Role-playing video games use much of the same terminology, settings and game mechanics as early pen-and-paper role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Generally, the player controls a central game character, or multiple game characters, usually called a party, and achieves victory by completing a series of quests or reaching the conclusion of a central storyline. Players explore a game world, while solving puzzles and engaging in tactical combat. A key feature of the genre is that characters grow in power and abilities, and characters are typically designed by the player. RPGs rarely challenge a player's physical coordination or reaction time, with the exception of action role-playing games.
Role-playing video games typically rely on a highly developed story and setting, which is divided into a number of quests. Players control one or several characters by issuing commands, which is performed by the character at an effectiveness determined by that character's numeric attributes. Often these attributes increase each time a character gains a level, and a character's level goes up each time the player accumulates a certain amount of experience.
Role-playing video games also typically attempt to offer more complex and dynamic character interaction than what is found in other video game genres. This usually involves additional focus on the artificial intelligence and scripted behavior of computer-controlled non-player characters.
Story and setting
The premise of most-role-playing games tasks the player with saving the world, or whichever level of society is threatened. There are often twists and turns as the story progresses, such as the surprise appearance of estranged relatives, or enemies who become friends or vice-versa. The game world tends to be set in a fantasy or science fiction universe, which allows players to do things they cannot do in real life and helps players suspend their disbelief about the rapid character growth. To a lesser extent, settings closer to the present day or near future are possible.
A strong story often provides half the entertainment in the game. Because these games have strong storylines, they can often make effective use of recorded dialog and voiceover narration. Players of these games tend to appreciate long cut-scenes more than players of faster action games. While most games advance the plot when the player defeats an enemy or completes a level, role-playing games often progress the plot based on other important decisions. For example, a player may make the decision to join a guild, thus triggering a progression in the storyline that is usually irreversible. New elements in the story may also be triggered by mere arrival in an area, rather than completing a specific challenge. The plot is usually divided so that each game location is an opportunity to reveal a new chapter in the story.
Pen-and-paper role-playing games typically involve a player called the game-master (or GM for short) who can dynamically create the story, setting, and rules, and react to a player's choices. In role-playing video games, the computer performs the function of the game-master. This offers the player a smaller set of possible actions, since computers can't engage in imaginative acting comparable to a skilled human game-master. In exchange, the typical role-playing video game may have storyline branches, user interfaces, and stylized cut-scenes and gameplay to offer a more direct storytelling mechanism. Characterization of non-player characters in video games is often handled using a dialog tree. Saying the right things to the right non-player characters will elicit useful information for the player, and may even result in other rewards such as items or experience, as well as opening up possible storyline branches. Multi-player online role-playing games can offer an exception to this contrast by allowing human interaction among multiple players and in some cases enabling a player to perform the role of a game-master.
Exploration and quests
Exploring the world is an important aspect of all RPGs. Players will walk through, talking to non-player characters, picking up objects, and avoiding traps. Some games such as NetHack, Diablo, and the FATE series randomize the structure of individual levels, increasing the game's variety and replay-ability. Role-playing games where players complete quests by exploring randomly generated dungeons are called rogue-likes, named after the 1980 video game Rogue.
The game's story is often mapped onto exploration, where each chapter of the story is mapped onto a different location. Unlike other linear games, RPGs usually allow players to return to previously visited locations. Usually, there is nothing left to do there, although some locations change throughout the story and offer the player new things to do in response. Players must acquire enough power to overcome a major challenge in order to progress to the next area, and this structure can be compared to the boss characters at the end of levels in action games.
The player typically must complete a linear sequence of certain quests in order to reach the end of the game's story. However, RPGs also often allow the player to seek out optional side-quests and character interactions. Quests of this sort can be found by talking to a non-player character, and there is no penalty for abandoning or ignoring these quests other than a missed opportunity. There is usually a reward for completing a side-quest, although quests in some games such as Arcanum or Geneforge can limit or enable certain choices later in the game. Quests may involve defeating one or many enemies, rescuing a non-player character, item fetch quests, or locational puzzles such as mysteriously locked doors.
Items and inventory
Players can find loot throughout the game world and collect it, such as clothing, weapons, and armor. Players can trade items for currency and better equipment. Trade takes place while interacting with certain friendly non-player characters, such as shopkeepers, and often uses a specialized trading screen. Purchased items go into the player's inventory. Some games turn inventory management into a logistical challenge by limiting the size of the player's inventory, thus forcing the player to decide what they must carry at the time. This can be done by limiting the maximum weight that a player can carry, by employing a system of arranging items in a virtual space, or by simply limiting the number of items that can be held.
Character actions and abilities
Most of the actions in an RPG are performed indirectly, with the player selecting an action and the character performing it by their own accord. Success at that action depends on the character's numeric attributes. Role-playing video games often simulate die-rolling mechanics from non-electronic role-playing games to determine success or failure. As a character's attributes improve, their chances of succeeding at a particular action will increase.
Many role-playing games allow players to play as an evil character. Although robbing and murdering indiscriminately may make it easier to get money, there are usually consequences in that other characters will become uncooperative or even hostile towards the player. Thus, these games allow players to make moral choices, but force players to live with the consequences of their actions. Games often let the player control an entire party of characters. However, if winning is contingent upon the survival of a single character, then that character effectively becomes the player's avatar. An example of this would be in Baldur's Gate, where if the character created by the player dies, the game ends and a previous save needs to be loaded.
