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The future of the Western role-playing game


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.

Here in November, we're nearing the end of the current console generation, as the Wii U kicks off the next gen by replacing the Wii. That particular change may not affect western RPG fans – then again, with Mass Effect heading to the Wii U, it may – but it does mean that it may be worth thinking about what the future holds for role-playing games. Even for those of us who are PC gamers, console generations still work well as historical markers. The era of Diablo and Baldur's Gate evolved into The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for example.

I am not anticipating immense changes, for two reasons. First, RPGs are more resistant to change than most other genres. Second, as a general historical rule, I tend to bet on "things staying roughly the same" over "things changing dramatically" unless there's reason to believe otherwise. And right now, I don't think there is. Video game tech seems to be getting shinier, faster, and smaller, but I don't see anything potentially disruptive in the way that CD storage was on the horizon. Moreover, I'd say that in general, the pace of change has slowed. Today's games are closer in looks and play than to KOTOR and Morrowind than those were to Ultima VII and Arena roughly a decade before.

This doesn't mean that there won't be changes – I'm much happier with RPGs today than I was during the early 2000s – but rather, that they won't necessarily be technological changes. Still, there are some trends that I expect to see continue, or falter.

Free-to-play, Microtransaction-based, and Social RPGs
The slow, apparent collapse of Zynga isn't the only indication that social games aren't the wave of the future. The actually quite-playable Dragon Age: Legends was canceled after little more than a year. Loot Drop, one of the most aggressive companies at attempting to get traditional game developers and players onto Facebook, cancelled its highest-profile project.

Single-player role-playing games are, I think, uniquely resistant to most free-to-play models, thanks to their long-term planning and strong narrative. It's possible I'm wrong on this, and Ultima Forever may change my mind, but I'm thinking that we'll see RPGs purchased and played the same way they've usually been.

Single-Player RPGs
The last few years should have finally put to the rest the idea that RPGs are an old, dying genre. The success of Bethesda and BioWare at the top, as well as a surprising amount of attention to games like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Torchlight 2 and Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning indicate that the genre is, if anything, on the upswing.

The wildly successful Kickstarters of Project Eternity and Wasteland 2, as well as the re-releases of Baldur's Gate with potential for a sequel, also indicate that even some of the styles of RPG which have gone out of fashion, primarily party-based, may be making a comeback, in addition to adding more games at a lower price point. In a business sense, this looks to me like the healthiest the genre has been in nearly two decades.

Massively Multi-Player RPGs
This may be the year when the idea of beating World of Warcraft by becoming the new World of Warcraft ended. Star Wars: The Old Republic had every possible advantage to knock over the wobbling WoW: famous developer, beloved universe, massive resources, and initial player excitement. Less than a year later it's adopting a partial free-to-play strategy like several other contenders before it. This was followed by the collapse of 38 Studios after it chased WoW money, and a relative lack of success for The Secret World. (Meanwhile, the subscription-free Guild Wars 2 seems to be a hit).

I'm less convinced that F2P is the wave of the future, though, for many of the same reasons that I'm unsure it'll work for single-player or limited multiplayer games. While it's been a success for keeping some other games like Lord of the Rings Online afloat, it hasn't powered a dominant market force like World of Warcraft. I'm hesitant to make any kind of prediction here – it seems as plausible to me that the sub-genre will simply fade from prominence or that the subscription model isn't the problem, or that Guild Wars 2 is the model going forward.

Although the popularity of Mass Effect and a few other games has led some to speculate that we're entering a new age of genre hybridization, I'm less convinced. RPGs through history have been used for hybrids, from Panzer General to Deus Ex to The Binding Of Isaac. So it's not a difficult prediction to suggest that we will continue seeing RPG hybrids with other genres, and that some of them will be some of the best games of their era.

As I mentioned above, I don't expect anything disruptive to the nature of RPGs, and it's a genre that's resistant to change anyway, thanks to its focus on transparent, comprehensible mechanics. The changes that are coming will likely make graphics shinier and faces more expressive, but those won't change the nature of the genre. What might encourage further exploration, however, is the ability to make more and more detailed worlds. The "immersive sim" or a game that seems to exists within a larger, living world, is a close relation of the RPG, and more, faster calculations can help with different movement, physics, etc., patterns. So when Deus Ex designer Warren Spector says he wants to build a "One City Block RPG," that concept can theoretically work better with more processing power. But overall at the highest levels, I think we'll see more of a smoothing of current game models than anything overall.

At the indie and non-blockbuster level, my hope is that a general slowing of technological rate of change combined with steady improvement of middleware game engines will make games of all sorts easy to create. RPG Maker may be great, but how excellent would it be to have it or something like it able to make games that look like Torchlight or Knights Of The Old Republic?

Characterization & Relationships
Technology hasn't been the issue with making character relations better or worse. The issue is one of creativity, time, and ability, not technology. Game designer Chris Crawford has been attempting to create models of human interaction for almost 30 years.

The CD's immense improvement in amount of storage space in the mid-1990s removed that as a primary consideration, and the games that flourished after that – Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate II, and even The Sims – haven't really been surpassed in terms of character interaction at a technological level, although Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age/Mass Effect change the models conceptually. I would also look to recent non-RPGs like Prom Week and Crusader Kings II and notice how they, with low technology, do extraordinarily interesting things with character relationships. So I'm hopeful that the people building RPGs will do more and better character and relationship development, but I can't think of a single technology I'd expect to change that.

In the end, that applies to most of my expectations: RPGs are about the ideas of the people involved, and their ability to execute those ideas. Because of that, I'm not expecting big changes for the genre, but I'll be happily unsurprised if there are notable improvements over the next several years.

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.

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