular. So, I prefer to say "stat based games" for games which fit the traditional definition of RPG. I call action games like Dark Souls action games, and I call shooters like Borderlands shooters. Forget about the stats and other RPG elements, those don't really define the gameplay... the main way you interact is what defines it, and in the case of Dark Souls that is with your melee weapons that you directly control. In the case of Borderlands, that's with a gun that you aim. If you aren't actually controlling the sword or the gun, but just instructing a character to use them and the effectiveness is based on numbers, then that's a stat based game. Makes a lot more sense that way, don't you think?

Really, the reason why we still have articles like this is due to how confused and mixed up the term RPG is. I hope that other people will join me in shunning that term, and changing our terminology to be more coherent and sensible. It's time to retire the term "RPG" for good.

Michael Wenk
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RPG always have a player into a role, and that role advances the story. RPGs, even JRPGs, have always had story as the primary focus. Action/Adventure games do not. I also disagree that Skyrim is not an RPG, as it most certainly is. You play a role, and that role has a great presence in the story of the game.

You seem to be caught up in stats, and stats are definitely in every game. It wouldn't be a game if there wasn't a chance at losing, would it? Every person would pretty much gravitate to the best outcome possible. Stats and RNG(or dice, whatever the heck you wanna call it) enforce rules on the game. While these surface at higher rate in a CRPG, they are in every game.

I definitely agree that most games are very poor RPGs, especially in the MMO sector. WoW for example is more of an action/adventure game than a RPG. The player's role in the story really doesn't mean much.

Theresa Catalano
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Thanks, Micheal. I was just talking with Sam Stephans about there are many different definitions of "RPG" floating around, and one camp tends to define it as having story as a primary focus. That's not an uncommon point of view, I've seen it pop up a lot.

Let me correct a few things you said. "RPG always have a player into a role, and that role advances the story." This sentence is redundant. The lead character almost always advances any story, whether you're pretending to be that character or not. I can understand why you'd call Skyrim an RPG based on your definition... but that's too easy. Why don't you pick some games that focus on story, like Call of Duty, Two Brothers, Phoenix Wright, Virtue's Last Reward? I take it you think that Spec Ops: The Line is an RPG since it has a big focus on story? You also must think that any visual novel is an RPG, correct?

Then, I guess you also must not consider Dark Souls an RPG, since it doesn't have a big focus on story? You must not consider roguelikes RPGs? Is Dragon Warrior 1 not an RPG? Final Fantasy 1? Diablo?

If you're willing to be consistent, and answer yes to all those questions, that's fine. You're allowed to have your own definitions and live by them. But for me, personally, I think a more universal term would be better for the sake of communication. If you want to communicate that a game has a focus on story, calling it an "RPG" doesn't really work... you need to say it has "a focus on story." Otherwise you will just be misunderstood more often than not.

Joshua Darlington
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"Some people stubbornly define it as "role playing game," or a game where you feel like you're playing the role of a character, which of course makes no sense."

I'm one of those people. I enjoy games "where you feel like you're playing the role of a character."

RPGs evolved from table top war games which are "a game that is primarily driven by statistics, which is another way of saying abstracted systems. " What made RPGs a distinct genre from war games is "playing the role of a character."

Theresa Catalano
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There's nothing wrong with enjoying games where you "feel like you're playing the role of a character." However, that doesn't work as a video game genre, it's too vague. Most games feature you playing the role of a character. Also, it tells us nothing about the gameplay, which is what a genre description should do. It's about as useful as having a genre called "win based games," or "games about fun."

That's why, when it comes to video games, classically "RPG" has always been used to describe games that are stat based, or "abstracted systems" if you want to put it that way. THAT is actually useful, specific, and tells us something about the gameplay. The only problem is that the term "role playing game" doesn't actually fit this definition well, which is because it's coopted from a social game DnD and applied in a place where it didn't really make sense.

We can keep on using the term RPG, and just accept the confusion, but I really think it would make more sense to drop the term at this point and replace it with something more explanatory.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I like to think of "RPG" as a cultural term. The name probably evokes different imagery depending on the era.

I think, for the players, they can go ahead and keep using it. It's a losing battle to try changing something that's already in common usage.

But for us developers who need parlance that's unambiguous, we can certainly benefit from having more nuanced terms for use.

I prefer having descriptions that explain individual attributes of a game, instead of trying to shelve each game into a specific genre.

Something like, what parts are statistics-driven, and which parts of the game relies on twitch gameplay?

What are the activities that require moment-to-moment quick thinking from the player (e.g. combat), and are there also activities that require long-term planning from the player (e.g. upgrade paths), if any?

It sounds like I'm throwing a bunch of questionnaires right now. I think I need to sit down and write this in more detail.

I'm just thinking that, if we can structure this better, we can describe things to fellow devs that don't require resorting to explaining via "it's like game x or y but with a twist", which can be misunderstood, or worse, if we tend to explain via existing games/genres, it make us tend to create clones.

Sam Stephens
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@ Theresa Catalano

I think "role-playing game" is a perfectly acceptable genre descriptor. In RPG's, choices and options are related to the player character(s). To phrase it differently, players can explicitly define their characters' role in the gameplay. Players may role-play as Master Chief or Lara Croft when playing Halo and Tomb Raider respectively, but they are doing so in a fictional non-gameplay way. Players can't change Master Chief's damage output or increase his shield capacity. They can't define his role as a tank or healer.

