What Makes a Great RPG?

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Sep 26, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 73 comments

The Rampant Coyote asks: What makes a (computer) RPG great?

This is a favorite subject of mine. I started to write a response last night, and it quickly turned into a long, rambling post that was all over the place. I’ve never been particularly into the whole brevity thing, but this post was quickly becoming an egregious wall of text so I had to abandon it.

I was trying to talk about character development, gameplay mechanics, presentation, immersion, and about a dozen other factors all at once. I don’t even know if I can give a sensible answer in a single post. Looking back, I think the big problem is that the term “RPG” is so hopelessly broad that it means almost nothing. Diablo, Jade Empire, Nethack, and Oblivion are all RPGs. How is Jade Empire an RPG but not Bully or GTA: San Andreas? How can Diablo be an RPG, when you don’t actually do any roleplaying? More importantly, how does one talk about what makes these games great, since they don’t really have anything meaningful in common?

It might be easier to come at this from the other direction and list the ways you can hinder or ruin an RPG.

I’m going to go back to the drawing board with that abandoned post, but in the meantime I’ll just sort of throw this out there for the less obsessive types to tackle: What makes “an RPG” great?

LATER: Don’t miss this excellent response over at Augury.


From The Archives:

73 thoughts on “What Makes a Great RPG?

  1. Paula says:

    I’m afraid that to be able to come up with a good answer to this type of question, you will probably have to resort to some near philoshophy way of thinking, and try not to ever be specific, because so many people have different opinions on what makes a game great. This is the best I could come up with…

    A great RPG is one where the developers set out to please a certain group or type of gamers, and succeed. If it is widely enjoyed by all who like that type of a game, it can at least be called a decent game.

  2. onosson says:

    I think we need a new term, or probably many terms. When I hear “RPG”, I have to wonder exactly what kind of game they’re talking about, and I know half of the time I won’t like it.

  3. FhnuZoag says:

    A good story with characters that have depth and interest to them.

    That’s it really, for me. Almost everything else is forgivable.

  4. Paula says:

    And by group I mean something specific like gamers who like RPG with good plot, story line, and multiple choices. Compared to gamers who like a good story, and lots of action.
    And so on for infinite variations with many more catagories than what I’ve listed here. Things such as; Challenging missions, simple missions, good voice actors, plot twists, good old fashioned beat the bad guys, ect. ect.

  5. Miako says:

    Writing. First, foremost, or last. There is writing. Look at Grim Fandango. It’s not a hard game, but it is consistent (so far, i’m not too far into it), and it finds its beat. It immerses you in the world.

    ADOM, on the other hand, sees writing as a forest of choices, a web of consequences. Everything you do matters, and changes other things in the world. That’s weaving a web — i’ve never been immersed in that game, but it is still fascinating from a writer’s perspective.

  6. Miako says:

    i know one editor who threatened to resign when someone wanted to nominate Diablo as RPG of the Year.

    So let’s not call it an rpg, kay?

  7. onosson says:

    …that being said, I think what DOES make an RPG great is a sense of open-endedness, that you are not limited in your actions but are free to make choices. Morrowind and Oblivion gave you that sense (though of course no computer RPG is completely open-ended), whereas Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest are just the opposite, and very unenjoyable for me. When my choices are limited to what hugely powerful weapon do I want to carry, and how do I want to arrange my backpack, I quickly grow tired of pointing-and-clicking.

  8. Adam says:

    What makes it great.


    The game has to grab you and alow you to feel like you can do something. The story has to have aspect that you like and a genre that you can accept or love.

    There are great games out there, but I have not intrest in them because of just that, they are not enjoyable to me.

  9. Cineris says:

    Voodoo. Definitely voodoo.

    I’m not sure this question can really be answered, it’s like asking “What makes a novel great?”. If we had a formula, or even specific elements, figured out then writing would be a very different endeavor.

    For the sake of discussion how about: “Allowing the player to imagine himself participating in a compelling story-event.” I feel like that’s as specific as I can get before running into problems. I wanted to mention something along the lines of “Has mechanics which facilitate the desired gameplay,” but that seems too tautological.

  10. Kanthalion says:

    A palpable sense of advancement, of character growth. An engaging story over which you feel some control, challenges, puzzles and battles that are not so easy you become bored and not so hard you become frustrated, although a really good story can widen that range a bit. oh yea, and hot chixors.

  11. empty_other says:

    Nah. The modern defined “RPG” is a too broad genre to say what makes the game great. Its like asking “what kind of wheels do i need on my car to make it a great car?”

    But if i was to define “RPG’s” as in “a game where you roleplay”, then i would say the most important feature is freedom. Freedom to try to do as i want, and freedom to fail if i tried something too difficult (that last part was where Oblivion failed to include).

  12. Cadrys says:

    Three things:

    (1) Story
    (2) Story
    (3) Characters. Also, story.

  13. Gabriel says:

    RPGs for me are as much about being sociable as discovering a story — in fact, more and more I find myself unwilling to commit much time to most single-player games.

    Because of that, I think the MMORPG model has some promise, but thus far I’ve been underwhelmed by what I’ve seen. If I had to pick ideal qualities, I’d want a multi-factioned world, with no fixed alliances — something where player actions can change the world (if a group storms a lesser city, they should be able to capture it if held long enough/by enough force).

