Ripple Genres: Roleplaying and Number Crunching

Welcome back to The Game Critic for March 28th 2009! This week by popular demand we’re going to continue our discussion of what I would call “rippled genres”, or sub-genre’s that have evolved since the beginning of the creation of the genre. Last week, we discussed the “Ripple Genre” of fighting games, each game since the conception of fighting games has fallen under the sway of technical fighting (concise, thought out techniques) and flashy or visual (a looser play style revolving more around easy to produce looks).

So this week we’re going to be discussing the Ripple Genre’s of RPGs. RPGs, or Role Playing Games, are a game which puts the player in charge of one or more characters who are tasked with a goal of some kind (usually saving the world). Unlike other games, a staple definition for an RPG is a leveling system of some kind. As the players characters interact in one way or another, they “level up” improving a series of base statistics as they do so. It’s essentially the same system that Pen and paper roleplaying games, such as Dungeons and Dragons or Battletech, have used for decades. Character power can easily be assumed by glancing at a player’s level. A level 12 character is much weaker than a level 20 character, etc.

This numbers based method of character definition is actually our focus today. The RPG genre is a vast pool of sub-types. Some games such as the classic Final Fantasy rely on turn based party combat (the player controls a group of heroes who take ‘turns’ attacking and defending opponents) while others such as Diablo or Morrowind rely on real-time combat, damage and other combat is simply determined by invisibly rolled ‘dice’ behind the scenes each time a player interacts. Multiple other types of differentiating styles show up in the RPG genre as well, whether it is viewpoint, sandbox, or any other mixture of the styles previously mentioned.

However, just as the fighting games we mentioned last week, RPGs have also undergone a very slow dividing rift that has rippled up and down the genre, causing all sorts of interesting effects. This differentiation started at the very beginning of RPGs, and oddly enough, appears to root from a cultural difference.

Games may be a worldwide industry, but that doesn’t mean that each country likes the same games. Particularly, Japan and America often have very differing taste in certain types of games. For instance, while Microsoft’s X-box pulled out ahead in America due to the success of Halo, in Japan the system sold terribly. Turns out, no one over there enjoyed Halo. So instead, Microsoft bundled their system with Dead or Alive Volleyball, and the systems sales jumped by over 400%.

So back to RPGs, the first few RPGs held to a pretty similar pattern. But as the years have passed, RPGs have divided along cultural lines that influence their style, causing the games to be directed at one audience or another. Oddly enough, the difference is not over the play style, but the method of character growth.
We Americans love our sandbox game. Just look at the sales of games such as Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, and other open ended games, America loves them. But America also loves something else open ended—Character development.

Wait, what? No, you read that right. The whole leveling system we discussed earlier? Japanese oriented games, by which I mean RPGs made for Japan, or that sell far greater in Japan (or never come to the US) tend to offer very limited character growth. Characters stats are usually fixed and characters advance on set events. Weaponry, armor, and other equipment is also on rails. You move to the next point in the story, and identical weapons that are slightly more powerful become available.

American gamers however, prefer so flex to their characters. American aimed RPGs follow much more free patterns, allowing people to customize their characters as they see fit. Don’t like the sword? Grab an ax. American RPGs tend to much more heavily rely on player input and personal choice towards character development.

Neither of these choices is good or bad. Each one offers differing strengths and weakness for the game in question, and unless you’re a die-hard number cruncher (or a number hater), you probably have no problem with either style of game. Final Fantasy VI offers a lot of character customization while Seiken Detsetsu 3 offers almost none, but I enjoy playing both games. But if you’ve always wondered why you enjoyed some more than others, the difference between a Japanese or American RPG may be just what you need.

Games I’m Currently Playing: Resident Evil 5 (360), Gears of War 2 (360), Sonic 3 & Knuckles (Genesis), Sins of a Solar Empire (PC), Castle Crashers (XBLA)

1 comment:

Time Enforcer Anubis said...

Indeed. There's always been a rift between Japanese and American RPGs. I could never quite get very far into a J-RPG because, to me at least, the gameplay tends to weigh less than the story. Which is not to say that's bad, because I find Visual Novel games enjoyable and they're pretty much a choose-your-own-adventure book on PC, but for some reason J-RPGs have either never appealed to me, or appealed to me very little, and I think the reason you gave is completely correct: It's sandbox vs linear-story.

It's the reason I like Mass Effect and Oblivion so much. I can fly around, pick a planet and land on it in Mass ffect, and I can jump on a horse and go find things to kill in Oblivion. Not only that but, being that the story is on rails, J-RPGs have sometimes have the proverbial brick wall of the boss you can't beat, and the choice is to either hit your head against the wall until you either just barely smash through after the thousandth impact, or go back and grind random battles, which, while I find it acceptable in MMORPGS, I shouldn't have to do in a linear game.

Also, I've found personally that the expanse of the general universe in American RPGs is bigger than that of J-RPGs. Usually, in the J-RPGs I've played, the universe and background is pretty much limited to what's pertinent to what the player needs to do.

Elder Scrolls universe: Massive
Mass Effect universe: Huge
Warcraft Universe: Redonkulously gigantic

In A-RPGs, the information on the background to the world is there for people who want it, and those who don't can just continue on.