Theresa Catalano
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No, it's not acceptable at all, for multiple reasons. For one, there is no "gameplay" way to role-play a character. It's always fictional, and it's no less role-playing whether you are increasing a stat point or not. Even if there is no leveling or upgrade system, if you're putting yourself in a character's shoes, that is role-playing.

Secondly, your definition is too vague, to the point of being meaningless. If role-playing games are simply games where you have an upgrade system, then pretty much any modern game is a role-playing game. That makes the term useless.

Third, the concept of "role-playing" communicates nothing about the gameplay. You can pretend as if you're in the main character's shoes, or not, and that has nothing to do with the genre of game you're playing. The genre of game should be a description of the gameplay: it could be a shooter, action game, puzzle game, stat based game, etc... it should convey what TYPE of game you're playing, what you're *actually doing* during the gameplay. That's what a genre term should do, and "RPG" fails spectacularly at this.

Don't defend it, don't cling to the status quo. The term RPG is one of the most useless and confusing terms in gaming. Let's call a spade a spade.

Sam Stephens
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"For one, there is no 'gameplay' way to role-play a character. It's always fictional, and it's no less role-playing whether you are increasing a stat point or not."

How is choosing whether a character is going to be a Black Belt or a Thief in Final Fantasy or whether you want to build an offensive or defensive team in Pokemon not an example of gameplay? These games have little to no role-playing decision making outside of combat, yet they are still universally called RPG's. The point is, the term RPG can and does describe a genre of gameplay. What would you describe Pokemon, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy as? How would you distinguish it from turn-based strategy games such as Advanced Wars?

"If role-playing games are simply games where you have an upgrade system, then pretty much any modern game is a role-playing game. That makes the term useless."

It's not about upgrade systems, it's about being able to change and define the abilities of the player avatar(s). Of course, a lot of modern games have adopted these RPG elements as that was the entire point of the article. Even then however, there are hundreds and hundreds of games that have been released in the past few years that have absolutely no RPG elements whatsoever. So your comment about every modern video game being an RPG by this standard is nothing but hyperbole.

"Third, the concept of "role-playing" communicates nothing about the gameplay."

As I said before, it does describe the gameplay accurately. Role-playing is entirely possible in a gameplay sense as it is in any turn-based RPG. Many western RPG's have embraced role-playing in all senses of the word, but the core gameplay is still defined by role-playing even if there are elements of action games in them.

"Don't defend it, don't cling to the status quo. The term RPG is one of the most useless and confusing terms in gaming. Let's call a spade a spade."

This has nothing to do with the "status quo". Our language has just evolved to describe a collection of games with a common set of gameplay features (a genre). It's a shorthand, and it's one that works. People have the same general idea of what a role-playing game is, so I don't see the problem regardless of what we call them. A more problematic genre would be "survival horror" because it includes a whole range of different game types from action-adventure (Resident Evil) to action (Dead Space), and even to stealth (Amnesia). Even then, I really don't see this as that big of a problem.

Theresa Catalano
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"How is choosing whether a character is going to be a Black Belt or a Thief in Final Fantasy or whether you want to build an offensive or defensive team in Pokemon not an example of gameplay?"

It's merely one supplemental aspect. The fact that you choose a class tells you absolutely nothing about how Final Fantasy plays. You also choose a class in Team Fortress, or any other number of games... but Final Fantasy and Team Fortress are completely different, aren't they? You can't just zoom in one supplemental aspect and define a genre based on that.

"What would you describe Pokemon, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy as? How would you distinguish it from turn-based strategy games such as Advanced Wars?"

Exactly my point, thank you. How do we distinguish different types of games if we use one wishy washy, ill defined term that blankets over all of them?

Pokemon and Dragon Quest I'd call stat based games, since the gameplay is driven by stats. Final Fantasy started out the same way, but has become more and more hybrid; it defies a single neat genre term to put it under. It's still a stat based game, but with action elements. Turn based strategy games are turn based strategy games... why invent a term when there's already a perfectly good one and you just used it? Inserting the term "RPG" after that adds nothing.

"It's a shorthand, and it's one that works. People have the same general idea of what a role-playing game is, so I don't see the problem regardless of what we call them."

Not only is this wrong, it's proven wrong by the very article you're commenting on. Didn't you read it? This person who wrote this article does not share your definition of RPG. In fact, most people don't. I've talked to people who think an "RPG" is a game with a focus on story. (Like Micheal Wenk who just commented above. Thanks for the assist, Micheal!) Other people seem to think it is a game with a fantasy setting. It seems like no two people actually have the same view of what an "RPG" is... and why would they? The term has classically been used to mean something that has nothing to do with "role playing." This confusion was doomed to happen from the start.

"Horror" is slightly problematic as a genre term, because it doesn't describe gameplay at all, but at least with horror games the meaning of the term is self evident. At least it gives you a rough idea of the type of game you'll be playing. Nobody knows or can agree on what an "RPG" is supposed to be, and the term communicates nothing. All kinds of games are labeled as "RPGs," including FPS, third person shooters, stat based games, strategy games, horror games, point and click adventure games, action adventure games, beat em ups, puzzle games, and anything else you can think of.