  14. Mob says:


    1. Character advancement. (new levels, skills, abilities, etc.)
    2. Enjoyable gameplay that facilitates #1.


    3. Interesting story.

    Anything else is negotiable. I know this hardly meets the literal definition of “RolePlaying”, but this is what makes an “RPG” for me.

  15. Lefty says:

    is the answer “orcs”? I wrote down “orcs.”

  16. Nilus says:

    Actually a better question is “Who makes the best RPGS?” The answer of course is Bioware. Less then two months now till Mass Effect comes out.

  17. Rebby says:

    It truly is a debatable answer. I’m gonna answer this as a role-player, because ultimately, that is what a RPG is about (or is supposed to be about). I think the core of an RPG is its story and its backstory, being able to understand where the world has been and where its going as well as your character’s story within the entire story. I agree that freedom is extremely important, being able to make your own decisions rather than being pushed by the programming to go in one direction, freedom can also be your class/race options as well, the ability to do almost whatever you want. Every other aspect of an RPG seems debatable to me: style of play, difficulty, graphics. I mean, you can forgive a game if the graphics aren’t great if it has an amazing story and it captures you… unless the graphics are so bad that you can’t really see what’s going on at all.

  18. Taelus says:

    I’m with Shamus on this one. Defining what makes an RPG great seems difficult at best. As far as I can tell, the gaming industry has decided that anything set in a fantasy or science fiction world that makes an attempt at a story is officially an RPG.

    Going by that definition, then it would seem that the story and gameplay mechanics rank as the highest aspects of the game with difficulty of play working to make the top list but getting pulled down by the types who want it to be easy and that lot are being shot in the head from 200 yards by the group who wants the challenge. Sigh.

    Regardless, it seems to me that in the long haul, a good RPG is really about the ability to suspend disbelief. If the story sucks, the mechanics are poor, the difficulty is too high (or too low), etc. you’ll be distracted and the game will lose its charm. So I suppose for me, a game that can suspend my disbelief wins out in the long haul.

  19. Dev Null says:

    Character interaction.

  20. Maija says:

    For me, a good RPG offers an immersive, sandbox gameworld. Story and character development are secondary.

  21. Sharpe says:

    A good RPG must give the illusion of, for lack of a better term, a “second life”. I want to RP, so I must have the tools to do it.

  22. Derek says:

    I think a great RPG is immersing. Whatever the other qualities, if I get sucked in and feel like I’m there, a part of that world, that is a great RPG, whether it be computer or table-top.

  23. Devon says:

    A good RPG, from my POV, requires an immersive gameworld, a compelling story, some character development, challenging combats (without the punitive repetition you get in some of the GTA missions), and at least 1-2 replays (what if I play ‘evil’? what if I play ‘Dark Side’?). Plus: game has to work properly.

    I feel the latest TOEE would have been a great one if it hadn’t also been so buggy that it made the game virtually unplayable. KOTOR II would have been as great, if not more so, but for the final chapter being so full of holes.

    I also draw a distinction between:
    – RPGs (which are usually fantasy/scifi and involve a lot of combat, some latitude for character customization/evolution, and a story arc)
    – adventure games (the Quest for Glory series, Alice)
    – cathartic shoot-em-ups (in which I place the greatly enjoyed GTA series, my beloved Scarface game, Doom, and Diablo)

  24. Doug Sundseth says:

    Is Civilization an RPG? If you consider your civilization as your character, I think you could make that case (advancement, customization, open-ended …). FWIW, I wouldn’t call it one, but I’d be hard-pressed to make a principled case against it.

    Now a harder question: Is Spore an RPG?

  25. Alex says:

    Story and characters. And, to a lesser extent, voice acting can help a LOT.

    Black Isle did this particularly well: Baldur’s Gate (1 and 2, but especially 2), Planescape Torment and Knights of the Old Republic all brought their PCs and NPCs to life with a fantastic voice cast. It’s easier to imagine yourself into character, and to interact with the gameworld, when they’re already engaging and have some depth.

  26. Krellen says:

    My answer?

    Being like Fallout.

    The more like Fallout you are, the better an RPG you become. Oblivion fails because the dialogue, character interaction and character growth is nothing like Fallout. Planescape: Torment pretty much succeeds. VtM: Bloodlines is close – closer to Torment than Oblivion.

  27. Ingvar says:

    I can only purport to put forth a tentative list of “must-haves”.

    1) Storyline must be strong
    2) There must be some sort of character mechanics (maybe hidden, maybe explicit)
    3) There must be choice and the choices must have consequences
    4) There should be interaction between the player’s character(s) and the world

    On the whole, it’s still too wide and probably encompasses games that aren’t RPGs.

  28. Strangeite says:

    Duderino (I am not into the whole brevity thing either):

    The things that make RPGs great is exactly what does not allow them to work on the computer. While I enjoy games that are called “RPG” on a computer, I don’t consider them RPGs. RPGs, at least for me, are great because of the almost infinite possibilities for storytelling and character development that can only occur because of the interplay between players and a GM. Computers by their very nature can only give options that were thought of in advance by the programmers. How many times as a GM have you been presented with choices by your players that you could never have dreamed of? It is this experience that makes RPGs great and is exactly why computer games that call themselves RPGs are merely poor imitations.

    Of course you can’t blame the computer game manufactors for calling their products RPGs, it’s like what Lenin said… you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh…

    I am the walrus.

    You know what I’m trying to say…

    I am the walrus.

