The Definition of RPG

Shacknews‘ Evening Reading piece by Garnett Lee this evening was about the Bioware definition of RPG.  Bioware feels a RPG constitutes three things:

  • Story plays a central role, and the player’s involvement as the character can change the outcome of that story.
  • Combat is more considered than a pure action game and incorporates tactical concepts.
  • The player’s character grows over the course of the game developing skills, abilities, etc.

That’s a fairly standard definition.  Their explanation of the three as the mirror, the chill, and the journey respectively are probably more telling in how Bioware designs their RPG’s.  I think Bioware is as good a place as any for us to establish a starting point because their RPG’s are widely acknowledged as some of the best.  As good as their RPG’s and insight on what constitutes an RPG are,  I think they’re missing a few points.

RPG’s, more than any other type of game, require social interaction and collaboration.  Whether it is with a NPC or a real person on the other end, the word ‘interaction’ is necessary to clarify that two or more things are coming together to have an effect on each other.  From there the first point about the player’s involvement as a character in the story means more than simply taking the role and choosing an outcome (or not).

In defining what a RPG must have, I feel it is important to define something they must not have. A game must not have a focus that detracts from the harmony and equality of all the above working together if it is to be called a RPG.  For example, if a game is all about competition so much so that it overshadows a story being told then it is not a RPG.  If a game is all about the act of killing something so much so that everything is tailored towards this goal then it is not a RPG either.  An example would be the Diablo franchise which is widely considered “Action-RPG”.  I would argue that this should not include the “RPG” tag, but rather Action-Adventure or some form of hack and slash and/or dungeon crawler tag.  The difference between Diablo and Mass Effect can be quickly seen in the emphasis being placed upon the combat in Diablo over the interaction and involvement of the player with his/her story and development.

Let’s look at Keen’s Definition of RPG now:

  • Story plays a central role, and the player’s involvement as a character can change the outcome of that story.
  • Social interaction and collaboration bridge involvement with a two-way interaction between the game and/or other players.
  • Combat is more considered than a pure action game and incorporates tactical concepts.
  • The player’s character grows over the course of the game developing skills, abilities, etc.
  • Equality and harmony must exist between the aforementioned points without one or more taking precedence.

Tomorrow I plan to address the definition of “Massively Multiplayer” and combine it with my definition of RPG. The result should shed some light on where I am coming from when I say that a game is not a RPG, MMO, or MMORPG. This will also give everyone the opportunity to express their opinion on the subject and allow us all to brainstorm, publicly or privately, how games can be designed and developed to incorporate these traits.

  • I can understand the desire to shape and build labels on things we cherish or desire. For a while I used to do the same thing but then a friend showed me the reality of the term RPG and MMO.

    Words like MMO, RPG and FPS are nothing more then marketing terminology. They really have no strong contextual meaning beyond that.

    Trying to define them is sort of pointless. We understand what the acronym stands for, but trying to define it any stronger then “A marketing term typically used to define X” is just an exercise in frustration.

    The only real truth in what is a game is this simple question. Is it fun? Because is it fun, then who cares what’s some marketing terminology is used to describe it.

  • If you replaced “involvement” in the first statement with “interaction”, wouldn’t that cover the point you’re trying to make in the second statement? Or is it necessary to also include the bit about other players being part of the story you’re interacting with?

  • In order to have a logical argument you need to define and accept your terms. I understand this. To limit your term’s scope is to limit your argument’s validity.

    Simply playing a role-playing game is assuming the role of a character and interacting with an imaginary game world.

    Adding anything more limits it to a more specific subset

  • I agree somewhat with terroni. If you want to define a role-playing game based solely on the terms “role-play” and “game”, then, yes, technically only the first statement of the Bioware definition is necessary; you don’t need combat or character growth.

    However, a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book might also fall under such a broad definition: you take on the role of the main character and make decisions that influences the outcome of the story. That doesn’t mean you’re to find it in the RPG section at GameStop. I think what Keen is going for here is a consensus term for what the average person is referring to when they talk about an RPG. If you take all the games released under the genre “RPG” and pull out the common denominators, then combat and character growth will surely be among them (although maybe not as often as Keen would like ;P ).

  • @Terroni: Yet not limiting what I’m talking about makes talking about RPG’s and making any sort of comparison or point impossible and pointless.

    I disagree completely that a RPG is simply taking the role of a character in a game. That essentially makes EVERY game a RPG, does it not? That even makes reading a Book an RPG. That’s silly.

    I’m not doing this to be semantical or to have an argument. I’m taking a very real game model and describing it in order to explain the differences between it and other games.

    A difference does exist between RPG’s and other types of games such as Action, Adventure, Strategy, Shooter, and so forth.

    @MattKlausmeier: I think interaction and involvement are both necessary. I spent an hour last night going over the two words in my head, almost to the point where they lost all meaning. I came to this conclusion and feel that it is necessary for both words:

    Involvement = Sharing in activities
    Interaction = the act of two things having an effect upon one another.

    The player is involved in the story and what is going on but also must be able to interact with it and as a result have it interact with him/her. The inclusion of “social interaction” is also very important when discussion RPG’s in a multiplayer setting.

  • Also, i have to side with terroni on this one.

    This whole thread is going to get all chock full of asperger nerd rage over definition of terms.

    It always reminds me of when i used to be a definazi, and discovered that there is no real difference between acronym and abbreviation. and all the years i’ve spent heckling people for using the terms “incorrectly”, i was pretty much just a douchebag with a social disorder.

    anyway, that aside. Keen, what do you want this post to be? A fight over definition of terms? There is no winning a language battle, language too ambiguous.