This is obviously a problem. Don't turn a blind eye to it and cling to the status quo.

Sam Stephens
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"It's merely one supplemental aspect. The fact that you choose a class tells you absolutely nothing about how Final Fantasy plays. You also choose a class in Team Fortress, or any other number of games... but Final Fantasy and Team Fortress are completely different, aren't they? You can't just zoom in one supplemental aspect and define a genre based on that."

It's not picking a class, it's changing and defining a particular character. That's an absolutely massive difference. In Team Fortress, the player is just picking a character that best suits their play-style. In Final Fantasy, you are a building character over time based on many different attributes.

"Pokemon and Dragon Quest I'd call stat based games, since the gameplay is driven by stats."

Most games are based on stats and numbers. Think about how competitive Call of Duty players break down weapons and competitive Street Fighter players consider each character. RPG's make these elements more explicit and, most importantly, interacted with by the player. It's what the player is doing with those stats that are important and what they are doing is using them to define character roles. Some RPG's have action game elements (Mario & Luigi) and some action games have RPG elements (The Last of Us). That doesn't make Mario & Luigi an action game anymore than it makes The Last of Us an RPG.

"Not only is this wrong, it's proven wrong by the very article you're commenting on. Didn't you read it?"

Yes I did, and the author definitely sees things in the same way I do. For instance: "However player-influenced abstraction means that the player has control of the abstraction at play based on their actions and choices." The player influences and controls the abstract elements (such as stats) of the game whereas non-RPG's don't allow these kinds of options which is what I have been saying. You can't decide how high you want your Mario to jump.

The author continues by stating how Team Fortress 2 doesn't have RPG elements: "Also by using the term 'player-influenced abstraction' we can also rule out certain games. Team Fortress 2 for all the items, hats and weapons available would not be considered a RPG in any aspect. As while there was plenty of abstraction at work, all of it was not controlled by the player. My heavy without items will do the same damage and have the same chance at critting as everyone else's heavy." Again, player controlled abstraction is at the center of the author's (and my) understanding of what an RPG is.

"All kinds of games are labeled as "RPGs," including FPS, third person shooters, stat based games, strategy games, horror games, point and click adventure games, action adventure games, beat em ups, puzzle games, and anything else you can think of."

Obviously, because our genre's are not on equal levels (FPS falls under action game and therefore is more narrow) and often overlap in many ways. There are plenty RPG's with FPS elements, just like there are action games with adventure and RTS elements (Pikmin: a three genre hybrid). So naturally these terms will be mushed together sometimes. Genres can be messy, but they are also useful as a shorthand to communicate some idea about the game. Both gamers and professionals have been using the term RPG for some time now without many hiccups which means it's functional in our lexicon. Our understanding is decent enough for it that we even have sub-genres. So it seems that you maybe one of the very few who is having a problem with this.

Theresa Catalano
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"Most games are based on stats and numbers, it's just that RPG's make these elements more explicit and, most importantly, interacted with by the player."

No, that's not what I meant. When I say a game "driven" by stats, I mean a game where your success or failure is primarily determined by stats. Where you don't have direct control, and your success isn't determined by reflexes or skill. This is true in Final Fantasy, Pokemon, Persona, Dragon Quest, and the original DnD, but not true of Dark Souls, Skyrim, Mass Effect (it's a little true in the first one) etc. We need a term for those kind of games, and RPG has traditionally been the accepted term, despite the fact that it seems like a misnomer.

"Obviously, because our genre's are not on equal levels (FPS falls under action game and therefore is more narrow) and often overlap in many ways."

That's not what is happening here. Sure, genres can blend, but that doesn't change the fact that the term RPG is ill-defined, confused, and often meaningless. It also doesn't change the fact that the way you're defining it doesn't make for a good genre term.

I can't speak for the article's author, but despite your attempts to smooth it over I can't help but think that your description of RPG seems different than his. More importantly, I also noticed that you completely ignored that another person in this comments section gave a completely different definition of RPG. That's not a coincidence or anomaly... discussions like this are full of people with completely different views about what "RPG" actually means. He's not the only one with the view that RPG means a story focused game. It's only natural, because traditionally these sorts of games were the first ones to bring story to the forefront. And I assure you that many people think "RPG" means a fantasy game, which again is only natural because most so-called "RPG's" tend to have a fantasy settings. You know why there's so many people with differing views? Because the term was ill-defined in the first place. It was applied to a type of game that doesn't really fit the term.

Frankly, I find your statement "both gamers and professionals have been using the term RPG for some time now without many hiccups which means it's functional in our lexicon." ridiculous. Honestly it seems like you're out of touch. The term RPG has been a hot button topic for years. Discussions about what an RPG is are practically considered a taboo in some circles; it's like talking about religion and politics, people don't want to deal with the arguments. Why do you think the author specifically goes out of his way to explain what he means by RPG? You HAVE to do that now whenever you talk about it, or no one will know what the hell you're talking about.