    Shut the f*$k up, Donny! V.I. Lenin. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!

    What the f*$k is he talking about, Dude?

  29. Phlux says:

    I see a lot of “good storyline” comments. I will qualify that by saying that good storylines come from good characters.

    If characters aren’t good, and you don’t buy their motivations for the presented actions, then the story falls apart.

    I would also add that a sense of importance is also what helps make an RPG great. In Diablo, you might not roleplaying, but the “story” such as it is, has very high stakes.

    One of my favorite touches in Oblivion is the “unscripted” dialogue between characters. After you’ve finished the main campaign you are a highly recognized hero of legend, and people you walk past on the streets will say “Wow, look at him, it’s that hero guy!” Makes you feel important.

    The plot can be silly or surreal or whatever, but if it doesn’t have good characters and a sense of urgency and importance there’s really no motivation to slog through it.

  30. Vegedus says:

    It is true that RPG really means nothing, or, well, actually it means “a game in which your ingame abilities improve”, which is a vague as it gets. It seems to be gut feeling that determines such things as Bully to not be RPGs, but hey, “life” also lack a clear definition, though you’re never really in doubt of what is life and what isn’t.

    It is therefore impossible to say what makes RPGs great in general, but that is also why the genre is broken up in so many categorizations. We have the Japanese style RPG (JRPG), widely represented by Final Fantasy, and includes the sub genre Strategy RPG (SRPG) and Western Style RPG (WRPG), which can be broken down into further categories: Hack ‘n Slash, Free Roaming/First Person RPG, Rogue and DnD/Bioware/Wizards of the Coast RPG.

    Considering Rogue is the list, you can’t even say a strong story and good characters are important to all RPGs.

    Now, I won’t bother to list what is the most important things to each genre, but it is worthy of note that most of the western RPGs are not as much genres, but a small group of games. Every Hack ‘n Slash that isn’t diablo is a diablo clone. Same goes for rogue. Kinda. Free roaming is basically The Elder Scrolls series. No other game to my knowledge fits into it completely, though Bio/systemshock fits somewhat(but is really an FPS). DnD RPGs are usually only made by one developer at a time.

    To get an RPG game, I think you have a huge list of criteria, and you only have to pass a certain amount of them for it to be an RPG. If you not just pass the criteria in an exceedingly good way, it’s a great RPG.

  31. BarGamer says:

    Writing. Story. Immersiveness. Some sort of point-manipulation. And a well-implemented and well-managed economy and crafting system.

    (Humor is good too, even if you have to break the 4th wall.)

  32. Vegedus says:

    Damnit, I’m gonna write long responses in word from now on, because there’s just so many damn spelling errors, and no edit button.

  33. Jansolo says:

    In my opinion…

    …a computer RPG is great if you can feel closer to a real RPG (with real I mean dices, pencils, character sheets and so on), where your imagination makes everything.

    I don’t agree the terms “story” (a bad book is always better), “choice” (I’m a developer, there is no free choice in a program) or something like that. Nor “character”; Final Fantasy games are great games and fun with no character election in them (nor role to play, indeed).

    Of course, leveling is not a criteria. In some games this concept reminds me Jackpot machines (when you get 3 cherries, you raise your level).

    Well, I’ve never played MMORPG, they could be THE RPG games using my criteria. But I presume players tend to play as with Mario Bross: attack everything and everybody. Take the treasure and run.

    In conclusion…
    …I really enjoy Oblivion, Final Fantasy (VII, IX and XII), Kingdom hearts II (¿RPGs?), as well as GTA, Lord Of The Rings, STALKER (¿action games?), but not Gothic III, PSP’s D&D Tactics (yeah, boring games)…
    …but nothing as a role session with my friends, where you can ACT and you can FUN (as in the DM of the rings)

    Note for Shamus: I reach your website because a friend recommend me the DM of the rings strips. CONGRATULATIONS!, one of the best ever :D :D :D

  34. Froody says:

    Well, lets take a look at it…

    Of course, general gameplay mechanics (is it easy to control, is it bugfree, etc), and to a lesser extent the graphics matter for EVERY game.

    For instance, character customization options are very important to me, and I really love designing and tuning completely different characters for every playthrough. On the other hand, both KotOR and JE were missing this, and theyre the best RPGs I’ve every played, whereas Oblivion and NWN both had it and were crappy RPGs otherwise.

    Then there’s the factor of addiction – which Diablo brilliantly took to awesome heights. Rewarding Quests and cool items really make you to want to play on. However, a great story can captivate you just as well.

    Then theres the thing with freedom, which comes in two ways:

    -Freedom to solve quests the way you want.

    -Freedom to go whereever you want, whenever you want.

    The first is one of the most important points in every Role Play Game, as it enables you to actually PLAY A ROLE… the latter, however, I found to damage games more than improving them, actually… if you look at Oblivion, for example – many bugs due to the sheer size of the game, and very little story you first have to search for…

    Which brings us to THE important aspect of RPGs – a well written story. This seperates RPGs from other games, and while a good story won’t do much good if the game is otherwise crappy, even the best RPG will always be mediocre without a captivating plot, while a mediocre RPG can be greatly improved by a thrilling story.

    Even more important to me, however, are the characters that the story revolves about: This is what make a game truly memorable in my opinion, fighting for and alongside a group of original, well written people you grow attached to, care for and identify with. This is what makes BioWare games so great for me.

