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Genre Wars: Downside of the RPG Takeover

Genres have been spilling over into foreign territory for about as long as those distinctions have been identifiable. Many genres were conceived almost entirely by patching together different ideas and mechanics from other games. I am convinced, however, that this has become a more prolific trend in the current generation. As the popularity of online role playing games increased exponentially over the last decade, so has interest in what makes them so popular. The idea that progression is the cornerstone that keeps people playing has caught on with developers across the full spectrum of gaming genres. It’s become so popular to inject some kind of RPG element into a game that I’m hard pressed to think of a genre that remains complete unaffected. For better or worse, everything from Puzzle Quest to Call of Duty is feeling this familiar touch. So which is it—better or worse?

I first took notice of this trend way back in 2005 when DICE released their immensely popular Battlefield 2. In this example we have a game that not only changed its franchise forever, but made a huge splash with other developers and gamers alike. Battlefield 2 combined elements of several genres, and perhaps more than any other aspect, this made it exceedingly interesting. Here is a game that is no more than the sum of its parts, yet it remains undeniably brilliant. It took bits from real-time strategy and blended them with intense infantry and vehicle action, and for the first time in the history of the franchise, it took a page from the RPG. Battlefield 2 didn’t berate us with perks and skill points, but it did introduce us to the idea that time could translate into new gear in the form of unlockable weapons.

It’s hard (for me) to say if Battlefield 2 was better or worse for introducing this concept to its fan-base. Other games in other genres have since attempted the same thing, and with limited success. One example that comes to mind is Namco’s Soul Calibur, which has had a “special” game mode since its third entry. In this mode, gamers can equip their custom characters with a variety of weapons, armor, and items that change how their character performs. This inherently breaks the base game balance, and as such has been largely rejected by the hardcore audience that still follows 3D fighters. It’s hardly surprising that they would attempt to broaden their audience, since it’s no secret that fighters have faded in popularity, but it’s an important distinction that they did not alter the core experience. Like Soul Calibur fans, the most hardcore Battlefield 2 players also rejected this model, opting to use a modified version of the games base weapons in competition. Likewise, almost every new competitive FPS title has been stripped down and modified for competition, favoring a more simple approach to game balance.

This is the area, that in my opinion, warrants concern. There’s nothing wrong with adopting elements from massively multiplayer online role playing games where it most fits, but when you venture into the realm of competition gaming you’re treading into dangerous waters. Some games have handled these elements more competently than others, but I’m not convinced that they belong in truly competitive games at all. Fans of games like Team Fortress 2 will tell you that it’s brilliantly balanced, even after each of the admittedly fantastic class updates. But it’s important to note that what works in public play with an undefined number of players of equally undefined skill may not work in actual team play. Thus even the wonderfully handled Team Fortress 2 is subject to changes in the world of clan play. And please, don’t give me that “rock, paper, scissors” nonsense; this basic model of balance only works because of its simplicity. The more type of “rocks” you add to the equation will almost certainly make balance give way to exploitative gameplay.

If progression makes the classic FPS gameplay that many of us (still) love that much more difficult to properly balance, what is it worth? If developers are trying to increase interest among the uninitiated, perhaps they can start by trying to implement those ideas without losing sight of what has kept their most dedicated fans so loyal for so many years. I don’t want this to turn into another Modern Warfail 2 rant, but I think it’s an important landmark in the trend, and has set many fans up for disappointment. The simple act of removing mod tools, along with the much discussed dedicated server issue, has made it a bit of a joke among competitive players. Gone are the days of “promod,” and the only option you have is to play it their way. If Infinity Ward are so insistent on improving the variety of our experiences, they don’t have to do it at the expense of the experience that many of us already love. It really is that simple. If they don’t want to provide a good “back to basics experience,” they could at least continue to provide the tools that allow us to do that for ourselves.

Now, I’m not here to rain on the RPG parade. I don’t think that it’s clearly a bad thing that FPS games are beginning to adopt more and more from other genres. I actually believe that the combination of RTS elements into this genre is largely under-explored. That’s what makes indy titles like Natural Selection 2, and (hopefully) Nuclear Dawn so appealing, and it’s the reason that despite the awesome looking Bad Company 2 on the horizon, we’re still all really waiting for Battlefield 3. On the other hand, the adoption of RPG mechanics into the genre is anything but under-explored. Practically every new release into the genre, be its focus on single or multiplayer, is entrenched in progression more typical of World of Warcraft than Quakeworld.

These trends have had tremendously positive and negative effects on the genre. It’s all about a healthy balance, and the key world will always be balance. Most recently I’ve been enjoying my first romp through the world of Borderlands, and such a title would not be possible without components of both genres spilling over that line. Hell, the entire game is basically a patchwork quilt of other peoples ideas (I think Cortana told me that I’m looking for the vault from Fallout 3, but I’ll have to ask the dysfunctional robot from Invader Zim). Regardless of originality, games like Borderlands and Bioshock have increased my enjoyment of the genre, especially in terms of the solo experience—it’s just becoming hard to tell where one genre ends and the other begins.

The basic message I hope you take away from this exploration is that there’s an audience for a more classic approach to multiplayer that will be largely unfulfilled in the future if this trend continues to dominate the first person shooter genre. It’s my hope that developers will continue to deliver hybrid experiences without giving up on the classic concepts that have made this such a successful genre in the first place. Remember: Counter Strike and Quake didn’t need progression to remain popular for more than a decade!

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1 comments
corpus callosm
corpus callosm

character progression completely ruins pvp multiplayer. char progression only makes sense for single player and coop games. i can't stand this RPG fetish infecting the FPS world.