Now, all that aside... let me again explain why the way you're using it doesn't make for a good genre term. Let's say you tell me that a game is an "RPG", using your definition... what have you actually told me? You've told me there is a leveling system and that there are customization options. That's fine, but what information have you given me about how the game plays? You've given me none. It could be literally any type of game. You see the problem? This doesn't work as a genre description. Other genre descriptions describe what you actually DO during a game: shooter, platformer, action, racing, simulation, puzzle... even weirder ones like point and click adventure describe a specific type of gameplay. "RPG", the way you're using it, utterly fails to do that. So it's meaningless as a genre term.

And yes, the term is widely used, but that has nothing to do with it's functionality. Tradition often trumps functionality. It's hard to break the status quo, even when it's obvious it should be broken.

Sam Stephens
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"No, that's not what I meant. When I say a game "driven" by stats, I mean a game where your success or failure is primarily determined by stats. Where you don't have direct control, and your success isn't determined by reflexes or skill. This is true in Final Fantasy, Pokemon, Persona, Dragon Quest, and the original DnD, but not true of Dark Souls, Skyrim, Mass Effect (it's a little true in the first one) etc. We need a term for those kind of games, and RPG has traditionally been the accepted term, despite the fact that it seems like a misnomer."

All you've done is distinguish between turn-based RPG's and action-RPG's, which are already commonly accepted sub-genres. These titles still share common elements, especially as they refer to changing the abstractions at play.

"More importantly, I also noticed that you completely ignored that another person in this comments section gave a completely different definition of RPG."

He's just one person, so it hardly seemed relevant for me to address it, but if you insist. Michael was trying to describe what an RPG is in a fictional, non-gameplay way. Of course, this is a problem many people have when discussing any aspect of game design. However, Mr. Bryce and I were talking about RPG's in a gameplay focused way. He understands that RPG gameplay is designed around abstracted and suspended features that players interact with and shape over time. When tackling the heart of the gameplay, which Michael was not doing, it's not to difficult to recognize these features.

"You know why there's so many people with differing views? Because the term was ill-defined in the first place. It was applied to a type of game that doesn't really fit the term."

Language is not perfect and, depending on how you think of video games, will not always be shared by everyone. Considering this, there are far more pressing issues when it comes to language and video games. Our understanding of RPG's is far more coherent and practical than some other semantical properties (such as the very definition of video game).

"The term RPG has been a hot button topic for years. Discussions about what an RPG is are practically considered a taboo in some circles; it's like talking about religion and politics, people don't want to deal with the arguments. Why do you think the author specifically goes out of his way to explain what he means by RPG? You HAVE to do that now whenever you talk about it, or no one will know what the hell you're talking about."

I talk to people about video games everyday and not once was the term RPG ever a source of confusion or contention. People do consistently know what I'm talking about, so there doesn't seem to be an issue. The author of this article defined RPG so he could have a detailed article about what an RPG is in design terms (which few people are familiar with). This allowed him to explain why so many modern games have adopted RPG elements.

"That's fine, but what information have you given me about how the game plays? You've given me none. It could be literally any type of game. You see the problem? This doesn't work as a genre description."

Is the term "action game" any different? What does it describe about the game other than real-time challenges? GoldenEye, Super Mario Bros., Portal, Guilty Gear, The Legend of Zelda, and Cut the Rope are all action games, This doesn't tell us much about how they play. But the term still says something about those games in the same way that RPG says something about a large group of games.

"Other genre descriptions describe what you actually DO during a game"

So does the term RPG; you role-play, which, as both Mr. Bryce and I have demonstrated, is certainly applicable to gameplay systems. Even if the name of the genre didn't describe how these games are played, I don't see how much of a problem it would be if that genre has a set of core gameplay principals.

Theresa Catalano
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"All you've done is distinguish between turn-based RPG's and action-RPG's, which are already commonly accepted sub-genres."

"Action-RPG" is a dumb term. The RPG part is superfluous. I'm not the only one who thinks that.

"Language is not perfect and, depending on how you think of video games, will not always be shared by everyone. Considering this, there are far more pressing issues when it comes to language and video games."

So you concede it's an issue. Great, that's a start.

"Is the term "action game" any different? What does it describe about the game other than real-time challenges?"

An action game is a game based around real time combat. That communicates, in a general sense, what the gameplay is like. That is what a genre description should do.

"GoldenEye, Super Mario Bros., Portal, Guilty Gear, The Legend of Zelda, and Cut the Rope are all action games, This doesn't tell us much about how they play."

No, that's all wrong. The vast majority of people wouldn't categorize any of those as "action games." Goldeneye is primarily about action combat specifically involving shooting; thus, it's a subset of action games called a Shooter. Super Mario Brothers is primarily about jumping. Thus, it's a Platformer. Portal and Cut the Rope are primarily about solving puzzles; thus, they are puzzle games. Guilty Gear is primarily about combat between human players; thus, it's a subset of action games called a Fighting Game.

The Legend of Zelda is a hybrid game, with a focus on action, exploration, and puzzles. This is one game that if you ask a bunch of people, you'd get different answers about it's genre, with some even labeled it an RPG. (This is not uncommon at all.) I'd call it an action adventure game, personally.

"So does the term RPG; you role-play, which, as both Mr. Bryce and I have demonstrated, is certainly applicable to gameplay systems."