    So: Characters, Plot, Freedom of Choice, and Game Mechanics, in that order for me.

  35. Corsair says:

    Stat building are pretty much what defines RPGs nowadays. As for what makes a great RPG, there are four main criteria.





    Games like Fallout, Planescape, Baldur’s Gate 2, and Arcanum managed to mingle all of these together.

  36. Takkelmaggot says:

    Off the cuff?
    Player participation in character design. An expansive game world. The framework of quests and level-ups. I think the common denominator here is player involvement in the *people* aspect of the game; it’s the difference between Operation Flashpoint and Morrowind, or Fallout and X-COM. In the event of a tie, the title goes to the game which places the most importance on the storyline.

  37. Hal says:

    What makes an RPG great?

    It’s fun to play.

    That being said, I should probably add some generic and already covered points.

    Since most RPGs are characterized by character growth/advancement, you have to feel like your development is meaningful and worthwhile. If your character doesn’t acquire awesome powers, significant stat changes, or fantastic equipment, then there’s no reason to bother with such matters. Alternatively, if the only way to achieve such uber-pwnage is to level grind for 200 hours, then the sense of accomplishment is also somewhat diminished. Goals should be palpable but not require a commitment that forgoes real-life.

    Everybody keeps bringing up the story or the character development. This isn’t entirely necessary either. The Paper Mario series was great fun, but I wouldn’t call the storylines revolutionary by any stretch of the definition. Same with the freedom vs. rails aspect. Final Fantasy games are fun (rails), but Oblivion was pretty fun, too (freedom).

    Variety is important. If you’re stuck in the same little town for half the game, fighting palette-swaps of the same monster over and over, you’re going to get bored quickly. Being able to explore new locations and fight exotic enemies really adds to a game’s depth. This ties back into advancement, too. Your level 1 character is probably eager to fight a dragon (or some other legendary monstrosity). How disappointing will you find it if you make it to the end of the game and the worst encounter you have is with a giant rat?

    Finally, I would say that the end-game payoff needs to be worthwhile. This is a universal game rule, but especially so for RPGs. Most of these take 20-40 hours to play, or longer, and nothing is going to leave you feeling as dissatisfied as sinking in all that time for a 30 second denouement (I’m looking at YOU, KOTOR2). Is there a climactic boss battle? A saccharine wrap-up to the story? Or do rocks fall and the party is never seen again? The ending will leave you thinking of either an epic tale everyone should play or a botched abortion of a product whose creators should be pilloried.

  38. Vegedus says:

    @ Hal

    I like you point about Character growth/Advancement, but this: “Alternatively, if the only way to achieve such uber-pwnage is to level grind for 200 hours, then the sense of accomplishment is also somewhat diminished. Goals should be palpable but not require a commitment that forgoes real-life.” I find to be completely untrue. It is a general fact that the more and harder you work at something, the higher an achievement you will feel when you’ve completed it. Goes for games too. It’s irrelevant whether it overshadows real life, because some (?) people play games just to get away from it. People get addicted to MMORPGs because those are some of the greatest achievement “kick” you can get in all of gaming. They might not be played at all if not for them.
    It sounds a bit too much like you burned your fingers at this genre and took it as a fact. I agree with everything else, though.

  39. Will says:

    What makes an RPG great is the capacity to affect the environment and plot to create your own unique outcome from the same initial conditions (the world that is, not the actual character) as every other player. The player should get to be the Chaos Butterfly.

    Linear “RPG’s” really need a category all their own outside the RPG family. I enjoy the stories in these games, but why can’t they just write a novel? Why should I spend my time left-clicking or mashing the X button a bazillion times just to get through the next gate in a linear plot? I might as well grab a book and reprogram my VCR whenever it’s time to turn a page.

  40. Hal says:

    Well Vegedus, I had a one game in mind when I wrote that statement:


    Sure, you could beat the game in ~40 hours. However, if you wanted to complete everything, to beat the most secretest, hiddenest, uberest boss evar, you had to sink countless hours into that game. 100? Not nearly enough.

    I’d qualify WoW into that category, but other people tend to enjoy it simply for the social aspect (the length of time it requires to reach the upper echelons of power being incidental to enjoying the game with peers). Your mileage may vary. I prefer not to have goals in a game that are only 1% achievable.

  41. Ben says:

    An rpg, in my view at least, needs a decent storyline, freedom in how you carry out the necessary tasks/missions/quests and either a good, believable character, or an empty slate that you can build a character on. The Thief series fits for me, as you’ve got a storyline (nitpicking moments aside), multiple methods to carry out the missions, and a character whose motivation is believable. Same with Morrowind where there’s freedom to build your character and decide on their morals yourself and also a good storyline and choice of quests.
    Dungeon Siege and Diablo, not so much. The storylines are pretty weak, the quests are only tacked on and the characters could be replaced at any time without anyone noticing.

  42. David says:

    I think it’s also very important that you direct the action of the characters only indirectly. If a character’s ability to hit an orc is based on the player’s skill level, and not the character’s (implicit or explicit) stats, then it’s probably not an RPG.

  43. Mistwraithe says:

    Unfortunately RPG isn’t the only genre name which is become increasingly meaningless. How many RTS games actually have more than a smidgen of Strategy in them these days?

