Bioware: RPGs are becoming less relevant


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Which fan is more important? The one who buys ten games from a developer, or the ten fans who buy one game from a developer? Who means more? The one who loves your game, or the one who hates it?

Answer: None of the above.

BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk told Escapist that he thought that role-playing games were becoming “less relevant”, as developers blend genres in games to define the best dialogue, the best combat and the best mechanics with little consideration as to what particular type of game they were making.

Inevitably, this was greeted with howls of outrage.

On a video game forum, the original poster in the thread said, “I assume we’re all RPG fans here”, to which I responded:

No, not really.

I’m a fan of Bethesda’s games and of Bioware’s games, but I’m not an “RPG fan”. I couldn’t give a monkey’s about whether a game is an RPG or a shooter or an adventure game. The only question I ask is, “Is it entertaining?”

If I take a quick mental check of my favourite games ever, half would be considered “hybrids” to various degrees – Fallout 3, the Mass Effect games, Oblivion, Morrowind and Vampire TMB are all RPGs with a strong action emphasis, which suits me because I find the actual combat in “pure” RPGs tedious beyond belief. Bioshock lets you improve your character/inventory – traits traditionally associated with RPGs – but I love that because I find straight-up shooters disappointing because I don’t get the feeling of progression if I can’t upgrade my gear.

RPG fans are uniquely genre-obsessed in the same way that metal fans bang on about whether something is “real” heavy metal. The rest of the world doesn’t give a rat’s behind and views hybridisation as a positive thing. Imagine if Nirvana had come out and everyone had said, “Oh, that’s too punky and we only like metal, you’re not allowed to play”, or someone had told Nine Inch Nails (or their predecessors) that you weren’t allowed to put synths and guitars together. Imagine if someone had told the Sex Pistols that speeded-up 50s rock’n’roll basslines shouldn’t be slammed together with 60s garage rock, or if someone had told Pink Floyd not to deviate from playing blues.

Imagine if Sam Raimi had been told that comedy and horror can’t appear in the same film, or if howls of outrage greeted Casablanca because it had too much romance for a political thriller.

“The RPG in the context of the current world is – well, it’s not specifically irrelevant, but it’s becoming less relevant in and of itself” – and games are getting better because of it.

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The discussion continued with the question of who was the typical audience for this series of games.

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You might as well as who the average type of person was who watched the Star Trek reboot.

Sure, there are the hardcore fans who know the Klingon language and dress up for conventions, but the vast majority of people who went to the Star Trek film are people who enjoy going to the cinema in general, and that film was made not specifically to appeal to a small number of very passionate Star Trek fans (who also would feel that they’ve put a lot of time and money into Star Trek and shouldn’t be “betrayed by a dumbed down movie”), but to a wider and broader audience of people who casually enjoyed the ST series and films and aren’t so concerned about the details. I’d say there are a lot of parallels here, and I for one very much enjoyed the Star Trek film.

This forum holds a very, very tiny number of Oblivion fans – we’re talking somewhere between 1% and 5% of all the people who bought the game (depending on how many forum members actually bought Oblivion). If I talk to the people I know who bought Oblivion who aren’t on this forum, they’re the same people who bought Halo and Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty. They go into GAME every week and buy a game. They don’t say “this is a great RPG”, just “this is a great game”, and rate it on whether it was interesting enough to continue to the next level.

You call it “dumbed down”, I call it “streamlining”. You say they cut out all the bits you thought were important; I say they cut out all the bits that were distracting, tedious and unnecessary. You call it less challenging; I call it less frustrating. You call it “dumbed down”, I call it “more fun”.

What’s the development cost of an average A-list title these days? $100 million? Can’t be far off. How many hardcore RPG fans are there in the world? Probably not a hundred-million-dollar’s-worth. If all the hardcore RPG fans in the world got together and pooled their gaming budgets, it’s unlikely that they’d be able to come up between them with enough to fund (and market/distribute) a game like Dragon Age, and that’s assuming that every single one of those hardcore RPG fans went out and bought Dragon Age. The only way those games get made AT ALL is by giving them a broad enough appeal to draw in the sort of players who go into GAME every week and buy a game. People who buy 360 Gamer or the like, read a review and think, “Hey, that looks interesting” and decide to take a risk. I did that with Dragon Age, and played it through – though it was too much of a traditional RPG to get more than a 7/10 from me, even if I did think it was well made. I didn’t buy the sequel, so can’t comment, but if you tried to sell it to me as “it’s like Dragon Age but with all the tedious bits cut out”, I’d have been quite tempted to give it a go. Is it “greedy” of Bioware to want to me to like their game too?

It’s funny when you think about it, because the nature of fandom is that you do invest a lot emotionally in a product and/or the creator of said product. Like the above-linked strip from CTRL+ALT+DEL, it’s tempting to feel a sense of ownership because of all that you have put into your enjoyment of that particular artform. The reality of it is that it doesn’t matter – you could like it, love it, hate it, or adore it – but, especially with video games where the retailer and not the user is the customer, your opinion is about this much more than completely irrelevant.

On the plus side, if you love it, you’re more likely to recommend it, so there’s a commercial value in that. More importantly, those developers are human beings and they would much rather you loved it than hated it because of the time and effort they put into bringing it to you.

It’s just people shouldn’t take it personally when they don’t like the new product. It’s like when their favourite rock band changes style to go with the latest trend: you might love it, you might hate it, but what you can absolutely be sure of is that they didn’t do it because they hate you and want to make you cry.

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