Bad game design choices: Pseudo RPG

There has been a trend over the time that degrades role playing games into what I call pseudo role playing games. Additionally there are games coming out made to look like role playing games, but not actually being role playing games, intentionally or unintentionally.

This is a bit related to my last blog post about the unlocking system, since a pseudo RPG is basically a role playing game that has been degraded into more of an unlocking system. A true role play game and an unlocking system have very similar mechanics, so it is hard to distinguish what is actually the problem here so let me start with a bit of explaining what an RPG (Role Playing Game) is:

A role playing game is a game where you play a role, well this is a kind of obvious, but the crucial part for it to be a true role playing game is, that you as a player have at least some degree of freedom of choice of what character or role you want to play, which then leads to different ways to play the game. If you have a "role playing game" without that freedom of choice it basically becomes an adventure game or interactive movie, where your role is already set and you are basically just unlocking the stages that the game already set for you how your character will progress and this is what I coined "Pseudo RPG".

It happened to me quite a few times where I bought or planned to buy a game, because I wanted to play an RPG just to find out later, it is only a pseudo RPG. It is sometimes hard to set the definition to when an RPG becomes pseudo RPG, since the boundaries are often fluent. It probably can be best seen in old RPGs that have later successors which turn more and more into pseudo RPG over time. So the traditional pseudo RPG development is like, at first you have a lot of freedom of choice, like you want to play a warrior, mage or thief, which are the classic and most basic classes, old RPGs often have a lot more classes, but I want to just use that as an example now:

Let's say you chose to play a mage in a traditional real RPG, this choice seriously affects your later game experience and how you have play the game, you have to use your brain more to solve the quests and be careful, since a mage is weak, but can be powerful if used right. I chose the mage for this example, because it is a hard to play role. At first you may be able to still beat the enemies with normal weapons or sneak and steal your way through, but the more you progress the more you have to stick to what skills you are training and what you are good at, this is what a role playing game is about, you chose a role and then stick with it and see how you can get through with it. Depending on the game initially you are able to change your path and figure out what you really want to be, but the more the game progresses the more you have to use your brain and play your role correctly to progress or at least to have a good game experience.

Now let us see how you play a pseudo RPG: At first all looks very similar, you can often still chose between classes or play styles and all plays very similar to a real RPG. The difference becomes apparent the more you progress, since the more you progress, the more you realize it does not really matter what you do, since the game is so easy that you can beat it any way, you can use your sword, or some spells or sneak through, everything kind of works. Game designers make this so casual players do not get frustrated, because they made mistakes in their character development. It looks like a good design choice, but if you look closer they try to fix the problem the wrong way, instead of improving the skill system, they make it more linear that you are left with less and less room to make errors, but making errors is what an RPG is all about. In a Pseudo RPG all you do is basically unlock the skills and all your individuality is left to the choice if and when you want to unlock the different skills, but in the end you can be anything, you can be a warrior, a mage and a thief at the same time with no or hardly any drawbacks. Some hardcore pseudo RPG do not even leave you the choice if and when you have to unlock certain skills, the game forces you to unlock certain skills otherwise you cannot progress the game.

I hope it became more clear what the difference is. To sum it up shorter:

In a real RPG you end up with lots of individual characters that play individually and give you an individual game experience, so it can be played again multiple times and you get a new experience.

In a pseudo RPG all characters are almost identical at the end, play almost the same and give you roughly the same game experience every time and cannot be replayed much without getting really boring.

And even shorter:

Real RPGs give you freedom of choice.

Pseudo RPGs give you no freedom of choice.

And maybe shortest:

RPG = Variety

Pseudo RPG = Linear

As said it is hard to draw a line to when an RPG is real or pseudo, since every game has both elements, it is the amount that is often drastically different. Sure you cannot give the player 100% freedom, that would be too much work to program and leads to bugs and exploits in the long run which again ruin the experience, but I think you should have a significant amount of freedom in an RPG, otherwise the term RPG is pointless and it could as well be called adventure or interactive movie. The problem nowadays is that the trend goes to making RPGs more and more into pseudo RPGs leaving hardly an real RPG elements in there. Well that is not really the problem, since the game might still be good, the problem is more in the false advertising, since as I said in an example before, that it happened to me multiple times now that I bought what I thought an RPG, because I wanted to play an RPG, just to find out later, I did not play an RPG and I was fooled, this is the core problem here and of course the overall vanishing of RPGs by turning them into pseudo RPGs.

Nothing is good or bad in general, it is all defined as in what you plan to achieve, if you want to create an RPG, but end up with an interactive movie, then it is bad game design, but if you planned to make an interactive movie with no freedom of choice and also call it an interactive movie, then you did good game design.

I have to correct myself, regarding game design there is a general good and bad, since what is planned to be achieved is already set and it is to create a game (obviously) and the definition of a game can be used to tell, if a game is well designed or not. A game is designed in having a goal, means to achieve the goal and rules (rules can probably be left out here since a video game should enforce the rules automatically, if not it is called an exploit). The game is what happens how you try to achieve the goal, the game is about trying out different methods and see how well they work and an RPG is especially made so having the freedom to play how you want is essential to the game. If the game is completely linear then there is no game, just like a movie, a movie may be nice to look at and the viewer might think he plays a role in the movie, but in reality he does not do so at all and that is exactly the problem with pseudo RPGs, since pseudo RPGs fool the player into thinking that he is playing a game, while he is actually not and just moving on a pre-destined path he just has to unlock, but in the end it is just a movie.

I just realized this gets very philosophical and may need another article, since as a game designer it is really hard to give the player true freedom of choice, where the trick probably lies in how to best fool the player into thinking he has free choice or give him a few pre-destined choices to chose from. So I will close this train of thought for now, but I stay with my position that many RPGs today are so obviously not RPGs, that for RPG players there is hardly any reason to play them and the reason I wrote this is because I'm one of them.

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