    Like David says about RPGs, if the players ability to micro 30 units simultaneously in an RTS is more important than their ability to build their economy/military and direct their troops then it isn’t really an RTS is it? Its a RTT (Real Time Tactics).

    Its called appealing to the masses who appear to want to get their sense of winning and achievement from clicking fast rather than from thinking fast.

  44. Kristin says:

    One of the few things that I really demand in an RPG is that I get to create my character. Or at least have some say in who my character is and what she* can do.

    *My first runthrough of any game, I play as female if I can. Then I go back through with a male character.

    I also want replayability based on the character and the role I choose to play. What happens if I play as evil? If I play as male? If I choose a different class? If I choose a different race? NPCs should react differently to a male Dwarven barbarian than to a female Elven ranger.

    Stories and characters are important – as is the freedom to define my character. If I’m supposed to be playing a ranger who spent all her life in the wild and has the 6 Charisma (in a d20 game) to show for it, she shouldn’t have the exact same conversations as a bard with 18 Charisma who’s put it to use earning a living on the street.

    The only MMORPG I’ve played is Guild Wars, and I love it. The stories are kind of meh, but I make up my own to weave around my characters.

    Graphics are important only to the point where I know what’s going on. In Guild Wars, I *hate* running around the cities in Cantha because what looks like it should be three steps away often is “I have to run around half the area to get there”. Gameplay isn’t that important because I’m not that good no matter what the controls are. Too much challenge frustrates me because, well, see “not very good” – it’s no fun if you can’t win because you don’t have the skills. I’m not too proud to put the game on easy mode and leave it there, so I guess the best idea is multiple challenge levels.

    Shamus, sorry for writing a novella in your comments!

  45. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Three elements:


    Although,failing in one of these can be compensated with others.For example,NWN(original,not the expansions),has a bland story and so-so gameplay,but what made me so amazed was how detailed the henchmen and some key NPCs were made.Their pasts are far better than the overal story of the game and were the thing that hooked me.

  46. Vegedus says:

    @ Hal

    Well, that is kind of why it’s the hidden, alternative part of the game. You don’t have to clear it. You can complete the “main quest”, dabble a little around and getting some extra summon, and be perfectly content. It is primarily there to lengthen the game for those who care to make the effort. Those who’ll care to thrash the same mob a million times. Most games doesn’t have stuff like that, it’s more like a bonus feature than anything else. Most other RPGs just offer you the option to grind to level 99. I would find that boring, but it qualifies as something you can make a goal. Really, I can’t see how giving boring, but completely and utterly optional content can detract from a game. I’ve never bothered to unlock more than a couple of the ultimate armors and weapons, but it’s still my favorite JRPG ever.

    To make an analogy, let’s say you’re at a birthday party. They serve cheese and cake. The cake is really delicious. The cheese taste like shit however, so you only take one bite and eat another cake instead.
    Man, that meal sucked.

  47. Zanfib says:

    Does fortress mode in Dwarf Fortress count as an RPG?

  48. The comments here (and at my site) have been great to read and ponder on. I’ll be writing a follow-up in a couple of days based on these comments. Then we can compare Shamus’s and my own responses… :)

  49. Chilango2 says:

    There is one mechanic that all “RPG’s” whether Diablo or Oblivion have in common, and that is simply the development of a character, namely, the hero, from weakling to badass, ro something similar.

    There are three basic human desires/needs that games can fulfill: Beating/winning something, Developing/constructing something, and unfolding a story. Various games have different balances of each of these things, but I think one reason RPG’s do so well, are such a powerful genre, is that they do all three.

    Leveling, and or otherwise growing more powerful, serves the winning as well as constructing purposes. The spells and weapons etc construct a powerful charcter that *you* put together, much like building a formidable building. And doing these other two things unfolds some form of story, in one form or another.

    It’s true that, for instance, in Diablo, the main character is not developed, but you are immersed in the story of the townpeople, of the unleashing of Diablo, of the various evils that attend him.

    Other RPG’s instead go for a dynamic of a smaller subset of characters who mostly interact with each other while the rest of the world’s characters (with the exception of the primary bad guys) are more hastily drawn in (think most Final Fantasies)

    But one way or another, what makes a good RPG is the harmonious working of those three elements, mechanical character growth, the defeating of challenges, and story development.

    If, for instance, challenges become unreasonably difficult (NWN 2 near the end) this defeats the feeling of strength that the player has developed as well as defeating the enjoyment of well earned victory (since victory under those circumstances is more clearly a matter of chance).

    The same difficulty can be caused by a difficulty curve that is too easy (some argue Oblivion, I didn’t play it enough to be able to tell.) Or a faulty storyline (Fable..), which can make the victories the player is winning seem pointless or silly.

    This also captures in part why RPG’s can be difficult to do, all three elements must be done correctly, or the game feels lacking.

  50. Tuck says:

    Rebby’s comment (#17) practically defined the Ultima series, which I’d still include in the top 10 RPGs ever — particularly Ultima 5, 6, and 7. Never known any games that sucked me into their world so easily!

  51. scragar says:

    I have to say for me graphics are the least important thing in any game(why else would I still play Crono Trigger or Final Fantasy 2 when I have new prettier games?).
    On the other hand I have to say that story is important, that and an ability to strategise. On the other hand I also feel that such games should provide an option to skip cutscenes, there is nothing worse than having to watch the same cutscene over and over again if you just can’t finish of that new boss(or are too lazy to go back on kill 500 random monsters).