First of all, don't speak for Mr. Bryce. Speak for yourself. Even if he did agree with you, I'm sure he would appreciate that. Secondly, "role-playing" does NOT do what all of the other genres descriptions do. It does not describe what the gameplay is like. Role-playing is a meta concept... it's acting out the part of someone else. This takes place in your mind, and you can do that with any game, with any style of gameplay.

Even if there are game mechanics in place to help facilitate this mental exercise, that doesn't change the fact that "role-playing game" doesn't describe the game's actual gameplay. The way you're using the term, it merely describes one aspect that is supplemental to what you actually do. Be honest with me... when you tell people that a game is a "role-playing game," even supposing they are using the same definition as you (which is a big IF,) you have to concede that you aren't actually communicating how the game is played, right? If you say "action" game, you are communicating that there is a heavy focus on combat. That's certainly communicates in a general sense how the game is played. But if you say RPG (using your own definition) there might be a focus on action, or turn based combat, or strategy, or puzzles, or platforming, or point and click adventure, or even just reading text. The game's actual gameplay focus is left totally up in the air by your definition. You'll concede that's true, right?

Sam Stephens
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"So you concede it's an issue. Great, that's a start."

No, I said the term RPG is as good as its ever going to be. It works well enough.

"An action game is a game based around real time combat."

From Wikipedia: "The action game is a game genre that emphasizes physical challenges, including hand-eye coordination and reaction-time. The genre includes diverse sub-genres such as fighting games, shooter games, and platform games which are widely considered the most important action game, though some real-time strategy games are also considered to be action games."

So it's very clear that "action" describes any kind of real-time challenge, not just combat. In Portal and Cut the Rope, players don't just solve the puzzles, they have to perform them through a set of movement and timing challenges. Even rhythm games and certain board games are action games. It seems you have made the same mistake you criticized Michael for by focusing on the fictional aspects of the games (simulated combat) and not what is actually happening at the performance level with the player.

"First of all, don't speak for Mr. Bryce. Speak for yourself. Even if he did agree with you, I'm sure he would appreciate that."

Hold on a second. It was you who has been arguing that my views did not line up with that of the authors, so it seems perfectly reasonable that I push against that notion.

"Secondly, "role-playing" does NOT do what all of the other genres descriptions do. It does not describe what the gameplay is like."

When a player is defining their character(s) attributes to build a particular ROLE, what are they doing? They are role-playing; not in a fictional sense, but in a very real gameplay sense.

"Be honest with me... when you tell people that a game is a "role-playing game," even supposing they are using the same definition as you (which is a big IF,) you have to concede that you aren't actually communicating how the game is played, right?"

Whenever I mention the word RPG people think of two things: abstracted turn-based combat with definable abstractions, and abstracted action games with definable abstractions. Since those two ideas perfectly describe what an RPG is and how they play, then I would say yes, people know very well what I am talking about when I say RPG. It's not "left totally up in the air" because there is a general concept of gameplay tied to the term whether it actually describes it or not.

Theresa Catalano
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"From Wikipedia: "The action game is a game genre that emphasizes physical challenges, including hand-eye coordination and reaction-time. The genre includes diverse sub-genres such as fighting games, shooter games, and platform games which are widely considered the most important action game, though some real-time strategy games are also considered to be action games."

I don't completely disagree with that definition, as it does emphasize physical challenges, hand eye coordination, and reaction time. That's all true. And I also said myself that fighting games and shooters are sub-genres of the action genre. But, I think that definition is sloppy. I honestly think mine is more succinct and accurate. Action games *always* revolve around combat. That's just what the term means, it's applied in the same way that it's applied to films. I'm quite sure that 99% of gamers would agree that's true.

"When a player is defining their character(s) attributes to build a particular ROLE, what are they doing? They are role-playing; not in a fictional sense, but in a very real gameplay sense."

Not necessarily true. People who actually role-play in table top games make a distinction between role-players and min-maxers. Point being: you can focus on that stats and ignore the actual "role playing" aspect. That's even easier to do in a video game where there isn't actually social interaction with other real people.

But that's beside the point. Even if you adjust the definition of "role-playing" to include min-maxers, you're still ignoring that that is merely one aspect of a game, and it is not necessarily the main focus of gameplay. Essentially, ALL games have character attributes, so the ability to adjust or develop them can be attached to pretty much any kind of game. It's one type of choice you can give the player to control their gameplay experience. But this choice itself does not define the gameplay experience... the MEAT of the gameplay is what you use those stats for, what you actually do, what actions you take to progress through the game. That is what I mean by "focus of gameplay."

Let me give you another example. There's essentially not that big of a difference between a shooter with stat development and one without. The meat of the gameplay is basically the same... you spend most of your gameplay time moving, aiming, and firing. That is a particular brand of skill, and a particular genre of game, the Shooter. Adding the ability to develop your stats or make choices in skill trees really doesn't change the game in any fundamental way. Instead of unlocking abilities through skill trees, you can give them to the player from the start. Instead of unlocking an ability to heal, you can have health pick ups. This does affect gameplay in the sense that you progress differently, but the actual gameplay itself remains largely the same. You're still using the same set of player skills to progress. The type of game you are playing does not change.