Although some single-player role-playing games give the player an avatar that is largely predefined for the sake of telling a specific story, many role-playing games make use of a character creation screen. This allows players to choose their character's sex, their race or species, and their character class. Although many of theses traits are cosmetic, there are functional aspects as well. Character classes will have different abilities and strengths. Common classes include fighters, spell-casters, thieves with stealth abilities, and clerics with healing abilities, or a mixed class, such as a fighter who can cast simple spells. Characters will also have a range of physical attributes such as dexterity and strength, which affect a player's performance in combat. Mental attributes such as intelligence may affect a player's ability to perform and learn spells, while social attributes such as charisma may limit the player's choices while conversing with non-player characters. These attribute systems often strongly resemble the Dungeons & Dragons rule set.
Role-playing games frequently make use of magical powers, or equivalents such as psychic powers or advanced technology. These abilities are confined to specific characters such as mages, spell-casters, or magic-users. In games where the player controls multiple characters, these magic-users usually complement the physical strength of other classes. Magic can be used as an attack or defense, or to temporarily change an enemy or ally's attributes. While some games allow players to gradually consume a spell, as ammunition is consumed by a gun, most games offer players a finite amount of mana which can be spent on any spell. Mana is restored by resting, or by consuming potions. Characters can also gain other non-magical skills, which stay with the character as long as he lives.
Experience and levels
Although the characterization of the game's avatar will develop through storytelling, characters may also become more functionally powerful by gaining new skills, weapons, and magic. This creates a positive-feedback cycle that is central to most role-playing games: The player grows in power, allowing them to overcome more difficult challenges, and gain even more power. This is part of the appeal of the genre, where players experience growing from an ordinary person into a superhero with amazing powers. Whereas other games give the player these powers immediately, the player in a role-playing game will choose their powers and skills as they gain experience.
Role-playing games usually measure progress by counting experience points and character levels. Experience is usually earned by defeating enemies in combat, with some games offering experience for completing certain quests or conversations. Experience becomes a form of score, and accumulating a certain amount of experience will cause the character's level to go up. This is called "leveling-up", and gives the player an opportunity to raise one or more of his character's attributes. Many RPGs allow players to choose how to improve their character, by allocating a finite number of points into the attributes of their choice. Gaining experience will also unlock new magic spells for characters that use magic.
Some role-playing games also give the player specific skill points, which can be used to unlock a new skill or improve an existing one. This may sometimes be implemented as a skill tree. As with the technology trees seen in strategy video games, learning a particular skill in the tree will unlock more powerful skills deeper in the tree.
Three different systems of rewarding the player characters for solving the tasks in the game can be set apart: the experience system (also known as the "level-based" system), the training system (also known as the "skill-based" system) and the skill-point system (also known as "level-free" system)
The experience system, by far the most common, was inherited from pen-and-paper role-playing games and emphasizes receiving "experience points" (often abbreviated "XP" or "EXP") by winning battles, performing class-specific activities, and completing quests. Once a certain amount of experience is gained, the character advances a level. In some games, level-up occurs automatically when the required amount of experience is reached; in others, the player can choose when and where to advance a level. Likewise, abilities and attributes may increase automatically or manually.
Older games often separated combat into its own mode of gameplay, distinct from exploring the game world. More recent games tend to maintain a consistent perspective for exploration and combat. Some games, especially earlier video games, generate battles from random encounters; more modern RPGs are more likely to have persistent wandering monsters that move about the game world independently of the player. Most RPGs also use stationary boss monsters in key positions, and automatically trigger battles with them when the PCs enter these locations or perform certain actions. Combat options typically involve positioning characters, selecting which enemy to attack, and exercising special skills such as casting spells.
In a classical turn-based system, only one character may act at a time; all other characters remain still, with a few exceptions that may involve the use of special abilities. The order in which the characters act is usually dependent on their attributes, such as speed or agility. This system rewards strategic planning more than quickness. It also points to the fact that realism in games is a means to the end of immersion in the game world, not an end in itself. A turn-based system makes it possible, for example, to run within range of an opponent and kill him before he gets a chance to act, or duck out from behind hard cover, fire, and retreat back without an opponent being able to fire, which are of course both impossibilities. However, tactical possibilities have been created by this unreality that did not exist before; the player determines whether the loss of immersion in the reality of the game is worth the satisfaction gained from the development of the tactic and its successful execution. Fallout has been praised as being "the shining example of a good turn-based Combat System".
Real-time combat can import features from action games, creating a hybrid action RPG game genre. But other RPG battle systems such as the Final Fantasy battle systems have imported real-time choices without emphasizing coordination or reflexes. Other systems combine real-time combat with the ability to pause the game and issue orders to all characters under his/her control; when the game is unpaused, all characters follow the orders they were given. This "real-time with pause" system (RTwP) has been particularly popular in games designed by BioWare. The most famous RTwP engine is the Infinity Engine. Other names for "real-time with pause" include "active pause", "semi real-time" and "smart pause".
Early Ultima games featured a RTwP system: they were strictly turn-based, but if the player waited more than a second or so to issue a command, the game would automatically issue a pass command, allowing the monsters to take a turn while the PCs did nothing. Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel is another game which used this system.
There is a further subdivision by the structure of the battle system; in many early games, such as Wizardry, monsters and the party are arrayed into ranks, and can only attack enemies in the front rank with melee weapons. Other games, such as most of the Ultima series, employed duplicates of the miniatures combat system traditionally used in the early role-playing games. Representations of the player characters and monsters would move around an arena modeled after the surrounding terrain, attacking any enemies that are sufficiently near.
