Have you ever wondered why it seems nobody is making RPGs anymore? At least AAA RPGs, since I'm not perfectly aware of all those thousands of indie game developers that may exist, but I would guess with a high probability, that even those will or have not created any true RPGs, since RPGs are hard to make and require a lot of resources, talent and skill, which indie developers often don't have, well at least not the resources, but often they also lack talent and skill.
I already covered the RPG issues before, in my blog post: https://duion.com/blogs/bad-game-design-choices-pseudo-rpg and a bit in https://duion.com/blogs/ultimate-bad-game-design-choice-money but now it seems to me that this issue may be deeper than initially thought.
At first I thought there have been real RPGs in the past and over time the industry has gotten more corrupt and dumbed them down until we only have pseudo RPGs that look like RPGs, but are totally not RPGs.
Now I think there may never have been true RPG video games at all. I did some research where role playing games originated from and they originated from the role playing games you actually played with pen and paper where the game took place mostly in your imagination. This was before my time or at least outside of my social groups or at least not known to me in the past, but on early role play video games you can see that they were based on those table top role playing games. There was a lot of randomness and through gaining skills on your character and intelligent play you could turn the odds into your favor. In the elder scrolls games you could see that in their skill system where every skill is a value from 0-100, which originally probably was to define the percentage your skill would succeed. For example a 25 skill melee fighting would result in a 25% chance to hit your target very simplistic speaking, in reality there were of course a lot more variables such as the skill of your enemy, armor rating, luck etc but this is just so you get the basic idea behind it.
Table top RPGs were played with dice to simulate the probability of your undertaking to succeed, which is primitive but effective and fun. Video games easily adopted the randomness element, since a random generator is easy to do. Where video games failed however was probably to give you a visual clue on what is happening. What you would see in a video game where you for example had a 25% chance to hit the enemy, that you would hit the enemy almost a 100% of the time, but only have 25% of your hits count, which looked and felt stupid. I think this is one of the first things where the video game adoptions failed, because pen and paper games took place in your imagination, so if you would create a video game based on that, you would need to manifest the imagination into the real world or at least virtual world, which to a large degree was never done or not done properly. RPGs on the computer often had for example just one animation for attack and if that succeeded was more or less random and there was no visual clue since for success or failure there was the same animation. What video game designers would have needed to do was to create visual representations of all the different possible outcomes of for example a fight, not just have both characters swing their sword until someone falls down dead.
To make a long story short instead of advancing the system after realising real role playing mechanics looked and felt bad, they just removed the RPG elements and made RPGs more linear and skill based. The problem with that is first obviously you make it less of an RPG, but secondly through adding skill based combat, based on your physical gaming skills allows you to circumvent the whole RPG system just by being very skilled on the game or often also by using exploits which are coincidentally especially common in RPGs. So for example using skill and exploits your level 1 character or whatever could beat a dragon you were not supposed to beat at that level just through skill and exploits, which circumvents the whole game mechanics. Sure in a real RPG you also have an extremely small chance to do the same, but it is more random, so you cannot pull this off consistently as it is possible with video games, a lot of speed runners for example are very good at that, some even beat the whole game without actually playing the game, like reaching the end with level 1 or just running through, which should not be possible in a real RPG. Game developers of course realise those issues, but often instead of fixing them the right way by adding more RPG, they instead do the opposite and remove more RPG elements, since they think those randomness elements add too many exploits, while in reality it sometimes may be the opposite.
I already drifted away from the original topic a bit so let me try to define what a role playing game actually is. A role playing game is a game where you play a role, obviously, but many are not aware what this means and or implies. Modern "role" playing games are more a predetermined action adventure where the outcome is already fixed, since you cannot tell a story when you give the player to opportunity to break the game. So in a real role playing game you chose what role you play and how you play it and what the outcome will be. For example most games have a goal to kill the end boss and save the world, like kill the dragon or the orc leader and then everyone is saved. Those are fixed quests, but in a true role playing game you could just chose to not do the quest or pretend to do the quest and in the end let the "evil" end boss live, maybe ally with him and destroy the world, or whatever. You see in a real role playing game, there are almost endless possibilities and your choices make a real impact on the game and the story which carries on later in the game. You may have already figured out that a game with such possibilities may be hard to program, but considered the resources that go into making games, like hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases should in theory make it possible to create such a game, so that cannot be the excuse anymore.
