Things I Learned From Video Games

Of late, I can’t really call myself an “avid” video gamer. I have so much in the way of work and hobbies that other stuff takes up a lot of time, and it’s become rarer for any given game to really do it for me. The most recent game that I got obsessed with was Final Fantasy IV Advance, a GBA port of a game I played more than 10 years ago on SNES, so go figure. But still, I do play video games when I can (my Nintendo DS is helping save my sanity on my long train commute for graduate school), and pay attention to the industry. Although they’re in many ways a very different medium, I do think that RPGs could learn a lot from video games — and vice versa.

Story Genres and Functional Genres
Lost Garden is a really fascinating blog about video game development, and its most influential entry is about Nintendo’s innovation strategy with the Wii, its potential to engender whole new genres of games, and the life cycle of video game genres. One or more breakout games hits it big (Castle Wolfenstein and Doom), and there’s a growing demand for similar games which creates an explosion of popularity, and “genre kings” (Half-Life, Quake) emerge to dominate and define the genre, and over time the parameters of the genre get narrower and narrower, until they primarily serve a hardcore audience that looks down on games that deviate from their notion of what the genre should be (Halo), and eventually it becomes the realm of hobbyists (like what happened to turn-based strategy games).

Video games, by and large, are divided into genres not by the subject matter, but by how they play. Halo: Combat Evolved and Starcraft are both science fiction, but to video gamers the fact that they’re an FPS and RTS (respectively) is far more important. It could be argued that RPGs also have genres in the video game sense, with different ways of framing the overall experience. Of course, trying to create categories or define genres along this axis would inevitably lead to all kinds of annoying arguments over semantics, and it’s something that’s further complicated by drift — how an RPG’s rules can be interpreted or repurposed in play. When you play Halo, it’s going to be an FPS no matter what you do, but regardless of what is optimum Dungeons & Dragons can range anywhere from a tactical game to a court intrigue game. On the other hand, even in video games the divisions between genres are porous; you could easily make a continuum between third-person action and CRPG. These days action games routinely have some kind of RPG elements too them — stats that can be booster over time and such, and there are “action RPG” games like Jade Empire and Zelda too.

So, here’s my utterly non-authoritative, thrown-together attempt to divide RPGs into “functional” genres, whcih in turn wound up being sort of a continuum between D&D and story games. (It should go without saying that none are “better” than the others, any more than RTS games are “better” than CRPGs).

  • D&D’s class/level/kill things and take their stuff setup. It’s rarely imitated anymore.
  • GURPS, Hero System, and other crunchy, point-based universal systems.
  • “Non-interference” systems that provide a basic, generic framework and little else; BESM, Cinematic Unisystem.
  • Games focused on a specific setting or premise; World of Darkness, Cat
  • Highly thematic/story games; The Mountain Witch, DRYH, DitV, MLWM
  • Systems that primarily serve to distribute narrative control; PTA, octaNe
  • Games that are narrowly focused on a specific roleplaying type activity; The Shal-al-Hiri Roach, Breaking the Ice

In this respect, the fact that the functional genres of tabletop RPGs are so few and relatively rigid isn’t too surprising, but the fact that one game dominates the market so thoroughly is something unique to the English-speaking RPG hobby. On the other hand, it could be argued that within the microcosm of the indie scene, there are in fact genres and genre kings, of which Dogs in the Vineyard and Prime Time Adventures would seem to be prime examples. It’s also a small enough hobby that games that don’t have much staying power for whatever reason tend to fall by the wayside completely, if they ever existed, so it’s hard to come up with more crunchy/universal/point-based systems besides GURPS and Hero.

In some ways, I think the indie RPG scene represents some of where some in the video game industry feel they need to go, whether it’s Greg Costikyan who wants to tear apart the current order, or Alex Seropian‘s efforts to found a company that’s small and streamlined with lots of outsourcing, or just Will Wright using radically different programming techniques. It would be a mistake to discard the mainstream or to assume that the new hotness (procedural generation) is going to totally change everything rather than becoming part of the overall palette.