    But for the sake of the argument, again, i’ll side with terroni: An RPG is a game where you take the role of a character and interact with a fictitious world. Any more definitions added to that and you have a subgenre.

    I always thought of it like this: Roleplaying is acting, and you have a varying “degree” of roleplay vs. acting in an RPG.

    1. actual stage acting. Play it straight. Fully scripted. you add little or no original thought to the gameplay.

    2. RPG/Acting. you play the character according to that character’s experiences, thoughts, morals, values. “What would this character do in this situation?”.

    3. RPG flavored. You play a character but with YOUR morals, standards, knowledge and experience shaping the adventures of that character.

    I think modern MMOs we play fully along #3. Pen and Paper RPGs fall usually between 2 and 3, with dungeon crawlers leaning to 3.

  • I already explained what I want it to be. I want it to be a discussion about what makes a roleplaying game a roleplaying game in terms of how it is designed. I do not care about the terminology used. This isn’t an argument about definitions, so don’t make it into one. It’s also not about “roleplaying” which is what you’re “siding” with. This is about Roleplaying GAMES. Simply stating that by taking on the role of a character you’re playing a roleplaying game is absurd,

    I wanted people to think about games like Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and so on, and identify what about them makes them a roleplaying game, and then identify those traits (or lack thereof) in other games. Then come together and compare notes. I listed what I thought made a game a RPG. I’d like others to do so. Telling me that the scope is being narrowed too far is off-topic and irrelevant.

    I guess I’ll file this one under ‘failed attempts’ and try again in the future.

  • The subject of RPG is something I hold very close to my heart and I’m looking forward to reading your post tomorrow. Personally, I think most MMORPGs have lost their way and you are no longer playing a character that is in any way unique, customisable or has any influence on their surroundings.

    True roleplaying is about pretending to be someone or something else. It’s not just me playing an action video game, it’s about me bonding with my character and protraying him or her as something other than myself. When you interact with my character, you should be interacting with them, not me. Their response may not be what I would do and that’s part of the fun of it all!

    I think most MMORPGs should be renamed MMO-action-stat-collecting-games as they really have no roleplaying sense to them any more. You can’t even create a bio for your character in WoW for instance.

  • I personally feel the definitions you’ve chosen Keen from a RPG are a little too specific. I get this feeling that you are leading us into a strawman argument. I’m not saying your definitions are wrong, I’m just saying I think they are too specific.

    I do agree that most games lately aren’t MMORPGs. I disagree with We Fly Spitfires though, I don’t think they lost their way. I think they evolved. MMOs have evolved in the same manner FPS games evolved past the first Doom or Wolfenstein.

    MMO is more akin to what a FPS is classified as than anything else. Just because something is labeled FPS doesn’t always mean it’s a straight up shooter like they use to be.

  • @Epiny: I read your blog. 🙂

    No argument or leading at all here. I’m asking for people to list theirs, not just critique mine/Bioware’s. If you think I’m too specific, please tell me what makes a game a RPG. I am interested in how you can broaden the definition though and not leave it entirely open-ended. One could say that all RPG’s require you to take on the role of someone, but not all games where you take on the role of someone at RPG’s.

    @We Fly Spitfires: I’m the same way with RPG’s. I’m also very, very picky with mine. As for MMORPG’s, whether through getting lost or evolving, they have changed to lose the RPG in them.

  • I’m an old school RPGer in respect to video games. One of my favorite RPGs of all time is Final Fantasy 3. I think I’m jaded because of this. I think everyone uses their favorite RPG as sort of the standard for what a RPG should be.

    At the same time I love Diablo and I do consider it a RPG. Now the only two elements that Diablo and Final Fantasy 3 really have in common are character development.

    I know I’m going to be by myself with this but I don’t think a RPG really needs a story. Couldn’t existing in a world be enough? One of my favorite things in the Final Fantasy games was simply traveling around the world experiencing everything.

    So my list…
    1. Character progression
    2. Being a part of the world with in the game

    As for the combat needing to be strategic, I think that’s a pitfall to subjective views. Look at oblivion, that wasn’t very strategic and isn’t it considered a RPG? I think everything else is good to have, but not genre defining.

    I think BioWare’s comments are more about marketing than anything. They are trying to build up their game as a true RPG and infer that other MMO games are not true RPGs.

  • Yes, I was overly broad.

    To me personally a RPG is playing a character which you can alter/tailor through equipment and/or leveling and skill selection.

  • I read Alex Kierkegaard’s On Role-playing Games; I thought it a rather good treatise on why most CRPGs are not really RPGs; it’s long but well worth the read. In particular:

    Quote: “… stats alone do not make an RPG. At the end of the day all games have stats, even if in most of them they are not directly revealed to the player.”

    And I might add that the sort of min/maxing, gear-centric, power-gaming game-play in most CRPGs is little more than a vestige of true role-playing.

    Quote: “What … games lack compared to RPGs is rules enabling the player to influence the plot in meaningful ways, or … to “shape the direction and outcome of the game”.”

    Bingo. Very few CRPGs, allows players any influence whatsoever. MMORPGs are particularly egregious in this respect; every outcome is rigidly pre-defined, with no player choices beyond, “Do I do this quest, or don’t I.”

    One more point — I mostly agree with your list, Keen, with the exception of “Combat is more considered than a pure action game and incorporates tactical concepts.” Combat is definitely not a requirement to be a RPG. (Just as it’s not necessary for a RPG to be in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, although most are…)

  • Yeah I keep trying to make definitions but I always find exceptions and gray areas. Is Harvest Moon a roleplaying game or a farming simulator? If it is an RPG, is Trauma Center one too?

    Really, really hard to define.