So why are there no real RPGs being made anymore or maybe ever at all and I think I already figured out the other main reason such projects are not made, it is because companies need to appeal to an as broad as possible audience, to max your profits. You have to consider real RPG players are a niche customer group, so imagine even making the best RPG game that appeals to 100% of true RPG players, may only reach lets say 5% of the customers, because only 5% of the customer base want to play true RPGs, while on the other hand, if you make the RPG into kind of an action adventure mixed with 3D shooter with some story and some RPG elements you can appeal to multiple customer groups at once and maybe reach 50% of the market of all gamers. So screwing over 5% of your customers based to potentially reach 45% more is a good deal profit wise.
Another reason is probably that you need to remove as much elements of randomness as possible, because you need to be able to give the customer a consistent quality game experience. What does this mean? Well of course if you would allow the player to actually change the storyline and how the game plays out, this will obviously result in stupid players screwing up the game and getting frustrated therefore having a negative experience, therefore getting angry, therefore giving a negative review, therefore discouraging others to buy the game, therefore start a hate train, therefore ruining the game, therefore making the company bankrupt. I mean I experienced it myself with my game Uebergame, people often get angry, because there was no button they could press where they would instantly be entertained, not realizing, that they were playing a multiplayer game, where they themselves were supposed to host a server, choosing the map, the game rules and settings and bring players to play against. I there could experience first hand to what gamers today have been degraded, you as a developer need to give them a consistent idiot proof entertainment, where the developer is supposed to entertain the player instead of the player come up with a game to play. In the past it was more the other way around, where players would come up with games to play, but now video games are more like TV where they log on and demand to be instantly entertained and not being able to entertain themselves.
So the game developer faces a real dilemma, where he has to pretend to give the player freedom, while in reality he has to take as much freedom away from him, because the more freedom the player has, the more he can fuck up and fucking up is not good and makes the player angry, which would start the hate train again.
The irony here is, that most of the problems arise from having immature customers who are not able to deal with freedom and not able to think for themselves and where do all those immature customers come from? Of course they have been intentionally recruited to maximise profits. It is kind of a self perpetuating cycle of doom, where you need to dumb down your product to appeal to the dumbed down audience, which then attracts more dumbed down audience which then forces you again to dumb down your product even more and so on. Some game developers manage to break out of that cycle, but they are the minority and even if they strictly stay with their philosophy, they may get bankrupt in the long run, because they will not make as much money as the other companies and so the other companies will eventually eat them.
There is a very nice game that shows that dilemma, called "The Stanley Parable" where the player always is presented with choices, but the narrator is trying to tell a story and is constantly trying to get you on the "right" track, you should try it out if you don't have already, so I will not spoiler it any more.
When you analyze most games, they all do the same thing to the customer, I think I even heard that someone coined a term for it and it is called "selfing". So what does this mean? Well it is simply that most customers of a video game want to please themselves or being pleased. In most cases it is the story of the hero who saves the world. The script is almost always the same, you start of as a loser and then become the winner and everyone tells you how great you are and so on. People have an ego and they like to have their ego pleased. I even knew a software designer who told me, they had to learn how to design software to not piss of the customer, like the software needs to always be friendly and submissive to the customer, otherwise he would get pissed of and not use the product anymore. So software programs including video games have to be designed to please the customer or to boost his ego and always telling him how great he is etc and there is actually science and math behind it, software that is destined nowadays is not just random, it is often intentionally designed like it is for specific reasons and one of this is that games have to be dumbed down to appeal to an as broad as much audience and another thing is that they always need to make the customer feel good.