When it comes to video games the need for changes comes from the many trends that run counter to open creativity, and the production costs that are spiralling out of control. The demand for spectacular big-budget games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy won’t go away, but there have been plenty of break-away hits (Guitar Hero) and cult classics (Katamari Damacy) that make it clear that the big-budget approach isn’t the only way to go. For the Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3 there will be support for small, downloadable games. There’s still something of a walled garden thing going on, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Although it’s a lot harder than with tabletop games, it is still possible for a small number of people to make games in their spare time, and its exciting to think that there’s a place for a simple, fun, innovative $5 video game to be sold on a major console.

The major importance of the Wii is that it introduces wholly new ways to play games, by doing away with what has become the standard type of controller (a thing with 12 buttons and 3 directional controls) in favor of something more intuitive (handing someone a white remote control and telling them to just swing it like a tennis racket). Some look at this kind of accessibility as both a boon to gamers who are growing up and have less time, and a way to court non-gamers. In terms of RPGs, D&D is kind of the PS2, considering at a minimum you’d want to have three 300-page hardback books and six kinds of dice, and it involves its own special breed of Tolkienesque fantasy. In this respect, the casual side of video games represents where some from the indie RPG scene want the hobby to go: something that could be mainstream and accessible to everyone. There are zillions of housewives who play casual video games on Yahoo, and not a few who get together with their friends to play Bunco, so what if they started doing the same for, say, Primetime Adventures? The conundrum, of course, is how the hell to make that happen.

One of the things about video games, that’s very difficult but potentially valuable for RPGs to do is to make it possible to get right into the action with minimal preparation. There are very, very few video games where reading the manual is even necessary, and many games teach you how to play themselves through the early stages. The Ghostbusters RPG (still waiting for it to arrive in the mail) supposedly does something like this by teaching the rules through a series of three short adventures, and for that matter Cybergeneration also had a default introductory adventure. There’s also Deep 7’s 1PG games, which give you a complete beer-and-pretzels game in 13 pages, 6 of which are 1-page scenarios. I think it’s a really cool idea that I’d like to explore more, though from personal experience I know that introductory adventures can run into the problem of having a portion of the group that’s played through them before.


3 thoughts on “Things I Learned From Video Games

  1. I think you’re right to say that RPGs have genres the same way video games do.

    When it comes to indie games, though, it’s difficult to say what stage we’re in, though I would argue it’s either the initial stage or the growing stage before maturity. There does seem to be a standardization of gaming techniques going on right now (such as conflict resolution), which suggests that we’re moved into the growing stage. But there’s still alot of experimentation going on, so it seems that the genre isn’t yet defined.

    Or maybe we’re established a couple genres (like the Sorcerer/DitV genre and the Universalis/Capes/PTA genre) but new ones are still popping up (like the Roach?).

  2. In part I think that comes back to the thing about how the term “indie” is used. Ron Edwards’ definition is about creator ownership and all that, but there are not a few people who use it in a way that would more or less mean “narrativist.” That’s probably the style of game that the indie scene has done the most to evolve and popularize, but certainly not the only one by any means.

    In video games the naming of genres takes time; I’m reasonably sure the term “first-person shooter” wasn’t coined until well after Wolfenstein 3-D, and at the time “shooter” mostly referred to games like Graudius. The terminology is a crazy, ad hoc kind of thing, and RPGs don’t really have the kind of centralized secondary media (EGM, G4, etc.) that video games do, that could popularize new vocabulary. But even with that, where, for example, you could argue that Grand Theft Auto sparked a new genre (if one without many imitators), there isn’t a name for it per se. With RPGs, the notion of dividing them up into genres based on function is all but non-existent, so the terminology is either non-existent or accidental.

    On the other hand, I suspect that thinking about the games’ functionality in terms of genre would necessarily influence how people design games. Video games have this genre life cycle thing, and as a result there are lots of games what show little ambition beyond fulfilling the demands of a given genre. Of course, with RPGs are on a whole different scale economically, so designing a given game can be a hobby rather than something you have to convince someone to risk a few million dollars on, but still.

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