  52. ArchU says:

    Obviously to be great it needs to be enjoyable. More importantly, what makes an RPG? I think making a great RPG is effectively balancing the elements that make an RPG enjoyable.

    I think the foundation of an RPG is the development of the player-character. It’s the entire point of the game to advance and mold the main character. The way in which this is achieved (by utilising the plot, interaction and even technical design) should be the definition of this foundation and used effectively would make a great RPG.

  53. Inane Fedaykin says:

    Game mecanics. If I can’t power game the crap outa it I don’t care anymore.

    It’s odd because I like to conquer everything in my path in RPGS so I can get on with the story but I wouldn’t play a game again if the battles weren’t interesting. Maybe I should listen to a book on tape while playing counterstrike?

    Along those lines, by conventional definitions why isn’t Half Life considered a RPG? It has all the elements and doesn’t even play like most FPS’ that were available at the time. The focus was always on telling the story of Freeman’s “escape” from Black Mesa and not blasting the zombies/marines/aliens around each corner. As most people have said, RPGs are about the development of the PCs and so by that definition I believe Half Life falls under the RPG term.

  54. ArmySyko says:

    I’m opposite Fedayken on the subject. I have to play a character that has a role. Power gaming defeats the purpose of gaming because there is no strategy if everything is that simple to push through.

    The trouble that I see with HL or other computer games is pretty simple, it’s not a social environment where I have fun. It quickly turns in to a grind of killing creatures and shooting/stabbing/rolling over creatures. My RPG’s are inspired by the by-play between players and bartering for the right roll to make for a skill check, not something out of a book. The books are great for basic mechanics but not hard-coded in to some scheme.

    RPG’s are a social, casual environment where a half-dozen guys get together and do something more than watching Football or Rugby.

  55. Davesnot says:

    A good RPG requires a DM… and NWN1 is where that’s at.. not the NWN that was released.. the one that has evolved.. not NWN2.. it is still an infant.. nope.. NWN1 is now what D&D 2nd edition was to the famous 3-booklets.

    I know.. nobody here is gonna listen to that.. but Role-Playing requires creative interaction.. RPG is analog.. not digital.. and NWN1 allows a DM to adjust on the fly.. an important NPC can’t be programmed.. they have to be played by a human… which a NWN DM can do.

    A first-person RPG requires that every playable possibility be pre-thought.. that alone makes it incompatable with a true RPG experience.

    Of course.. everyone tried NWN when it came out.. then dumped it because like all new releases.. it sucked.. but the community stuck with it.. put up custom content.. released tools for DMs and world builders..

    But nobody that isn’t currently playing it won’t believe me anyway.. so.. nevermind… keep ploppin’ money down on great box art and ad copy.. keep chasing the grail-shaped beacon.. I’ll be role playing in NWN.

  56. Davesnot says:

    or another way to look at it.. Computer RPG without a DM is like sex without a partner.. sure.. it can be fun.. but there really ain’t a reason to play a role.

  57. Rehtul says:

    Davesnot – an excellent comment, I feel almost exactly the same way. Go NWN! NWN2 sucked because, well, it was made by Obsidian :wink: and NWN still has all the clunkiness that makes it almost 100% customizeable online, and all the charm and gfx that makes it almost a perfect computerized DnD. DMs are a must, without someone who controls the characters in a *realistic* way, how the hell is a script, or a conversation going to do any better? While a crappy DM sucks, he still beats the average script. With all the new add-ons for NWN now, it’s almost as if the community has made a whole extra game, and new add-ons and “hakpaks” still keep coming out every day. *raises his glass to the good folks at Bioware* “Oi! Another round over ‘ere!”

  58. Rehtul says:

    Speaking of NWN, I think you really should give it a try, Shamus, there’s a lot of cool stuff you can add on to the deal at teh NWVault, and I’d love to hear your review in contrast to NWN2… :twisted:

  59. Rick says:

    1) It’s got to be fun. I’ll forgive almost anything else, but if I ever feel like I’m not enjoying it, it’s going to go back on the shelf and probably rot there.

    2) For RPGs, a good story and interesting characters are also important.

    3) The leveling system is also an important consideration. Guild Wars is probably my favorite – you only ever make one non-cosmetic decision that can’t be changed later. (A few of the others can be difficult and/or expensive to change, but they can still be changed.) I’ve also liked the systems in Jade Empire, City of Heroes/Villains, and KotOR. (NWN, although it uses the same system as KotOR, has a few too many options to really work in a computer game.)

    4) Not too easy, not too hard.

    If it does well in all four categories, chances are I’m going to like it.

  60. Katy says:

    A good story and no visible railroad.

  61. Dave H. says:

    I have a very simple personal criterion for RPGs: If it’s not “first person” then it’s not “role playing.” If I am playing, and I think to myself, “I’m going to open that door and see what’s in there,” I’m in an RPG. If I ever think, “I’m going to move my thief over there to open that door,” then I’m not playing an RPG. If the character isn’t in some sense “me,” then I’m not really playing the role, am I? Character development is important, but just because your avatar gains better equipment and improved stats doesn’t mean you’re role-playing *coughDIABLOcough*. If I don’t feel that *I* spent the afternoon slaying dragons or fighting vampires or whatever, then I can’t honestly say it’s been a “role-playing game.” I just can’t get that feeling from a top-down isometric view. That’s more like a really fancy chess game to me. As for what makes one GREAT? Well, I know what makes them suck, but the great ones? As the man said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

  62. Ben Finkel says:

    One thing I’m not really seeing here – but maybe that’s because I skimmed – is a good interface. A dear friend of mine is failing to make me swoon over NetHack primarily because that game lacks one.