Interface and graphics
Players typically navigate the game world from a first or third-person perspective in 3D RPGs. However, an isometric or aerial top-down perspective is common in party-based RPGs, in order to give the player a clear view of their entire party and their surroundings. Role-playing games require the player to manage a large amount of information, and frequently make use of a windowed interface. For example, spell-casting characters will often have a menu of spells they can use. On the PC, players typically use the mouse to click on icons and menu options, while console games duplicate this functionality with the game controller. Older games often revealed calculations of the game as seen in Dungeons and Dragons games, although more recent games have removed this information to improve immersion.
History and classification
The role-playing video game genre began in the mid-1970s on mainframe computers, inspired by pen-and-paper role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Several other sources of inspiration for early role-playing video games also included tabletop war games, sports simulation games, adventure games such as Colossal Cave Adventure, fantasy writings by authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, traditional strategy games such as chess, and ancient epic literature dating back to Epic of Gilgamesh which followed the same basic structure of setting off in various quests in order to accomplish goals.
After the success of role-playing video games such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, the role-playing genre eventually diverged into two styles, Japanese role-playing games and Western role-playing games, due to cultural differences, though roughly mirroring the platform divide between consoles and computers, respectively. Finally, while the first RPGs offered strictly a single player experience, the popularity of multi-player modes rose sharply during the early to mid-1990s with action role-playing games such as Secret of Mana and Diablo. With the advent of the Internet, multi-player games have grown to become massively multi-player online role-playing games, including Lineage, Final Fantasy XI, and World of Warcraft.
The role-playing video game genre began in the mid-1970s, as an offshoot of early university mainframe text-based RPGs on PDP-10 and Unix-based computers, such as Dungeon, Pedit5 and DND. In 1980, a very popular dungeon crawler, Rogue was released. Featuring ASCII graphics where the setting, monsters and items were represented by letters and a deep system of gameplay, it inspired a whole genre of similar clones on mainframe and home computers called "rogue-likes".
One of the earliest role-playing video game on a microcomputer was Dungeon n Dragons, written by Peter Trefonas and published by CLOAD (1980). This early game, published for a TRS-80 Model 1, was just 16K long and included a limited word parser command line, character generation, a store to purchase equipment, combat, traps to solve, and a dungeon to explore. Other contemporaneous CRPGs (Computer Role Playing Games) were Temple of Apshai and Akalabeth: World of Doom, the precursor to Ultima. Some early microcomputer RPGs (such as Telengard (1982) or Sword of Fargoal) were based on their mainframe counterparts, while others (such as Ultima or Wizardry, the most successful of the early CRPGs) were direct adaptations of D&D. They also included both first-person displays and overhead views, sometimes in the same game (Akalabeth, for example, used both perspectives). Most of the key features of RPGs were developed in this early period, prior to the release of Ultima III: Exodus, one of the prime influences on both computer and console RPG development. For example, Wizardry featured menu-driven combat, Tunnels of Doom featured tactical combat on a special "combat screen", and Dungeons of Daggorath featured real-time combat which took place on the main dungeon map.
Starting in 1984 with Questron and 50 Mission Crush, SSI produced many series of CRPGs. Their 1985 game Phantasie is notable for introducing auto-mapping and in-game scrolls providing hints and background information. They also released Pool of Radiance in 1988, the first of several "Gold Box" CRPGs based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. These games featured a first-person display for movement, combined with an overhead tactical display for combat. One common feature of RPGs from this era, which Matt Barton calls the "Golden Age" of computer RPGs, is the use of numbered "paragraphs" printed in the manual or adjunct booklets, containing the game's lengthier texts; the player could be directed to read a certain paragraph, instead of being shown the text on screen. The ultimate exemplar of this approach was Sir-Tech's Star Saga trilogy (of which only two games were released); the first game contained 888 "textlets" (usually much longer than a single paragraph) spread across 13 booklets, while the second contained 50,000 paragraphs spread across 14 booklets. Most of the games from this era were turn-based, although Dungeon Master and its imitators had real-time combat. Other classic titles from this era include The Bard's Tale, Wasteland, the start of the Might and Magic series and the continuing Ultima series.
Later, in the middle to late 1990s, isometric, sprite-based action-orientated RPGs became commonplace, with video game publishers Interplay Entertainment and Blizzard North playing a lead role with such titles as Fallout, the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series, and Diablo. This era also saw a move toward 3D game engines with such games as Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven and The Elder Scrolls: Arena. TSR, dissatisfied with SSI's later products, such as Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager and Menzoberranzan, transferred the AD&D license to several different developers, and eventually gave it to BioWare, which used it in Baldur's Gate (1998) and several later games. By the 2000s, 3D engines had become dominant.
Video game consoles
The earliest RPG on a console was Dragonstomper on the Atari 2600 in 1982. Another early RPG on a console was Bokosuka Wars, originally released for the Sharp X1 computer in 1983 and later ported to the MSX in 1984, the NES in 1985 and the Sharp X68000 as New Bokosuka Wars. The game laid the foundations for the tactical role-playing game genre, or "simulation RPG" genre as it is known in Japan. It was also an early example of a real-time, action role-playing game. In 1986, Chunsoft created the NES title Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior in North America until the eighth game), which is regarded as the template for future role-playing video games released since then.
In 1987, the genre came into its own with the release of several highly influential console RPGs distinguishing themselves from computer RPGs. Shigeru Miyamoto's Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for the Famicom Disk System was one of the earliest action role-playing games, combining the action-adventure game framework of its predecessor The Legend of Zelda with the statistical elements of turn-based RPGs. Most RPGs at this time were turn-based. Faxanadu was another early action RPG for the NES, released as a side-story to the computer action RPG Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu. Square's Final Fantasy for the NES introduced side-view battles, with the player characters on the right and the enemies on the left, which soon became the norm for numerous console RPGs. In 1988, Dragon Warrior III introduced a character progression system allowing the player to change the party's character classes during the course of the game. Another "major innovation was the introduction of day/night cycles; certain items, characters, and quests are only accessible at certain times of day." In 1989, Phantasy Star II for the Genesis established many conventions of the genre, including an epic, dramatic, character-driven storyline dealing with serious themes and subject matter, and a strategy-based battle system.
