This article over on Gamasutra is a little skewed by its title, “How RPGs Were A 30-Year Detour”, because inXile’s president Matt Findley doesn’t actually say that specifically, but it’s interesting and provocative all the same. What he said was this: “Well, you know, we analyzed the long history of video games. I think these games always wanted to be action games at their heart. I think all those old turn-based games, it’s just that’s all the technology would allow.”
Controversy! Some thoughts on that below.
Here it is in more detail, in case you didn’t read the link:
Findley: We have been talking about making this game since the early ’90s. At Interplay… we made games like Stonekeep. We would sit around the conference room table and go, “Some day, the tech is going to exist to be able to do this type of game in real-time 3D.” Back then, it was all faked. [laughs] So, I think we’ve always wanted to get around to making a fantasy action game. We love the fantasy genre from even before computer games, whether it’s tabletop or novels. We’ve just been huge fans of it.
The fantasy genre has been really only represented in the RPG category. It didn’t need to be that way. Action games are so fantastic, that we just really wanted to do something relevant in the action category, in a rich fantasy universe. That’s just kind of the origins of it.
Gamasutra: Approaching this genre what was your go-to in terms of the way you wanted to present the action or player interaction? Because it’s sort of a new spot for you guys as a developer.
Findley: Well, you know, we analyzed the long history of video games. I think these games always wanted to be action games at their heart. I think all those old turn-based games, it’s just that’s all the technology would allow.
The tech today, using Unreal Engine 3, which allows us to prototype really, really fast and spend more time to make the game than worrying about the technology, it allowed us to deliver on that action experience.
Findley is basically saying that classic turn-based games were not turn-based by design, necessarily, but because they were constrained from modelling what they intended to model by the technology of the time. The only good way to articulate this kind of fantasy combat, in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, was to break down into turns and statistics, and have the player control the action by making decisions moment by moment. Now that we can show these things in real-time, we do, and we should. It’s an argument that you see flare up in RPS comment threads all the time, and it’s an important one, because it’s about the perception of how games work, and why we value them.
What’s interesting about Findley’s words is that the systems he’s talking about result in quite different experiences for us as players – the experience of playing a turn-based RPG against the experience of playing an action RPG – and it’s the specific nature of these experiences that we have come to love and value. A turn-based game allows you to set up the parameters of what you want to do based on the skills and statistics of your characters, and then watch that action unfold, while a real-time game means you have to deal with events using at least a modicum of your own abilities to control what is happening on the screen. A cerebral set of decisions, versus a more instinctual, skill-based set of reactions. They are quite distinct user-experiences: as distinct from each other as bouncing a ball is from sitting down to play a boardgame with real-life people.
Now it might well be true that Findley and other designers of that era really did feel like they were constrained by technology and that actually they’d like to see all these battles playing out in real-time on the screen, but the truth is that – via necessity or intention – they created something quite different, the rewards of which are to be understood in a way that is specific to that kind of game. I do not believe that, if there were no constraints on technology, then a turn-based genre would never have been invented. This kind of game existed, and still exists, as a direct counterpoint to action games. It broadens the scope of what it means to be a game, and it seems narrow-minded to argue that action games exist as any kind of end-goal for game development evolution. Action games were the first games, of course, and they certainly remain popular, but that does not make them more fundamentally game-like, or more valuable to the experience of gaming. Findley seems to be arguing with “these games always wanted to be action games at their heart” that gaming evolution is skewed in a particular direction, or that developers have some particular evolution for gaming in mind. He’s wrong, but I do have some sympathy with what he is saying, because he continues:
“There’s kind of this convergence across all games where the genres are really getting blurred. Like, I don’t think people playing BioShock realize they’re playing an RPG. Or even in Grand Theft Auto, you go into the weight room and pump up your character. There are all these elements of your character getting better. That’s what those games are really about. It lends itself to the action genre just as well. You’re starting off with really weak weapons. You’re finding better ones, better pieces of armor. You’re getting more hit points on your character. You’re getting the ability to store more mana. “
What this kind of observation articulates is that technology now allows us to model more of what would previously have appeared in stats and numbers in an RPG, and present it as actual on-screen events, while hiding the mathematics of it from the user. This is why Findley regards Bioshock as an RPG: because while it is a linear shooter on the surface, under the skin are the kinds of numbers that might previously have been exposed to the user in the stats and results of an Interplay RPG. The issue, however, is whether we interpret what technology allows us to do as what game designers should be doing.
[This is related to a judgement made gamers that has been termed “the immersive fallacy“, which is an observation about confusion over what it means to be immersed in a game. Some folk are inclined to argue that the pinnacle of immersion would essentially be a Holodeck level of fidelity, with the user situated directly within the simulation, whereas it’s also possible to be “immersed” in entirely abstract game-playing. Confusion of what “immersion” means in these cases leads folks to make similar claims to the one Findley is making, because they feel that being “in” the world through real-time 3D graphics is more important to the user than engagement other game mechanics.]
Ultimately, if all games want to be action games, then the end experience for gamers is always going to be based around one band of possible ways to play a game. There’s a fundamental difference between a game designed to be poised and thought over, in which characters play their role based on their own abilities, and a game that requires us to respond and react directly to what’s on screen.
It’s this distinction that makes us want to call Mass Effect 2 a “Guns & Conversation” game, rather than an RPG. The phrase “role-playing game” has, for many gamers, come to represent an experience that is about managing characters indirectly, through skills and statistics, rather than by taking direct action. While I love the trend towards real-time simulation and the conflation of “RPG-elements” into all aspects of gaming, I wouldn’t want to miss out on someone making a turn-based version of Stalker. There’s a danger that statements like those made by Findley are going to limit and reduce what it is that games are, as a whole. That’s something that game designers should be mindful of when they start thinking about what their games really are “at their heart”.