RPGs Versus Progression Games

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the video games we refer to as role-playing games, or RPGs, are spectacularly mislabeled?

Scott Ryder in Mass Effect: AndromedaLet’s look at what that term actually means. “Role-playing” refers to assuming an identity or personality other than your own. To pretend to be someone else, usually to act out a scenario or tell a story.

While most RPGs incorporate at least some element of this, it’s very rarely the focus. It isn’t what defines the genre. In video game terms, RPG elements are considered to be things like character levels, stat sheets, experience points, and unlockable abilities. All of these things have little or nothing to do with role-playing.

I understand that the ingrained terminology of the genre is not going to change just because a chubby blogger in Toronto says so, but I would like to outline why I believe that most if not all video games we call RPGs are mislabeled, and how this goes a long way to explaining my love-hate relationship with the genre.

Stop, drop, and role:

I know quoting Wikipedia is in the same realm of tackiness as bringing 7 Up as a wedding gift, but while looking for definitions of role-playing, I found this one pretty apt: “A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories.” [Source]

I would argue that video games eliminate the need for other players in the creation of your role-play story, as scripted NPCs can fulfill the same need. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t role-play with other people, of course; it just means they aren’t a necessity.

My party in Sword Coast LegendsEither way, role-play is about assuming a role and telling a story.

Now what does that have to do with level grinds and character stats? Nothing whatsoever.

In the early days of tabletop role-playing, things like character sheets and stat rolls and such were necessary to give the experience some degree of order and consistent logic. Video games, on the other hand, have the ability to keep all that under the hood and provide the player a seamless, immersive experience.

But because the genre’s origins were rooted in numbers and stats, gamers and developers have come to conflate the two. The character sheets and dice rolls continued into the digital space, and now they’ve taken over the genre entirely to the point where they’ve shoved out the actual role-playing.

Consider MMOs. Traditionally developers have had to designate special servers (usually a minority of the total server pool) for role-playing, and increasingly they’re not even bothering to do that.

Those who do role-play in MMOs are often viewed by other players as strange or even deviant, and openly mocked. They are a minority, and like all minorities in gaming, held in very low regard.

My rogue in RiftDoes this not seem incredibly bizarre to anyone else? If we’re to believe the name of the genre, role-players are the only ones who are actually playing the games correctly, and I say that as someone who is at best only on the barest periphery of role-play.

I think this proves the games we call RPGs aren’t about role-playing at all. Most of them incorporate RPG elements, but that doesn’t make them true RPGs.

To give you an idea, I think Life Is Strange is much more of an RPG than World of Warcraft. It’s all about playing a character and making choices as that character to shape the story. I’m not sure it’s a perfect example of what an RPG could or should be, but it’s certainly much closer than most of the games we call RPGs.

So what should we call them?

I name your true name:

I would argue that the genre we have come to call RPGs should instead be known as progression games.

The core concept that unifies the genre is that of progression, of growing more powerful and improving your character’s performance. You level up, unlock new abilities, get better gear, and so forth. This is true regardless of whether you’re playing Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Diablo, Aion, Persona, or whatever other example you want to give.

A screenshot from the RPG Titan QuestProgression is the mechanic that purists of the genre cling to. I’ve often heard complaints that level-scaling such as was introduced to the Elder Scrolls Online with One Tamriel is bad because it makes games less of an RPG. That’s an absolutely ridiculous argument; level-scaling makes a game more of an RPG by eliminating ridiculous scenarios like slaying a dragon with a single punch.

But level-scaling does make it less of a progression game. We have conflated RPGs and progression mechanics to the point where people are unable to separate them, but in truth it’s little more than an accident of history that the two are related at all.

Pretty much the only area where the two concepts meet is when constructing a character build. Your choices of which stats to stack and which abilities to unlock help express the identity of your character, and that is an element of role-playing as well as a means of progression.

For example, in World of Warcraft, my warlock actually hates demons. As a result, I choose the talent Grimoire of Sacrifice whenever possible, allowing her to sacrifice her demon minion to increase her own power. This enhances the fantasy of the character. To her, demons are simply a resource to fuel her own quest for vengeance, and Grimoire of Sacrifice lets me express this concept through the gameplay.

But even then performance concerns in progression games can often cause you to make compromises in your character concept in order to ensure your character is strong enough to overcome the challenges before you. This is especially a problem in MMOs, where there’s an element of social pressure to conform.

My warlock cosplaying as a demon hunter in World of WarcraftStalled by progression:

Understanding the difference between role-playing and progression games goes a long way to explaining the love/hate relationship that I have with the genre we tend to call RPGs. You see, I’m a big fan of role-playing games, but much less fond of progression games.

Certainly progression provides a very strong psychological hook, which is why nearly every game of every genre now has at least some small element of it. We are as a species keyed to appreciate reward structures like this.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting gameplay, and the more time you spend with it, the more transparent it becomes. After so many years of playing progression games — especially MMOs, where the treadmill is at its most naked and cynical — I have almost entirely stopped caring. I’ve gotten so much phat lewt and heard so many level dings that it’s stopped meaning anything to me at all.