Console RPGs distinguished themselves from computer RPGs to a greater degree in the early 1990s. As console RPGs became more heavily story-based than their computer counterparts, one of the major differences that emerged during this time was in the portrayal of the characters. Console RPGs often featured intricately related characters who had distinctive personalities and traits, with many of them seeming to offer more of the traditional role-playing, with players assuming the roles of people who cared about each other, fell in love or even had families. Romance in particular was a theme that was common in most console RPGs at the time but absent from most computer RPGs. During the 1990s, console RPGs had become increasingly dominant, exerting a greater influence on computer RPGs than the other way around. Console RPGs had eclipsed computer RPGs for some time, though computer RPGs began making a comeback towards the end of the decade with interactive choice-filled adventures.
The next major revolution came in the late 1990s, which saw the rise of optical disks in fifth generation consoles. The implications for RPGs were enormous—longer, more involved quests, better audio, and full-motion video. This was first clearly demonstrated in 1997 by the phenomenal success of Final Fantasy VII, which is considered one of the most influential games of all time. With a record-breaking production budget of around $45 million, the ambitious scope of Final Fantasy VII raised the possibilities for the genre, with its more expansive world to explore, much longer quest, more numerous side-quests, dozens of mini-games, and much higher production values. The latter includes innovations such as the use of 3D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds, battles viewed from multiple different angles rather than a single angle, and for the first time full-motion CGI video seamlessly blended into the gameplay, effectively integrated throughout the game. The game was soon ported to the PC and gained much success there, as did several other originally console RPGs, blurring the line between the console and computer platforms.
After the success of console role-playing games in Japan, the role-playing genre eventually began being classified into two fairly distinct styles: computer RPG and console RPG, due to stylistic, gameplay and/or cultural reasons; with the latter having become popularized and heavily influenced by early Japanese video games such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. In the early 2000s, however, as the platform differences began to blur, computer RPGs and console RPGs were eventually classified as Western role-playing games (or WRPGs) and Japanese role-playing games (or JRPGs), respectively.
Though sharing fundamental premises, Western RPGs tend to feature darker graphics, older characters, and a greater focus on roaming freedom, realism, and the underlying game mechanics (e.g. "rules-based" or "system-based"); whereas Eastern RPGs tend to feature brighter, anime-like graphics, younger characters, faster-paced gameplay, and a greater focus on tightly-orchestrated, linear storylines with intricate plots (e.g. "action-based" or "story-based"). Further, Western RPGs are more likely to allow players to create and customize characters from scratch, and since the late 1990s have had a stronger focus on extensive dialog tree systems (e.g. Planescape: Torment). On the other hand, Japanese RPGs tend to limit players to developing pre-defined player characters, and often do not allow the option to create or choose one's own playable characters or make decisions that alter the plot. In the early 1990s, Japanese RPGs were seen as being much closer to fantasy novels, but by the late 1990s had become more cinematic in style (e.g. Final Fantasy series), while at the same time Western RPGs started becoming more novelistic in style (e.g. Planescape: Torment); by the late 2000s, Western RPGs had also adopted a more cinematic style (e.g. Mass Effect series).
One reason given for these differences is that many early Japanese console RPGs can be seen as forms of interactive manga (Japanese comics) or anime wrapped around Western rule systems at the time, in addition to the influence of visual novel adventure games. As a result, Japanese console RPGs differentiated themselves with a stronger focus on scripted narratives and character drama, alongside streamlined gameplay. In recent years, these trends have in turn been adopted by Western RPGs, which have begun moving more towards tightly structured narratives, in addition to moving away from "numbers and rules" in favor of streamlined combat systems similar to action games. In addition, a large number of Western independent games are modeled after Japanese RPGs, especially those of the 16-bit era, partly due to the RPG Maker game development tools.
Another oft-cited difference is the prominence or absence of kawaisa, or "cuteness", in Japanese culture, and different approaches with respect to character aesthetics. Western RPGs tend to maintain a serious and gritty tone, with predominantly male protagonists exhibiting overtly masculine physical features and mannerisms. JRPG protagonists tend to be designed with an emphasis on aesthetic beauty, and even male characters are often androgynous or "bishonen" in appearance. JRPGs often have cute (and even comic-relief type) characters or animals, juxtaposed (or clashing) with more mature themes and situations; and many modern JRPGs feature characters designed in the same style as those in anime. The stylistic differences are often due to differing target audiences: Western RPGs are usually geared primarily towards teenage to adult males, whereas Japanese RPGs are usually intended for a much larger demographic, including female audiences, who, for example, accounted for nearly a third of Final Fantasy XIII's fanbase.
Modern Japanese RPGs are more likely to feature turn-based battles; while modern Western RPGs are more likely to feature real-time combat. In the past, the reverse was often true: real-time action role-playing games were far more common among Japanese console RPGs than Western computer RPGs up until the late 1990s, due to game pads usually being better suited to real-time action than the keyboard and mouse. There are of course exceptions, such as Final Fantasy XII (2006) and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner (1995 onwards), two modern Eastern RPGs that feature real-time combat; and The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003), a modern Western RPG that features turn-based combat.
