Guido Henkel has been a professional game developer since 1983 and served as producer on Planescape: Torment.
The extinction of computer roleplaying games seemed inevitable by the mid-1990s, a time when publishers almost uniformly dropped the genre. High development costs and long development cycles made them risky propositions, especially since they catered to a niche audience and therefore never generated the same shareholder-pleasing profits as the industry darlings, first-person shooters.
But things have changed. Despite the doomsaying, the genre survived through adaptation, by streamlining gameplay features. Computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) became more accessible and began to appeal to a larger audience and as a result, it is safe to say that today’s CRPGs are mainstream titles that have very little in common with their ancestors from the 80s and 90s. In fact, one could argue that they have very little in common with roleplaying games, period. (Please note that this excursion does not take into consideration the games stemming from the resurgence of retro RPGs in recent years, of course, as they are an intentional throwback to classic design paradigms.)
Despite their mass appeal, to say that contemporary CRPGs lack feature-depth and are too shallow would be a manifest oversimplification of the game mechanics at work, and truly a misrepresentation of the state of CRPGs. Quite on the contrary, these games do, in fact, have a lot of depth and they do have a lot of features. It is the way they are presented and employ these features, that generates the impression of overly shallow gameplay.
The early CRPGs the industry produced were all severely limited by technology. Slow computers, sparse memory, expensive storage and low screen resolutions all held back the full potential of these games. As a result, CRPGs were forced to focus on certain aspects of the roleplaying experience and drop others entirely. But hardware improved over the years.
Realms of Arkania 1 - Blade of Destiny
Technology is no longer truly a limiting factor, and yet, computer roleplaying games have moved farther away from their pen&paper origins than ever.
When we started development of the Realms of Arkania games in 1989, it was our goal to duplicate the experience of a pen&paper roleplaying session as best as we could. While we may have gone overboard in terms of detail and overwhelmed players with depth in the process, the games offered unsurpassed flexibility in many ways. It is the reason why they are still so popular today and have fan communities dedicated to and re-playing them even 25 years after their release. But make no mistake, even those games were severely hampered.
In today’s world, technology is no longer truly a limiting factor, and yet, computer roleplaying games have moved farther away from their pen&paper origins than ever. Perhaps it is time for the CRPG genre to re-examine itself—a necessary step if we want to take the computer roleplaying genre to its next evolutionary rung.
Virtually all triple-A computer roleplaying games have been reduced to a very simple formula.
Virtually all triple-A computer roleplaying games have been reduced to a very simple formula. You run around, you fight opponents, you talk to friendly NPCs and you follow fairly static quest lines. In most cases, the player will feel fairly detached from the actual experience because the in-game auto pilot makes sure you never have to invest any of your own thinking prowess or imagination, or read a single line of dialogue for that matter—though you will have to click mindlessly through them. You’ll never get lost either because the mapping features will always let you find your way from quest point A to point B without deviation, and if you are lucky, once in a blue moon, you may actually be allowed to make a decision that has some sort of consequence. Puzzles are exceedingly rare and when you stumble across them, typically at the end of a dungeon, they have the solution already built-in or are of a rather mundane arranging or do-something-in-the-correct-order kind of sort. Anything, really, to make sure the player never gets stuck or even held up for more than a few seconds.
Not that this isn’t fun, but a real roleplaying game is a much different affair than that. What we are looking at here is a mere skeleton of the original genre, boiled down to its bare essentials, and then some. Alternative solutions to problems and paths are usually not available.
But what if you don’t wish to fight an opponent? Why should you feel a need to attack every single breathing being in the wilderness, just because they appear unfriendly? What if you want to barter with a troll instead of gutting him with a spectacular finishing move? What if you’d rather charm your way out of a situation? What if you would prefer to sneak up to and steal any quest artifact without having to kill the enemy? Very few games will offer you any of these options unless they are specifically part of the desired solution path.
Most everything in these games is running on a track, fixed in place and predetermined with very little effect in the grand scheme of things. The open world design of today’s CRPGs will give you the illusion that you can do whatever you want but the freedom of an open world is really all in the exploration. (That, in itself, is actually quite impressive and something old-school games could never replicate.)
Alternative solutions to problems and paths are usually not available.
Sure, you can tackle many quests out of order, but only because they are of no relevance and don’t tie into the world narrative as a whole, leaving the game universe still somewhat anemic.
Occasionally, certain storyline events and quests do change over time, though for the most part, they are encapsulated, pre-scripted and limited to key events in the game, not the gameplay experience as a whole. So when it comes to actual roleplaying, how much freedom of choice is really left?
In fact, most modern CRPGs play like MMOs in some sort of single-player mode, filled with repetitive and often banal quests that turn the experience into a level grind rather than an adventure.
Originally, it was a boon to let the computer take over some of the menial tasks for players. Drawing and annotating level maps on grid paper were not everyone’s interpretation of fun, so very quickly, CRPGs added auto-mapping features and journals to keep track of quest assignments. But have we gone overboard with it?