Now, look at the difference between two games that both have stat development / skill trees: a shooter and a turn based game. Both of these games play fundamentally different. You could have the exact same skills and abilities, the exact same skill trees... but what you actually DO in the game is going to require totally different sets of skills, a totally different approach.

That is the real difference between game genres. That is what I mean by "focus of gameplay." That is why your definition of "RPG" does not work as a genre distinction.

Sam Stephens
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"Action games *always* revolve around combat. That's just what the term means, it's applied in the same way that it's applied to films. I'm quite sure that 99% of gamers would agree that's true."

You are contradicting yourself here by framing the action genre in a fictional, non-gameplay context. Combat is the context, but what the player is doing in these situations is no different then what they are doing while playing a Mario game. You even equate action games to action movies. Remember, the simulated action is just an abstraction for players to wrap their heads around.

"Point being: you can focus on that stats and ignore the actual "role playing" aspect. That's even easier to do in a video game where there isn't actually social interaction with other real people."

As I said before, many RPG's feature role-playing in all senses of the word. This doesn't change that the concept of "min-maxing" is only applicable to games with RPG elements because that is what an RPG is, defining characters attributes over time. It also doesn't tell us much about games which have always been recognized as RPG's that don't feature any role-playing options outside of the gameplay (Mario & Luigi).

"Essentially, ALL games have character attributes, so the ability to adjust or develop them can be attached to pretty much any kind of game. It's one type of choice you can give the player to control their gameplay experience. But this choice itself does not define the gameplay experience..."

You are forgetting a huge element of RPG's and that is suspension. We are not just talking about fine-tuning these attributes at any given moment. We are talking development and how all of these choices cary over time. Customization is only a part of it. Not only do player control the abstractions, the games are designed and balanced around these choices because they last the whole game.

"Let me give you another example. There's essentially not that big of a difference between a shooter with stat development and one without. The meat of the gameplay is basically the same..."

I think you are being a bit dishonest by not acknowledging just how big of a difference this is. Adding RPG elements adds a whole new dimension while retaining the original elements. Fallout 3 may be a shooter, but if the player isn't considering their own character progression, it's going to be a rough road ahead as the game is balanced like an RPG. It's not enough just to have the real-time skills and good aiming. The player avatar has to have the simulated skills too. Headshot's will get you nowhere if you haven't been putting skill points into your damage output or upgrading your weapons. Master Chief is perfectly capable of taking out the toughest elite at the start of Halo, the player just needs the skills to do it. In contrast, some areas of Fallout: New Vegas are practically impossible to traverse early on because the avatar, not the player, doesn't have the necessary skills at that point in time. So it's very clear that Fallout 3 doesn't really play like a shooter in many ways. The RPG elements that makes up this action-RPG hybrid requires an additional set of player skills that exist separately from the action oriented real-time ones.

In this sense, RPG's and action games are on the same level. Neither of them has a "pure" form, they just describe a particular type of gameplay that is more defined by narrower genres and sub-genres.

Theresa Catalano
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"You are contradicting yourself here by framing the action genre in a fictional, non-gameplay context. Combat is the context, but what the player is doing in these situations is no different then what they are doing while playing a Mario game."

I'm not following you. What do you mean by "fictional"? What do you mean by "non-gameplay"? The word "combat" certainly does describe something you do in gameplay, in a straight forward way.

"You are forgetting a huge element of RPG's and that is suspension.
We are not just talking about fine-tuning these attributes at any given moment. We are talking development and how all of these choices cary over time. Customization is only a part of it. Not only do player control the abstractions, the games are designed and balanced around these choices because they last the whole game. "

Are you trying to confuse me with strange language on purpose? "Suspension"? You aren't saying anything different than I'm saying. That's exactly what "developing character attributes" is, which is what I said. Is the word "development" not clear enough? It means growth. Obviously that growth lasts the whole game.

And that doesn't change my point at all. ALL games have character attributes, so the ability to develop them can be attached to pretty much any kind of game. That is still very much true. You have to agree to that, right?

"I think you are being a bit dishonest by not acknowledging just how big of a difference this is."

No, I feel that you are being dishonest by inflating this difference in your mind. You aren't listening to my examples, or considering what their implication.

"Adding RPG elements adds a whole new dimension while retaining the original elements."

"A whole new dimension" is an overstatment. It does add another aspect to think about... but that aspect is really just framing the same thing in a different way. You just said a moment ago that RPG's have to be about developing stats, not just altering them. Well, there's a fine line between developing them and altering them. There's millions of ways for a game to let you alter stats... for example, even a thing as simple as a power up will let you alter stats.

Let's use some more examples to illustrate how small the difference is: In a game with stat development, you can increase your maximum life. In a game with health pick ups, you can also increase your maximum life by picking up heart containers. It amounts to the same thing, gameplay-wise.

In a game with stat development, your character might gain a healing ability. In a game without, you might pick up health potions. It amounts to the same thing gameplay-wise.

In a game with stat development, you might increase your character's attack strength. However, future enemes will be balanced with that expectation. In a game where your attack strength never changes, the enemies don't grow to meet your expected strength. In the end, the actual difference on gameplay isn't that great.