Some journalists and video game designers have questioned this cultural classification, arguing that the differences between Eastern and Western games have been exaggerated. In an interview held at the American Electronic Entertainment Expo, Japanese video game developer Tetsuya Nomura (who worked on Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts) emphasized that role-playing games should not be classified by country-of-origin, but rather described simply for what they are: RPGs. Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy and The Last Story, noted that, while "users like to categorize Japanese RPGs as "turn-based, traditional styles" and Western RPGs as "born from first-person shooters," there "are titles that don't fit the category," pointing to Chrono Trigger (which he also worked on) and the Mana games. He further noted that there have been "other games similar to the style of Chrono Trigger," but that "it's probably because the games weren't localised and didn't reach the Western audience." Xeno series director Tetsuya Takahashi, in reference to Xenoblade Chronicles, stated that "I don’t know when exactly people started using the term 'JRPG,' but if this game makes people rethink the meaning of this term, I’ll be satisfied." The writer Jeremy Parish of 1UP.com states that "Xenoblade throws into high relief the sheer artificiality of the gaming community's obsession over the differences between" Western and Japanese RPGs, pointing out that it "does things that don't really fit into either genre. Gamers do love their boundaries and barriers and neat little rules, I know, but just because you cram something into a little box doesn't mean it belongs there." Nick Doerr of Joystiq criticizes the claim that Japanese RPGs are "too linear," pointing out that non-linear Japanese RPGs are not uncommon. Likewise, Rowan Kaiser of Joystiq points out that linear Western RPGs were common in the 1990s, and argues that many of the often mentioned differences between Eastern and Western games are stereotypes that are generally "not true" and "never was," pointing to classic examples from both genres.
Due to the cultural differences between Western and Japanese variations of role-playing games, both have often been compared and critiqued by those within the video games industry and press. In the late 1980s, when traditional American computer RPGs such as Ultima and Defender of the Crown were ported to consoles, they received mixed reviews from console gamers, as they were "not perceived, by many of the players, to be as exciting as the Japanese imports," and lacked the arcade and action-adventure elements commonly found in Japanese console RPGs at the time. In the early 1990s, American computer RPGs also began facing criticism for their plots, where "the party sticks together through thick and thin" and always "act together as a group" rather than as individuals, and where non-player characters are "one-dimensional characters," in comparison to the more fantasy novel approach of Squaresoft console RPGs such as Final Fantasy IV. However in 1994, game designer Sandy Petersen noted that, among computer gamers, there was criticism against cartridge-based console JRPGs being "not role-playing at all" due to popular examples such as Secret of Mana and especially The Legend of Zelda using "direct" arcade-style action combat systems instead of the more "abstract" turn-based battle systems associated with computer RPGs. In response, he pointed out that not all console RPGs are action-based, pointing to Final Fantasy and Lufia. Another early criticism, dating back to the Phantasy Star games in the late 1980s, was the frequent use of defined player characters, in contrast to the Wizardry and Gold Box games where the player's avatars (such as knights, clerics, or thieves) were blank slates.
Yet as Japanese console RPGs became increasingly more dominant in the 1990s, and became known for being more heavily story and character-based, American computer RPGs also began to face criticism for having characters devoid of personality or background, due to representing avatars which the player uses to interact with the world, in contrast to Japanese console RPGs which depicted characters with distinctive personalities. American computer RPGs were thus criticized for lacking "more of the traditional role-playing" offered by Japanese console RPGs, which instead emphasized character interactions. In response, North American computer RPGs began making a comeback towards the end of the 1990s with interactive choice-filled adventures.
In more recent years though, several writers have criticized JRPGs as not being "true" RPGs, for heavy usage of scripted cut-scenes and dialogue, and a frequent lack of branching outcomes. Japanese RPGs are also sometimes criticized for having relatively simple battle systems in which players are able to win by repetitively mashing buttons, as a result, Japanese-style role-playing games are held in disdain by some Western gamers, leading to the term "JRPG" being held in the pejorative. Some observers have also speculated that Japanese RPGs are stagnating or declining in both quality and popularity, including remarks by BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk and writing director Daniel Erickson that JRPGs are stagnating—and that Final Fantasy XIII is not even really an RPG; criticisms regarding seemingly nebulous justifications by some Japanese designers for newly changed (or, alternately, newly un-changed) features of recent titles; calls among some gaming journalists to "fix" JRPGs' problems; as well as claims that some recent titles such as Front Mission Evolved are beginning to attempt—and failing to—imitate Western titles. In an article for PSM3, Brittany Vincent of RPGFan.com felt that "developers have mired the modern JRPG in unoriginality", citing Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada who stated that "they’re strictly catering to a particular audience", the article noting the difference in game sales between Japan and North America before going on to suggest JRPGs may need to "move forward".
This criticism has also occurred in the wider media with an advertisement for Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment) in Japan openly mocked Japanese RPGs' traditional characteristics in favor of their own title. This has produced responses such as ones by Japanese video game developers, Shinji Mikami and Yuji Horii, to the effect that JRPGs were never as popular in the West to begin with, and that Western reviewers are biased against turn-based systems. It is not uncommon for Western RPGs to be less popular in Japan, where the vast majority of early console role-playing video games originate, and where Western RPGs remain largely unknown. The developer Motomu Toriyama also criticized Western RPGs, stating that they "dump you in a big open world, and let you do whatever you like [which makes it] difficult to tell a compelling story." Hironobu Sakaguchi noted that "users like to categorize Western RPGs as "a sort of different style, born from first person shooters." Nick Doerr of Joystiq noted that Bethesda felt that Japanese RPGs "are all the same" and "too linear," to which he responded that "most part, it's true" despite non-linear Japanese games like Romancing SaGa. Jeff Fleming of Gamasutra also states that Japanese RPGs on home consoles are generally showing signs of staleness outside of handheld consoles such as the Nintendo DS, which rather have thought to be the more original and experimental Japanese RPGs released in recent years.