Let us bring a real role playing game into play now, how would it be different? One of the main and most obvious differences would probably be the possibility to fail or a lot more possibilities to fail. I remember old adventures where it was common that you could actually die and the game would be over, while newer adventure games where designed in a way so you can never die or fuck up the game and eventually get through, if you just click enough things. Well this example is for adventure games, but a similar thing has happened to RPGs where they would be more and more designed in a way that you cannot fuck up. For example one important element in RPGs is dialogs or interaction with other NPCs, in an old or more true RPG you could seriously fuck up, if you said the wrong thing to the wrong person, whereas in a modern dumbed down RPG you can just click through it without looking and your choices make no or no big difference. I'm such a player who does not like dialogs in games and I quickly realize when dialog choices do not matter in games and I end up skipping the entire dialogues in the entire game and still make it through. Only in some old more hardcore games I actually listened to the dialogs, because they actually made a difference. Sure I'm a person who does not like dialogs, but when I realize they matter, I actually listen to them, part of what makes dialogs annoying in modern games is, that you are forced to listen to them or at least skip them every time even though you know they don't matter. It is similar to cut scenes, you are forced to watch them, even though they do not matter, as you cannot influence them and they cannot influence you, they are there, but don't matter, but you still are forced to watch them, which makes them annoying. On the other hand a cut scene can be rewarding for example if you only get into the cut scene if you earned it, because then you know you achieved something and got a reward in form of a cut scene, but when you realize that it is predetermined to show you how great you are, even though you are not doing anything and cannot influence it, you at least subconsciously know that you are being cheated.
Speaking of being cheated, it feels to me that many people nowadays like being cheated as the cheaters seem to be growing in numbers. Now it seems to be that there are only two main groups of people, the normal people and the cheaters. A normal person works hard to achieve something and then gets his reward, for example winning at a game or whatever, while the cheater just wants to win the game no matter how, because all he cares for is having his ego boosted and to show off to others how great he is, while not caring about the process of getting there at all. Those cheaters do not only cheat others, but also cheat themselves.
Imagine an RPG where you play as a hero, but as you fail more and more, you completely fail at the game and the game tells you that are a loser and the NPCs in the game world also look down on you. Well at least the element of the NPCs looking down on you exists in many modern RPGs, but the story is predetermined, since in the beginning they look down on you, but you will eventually become the hero and everyone will celebrate you, it is always a predetermined script. Sure most people probably want to be the good guy, be the hero save the world and such, but some people actually want to be evil assholes, at least in game, because they cannot do it in real life and one of the main reasons to play games is to do things you cannot do in real life and those people are completely cheated if you give them a game where the outcome is predetermined and they cannot do any wrong in the game, no matter how hard they try. Modern "RPGs" often have like essential NPCs which cannot be killed, because that would kill the story. In such game you can play the most evil character possible, slaughtering everything in your way and still be crowned as the hero who saved the world, even though you killed every friendly person that was possible to kill, it is just kind of boring. Of course in the past many people found glitches in games that would actually allow them to do things they were not supposed to do or things that were not planned by the game designers that resulted in actually having fun and made the game more into an actual RPG, but the developers often saw this as a failure and often "fixed" those "issues" or at least prevented them in future game, by making their games even more linear with even less freedom.
I wonder if there is an actual conspiracy behind the dumbing down of games, since video games are kind of an education element and if you would teach kids that they have the freedom to do whatever they want and that their choices have real consequences or the fact that they have choices at all, that may be harmful to the system which wants to force everyone on the same path and force everyone to "be nice" all the time. There is no law that tells you that you need to be nice, you have a right to be an asshole and you should be allowed to play the "evil" guy in a game at least and have the "evil" people win.
Therefore I think true role playing video games may have never existed. Early adaptations may have been very close, because those role playing games you played with pen and paper in your imagination were actually very close to a true RPG. I'm not an expert on those, because I never played those, because I'm more a fan of video games and graphics, because the ability to make your imaginations visible with video game technology has been a game changer to me, yes you can play a true RPG in your imagination since your imagination is almost unlimited, but being able to make those imaginations visible and play with other people virtually in this visibly world makes the actual difference to me that makes the whole thing appealing, but sadly the jump from porting the table top RPG to the RPG on computers has failed in my opinion. In the past early video game adaptations were close to the original, but they were relatively uninteresting, because of technical limitations and now where the technical limitations are not the biggest problem anymore you are dealing with social problems or problems of the system we live in that make the realization of such projects impossible.
Well this has gotten super long, but if you got any of the gist of what I was trying to say I suggest you to imagine a real role playing game in a simulated world, where you can do actually anything, like interact with any item, any person and do just anything to anything and anyone, wouldn't the possibilities be endless and amazing? This should be the actual end goal of video game design, not to make the best interactive movie where the customer gets the best selfing possible.