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.

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On Pet Classes

Pet classes in RPGs tend to provoke strong reactions. Most people either love pet classes and play them at every opportunity, or hate pet classes and avoid them like the plague.

Fighting the undead in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing IIII’m a strange case in that both of those are true of me. Depending on the game, I either love or hate pet classes.

For example, you’ve probably heard me complain bitterly about pet classes in World of Warcraft. Yes, one of my most played characters is a warlock, but I started her as a leveling challenge to see if I could play a lock without pets, and once Grimoire of Sacrifice became a thing, I’ve used it as much as possible. The pets have always been my least favourite part of being a warlock.

Similarly, pets are one of the bigger reasons I haven’t spent much time playing a hunter, and it’s not entirely a coincidence I started losing interest in my mage around the time they made frost a pet spec.

On the other hand, when it comes to single-player games, I tend to embrace pet classes with open arms. When the Van Helsing games revamped their classes, I went straight for the Constructor and terrorized Borgovia with my army of dismemberbots.

I don’t have a lot of fond memories of the gameplay of Diablo II, but one of them is definitely having a posse of skeletons following my necromancer around. In D3, I never quite managed to click with the witch doctor, but I have done my level best to rekajigger my crusader into a pet class (a “zoosader”). At a maximum, he can be accompanied by three swordsmen, four archers, Kormac, and a demon minion summoned by his sword.

And let us not forget my zombie goons in Lichdom: Battlemage.

My zombie posse in Lichdom: Battlemage“…Zombie goons?”

Then there’s party-based RPGs to consider. We generally seem to separate companion characters from pets, but practically speaking, they’re pretty similar. AI minions who assist you in combat. And I definitely enjoy party-based RPGs — I prefer them to games where you only control a single character. In fact, my most common complaint about them is that the parties aren’t nearly big enough. Dungeon Siege spoiled me with its nine party slots.

So what accounts for this split?

Honestly I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think it’s necessarily one factor as much as a combination of them.

Broadly, it seems to be a difference between single-player games and MMOs.

For one thing, MMOs never really seem to take pets into account when balancing the difficulty in the open world, so while pet classes are at no particular advantage at endgame, they’re brokenly OP when soloing, and since most MMOs tend to make their solo content rather insultingly easy to begin with, it just makes the whole experience a snorefest.

On a related note, most tab target MMOs have incredibly stilted combat with little meaningful interaction between the player and their opponent. You kind of just ignore whatever the enemy is doing and mindlessly drill through your rotation. Having a pet tank hits for you exasperates the issue.

My party in Dragon Age: InquisitionMMOs also usually use an over-the-shoulder camera, which causes pets to take up an obnoxious amount of screen real estate. They mess up screenshots and cause all sorts of problems.

Meanwhile, a lot of the single-player RPGs I favour use an isometric camera, which makes pets far less of an encumbrance.

Perhaps due to less concerns about lag, single-player games also tend to allow you to control much larger numbers of pets, and I definitely prefer a swarm of minions to just one.

It could also have to do with the rigid threat mechanics that tend to exist in a lot of MMOs, but not in single-player games. Most MMO pets have taunt abilities that ensure enemies will focus on them almost 100% of the time. This, again, robs you of any meaningful interaction with your opponent.

In single-player games, pets usually don’t have taunts or threat modifiers. At best they’re a physical barrier between you and the enemy. Even in Dragon Age, where the warrior in your party will likely have taunts, it’s rare for them to hold aggro on every enemy. This means that you still have to look to your own defenses and survival at least a little.

Another divide is that MMO pets tend to require a lot of micro-management, at least in group content, whereas single-player pets and companions are almost always fire and forget. I definitely do not want to have to spend a lot of time baby-sitting my pets — that defeats the purpose as far as I’m concerned.

My Imperial agent and Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionAll that said, I can still find exceptions that muddy the issue even further. I quite like the companion characters in SW:TOR, for instance, and they’re essentially pets. In that case I suspect it’s a combination of the fact they’re meaningful characters within the story and the fact I already dislike the combat in that game, so how much worse can the companions make it?

In ESO, also, I’ve leaned heavily on my Clannfear pet, perhaps because unlike most MMO pets it doesn’t require much management. Then again it’s also worth noting that I have been moving away from using it recently — it doesn’t fit my character’s RP very well, and it bugs out a lot.

It’s definitely a very muddled alchemy that determines whether or not I will appreciate pets. The one thing you can be certain of is that I will always have strong opinions on pet classes one way or another.