However, in recent years, some have also criticized Western RPGs for becoming less RPG-like, instead with further emphasis on action Christian Nutt of GameSpy states that, in contrast to Japanese RPGs, Western RPGs' greater control over the development and customization of playable characters has come at the expense of plot and gameplay, resulting in what he felt was generic dialogue, lack of character development within the narrative and weaker battle systems. It has also been argued that Western RPGs tend to focus more on the underlying rules governing the battle system rather than on the experience itself. Tom Battey of Edge Magazine noted that the problems often cited against Japanese RPGs (mentioned above) also often apply to many Western RPGs as well as games outside of the RPG genre. BioWare games have been criticized for "lack of innovation, repetitive structure and lack of real choice." Western RPGs, such as Bethesda games, have also been criticized for lacking in "narrative strength" or "mechanical intricacy" due to the open-ended, sandbox structure of their games.
Despite the criticisms leveled at both variations, Rowan Kaiser of Joystiq argues that many of the often mentioned differences between Eastern and Western games are stereotypes that are generally not true, noting various similarities between several Western titles (such as Lands of Lore, Betrayal at Krondor, and Dragon Age) and several classic Eastern titles (such as Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star), noting that both the Western and Japanese titles share a similar emphasis on linear storytelling, pre-defined characters and "bright-colored" graphics.
In what is viewed as the largely secular nature of Japanese culture has resulted in heavy usage of themes, symbols, and characters taken from a variety of religions, including Christianity and Japanese Shinto. This tends to be problematic when JRPGs are exported to Western countries where the topics of religion and blasphemy remain sensitive, such as the United States. It is not unusual for a JRPG to exhibit elements that would be controversial in the West, such as Xenogears or Final Fantasy Tactics featuring antagonists that bear similarities to the Abrahamic God and the Catholic Church, respectively; and Nintendo has made efforts in the past to remove references such as these prior to introducing their games into the North American market.
Relationship to other genres
Unlike action games, RPGs seldom test a player's physical skill. Combat is typically a tactical challenge rather than a physical one, and games involve other non-action gameplay such as choosing dialog options, inventory management, or buying and selling items.
Although RPGs share some combat rules with wargames, RPGs are about a small group of individual characters. Wargames tend to have large groups of identical units, as well as non-humanoid units such as tanks and airplanes. Role-playing games do not normally allow the player to produce more units. However, the Heroes of Might and Magic series crosses these genres by combining individual heroes with large amounts of troops in large battles.
RPGs rival adventure games in terms of their rich story lines, in contrast to genres that do not rely upon storytelling such as sports games or puzzle games. Both genres also feature highly detailed characters, and a great deal of exploration. However, adventure games usually have a well-defined character, whereas while RPGs may do so, many allow the player to design their characters. Adventure games usually focus on one character, whereas RPGs often feature an entire party. RPGs also feature a combat system, which adventure games usually lack. Whereas both adventure games and RPGs may focus on the personal or psychological growth of characters, RPGs tend to emphasize a complex eternal economy where characters are defined by increasing numerical attributes.
Gameplay elements strongly associated with this genre, such as statistical character development, have been widely adapted to other video game genres. For example, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, an Action-adventure game, uses resource statistics (abbreviated as "stats") to define a wide range of attributes including stamina, weapon proficiency, driving, lung capacity, and muscle tone, and uses numerous cutscenes and quests to advance the story. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, a real-time strategy game, features heroes that can complete quests, obtain new equipment, and "learn" new abilities as they advance in level.
According to Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, turn-based RPGs have been unfairly criticized as being outdated. According to Yuji Horii, creator of the popular Dragon Quest series and Ryutaro Ichimura, producer of Square Enix, turn-based RPGs allow the player time to make decisions without feeling rushed or worry about real-life distractions. According to Iwata, action-based RPGs can frustrate players if they are unable to keep up with the battles.
Typically action RPGs feature each player directly controlling a single character in real time, and feature a strong focus on combat and action with plot and character interaction kept to a minimum. Early action RPGs tended to follow the template set by 1980s Nihon Falcom titles such as the Dragon Slayer and Ys series, which feature hack and slash combat where the player character's movements and actions are controlled directly, using a keyboard or game controller, rather than using menus. This formula was refined by the action-adventure game, The Legend of Zelda (1986), which set the template used by many subsequent action RPGs, including innovations such as an open world, nonlinear gameplay, battery backup saving, and an attack button that animates a sword swing or projectile attack on the screen. The game was largely responsible for the surge of action-oriented RPGs released since the late 1980s, both in Japan and North America. The Legend of Zelda series would continue to exert an influence on the transition of both console and computer RPGs from stat-heavy, turn-based combat towards real-time action combat in the following decades.
A different variation of the action RPG formula was popularized by Diablo (1996), where the majority of commands—such as moving and attacking—are executed using mouse clicks rather than via menus, though learned spells can also be assigned to hotkeys. In many action RPGs, non-player characters serve only one purpose, be it to buy or sell items or upgrade the player's abilities, or issue them with combat-centric quests. Problems players face also often have an action-based solution, such as breaking a wooden door open with an axe rather than finding the key needed to unlock it, though some games place greater emphasis on character attributes such as a "lockpicking" skill and puzzle-solving.