We have created games that no longer necessitate players to think for themselves.
Today, with the computer tracking and mapping very quest destination, every crafting resource, blacksmith, bandit camp, grindstone, and store, along with every important NPC, every dungeon entrance, and every campsite, some games will even conveniently plot a path to your next quest destination for you. Where is the play left in this sort of roleplaying? We have created games that no longer necessitate players to think for themselves. It requires no imagination and moreover, the game is robbing the player of many of the exciting details that made classic roleplaying games so memorable. How many people got lost in the Snare in The Bard’s Tale 2 and still remember it today? I know, I do.
Interestingly, even after all these years and with all the advancements in technology, dialogues are still one of the weakest spots in CRPGs—though clearly, some games fare better in that department than others. In Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, for example, dialogues are really just window dressing to get players to click on a certain response to advance the conversation or plot and, predictably enough, it is usually the first entry in the dialogue selections. Dragon Age: Inquisition, on the other hand, has a more complex approach that is less predictable and does at least create the impression that different selections will generate vastly different outcomes, even if that is truly the case only on occasion.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
As a result, dialogues and the accompanying cinematic sequences often feel like tedious roadblocks and filler material instead of an actual development in the overall world narrative.
CRPG gameplay revolves around exploration, while that of a traditional roleplaying game revolves mostly around problem-solving.
Traditionally, roleplaying games were not that simple, mostly because they feature a living, breathing, human game master, of course, but also because of the way these games were designed. A maximum of freedom was the key, to enable players, while, at the same time, forcing them to make decisions almost constantly. As I mentioned before, much of a CRPG’s gameplay revolves around exploration, while that of a traditional roleplaying game revolves mostly around problem-solving. These are very different fundamentals shaping the overall experience and the resulting approach to game design. One is leading the player, the other is challenging him.
You will be hard pressed to find a contemporary CRPGs that is not leading the player from beginning to end. From one quest point to the next. You don’t even have to explore the beautiful open world to find them. They are plain to see on the map and much of the gameplay is reduced to a walk (or ride) from point A to point B where you will be confronted by either a monster or an NPC, stringing you through a dialog, which in turn will inevitably take you on a detour to the next quest point.
When roleplaying games went through their streamlining process in the early 2000s, a process which took them to their current mainstream formula, the focus has always been to make them more accessible, easier to manage and learn. The computer auto-pilot I mentioned before was a significant part of that process, stripping away a lot of the nerdy data work. Interestingly enough, however, today’s roleplaying games often still carry a lot of statistics with them. Not so much in terms of character attributes, dice rules and advancement exceptions, the way classic CRPGs did, but instead in the form of skill trees. Skill trees have become such a trope in computer games that you can find them everywhere these days, even in pure first-person shooters. In a roleplaying game, however, they do miss the point of the actual game when employed incorrectly.
Unused skill trees are nothing but clutter.
As I mentioned, traditional pen&paper roleplaying is all about problem-solving and as a result, it involves a lot of trying things out. The player brings the imagination and the skills of the game character are used to overcome precarious situations and challenges. In return, these skills are improved over time through their usage. Learning by doing. Too many CRPGs completely ignore this aspect of character development. Instead, they simply weigh down every character with all possible skills relating to his class and profession, all neatly laid out in an array of skill trees. It is a way to impress players, creating the impression of roleplaying depth and versatility. While keeping it manageable, one skill advancement at a time, the reality of it is, if your Level 5 warrior has never once wielded an ax, there really is no need to burden the player with all the excess baggage that goes along with the skill trees relating to axe-wielders. At this point, it is nothing but bloat.
The progression of a character is important, the ability to grow and distinguish the character, make him unique. Most games directly tie distributable skill points to level advancement. No real growth of the character through learning takes place. You killed enough monsters or solved enough quests to gain a level? Here is a skill point. Do with it what you wish. It works from a technical standpoint, but as a true roleplaying feature it is too disjointed and simplistic. When a game goes so far as to allow the player to accumulate so many skill points that he can unlock virtually every branch in every skill tree, the aspiration of unique characters has been lost entirely.
An approach that is much more in line with roleplaying sentiments is that found in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, where the character has (invisible) attributes that increase through usage and translates them into potential skill advancements. You still have to deal with the clutter of twenty unrelated skill trees, but at the very least, the game really invites you to use skills and grow them through play. (In fact, Skyrim is the game that has, perhaps, created the most roleplaying-like experience in any CRPG to date on numerous levels.)
From a story design perspective, contemporary CRPGs are richer than they have ever been. Main story plots, legendary storylines, subplots, class quests and the like weave a dense world that is brimming with content, no doubt. It is truly staggering, the amount of content found in games like Skyrim, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Fallout 4, Final Fantasy XV or Witcher 3, to name just a few. Yet at the same time, they all tend to share one weakness. Believability.