    Intuitiveness is key – both to enjoyment and to immersion. While this applies to any genre, and (it can be argued) less so to RPGs, I find myself walking away from many potentially exciting stories because it’s too much of a bother to make those stories into actualities – I’d rather read them.

    Finally, I consider fine characters to be more important than fine story, especially if I must choose one or the other. A fine story might be something to remember, but good characters will take a player from moment to moment within the game.


  63. Ben Finkel says:

    By “actualities,” I meant within the context of the game, of course.


  64. Zaghadka says:

    Good thing you knew the counterspell. I can’t tell you how many pages of writing I’ve flushed. A good writer knows when to use the circular file.

    Oh, we weren’t talking about what makes a “good writer?” ;^)

    For me, every RPG that I would term “great” has had one thing: VARIETY.

    It has to have different settings, accommodate different play styles, and preferably, the whole tone of the game should change dependent on your ethical choices, your choice of companions, and your style of resolving the various conflicts in the game.

    If I’m expected to kill everything, by bashing it over the head, with no option to sneak or trick nor choice of tactics and weapons, it’s a minus for an RPG.

    If I’m not presented with a variety of obstacles (what’s with this campaign, why are we always fighting orcs?!), that’s a problem.

    If I don’t have access to sneakers, negotiators, toe to toe fighters and people who use exotic secrets to cause exotic damage, it spells trouble.

    To give you an example: Oblivion. If you play that game as an assassin, it winds up being very much like Thief: The Dark Project. If you play it as a Spellsword, it feels like a 3D version of Diablo. If you play it as a Warrior, it feels like Hexen.

    That mutability and freedom is what really makes a great RPG, even if two of the games I just mentioned aren’t actually considered part of the genre.

    Oblivion’s a little too much on the FPS side of the fence for my tastes, but it gets great marks for allowing the player to create his own story.

    Variety translates into several things: A feeling of actual ethical tension, a choice to be bold or cowardly, choices that matter, and aren’t just a menu of power-ups, but fraught with actual consequences that change the way you have to approach the interactive world, and a heck of a lot of replayability.

    That’s a great RPG.

  65. wererogue says:

    I gave up on trying to define computer RPGs when I realised that people classed Legend of Zelda as an RPG.

  66. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    @Dave H.

    You never used miniatures or some figures to represent your party and the enemy in P&P RPG?Thats equivalent of isometric view games,right?Yet (if the GM is good) you cant say that P&P RPG is not an RPG.

  67. Alexis says:

    Control over your character’s evolution. Morally and/or mechanically, I prefer these separately cause it sucks when Evil get all the useful toys.

    Different people will prefer narrative, simulation and mechanics. I’m a mechanics guy, ofc I care about the other two but I find bad mechanics interrupt my immersion the most. Examples of bad mechanics include instagibs, universal strategies and poorly scaling abilities. In D&D a L1 minotaur could throw 5 coins a round for 1d2+6 damage each. That’s 35-40 damage, when a 2H sword would do 7-16.

    Diablo is a perfect CRPG for me. It has just enough story to get me excited, but it can be skipped when I’m replaying. It invests you and empowers you in your character development; to me the choice of control, raw power, utility or minions is much more telling than choosing colour-coded sides.

    Oblivion is the perfectly flawed CRPG. It looks nice, there’s loads of content, but most of the mechanics are broken. To improve meaningfully, you have to grind in extremely bizarre ways – like pummeling demons to death in heavy armor. The spell scaling massively rewards two second spells, turning it into a simple question of how cheap can you stand being? The original game could be completed by an L2 character.

    As interactive media, I found the borked mechanics totally ruined any suspension of disbelief the narrative achieved. Diablo, by maintaining a constant feeling of danger, multiple development paths and future investment, enthralled me.

    Oh, in reference to power gaming… I am a natural power gamer. However I enjoy balanced games, which cannot be exploited, far more. It’s the paradox of gaming, I enjoy the challenge yet simultaneously I WILL use every dirty trick the designer allows to reduce the challenge. WoW is, I believe, the best balanced game EVER. It’s one of the strengths of an MMO, that exploitable mechanics are quickly identified and play a large part in the success or failure of the game.

  68. Matt says:

    inspired by this,

    Things that I think make for good computer rpgs:

    I like being able to choose very carefully who I get to be. Especially nice is when the game doesn’t give you a background, because having one means sharing a background across every alt character you make, always being the same person, which is wrong. I want to be able to restart with a fresh character and feel like I’m not playing exactly the same story over again. Fable is a terrible offender, on this count.

    On the other hand, I like games that make you feel like a hero, which Fable was really pretty good at. I’m not sure how to do this, but I’d like to know. I’ll have to think on it.

    I like being able to choose how you look. Which, again, I guess Fable had. I’ll talk about Fable less from here out. I like when your appearance isn’t determined entirely by your race and class. And while we’re on the subject, I’d like my character’s capabilities to be pretty malleable, not determined by their class. That’s pretty much it about the player character.

