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Patrick Gann
I Don't Have The Patience For This! (Anymore)
October editorial: Pat laments the time commitments of RPG-ing.
10.01.10 - 12:59 PM

Author's notes: as background for this editorial, readers may wish to first read our article on Genre Identity Crisis if they have not done so already. As for what happened to September's editorial... well, we hate the month of September, so we didn't write anything for that month. SCREW YOU, SEPTEMBER!

--

Last week, I was having a conversation with an esteemed colleague about American-made 1940s and 1950s propaganda, and I made a quick allusion to the Fallout series. This friend of mine, an intelligent young man with plenty of techno-knowledge and pop culture knowledge as well, didn't catch the reference.

To which I said: "Well, you need to play Fallout. You would love it. Everyone does. At the very least, you can play the user-friendly Fallout 3."

My friend's reply was one that struck me upside the head. He informed me, first, that he's really more an FPS guy. Give him a 30 minute no-think, all-act session of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 over RPGs. He then said that he doesn't think he could enjoy RPGs anymore. As a man of the working world, they appear primarily to be a time-sink. "I feel like their target market is 12-year-olds," he said. Strong words. Words that made me think long and hard about my fondness for RPGs.

I then recalled a conversation I had with another friend a year prior. Another like-minded, intelligent young man, although this one enjoyed RPGs as much as he did other forms of gaming. However, he lamented to me that he simply couldn't finish most RPGs he played. At the time he was playing Little King's Story, and though he was really enjoying it, he knew that he probably wouldn't put more than 5 hours into what was likely a 30+ hour campaign scenario.

Putting these two conversations together in my mind, as though my two friends had met, the obvious questions began to surface:

"Who has the time and patience for RPGs?"
"Why are these games so long?"
"What is the point of level-grinding anyway?"

Going back to my first friend's statements, particularly the one about the target market being kids. The idea here, of course, is that kids have more free time, and that the gameplay experience is fairly juvenile. Perhaps there's a knee-jerk reaction welling up in you already. "How dare you say that! You have to be smart to play these games!" I can already imagine that response, and I'm going to ignore it because it's flat-on-its-face absurd.

It is important to note that not only do RPGs as a genre suffer from an internal identity crisis, but consumers seem to be put off by the "RPG" label because of the genre's sordid history. I recommend Fallout 3 to a friend, and he says "I'd rather play Call of Duty." Of course, that series is now riddled with stat-building RPG elements.

On the other hand, I've heard hardcore RPG fans decry games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and Borderlands for catering too much to the "casual" shooter crowd. But is that really what's happening? If you're an RPG elitist (that is, you see RPGs as somehow superior to other genres), aren't these popular titles actually pulling the rest of gaming out of twitch-reflex mindlessness?

Outside of the elitists, the rest of us have to ask ourselves: are RPGs really catering to 12-year-olds? I think it might be safer to say that they were, but as the target audience grew up, the industry had to grow up with it. You've heard this argument countless places before, I'm sure. But the point here is that many developers are forced to evolve or die.

Consider that even extremely "oldschool" RPGs such as the Etrian Odyssey series have all manner of conveniences that their decades-old predecessors (namely Wizardry) simply did not have.

I think I've boiled the issue of gaming time to one key aspect, however. It's not necessarily a matter of how long the entire game takes. It is a matter of how much time one can invest per gaming session. Consider that, for decades now, we've been given mandatory warnings in our consoles' instruction manuals to limit our play time (per session) and to take 15 minute breaks. Who among us actually follows that? Even for those of us who do so, it is not due to health concerns. It's because we don't have the time. We have work/school/family eating up time, and no large chunk exists. All-day gaming sessions are rare for many of us.

So RPGs need to cater to the audience and find ways to have meaningful bite-sized chunks. The key here is "meaningful." Having a save-anywhere function is a huge step in the right direction, but it isn't everything. If I save in the middle of some daisy-chained fetch quest and there's no quest log telling me where I was when I last played, and I haven't played the game in 3 weeks (or 3 months)... well, I'm probably just as well off if I start the game over. Even looking at a walkthrough may not help. Stop-and-go isn't easy in the realm of RPGs, but it's ideal for online matchmaking in a fighter or an FPS.

There are great RPGs that have really mastered the art of bite-sized gaming while keeping it interesting with each time the player boots up the game. Half Minute Hero is probably the best example, though that too was an experiment in game design, and probably isn't likely to forge its own subgenre (I could be wrong, though!).

In all of this rambling, I find that my greatest fear is that I'll no longer be able to enjoy epic, sweeping, level-grinding traditional RPGs. But in the midst of that fear, a significant hope to counter-balance it is that I may not have to, as I continue to enjoy RPGs. Must RPGs be "longform" in structure, or narrative, or both? I submit that such traits are not necessary, and we already have examples to prove it.

So, to my dear friend who is averse to RPGs: give some of the newer games a try; they may not be so much like Final Fantasy VII but may yet offer something that the Call of Duty series cannot. And to my friend who was enjoying Little King's Story, perhaps a new measurable standard for good gaming is how well they allow for "breaks" in the game, so that you can leave and come back months later and still enjoy the game.


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