The ‘Western’ RPG market, it seems, is in a very good place, but the genre is in danger of falling into a rut. Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt have both been reviewed as being among the best games of the generation so far. Lords of the Fallen has reportedly kickstarted a new series and, looking forward, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Cyberpunk 2077, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and the new Mass Effect all seem set to contribute to the standard of excellence. The most recent addition to the roster of anticipation is Fallout 4. Although a wealth of settings and gameplay styles is present across these different games, there is also an undeniable sense of homogeneity, which could leave the entire genre feeling played out within only a few short years.
As often as not, the role that setting plays in video games is negligible in terms of core gameplay design. First person shooters, whether they purport to be set in 1942 or 2142, are always built on a series of fundamental design principles. Broadly speaking, the same may be claimed of 4X strategy games, platformers, and racing games. Historically, RPGs have avoided falling into this same trap by utilising party-based gameplay, isometric viewpoints, turn-based battle systems, or dungeon-oriented design, but these partitions seem to be falling away in favour of a one-size-fits-all solution. Increasingly, ‘Western’ RPGs are being built within the framework of a third-person action game with an open-world design, populated by sidequests that can only be called padding. By accepting these design precepts, the developers are acting in a way that creates a peculiar dichotomy that rules many of the decisions behind AAA development today.
Their actions, even while making sound financial sense (at least in the short term), generate an aura of creative bankruptcy that can only lead to ill-health for the genre in years to come. In much the same way that many developers jumped upon the first-person shooter bandwagon as a result of the incredible popularity of Call of Duty and Battlefield in the previous console generation, WRPG developers are following a formula that has proven successful.
Although it would be erroneous to say that any one title acted as the blueprint for the new standard, the popularity of Oblivion and Skyrim (7.56 million and 18.21 million sales, respectively, according to VGChartz.com) certainly contributed. In many ways, those two Elder Scrolls titles benefited from a perfect storm. Oblivion launched early in the previous generation during a dearth of quality titles; it was regarded, among my circle of friends at least, as the one of only two games worth owning within the first few months of the PlayStation 3’s availability (the other, if you’re interested, was Resistance: Fall of Man), which contributed to high regard for Bethesda Game Studios, as the developers of the title.
Their reputation was further cemented by Fallout 3, and so high expectations, combined with stellar reviews and a strong marketing campaign, sent Skyrim to the top of the sales charts five years later. In addition to these external factors, the Bethesda RPGs feature a strong design ethos that attracted fans, and has seen other developers seek to copy the design principles. Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt have already benefited, critically and financially, from combining aspects of their respective franchises with the open-world ethic of Bethesda titles, but ubiquity of this design is simply not sustainable.
Not only does it result in a much larger drain on resources than more linear adventures, but it also threatens faster onset of design fatigue. Online gaming communities frequently feature comments lamenting the scope of the likes of Assassin’s Creed, GTA V, and these RPGs, as they feature so much ancillary content that it can easily take upwards of a hundred hours to see them through to completion. Knowing that each game can take so long to complete, and knowing that another similar title isn’t so far away can only reduce enthusiasm for the latest.
For evidence, one only needs to look as far the first-person shooter genre in the previous console generation. The unprecedented success of Call of Duty generated a leap in the number of FPS titles being developed, many of which languished on release. Battlefield and Call of Duty quickly rose to the top of the sales charts with the backing of consistently high review scores and strong marketing campaigns, while less prominent titles, such as Medal of Honor and Crysis, though garnering attention, fell to the wayside.
More recently, the first-person shooter genre has become centralised and insular with single-player campaigns being minimalised in favour of multiplayer innovation, which has resulted in an ever-increasing focus on games such as Titanfall, Destiny, and Star Wars: Battlefront. For me, at least, who is more interested in narrative-oriented shooters such as Resistance and Bioshock, this new focus has created a malaise for the entire genre, and the dropping annual sales figures for the biggest shooters only prove that the malaise is broader than this one editor. A lack of diversity can only result in diminishing returns for content creators and users alike, as the users grow tired of being fed the same thing on a regular basis, resulting in less of a desire to partake of the latest offering.
As the adage goes, variety is the spice of life. I like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls almost as much as anyone, but the idea of playing them over and again, with visual design and overarching literary genre as the only differentiating factors, does not appeal to me. As much as I like Bethesda RPGs, I also enjoy the more confined nature of the Mass Effect series, and the stealth-oriented design of Deus Ex because they offer something tangibly different. Although we know little of these two titles thus far, it would be creative bankruptcy for them to adopt the action-oriented open-world design aspects of Fallout.
Although it makes perfect sense to follow the trail of money, RPG developers need to be willing to retain their integrity and be brave enough to stick to the design principles that will make their game as good as it possibly can be, rather than seeking to adapt the game they want to make to a successful formula.
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