One common challenge in developing action RPGs is including content beyond that of killing enemies. With the sheer number of items, locations and monsters found in many such games, it can be difficult to create the needed depth to offer players a unique experience tailored to his or her beliefs, choices or actions. This is doubly true if a game makes use of randomization, as is common. One notable example of a game which went beyond this is Deus Ex (2000) which offered multiple solutions to problems using intricately layered story options and individually constructed environments. Instead of simply bashing their way through levels, players were challenged to act in character by choosing dialog options appropriately, and by using the surrounding environment intelligently. This produced an experience that was unique and tailored to each situation as opposed to one that repeated itself endlessly.
Action RPGs were much more common on consoles rather than computers. Though there had been attempts at creating action-oriented computer RPGs during the late 1980s and early 1990s, often in the vein of Zelda, very few saw any success, with the 1992 game Ultima VII being one of the more successful attempts in North America. On the PC, Diablo's effect on the market was significant from the late 1990s. It had many imitators and its style of combat went on to be used by many games that came after. For many years afterwards, games that closely mimicked the Diablo formula were referred to as "Diablo clones"; and three of the four titles in the series are still sold together as part of the Diablo Battle Chest over a decade later. Other examples of action RPGs for the PC include Dungeon Siege (2002), Sacred (2004), Torchlight (2009), Din's Curse (2010) and Hellgate: London (2007)—the last of which was developed by a team headed by former Blizzard employees, some of whom had participated in the creation of the Diablo series; and like Diablo and Rogue before it, Torchlight, Din's Curse, Hellgate: London and Fate (2005) all made use of procedural generation to generate game levels.
Also included within this sub-genre are role-playing shooters, games which incorporate elements of role-playing games and shooter games (including first-person and third-person). Recent examples include the Mass Effect games, Borderlands 2 (2012), and The 3rd Birthday (2010).
A number of early Western role-playing video games used a highly tactical form of combat, including parts of the Ultima series, which introduced party-based, tiled combat in Ultima III: Exodus (1983), Ultima III would go on to be ported to many other platforms and influence the development of later titles, as did Japan's Bokosuka Wars released that same year. Conventionally, however, the term tactical RPG (known as simulation RPG in Japan) refers to the distinct subgenre that was born in Japan; the early origins of tactical RPGs are difficult to trace from the American side of the Pacific where much of the early RPG genre developed. Tactical RPGs are descendents of traditional strategy games, such as chess, and table-top role-playing and strategic war games, such as Chainmail, which were mainly tactical in their original form. The format of a tactical CRPG is also like a traditional RPG in its appearance, pacing and rule structure.
Typical tile-based, overhead gameplay of tactical RPGs from the 1990s. Some full-fledged CRPGs also featured a highly tactical form of combat reminiscent of RPGs' pen-and-paper origins. Pictured here is Langrisser II (1994).
Many tactical RPGs can be both extremely time-consuming and extremely difficult. Hence, the appeal of most tactical RPGs is to the hardcore, not casual, computer and video game player. Traditionally, tactical RPGs have been quite popular in Japan but have not enjoyed the same degree of success in North America and elsewhere. However, the audience for Japanese tactical RPGs has grown substantially since the mid-90s, with PS1 and PS2 titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Suikoden Tactics, Vanguard Bandits, and Disgaea enjoying a surprising measure of popularity, as well as hand-held war games like Fire Emblem. (Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1 is often considered the breakthrough title outside of Japan.) Older TRPGs are also being re-released via software emulation—such as on the Wii's Virtual Console—and hand-held systems, giving games a new lease on life and exposure to new audiences. Japanese video games such as these are as a result no longer nearly as rare a commodity in North America as they were during the 1990s.
Examples of tactical RPGs for 8-bit and 16-bit Japanese systems include: Bokosuka Wars (1983), considered the progenitor of the strategy/simulation RPG genre with its blend of RPG and strategy video game elements, originally a Sharp X1 video game later ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985; Nobunaga's Ambition (1983), an early strategy RPG that featured a blend of role-playing, turn-based grand strategy and management simulation elements, originally an MSX video game that was later ported to the NES in 1987; Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi (1990), released and published by Nintendo for the NES, and generally accepted as the first tactical RPG made for consoles, with a highly tactical turn-based combat system that resembles those of the later 3rd and 4th editions of Dungeons & Dragons; Master of Monsters (1991), originally released by SystemSoft for the MSX and PC-8801 and later ported to a variety of other platforms; Sega's Shining Force (1992) for the Sega Genesis (among the first TRPG played among Western audiences; and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995), originally released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and later ported to the PlayStation. Examples for fifth- and sixth-generation consoles include Konami's Vandal Hearts (1996), Square's Final Fantasy Tactics (1997), and Square's Front Mission 3 (1999)—all released for the PlayStation. Even more recent examples include Sega's Valkyria Chronicles (2008), a quasi-turn-based/real-time game for the PlayStation 3.
Western video games have utilized similar mechanics for years, as well, and were largely defined by X-COM: UFO Defense (1994) in much the same way as Eastern video games were by Fire Emblem. Western titles such as the X-COM series have generally allowed greater freedom of movement when interacting with the surrounding environment. Other notable examples include the Jagged Alliance (1994–2009) and Silent Storm (2003–2005) series, with many other titles owing considerably to X-COM and its sequels (1994–1997). Other examples for the PC include: Incubation: Time Is Running Out (1997), part of the Battle Isle series, and one of the first strategy titles to use fully 3D graphics and support hardware acceleration on the 3dfx Voodoo; Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (2001) a spin-off of the Fallout series of CRPGs; Irrational Games' super hero comic games, Freedom Force (2002) and Freedom Force vs the 3rd Reich (2005); and Russian developer Apeiron's Brigade E5: New Jagged Union (2006) and 7.62 (2008), a real-time tactical series that evokes Jagged Alliance in setting, mechanics and tone. Examples of Western-style tactical RPGs for video game consoles include: Dungeons & Dragons Tactics (2007) for the PlayStation Portable, Gladius (2003) by LucasArts, and Rebelstar: Tactical Command (2005) by X-COM developers, Julian and Nick Gollop, for the Game Boy Advance.