I still like making builds, and earning new abilities is the one part of progression that still consistently excites me, hence my two Panoptic Cores in TSW (RIP). But for the most part I’m reaching the point where I just want to establish a good build as quickly as possible and then focus on actually playing the game.

Progression inhibits role-play at least as much as it enhances it. It’s a distraction at best, a roadblock at worst. Hence my eternal frustration with a genre I otherwise love. What I want is to inhabit a character, to immerse myself in a world. Most of what we call RPGs offer this, but not always to the extent I crave. Too much focus is put on the numbers, not enough on the texture and character of the world and its story.

Jeyne Kassynder in Dungeon Siege III. Ah, Jeyne, we hardly knew yeI think this is what keeps me coming back to Bioware, despite their inconsistencies. They’re progression games, but they haven’t forgotten their RPG roots. They’re still, at their heart, about people, places, and stories.

And that’s what attracts me: Exploring new lands, getting to know characters, and living out stories. Those are the experiences I crave. That’s what role-playing games are truly about.

7 thoughts on “RPGs Versus Progression Games

  1. It’s an interesting concept, although the term ‘progression games’ covers a whole gamut of game styles and players (as does MMORPG of course). I like the RPG-esque crunch of games like EQ2 or DDO for instance – not just levels and XP, but also complex and meaningful character development choices. Leveling is fine, but the type of play it engenders in many irks me no end. The rush to the cap, the do anything to get there quicker type of gameplay is totally alien to me.

    Since computer games (even solo crpgs) haven’t come even vaguely near the creativity and experience of a D&D group for me, I don’t really expect MMORPGs to be that focused on role-play.

    The aspect that MMORPGs does capture enough for me to enjoy them is the small group co-op challenge / adventure. Yes the content is slow and linear in comparison, but it is also done by someone else (so all of us get to be players for a change) and has better graphics than I could ever verbally describe as DM. My main group of WoW friends used to rp during dungeon runs, roleplay for us wasn’t about sitting in towns conducting scripted or improv conversations and ‘scenes’. It was much more about having shared adventures (e.g. dungeons) while playing, as a group, in character. As the game’s encounters, especially boss fights, have become more complex and movement focused we haven’t kept this up since there’s too much happening to type the odd bit of dialogue. Still we do enjoy playing together for the coop challenge,

  2. Interesting concept, to separate out the idea of progression as a game genre that some players seek in and of itself. I could see things like Progress Quest being a pure expression of the form, idle clicker games on one end of that spectrum, through gear grind for improved stats fames and all the way up to group required, raid for tiny incrementing numbers MMO endgames.

    Though I’m not sure if we need to differentiate between numbers/stat progression (improvement of character’s performance) and player progression (being able to unlock new content or increasing in skill/knowledge).

    The other thing that I’ve lately been musing on like a bone chew toy is to further break down progression as a concept into two groups or a spectrum of people that answer the following question differently: “When are you okay with -stopping- progression or ceasing to progress? Or at least -pausing- progression.”

    It seems like for one subset, which I’d term optimizers or maximizers or min-maxers, it simply doesn’t occur to them that this can stop. They’re forever chasing after an ever incrementing number, shaving off seconds from a speedrun, comparing against others endlessly and seeking to do juuust that little bit better. Forever pushing, forever striving. I’m not going to label this good or bad, it’s just a difference in perspective.

    Then there’s the other subset, the satisficers who are okay with “good enough.” At some point, there is a plateau of time invested to quantifiable results and further efforts yield diminished returns for excessive amounts of time spent. But where do they draw the line of “this is fine,” and by what criteria do they judge this line?

    • For me, when is “enough” varies on the type of game. In WoW and similar games, it’s when I have enough gear to do all the content I want to do — so basically the minimum ilevel for the LFR version of the expansion’s last raid.

      If there’s a clear and attainable finish line — such as crafting a full set of high-end gear in ESO — then I’ll pursue that. And if there’s some method of progression that strongly appeals — as in the TSW ability example above — then I can continue almost indefinitely.

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  4. –> “Certainly progression provides a very strong psychological hook, which is why nearly every game of every genre now has at least some small element of it. We are as a species keyed to appreciate reward structures like this.”

    Yep, that’s exactly why whenever I pick up Skyrim, I get addicted again. I will play obsessively for weeks, because that leveling up feels sooooo good.

    But I know what you mean. That’s not as satisfying as true role-playing. I like the name “progression games” for some of the leveling-focused games, but for me, it’s less about the progression and more about the choice. Those games still give you choice, which is where the role-playing comes in, however limited it may be. I agree with you that the more role-playing involved, the better. It’s why story-driven choice is always more intriguing and satisfying to me than stats-based choice! Anyway, really interesting post. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Examining Class-based Versus Skill-based Progression - MMOBro

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