"It's not enough just to have the real-time skills and good aiming. The player avatar has to have the simulated skills too."

But the flipside of that is: once those choices are made, actually progressing through the game uses the exact same gameplay as a shooter. And how much time does it actually take to choose where to put their points? Is that the dominant part of their experience, or is progressing through the game by playing it as a shooter the dominant part?

"So it's very clear that Fallout 3 doesn't really play like a shooter in many ways."

If you put it like that, of course it's different, but that's too wishy washy, and that's your problem. All games are different in "many ways." But the core mechanics between shooters are the same, regardless of whether there's stat development or not!

"The RPG elements that makes up this action-RPG hybrid requires an additional set of player skills that exist separately from the action oriented real-time ones."

No, this is wrong. Placing skill points isn't a "player skill." It has nothing to do with skill. You can call it an additional form of knowledge required, but a lot of these games are designed so that it's obvious how to build your character in an effective way, so the barrier for that knowledge is usually very low.

"In this sense, RPG's and action games are on the same level."

Only if you completely twist logic around to the point where you're practically upside down. This is a twisted conclusion that comes from faulty premises: the idea that choosing abilities from skill trees is a "player skill," ignoring what "core mechanics" means, overstating the difference between a game where you develop stats and one where you can simply alter them. You've used a lot of twisted logic to justify your conclusion that "action games play like turn based games." That conclusion may be fine in your own little world inside your head, but I think you'll find that outside in the real world, pretty much no one is going to agree to it, because it is just so obviously wrong.

Ozzie Smith
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I've been very annoyed lately about so many action games have really boring RPG skill-trees and stats that is basically just filler to make the game appear more meaty. Do people really find it fun to choose between getting 10% faster reload speed vs 10% more ammo in a clip? So many action games in the last 3-5 years have had skill-trees and such that just feel like busy work instead of actually being interesting.

Josh Bycer
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I think it has to do with adding that sense of progression to the mechanics. So you're not just doing the same thing every time, but you're doing it with 4% better accuracy or your guns do 10 points of increased damage. It's a motivational tool that makes the player feel more powerful or shows that they have progressed while playing the game. Which incidentally is what the RPG progression model is all about.

Theresa Catalano
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Yes, it's playing into psychology and trying to make people feel a sense of progress (even though that's often an illusion.) Unfortunately, I think it's very overdone, and often used lazily. It also contributes to a general feeling of homogeneity and staleness in modern games. Developers would be doing themselves a huge favor if they try to wean themselves off of this bad habit.

Josh Bycer
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Well it took action designers about ten years to get over filling their games with QTEs. So I guess we have enough 6 years to go before RPG mechanics may be cut back on.

Theresa Catalano
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Action designers have gotten over QTE's? When did this happen?

Josh Bycer
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No, they just stopped making it a requirement after every fight and cutscene to have a QTE segment. It's still there, just not in your face :)

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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While "10% faster reload speed" feels blatantly unimaginative, these things also play in the player's sense of planning long-term. More than just progression, this has to do with having a *personalized* feel for your character. E.g. "I want my character to be good at pistols, so I invest in upgrades to those."

Now certainly, the more novel and creative a skill upgrade is, the better, like, say, instead of a simple percent increase in something that you can already do, how about: "allow your character to throw their gun at the enemy if they're out of ammo".

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In a broader sense, I believe the "unlock skills" design trope is to prevent the player from being overwhelmed with too many options at the start of the game. Getting "Shiv Master" in Last of Us (a unique ability to let you escape an otherwise inescapable and fatal attack from one of the enemy types in the game) opens up new tactics when fighting.

Imagine if you had all abilities at the start of the game, coupled with some confusing button layouts or controls, it can end up only frustrating the player. But if you let them get used to each new ability first, they can properly enjoy the game as intended.

Sometimes, I think it's not necessarily having some RPG design tropes into the game just for the sake of it, but because of practical needs.

Sam Stephens
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Excellent write-up! Your description of what abstraction is and how it works into game design is very clear and useful. Keep up the good work.

Larry Carney
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Engaging article, however I wonder just how important gameplay is to the modern RPG? Many contemporary big box retail RPGs appear to eschew gameplay in favor of focusing on a more cinematic and linear experience (while this is most true of JRPGs, even the most recent Fallout seemed to be on autopilot gameplay-wise).

Not being a developer, or on the publishing part of things either, I am curious if any of the developers or publisher-side folks here have made any conscious, market-driven changes to how they design or sell their role-playing games, and if those changes are a result of the role-playing game audience (which I suspect is an older demographic) not finding the usual skill-trees or incremental upgrading to the +1 Sword of Soul Crushing Ennui gameplay mechanics something which meets their desires of gamers: as a possibly older market, have their expectation for what they want from role-playing games changed and caused a possible shift away from a focus of gameplay in the modern role-playing game?

Sam Stephens
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"Engaging article, however I wonder just how important gameplay is to the modern RPG? Many contemporary big box retail RPGs appear to eschew gameplay in favor of focusing on a more cinematic and linear experience (while this is most true of JRPGs, even the most recent Fallout seemed to be on autopilot gameplay-wise)."

