RPGs can learn a lot from competitive multiplayer games — and they should

There is nothing quite like a good RPG. The open world, expansive quest lines and in-depth levels of customization and choice are each endearing to the genre. That being said, there is a problem within the RPG world that is not being addressed. Well, now it is time to take a gander at that bloated elephant trouncing around the room. RPG games are about as poorly balanced as it gets.

RPG is a pretty expansive genre. Everything from Assassin’s Creed to Tomb Raider could fit under the modern definition, making the term nearly meaningless. It has become more of a marketing term to excite casual fans into a frenzy. Simply placing the term “RPG” on a game box seemingly adds the belief that the game will now offer a deeper and more expansive experience. With that in mind, it’s somewhat understandable that marketers want to see it on every game box.

Of course, there was a simpler time. In the days of Baldur’s Gate and Diablo, isometric RPGs ruled the lands. Now every blockbuster AAA title is wrangling in skill trees and side quests in the name of adding the phrase “RPG” to their game boxes.

A massive percentage of modern games now come equipped with the same mechanics and general video game verbiage kindred to RPGs. That being said, there is still seemingly a strong divide between RPG games and non-RPG games. To quote United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

Games often accepted as more traditional RPG games may include Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. With every modern RPG, like any other game, there are issues.

Time and time again I have found myself optimizing my characters in some of these iconic games to make them as supremely amazing as possible. I must have made a dozen different Skyrim characters, each more zany and ridiculous than the last. Of course, that’s the beauty of RPGs. The wonder of these games is choice, simply put.

The player can choose which path to take, which quest to complete, area to explore or treasure to take. However, it’s deeper than even that. It all starts at character creation.

Rather it’s Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition, many RPGs allow the player to choose a race, class and a selection of abilities before beginning their virtual journeys. However, I often find myself suffering from paralysis by analysis in these situations.

When I should be jumping for joy over the seemingly boundless opportunities offered by these expansive games, I often find myself underwhelmed and frozen with indecision. Why? These seemingly open paths are usually not as diverse as they first appear.

Players often wish to decide their race, class and set abilities based on their tastes. It’s not often a conscious decision based on statistical values, but rather the pure excitement felt at the opportunity to play as an elf or a dwarf. Still, some players are punished for their creative decisions rather than rewarded.

Statistics are a staple part of RPGs. I’m not talking about spread sheets and government surveys here. I’m talking about “stats.” Different weapons have different damage values, while armors will vary in resistance scores. Different races offer varying bonuses, while different classes offer different play styles and abilities. The list, quite frankly, goes on for quite some time.

In the end, an RPG player is left with a difficult choice. Should they build their character based on what seems fun or what seems effective? This simple question has become the crux of modern RPGs.

More than a few of us that played Skyrim tried our hands at building a battle mage. To those that toughed it out, I applaud you all. Myself, on the other hand, gave in within a matter of hours.

Excited at the prospect of wielding a weapon in one hand and casting spells in the other, I journeyed into the realm of Skyrim with a pep in my step and a song in my heart. Of course once a gang of bandits tore my PC to shreds, my demeanor changed quite severely.

It quickly became apparent that no matter of hopes or dreams would change the middling damage that my spells were producing. Simply unable to feel like the awesomely powerful battlemage I hoped to be, I changed out my character for a bland, run of the mill warrior. With greataxe in hand and a set of heavy armor at my shoulders, I blundered through the game with nearly incredulous ease. However, it was never quite the same as my battlemage.

This has become the underlying issue of modern RPGs. Players are offered a series of options that range from weapons to races to classes and abilities. However, more often than not, there is a single ability to rule them all. Choosing any play path other than the obviously optimal build for your character suddenly seems punitive under these conditions.

Think back to your time playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The game, which is a truly marvelous experience that I highly recommend, offered a series of spell like abilities. Noted as witcher signs Quen, Aard, Yrden, Axii and Igni, the spell like abilities ranged from the talent to shoot out of your hands to the ability to guard yourself with an invisible forcefield.

The game offered a series of skill trees dedicated to each of the witcher signs, allowing the player to build their strength concerning any of the fun abilities. Of course, there quickly became a single build to rule them all.

Quen, allowing the player to be protected via an invisible force field, quickly earned the dominant position within the PC build meta of The Witcher 3. The issue, however, is not inherently with Quen being more powerful than the others necessarily. The game simply became so much more difficult without the sign that not using it quickly began to feel like a punishment.

I am all for decisions in RPGs. It is easily one of my favorite parts of the genre. However, in order to begin allowing for open decision to be an expression of creativity and personal tastes, we are going to have to start balancing our RPGs better.

It’s certainly possible. From Overwatch to League of Legends, every online competitive  multiplayer experience has an ever evolving meta. Players often vocalize their concerns with certain items or powers being too strong or too weak. Consequently, the responsible video game developer provides “nerfs” or “buffs” to further balance the playing experience. The changes provided will then provoke further player commentary, thereby completing the cycle of the ever growing meta.

Now, single-player RPG games do not require constant supervision from developers concerning the game’s meta. Rather, modern RPG games may benefit from developers looking at their games more as competitive multiplayer games from the start.

Now, I’m not saying Skyrim would have been better if there was PvP or an always online capability. I think Fallout 76’s critical landslide is proof enough that RPG fans are looking for something different than that.

Rather, RPG developers need to treat their weapon, character class and otherwise general game balancing as seriously as if it was being transformed into an online, competitive multiplayer. It would be largely beneficial to the RPG player, just for very different reasons.

 If developers enter the process looking to create as balanced of a playing experience as possible, then perhaps their games will be more equipped to offer true player choice. Rather you want to play as a barbarian elf or a rouge dwarf, your decision does not need to be stifled by concerning yourself with statistics and player effectiveness. Simply play out the role you which to explore. Embrace RPGs for all they can be. Thanks to online multiplayer gaming, RPGs have a chance to be more open ended and fun filled than ever before.

Hunter Boyce is a writer, which probably seems pretty obvious with "author" prominently displayed. He mostly writes about video games. However, he was previously a mixed martial arts news writer. When not writing about people pelting each other in the face or about leveling up in the latest RPG, he tends to spend his time as a web producer in Atlanta.

You can shout all of your MMA and video game related quandaries at him at @SomthinClever on Twitter. Feel free to make your demands to him in ALL CAPS. He loves that.

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