    If the game lets you party with NPCs, I’d like there to be a decent range of types of characters available for that, and I’d like their skills to be pretty editable as well. Most western RPGs are at least pretty good about letting you pick which NPCs you hang out with, and I’m glad of that.

    Letting you actually affect the world would be really nice, but that’s kind of a design horror, to think of it. It’s hard to give players control over anything meaningful without giving them stuff that they could break the game with.

    I’d like to see a sense that communities run even if you’re not there. I don’t know if any game has actually done this right yet, but I can see why not. You can have a town full of NPCs who bustle about running errands, but you’d have trouble finding the one guy you’re looking for. Or you can have a town full of unimportant NPCs who bustle around, while the important ones stand in one spot all day, ready to serve you quests, which only really makes their standaroundiness more obvious.

    I’m starting to feel like dialogue in games eats immersion, because, barring hard AI, characters can’t act like people, and poor dialogue is worse than none. More NPC interaction, but with less dialogue, that would be sweet to see.

    Randomness. Sort of the Holy Grail for me would be generative plots, where the story and the world was generated on the fly, more sophisticated than Diablo or NetHack, where only the levels and items and stuff are generated, and the story, towns, and bosses are always the same. I don’t know exactly how this would work, but I have Ideas. I really want to see it done, in any case.

    Ooh, and pretty graphics. In seriousness, I think ‘charm’ is the most important quality in graphics; the art in games like Zelda: the Wind Waker and Ico trumps that of games like Oblivion and… whatever other game I play that has expensive graphics. I think games like Bioshock are pretty because they’re polished, not because they use shiny new hardware. I’m really not just saying this because I’m sick of buying new hardware, although there is that. In my experience, all graphics have to be in order to draw attention is pretty. And people have been making pretty games for quite some time now. So more of that, I guess.

  69. Davesnot says:

    in reference to #66… sure a tabletop miniatures game can be a tabletop miniatures game instead of an RPG.. Battletech.. Car Wars.. Mage Knight.. etc.. not RPG.. but can be incorporated into an RPG.

  70. Dave H. says:

    To be honest, no, we never used miniatures in our P&P games. If a situation arose where we just couldn’t “see” the situation, we might use some dice or something (“Ok, look, you’re the purple d8, facing me. The lich is the green d20, facing AWAY from you, but _behind_ this wall. You’d have to walk around the corner to get to him, and he’d see you. No surprise.” “Ahhh. Ok.”) but just long enough to clear up any confusion. Maybe we just had an outstanding DM (actually, we DID have an outstanding DM, one I’d actually travel to play a game with… shout out, Frank Ryan!) but the miniatures were no more representative of “me” than a map was. The top-down/isometric/3rd person view thing takes me out of the moment.

  71. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    We used miniatures only when the guy hosting the session (not necessarily GM) had them.Otherwise we used what we found(dice,figures from various board games,pens,…).But my point is that isometric RPGs should be watched as those things:Just an aid to help you imagine the situation better.At least,thats how I see them.Although,if the story is lacking,I cannot identify myself with the character even if I do watch through his eyes(various FPSs,for example).

  72. Jeff says:

    Well, for me it’s a matter of looking at which games I thought were great, and why.

    Might and Magic 1: Great because there was an entire world to explore, in (for the time) ridiculous detail.

    Ultima 4: Great because the conversations were so in-depth, the endgame wasn’t about killing a Foozle, and because even though the midgame was grinding, it was *smart* grinding; if you needed to increase your humility, you had to give some thought into how to do that

    Ultima 6: Great because of the plot, because of the number of NPCs with unique portraits and conversations, and because of how the game dispensed with map loading, how the designers made virtually everything in the game takable/usable.

    Ultima 7: Great because of the things that made Ultima 6 great, with added atmospherics and better graphics.

    Wasteland: Great because of the “use it and improve it” skill system, the way skills interacted with the game world, and the setting.

    Fallout: Great because of the character system, and the way the game design doesn’t force you to play a certain way.

    Planescape: Torment: Great because of the writing. Yeah, setting and plot were good, and it managed to avoid a lot of FRP cliches, but those pages of text that some people say made it inaccessible – that was the best part.

    So, in sum, what makes an RPG great seems to me to be depth of gameworld. Is this the same as “immersion”? I’m not sure. You can have a shallow but immersive gameworld – early FPS’s were like that. But in a great RPG, there are all sorts of ways to interact with the game world.

  73. Ethalos says:

    I think there is a simple test to determine whether or not a game is a RPG. Who shapes the role of the main character? If it is the player, it is a RPG, if it is the developer, it is something else.

    I don’t think story can be the test. God of War has a good story, but the role of Kratos is shaped by the developer, not the player. God of War is not an RPG.

    Same with having good characters, for the same reasoning above.

    Look at specific games. Nobody argues against Fallout being an RPG. The main character is clearly developed by the player, thus the player takes a nearly direct role in the game world. Even a game like Mass Effect I categorize as an RPG because even though we are directed to play as character named Commander Shepard, we still get to determine that characters role in the game, for the most part anyway.

    Then there are games that are not as clearly identifiable. Bioshock for example. We are given some control, but not fully. I think it is an RPG, but only partly.

    Then we come to Final Fantasy. By the test I am advocating, it would not be an RPG. I saw someone use the term “story based adventure” for this series. I think that is a proper classification.

    Lastly, the game that always baffles me is Zelda. I so badly want to label this as an RPG, but I can in no way justify doing so.

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