Further, there are a number of "full-fledged" CRPGs which could be described as having "tactical" combat.Examples from the classic era of CRPGs include parts of the aforementioned Ultima series; SSI's Wizard's Crown (1985) and The Eternal Dagger (1987); the Gold Box games of the late '80s and early '90s (many of which were later ported to Japanese video game systems); and Sierra's Betrayal at Krondor (1993) and Return to Krondor (1998) based on Raymond Feist's Midkemia setting. More recent examples include Troika Games' The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003), which featured an accurate implementation of the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition ruleset; Knights of the Chalice (2009), which implements the D20 Open Game License; and Pyrrhic Tales: Prelude to Darkness (2002). According to some developers, it is becoming increasingly difficult in recent years to develop games of this type for the PC (though several have been developed in Eastern Europe with mixed results); and even Japanese RPG developers are beginning to complain about a supposed bias against turn-based systems. Reasons cited include Western developers' focus on developing real-time and action-oriented games instead.
Though many of the original RPGs for the PLATO mainframe system in the late 1970s also supported multiple, simultaneous players, the popularity of multiplayer modes in mainstream RPGs did not begin to rise sharply until the early to mid-1990s. For instance, Secret of Mana (1993), an early action role-playing game by Square, was one of the first commercial RPGs to feature cooperative multiplayer gameplay, offering two-player and three-player action once the main character had acquired his party members. Later, Diablo (1996) would combine CRPG and action game elements with an Internet multiplayer mode that allowed up to four players to enter the same world and fight monsters, trade items, or fight against each other.
Also during this time period, the MUD genre that had been spawned by MUD1 in 1978 was undergoing a tremendous expansion phase due to the release and spread of LPMud (1989) and DikuMUD (1991). Soon, driven by the mainstream adoption of the Internet, these parallel trends merged in the popularization of graphical MUDs, which would soon become known as massively multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORPGs, beginning with games like Meridian 59 (1995), Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds (1996), Ultima Online (1997), Lineage (1998), and EverQuest (1999), and leading to modern phenomena such as RuneScape (2001), Final Fantasy XI (2003), Eve Online (2003) and World of Warcraft (2004).
Though superficially similar, MMORPGs lend their appeal more to the socializing influences of being online with hundreds or even thousands of other players at a time, and trace their origins more from MUDs than from CRPGs like Ultima and Wizardry. Rather than focusing on the "old school" considerations of memorizing huge numbers of stats and esoterica and battling it out in complex, tactical environments, players instead spend much of their time forming and maintaining guilds and clans. The distinction between CRPGs and MMORPGs and MUDs can as a result be very sharp, likenable to the difference between "attending a renaissance fair and reading a good fantasy novel".
Further, MMORPGs have been criticized for diluting the "epic" feeling of single-player RPGs and related media among thousands of concurrent adventurers. Stated simply: every player wants to be "The Hero", slay "The Monster", rescue "The Princess", or obtain "The Magic Sword". But when there are thousands of players all playing the same game, clearly not everyone can be the hero. This problem became obvious to some in the game EverQuest, where groups of players would compete and sometimes harass each other in order to get monsters in the same dungeon to drop valuable items, leading to several undesirable behaviors such as kill stealing, spawn camping, and ninja looting. In response—for instance by Richard Garriott in Tabula Rasa —developers began turning to instance dungeons as a means of reducing competition over limited resources, as well as preserving the gaming experience—though this mechanic has its own set of detractors.
Lastly, there exist markets such as Korea and China that, while saturated with MMORPGs, have so far proved relatively unreceptive to single-player RPGs. For instance, Internet-connected personal computers are relatively common in Korea when compared to other regions—particularly in the numerous "PC bangs" scattered around the country where patrons are able to pay to play multiplayer video games—possibly due to historical bans on Japanese imports, as well as a culture that traditionally sees video games as "frivolous toys" and computers as educational. As a result, some wonder whether the stand-alone, single-player RPG is still viable commercially—especially on the personal computer—when there are competing pressures such as big-name publishers' marketing needs, video game piracy, a change in culture, and the competitive price-point-to-processing-power ratio (at least initially) of modern console systems.
Finally, a steadily increasing number of other non-RP video games have adopted aspects traditionally seen in RPGs, such as experience point systems, equipment management, and choices in dialogue, as developers push to fill the demand for role-playing elements in non-RPGs. The blending of these elements with a number of different game engines and gameplay styles have created a myriad of hybrid game categories formed by mixing popular gameplay elements featured in other genres such as first-person shooters, platformers, and turn-based and real-time strategy games. Examples include first-person shooters such as parts of the Deus Ex (starting in 2000) and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (starting in 2007) series; real-time strategy games such as SpellForce: The Order of Dawn (2003) and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (2009); puzzle video games such as Castlevania Puzzle (2010) and Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (2007); and turn-based strategy games like the Steel Panthers (1995–2006) series, which combined tactical military combat with RPG-derived unit advancement. As a group, hybrid games have been both praised and criticized; being referred to by one critic as the "poor man's" RPG for omitting the dialogue choices and story-driven character development of major AAA titles in order to cut costs, and by another critic as "promising" for shedding the tired conventions of more established franchises in an attempt to innovate.