This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
The rise of indie gaming has been fantastic for platformers, good for adventures and strategy games, great for puzzlers, but not exactly a windfall for role-playing games. There are certainly some out there, but RPGs don't have the level of variety that the genres I listed above do.
We can see how this manifests thanks to the rise of crowdsourced, publicized successes and failures. Two of these have garnered a great deal of attention so far this year: Kickstarter (and other similar ventures, like Indiegogo) and Steam's Greenlight. The former has had plenty of press, and this writer is certainly excited to see the end results of Wasteland 2 and Project Eternity, as well as Shaker (when it comes back) and the currently-campaigning pseudo-sequel to the Quest For Glory games, Hero U: Rogue To Redemption. But these high-profile funding campaigns are notable because of their profile – they're RPGs made by people with expertise and previous success in the genre. It's rare (but certainly not unheard of) to see this kind of single-player, epic, story-driven quest outside of blockbuster games.
A glance at Steam's Greenlight starts to reveal why. Of the roughly 30 games that have been "greenlit" so far, 13 claim to be RPGs. I decided to take a look at them in order to see what sort of RPGs were winning the crowd over. For a traditional RPG fan, the results are not encouraging – only one of the games actually seems to be about making a character or party, then going on a quest.
The biggest immediate problem with the "RPG" category is that most of the games aren't really RPGs by most conventional definitions of the term. Half of them are complex builder simulation/strategy/adventure/maybe-RPG? sorts of games, clearly inspired by Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress. I'm fond of this genre of game, to be fair, but a lot of it seems like Steam users really, really want Minecraft on the platform, and anything that looks likely to scratch that itch gets votes. And given the difficulty in assigning conventional genres to these sandbox/open world-style games, RPG seems as good or bad a category as any to assign them to.
One of the strategy hybrids, the underwhelmingly titled Towns, specifically cites Diablo as an influence. In it, you can build a town above a dungeon, developing the infrastructure to support the adventurers who try to explore it. It's an intriguing premise (and one done very effectively and oddly in the indie hit Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale), but it's difficult to see how strong the RPG side of the game will be.
Five more games of the 13 appear to be multiplayer action games with "RPG components," like skill trees. I'm less convinced of this subgenre's viability, as I tend to distrust skill trees in action or shooter games (I blame No One Lives Forever 2, but Borderlands didn't exactly help the situation).
That leaves three of the 13 existing within conventional understanding of what an RPG is: Kenshi, Project Zomboid, and Secrets Of Grindea. I immediately connected with the trailer of Project Zomboid, a roguelike that looks like a slightly more primitive Diablo set in a zombie apocalypse. The combination of real-time combat, real-world item manipulation and exploration, and the thematic congruity of a zombie roguelike where death is inevitable all seem like a great idea.
Kenshi is perhaps the most ambitious game I've seen on Greenlight, RPG or otherwise, and has the potential to be the best of the lot. A sandbox RPG with a samurai-style setting, it quickly calls to mind Darklands, the famously difficult (and insane) "realistic" RPG/simulation from the 1990s. It's also the least complete-looking of the batch, so worth keeping an eye on.
Yet even those two are procedurally generated or sandbox or, to take a step back, built on gameplay mechanics that favor emergent narrative over a written, intentional, embedded narrative. The only conventional-looking RPG of the lot is Secrets Of Grindea, a Super Nintendo-inspired action RPG. Gameplay footage looks pleasant enough, but even it seems to rely on collecting and crafting for much of its appeal, instead of saving the world. (Am I the only person who doesn't find crafting, as used in most games, to be interesting?)
Perusing the games still looking for votes reveals a few traditional RPGs. The Age Of Decadence is a game I've had my eye on for a while, and Inquisitor was just given a release on other services. I'm curious about Tales Of Illyriathanks largely to its citation of Oregon Trail as an influence. And there's also at least one older game, Silent Storm, looking for re-release –it's one of the worst best games I've ever played.
But I can't shake the feeling that traditional role-playing games just may be a genre that doesn't work well with conventional indie development and distribution patterns. They may be too big, with too many different moving parts, and an expectation of both mechanical and narrative depth. That may be why the most exciting potential titles are existing, experienced teams using Kickstarter. I'm certainly delighted to see RPGs colonizing other genres, and I do enjoy roguelikes and sandbox games. But sometimes I don't want to craft a dozen different potions, or worry about the layout of my hero's fortress. Sometimes I just want to roll a character or party, put on some armor, smack a few robbers, and save the world. The games available and popular on Steam's Greenlight may not be able to provide that experience. Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.