Here you are, a tough-as-nails adventurer, long time teacher, and master to acolytes, taken down by a Level 1 rat. Nothing says world-saving hero quite like getting killed by a rodent the size of your fist. Surely, we as an industry can do better than reiterating these same old clichés. If your story centers around a character that is experienced and represents a master in what he does, then the in-game character should properly reflect that. He may still start at Level 1, as it relates to the game, for all I care, but at the very least the opponents he faces should be properly matched, as should the quests and the respect the character receives within the game world.
Nothing says world-saving hero quite like getting killed by a rodent the size of your fist.
Despite their wealth of world content—or perhaps, because of it—virtually all contemporary CRPGs are completely lacking social awareness. When thinking of AI in games, we typically associate it with smart pathfinding, and overall movement and state behavior of (enemy) entities, but never really with social behavior. As a result, in 2013, I crafted the template for a design called the Psycho Engine and published an outline of it as part of my Deathfire roleplaying game that I tried to fund on Kickstarter. It describes the building blocks of an artificial intelligence system that can be used to make characters in a game aware of any number of factors, namely other characters, their strengths and weaknesses, peccadillos, history, achievements… virtually anything.
During GDC 2014, Bioshock creator Ken Levine explored a similar concept that he called “Narrative Legos,” which essentially serves the same purpose—to track and provide information to in-game entities in order to affect the narrative flow of a game. Later that year, Shadow of Mordor was released, and with it the Nemesis system, which, for all intents and purposes, is a lite version of my Psycho Engine design.
For some reason, no other game has since made use of similar technologies, which is disappointing because it would allow for incredibly rich narratives that directly adapt to the player’s actions and achievements. In current games, you play a hero… an unsung hero, one that no one knows and no one recognizes. All the hard work the player puts into the game remains mostly unappreciated by its inhabitants. Things at the Jorrvaskr in Skyrim never change, for example, not at the start of the game, not during the lengthy adventure and not after you’ve completed all the storylines and DLCs. It, like almost everything else in these game worlds, feels static. It appears as if simply having enough having NPCs walk around the premises is mistaken for actual depth in most games. Without the mesh of an in-game society and culture, they are nothing but gameplay noise.
Without social awareness, nothing you do inside the game will feel like you truly made a difference.
After completing your favorite CRPG and beating the ultimate bad guy, do you feel like you really made a difference? You closed rifts, killed evil warlocks, killed their dragons, but do you feel that you truly made that world a better place? That you have actually achieved anything of value?
I usually do not. I feel unfulfilled because there is no social awareness of my achievements in the game universe. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game that touches upon it to some degree. The Inquisitor (player character) is recognized and respected—or disrespected—throughout the game world, but it is no real social awareness based on individual achievements. It is rather built into the character and the main storyline. The player ALWAYS plays the Inquisitor—from the very beginning. He doesn’t become him or her!
Real social awareness would recognize the player’s deeds and the world around him would react to it. People would talk about it, ask him about his experiences, tell other people about it in taverns, actually creating an in-game reputation for the character based on his actual achievements rather than sporadically, along predetermined lines.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Out of all the game mechanics, this kind of social awareness and world response to that awareness is probably going to be the landmark that will take CRPGs to their next generation. The excitement created by the Nemesis system, regardless of how shallow it actually was, is a clear indication that players are looking for this kind of in-game feedback. When properly implemented, it can create a completely new sense of gratification for players that does not require the constant slaying of anything that moves. It will take the roleplaying aspects of these games back into finely delineated facets and allow computer games to much more accurately resemble real life roleplaying sessions.
Over the past 20 years, the design of computer roleplaying games has evolved very little.
It has been almost 20 years since Baldur’s Gate steered the RPG genre away from the abyss of oblivion and took it to a more mainstream audience. It has been almost equally long since Everquest popularized true open-world design in the genre. However, in the long years since, the design of computer roleplaying games has evolved very little. The visuals may be more dazzling, the storylines ever more complex, and the worlds ever larger, waiting to be explored with their rich tapestry of flora, fauna, and denizenry but at the core what they have always been truly missing is a beating heart.
As I play through the current fare of CRPGs I can’t help but feel the genre has stagnated and has become utterly formulaic. I strongly feel that it is time for the next step in the evolution of the genre. Let us make use of the technologies and incredible processing power at our disposal for more than stunning visuals. Let us turn the computer into a real Dungeon Master, a storyteller who weaves a narrative fabric as we play along, who is sensitive to the way individual players behave and tackle the game, who challenges the player in accordance with his unique strengths, weaknesses, achievements and playing style. Someone who knows how to force the player to make decisions of consequence.
These are just some of the ideas and design paradigms I have been accumulating over the many years that I’ve been involved in the development of computer roleplaying games. But even these glimmers should give you an inkling of the kind of brand new experience one could create if applying them to a new roleplaying game. Are you up to the challenge? I'd love to help.