Too Much of a Good Thing?

The RPG genre has been in dire straits since about halfway through last gen. While AAA titles still sell a great deal without any trouble, and even non-AAA title are still profitable enough for us to see multiple RPGs each year, conversation between both reviewing critics and fans concerning RPGs continues to wander back to the state of one of gaming's oldest genres: Where RPGs are going, are they in trouble, can they remain relevant in the future?

I doubt I have the answer to any of these, but a creativity bunny attacked me so I figured I'd do a post about it anyways.

For years, RPGs have been the primary source for lovers of story in video games (along with SRPGs/RTS, which to me is all one big mega-genre anyway). This has been true dating all the way back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System, with Dragon Warrior and the original Final Fantasy games, and then going forward into the Super Nintendo with Final Fantasy III (VI) and Chrono Trigger, even up to the game that brought modern gamers into the RPG genre, Final Fantasy VII and other legendary Playstation games, Suikoden, Star Ocean, Tales of Destiny, Wild ARMs, Lunar, and on and on...

But around about the PS2/Xbox/GameCube era...for some reason, we hit a wall. At least, that's what I feel. Now, of course this is my site so my opinion matters more than anything else...BUT! Aside from that: I always feel like there are two types of classics in media: Indisputable Classics, and Arguable Classics.

Indisputable Classics...aren't TRULY indisputable (don't you like how I hit you with that switch-up?), because you can't please everyone. But they've managed to win over such an overwhelming amount of the majority that it doesn't matter about a few dissenting voices. Example: Chrono Trigger, for video games. Cowboy Bebop, for anime. Choujin Sentai Jetman, for Tokusatsu. (Wanted to left field you for a second.)

Arguable Classics, on the other hand, are the ones that, while many (one might even say the majority) will tell you is a true classic, in truth just bringing it up sparks a discussion as to whether or not its a True Classic or just an overrated PoS. Example: Final Fantasy VII, for video games. NGE, for anime. Anything released after Agito or Timeranger for Tokusatsu.

To me, since the PS2/Xbox/GameCube era began, there hasn't truly been an Indisputable Classic to come out. Sure, there are plenty of Arguable Classics--Final Fantasy X, Xenosaga, anything Star Ocean-related...but where's the next Suikoden? Where's the new Chrono Trigger?

Now I'm not the perfect RPG master. The only Final Fantasy game I ever beat is 8. (Fans know the problem here.) But allow me to speculate on a few reasons why we don't have those indisputable classics anymore.

1.) We're still thinking in 32-bits.
By and large, think of the imnprovements we've made in videogames since the PSX-era. For RPGs, there really isn't THAT much that pushes the envelope after the PSX-era that doesn't concern graphics. Chances are, if you point out any major feature of an RPG, its been around in a 32-bit game, or a 16-bit game. That's pathetic. Mario may still have the same "type" of stages (underwater, sky, ground), but I guarantee you that the game not only looks better, but it plays better. 2000-era platforming plays nothing like 90's platforming. I think some real thought needs to go into how we create RPGs, because they've been on autopilot for about half a decade now. Its not going to be as easy to upgrade RPGs as it was to upgrade action video games and platformers, but its got to be done, or the genre WILL become obsolete. But to do that, its going to take some time.

2.) We Don't Take Time To Develop RPGs.
RPGs shouldn't be coming out on one, or even two year schedules. This is the genre that gains its fans from the stories it tells. So why are we telling the same old stories? This is the genre that makes its money off the worlds they create and how immersive they are. So why do all the worlds look the freaking same? People are complaining about Final Fantasy XIII's release schedule, but Square-Enix invented a brand-new engine, Crystal Engine (I believe) for it, and plus, all signs point to it being a smash hit. And that's what we need. Games with 2-3 years, where real thought goes into crafting the characters, the story and the world.

There was a time when Squaresoft managed to release three Final Fantasy RPGs over a seven year period or so. And while FF8's story sucks, work went into crafting the world and the battle system and all that, and nothing was wrong with any of it. So they got three quality video games over seven years...but that's over.

People keep pointing at the lack of varied settings in RPGs as if that's the true problem, and to an extent it is, but...just how many different kind of stories can you do in science-fiction and fantasy?

This is what inspired this article to start out with. I never get tired of fantasy or sci-fi RPGs. Why? Because there's yet to be, with these new consoles, one game from either setting that makes me go, "Okay, all you other guys? Just quit. You already failed out the gate. Nothing you do will ever be as good as this. Compare your game to this and kill yourself." © Bender

And until they do that, I'm not going to get sick of them. Going forward, developers have to understand that its important to push the system hardware for more than just to get a few extra frames per second or to make the character models look less pixelated. Its time out for that--these games already look exponentially prettier than they did on the Playstation, and back then near the end of that era people thought those games looked almost like real life.

Make the worlds more immersive, and less linear. Realistically, RPGs shouldn't be any longer than 40-50 hours. But why should you let that limit you? Games now could easily have true branching paths. We did those during the PSX-era, like Star Ocean Second Story gave you differing characters depending on which scenario you chose...but the story was the same regardless. Take that a step further. Stop creating worlds so that the story can exist when it should be that the story exists to interest characters in your world.

For instance, create a game in which you don't even have to save the world. Make it optional. Not optional as in, if you don't, the world is destroyed, but optional as in, the events that trigger the entire save the world plot simply don't happen if you don't visit a certain village.

Allow smaller quests, like saving a city from an attack by a family of griffons. Or defending an island from a pirate army.

And expand the characters, but reduce them at the same time. That seems paradoxical, but its not. In every RPG, you can only have a certain number of people in your party. And yet, despite that, in nearly ALL RPGs, you'll have more characters than you can use in battle. This has the effect of often making in-story scenes more generic, simply involving the main character rather than everyone. The contrast to this is Lunar, in which all characters can be used at once, and you pretty much always hear from them in nearly every scene.

So my suggestion? Stop creating parties in which you have more characters than you can reasonably use. I know you're thinking, "But Sage, that gives me options in battle!" No, it just allows you to not use the crappy characters. (Who the heck is using Cait Sith to throw down?) Wouldn't it be better to just NOT create crappy characters and make them all well-rounded? Maybe the magician isn't good with attack or defense, but his evade and magic are high. The paladin can't use magic too well, but he's fast and does lots of damage.

The other suggestion is creating entirely different routes the story can take, with wholly different endings (instead of just having a random meeting with a character in a meeting during your off-hours and that somehow leading to a married character suddenly leaving her husband for you), which would include completely new characters who become developed in that route.

There are other suggestions in my head, but I want to become a game designer myself--why should I hand away all my secrets? Figure some of this out for yourself.

Ah, whatever. What do you think, readers? Am I on the right track? Or am I BSing? And no, I have no idea if the PC games have already done this, and don't care. I play consoles.


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