I would actually argue that JRPG's are more gameplay focused than western ones. Most western RPG's have a strong emphasis on dialogue and NPC interactions, branching stories, huge sandbox worlds, and defining characters in narrative ways. JRPG's have mostly been about turn-based combat. In fact, the linearity of those games puts an even stronger emphasis on the gameplay because there is little else outside of it.

Josh Bycer
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That's always been my thoughts as well. A few years ago I wrote a blog series on my favorite RPGs mainly due to their unique systems and gameplay. And it wasn't until after it was posted that someone commented that the whole list was nothing but JRPGs.

Which was funny to me because I swore off playing the genre in the late 90s-early 00s and didn't come back to it until the time of Persona 3, Etrian Odyssey and Demon's Souls. And coming back full circle, Xenoblade Chronicles was my favorite game of 2012.

Theresa Catalano
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The thing is though that what people call a "JRPG" isn't really a "genre." Demons Souls, Persona 3, and Xenoblade are all completely different games, and don't really fit in the same genre. It's strange, because it almost seems like "jRPG" is just a word we use for Japanese games, these days.

But yes, when it comes to stat based games, I think Japanese games have always been more creative when it comes to designing systems, perhaps it's because they still embrace turn based combat. Western games have largely turned away from turn based combat, even the Dragon Age series which was the last vestige of that has seemingly been turning to action games.

I think it's a publisher problem, though. There are creative western games out there... you just usually have to look in the indie space for them. Just recently Child of Light came out, and it's a western turn based game. Unfortunately, it's not very creative with it's systems, in fact it's pretty bog standard... but at least it has a unique art style.

Rivette Aksys
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@Theresa Catalano
If you have the time; which, to you, do comprise RPGs that are creative with their systems ?

Both turn based and non turnbased. I'd be really interested.
If you take away all the fluff that you don't get to experience as actual gameplay, and the grinding and casino like leveling..
Most such games dont try to craft a nice arc or set of arcs for the player to experience the actual impact or difference of their choices on - its just pretty wild systems of stats.

Child of light gave me a little bit of a hint how the chess-like> having-time-to-think-and-experiment with choices can be interesting to people.
But outside of the turn-based fights there was no gameplay just linear crafts and artistry.

Which games would you gameplay-wise suggest as more rich and diverse in what they actually intend and achieve for their players possibilities ?

Larry Carney
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I'm not sure I agree that JRPG's are more gameplay focused than western ones, or are innovative. Regarding innovation, many, even the ones listed as innovators, still rely on a system of menu-based combat which borrows heavily from D&D and the heavy damage dealer / buff and debuff / healer trinity.

That isn't to say there aren't examples of innovation (I'm fond of Star Ocean and it's approach to a more action-focused gameplay experience, and I just might bother Square Enix with another useless email asking them to bring over the sequel to Secret of Mana), merely that when one can go between the first Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy 13 and get an unnerving sense of nostalgia, that perhaps the genre could use a bit more creativity in its approach to designing new gameplay experiences.

Theresa Catalano
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What do you mean "still rely on a system of menu-based combat"? That's like saying "action games still rely on human reflexes." How exactly can turn based games evolve past menu based combat when that's a defining characteristic of the genre?

Are you simply stating your preference for action based games? If so, you might want to re-think that, because you've accidentally framed it in an arrogant way. You've suggested that "innovation" has to do with meeting your own personal preferences. I think you can understand why people who like turn based games would find that distasteful, right?

Shea Rutsatz
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I'm not sure if I'm the only one here, but you could put most sports titles in the RPG category (somewhat). Remove the sport overlay, and you have a huge system of stats, skills, relationships, planning, etc.

Whether you play as an athlete or a coach, I find it interesting how they have so much RPG stat-gaming at the core. Not asking a question here, just thought it was interesting.

Josh Bycer
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You're not the first person I've heard made this comment and that could also explain the popularity of sim sports titles where you are managing a team as opposed to playing the game. As you're right, there is an entirely different set of complexity and depth involved with managing the team vs. playing the game.

John Gordon
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I would define RPG as "a game that is highly inspired by tabletop D&D", because that is generally what people mean when they use the term RPG. The problem with that is that tabletop D&D is such a freeform game that there are a lot of different ways to play it. There is no one correct way.

That is why one person can think of a "stat based game" as an RPG and other people see a "fantasy narrative game" as an RPG. I think many would agree that Roguelikes are a subgenre of RPG, and they actually play quite differently than most other types of RPGs.

On top of all that people have iterated on RPG designs for decades now, so we are to the point where there are plenty of shades of grey when it comes to what is and is not an RPG. It is a genre that is hard to define by gameplay, because it was never really defined by gameplay to begin with.

Theresa Catalano
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To be fair, I think in the beginning it *was* defined by gameplay. It was first applied to games like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, or Computer based DND games. Those games all followed a specific pattern: they were all games that used turn based combat with a heavy emphasis on stat development. And there was a good reason for that pattern: those mechanics were directly taken from DND.

The problem though, is that "role-playing game" is misleading label for such a genre, which derives from the fact that DnD is a social game. Video games aren't social in the same way, so the term was never a good fit. Because of this lack of clarity, people started to have varying ideas about what "RPG" was supposed to mean, and the meaning of the term fragmented.


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