During gamescom, I had the privilege of sitting in on what was called the RPG influencer’s breakfast. It involved a few key heavy hitters from the RPG world: Dr Ray Muzyka (BioWare co-founder), Ken Rolston (of Morrowind and Oblivion fame), Dr Greg Zeschuck (BioWare co-founder) and Eugene Evans (BioWare Mythic general manager). Pete Stewart from Edge Magazine in the UK was in the MC seat. Readers of Atomic magazine would have seen choice quotes from this breakfast in a couple of Engine Room articles, but now you can read the full transcription.
In this fourth chapter of our six-part series, the RPG gurus talk about why the genre seems limited to fantasy and science-fiction, and also take a closer look at what constitutes narrative.
Pete: One of the things we’ve talked about quite a lot here is the idea of expanding audiences. But I’d say one of the major barriers for the RPG genre at the moment is the fact that it’s kind of ghetto-ised in science-fiction and fantasy. Whereas there are a lot of people out there who aren’t interested in those genres who might be interested in the mechanics of an RPG, but aren’t interested in science-fiction or fantasy. So how do you guys kind of address those people and do we have a future where the RPG as we understand it here is going to move beyond those genres into games that explore the modern day or other historic avenues? What can we do to-
Ken: All I can say is I was profoundly certain that nobody would ever make a science-fiction role-playing game. I thought there were far too many problems compared to the fantasy because fantasy has a very convenient resurrection narrative to start with, for example, and party narrative built in from Dungeons & Dragons and things like that. And then, evidently, my doubt was disproved. But it’s been very difficult to do that and I don’t think there has been anyone else who has been able to repeat that success. And anybody who tries to move outside the familiar genres, in which many of the conventions are comfortable, and then try to move into some other genre where the conventions are not comfortable, I don’t think that will be a smooth transition.
Greg: I totally agree, because we talk about this a lot. We have lots of partners who don’t know what’s happening. I mean, we talk about contemporary RPGs, so, but when you start thinking, y’know, what's the gameplay like? Walking down an alley and the guy pops out and I shoot him and then I go through his wallet and I take his money, that’s just kind of creepy. And then we’re like,
“OooH, that’s kind of...” And so we’re like, what could we work on other than this? So we thought of a police-driven narrative where you’re a rookie cop and you’ve gotta go up through the police department. And also making it a little more contemporary. It’s always been very hard, as you said, to sort of pull it back into the gameplay; make it not seem strange.
Ken: But also, I would say, that the degree to which Mass Effect is moving out of my genre from my point of view. In other words, it’s evolving out of that genre maybe, to a certain extent, an indication that maybe the way to solve that problem: to move away from the conventions of Dungeons & Dragons and try to explore those other places. By the way, it’s gonna be very risky, it’s gonna be very expensive to do it right to the level of excellence that you’re talking about. The narrative has to be compelling. So what I’m saying is that there is a lot of goddamn risk, so that’s why a lot of people are not doing it.
Greg: Look at the way that Deus Ex has done that.
Ken: That’s a great example-
Greg: -and their gameplay went in a different direction: y’know, hacking and tech and modification.
Ken: But there’s only one of them and only the first one worked unambiguously.
Ken: So it’s a really difficult problem; not that it’s not desirable. But God forbid I should put money into that to try and make a lot of money.
Ray: You can do an RPG in any site. Y’know, it’s aspirational fantasy fulfilment. So if you wanna be a secret agent, if you wanna be in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, if you wanna be a hero that saves the galaxy, if you wanna be a fantasy hero or a red-shining armour villain. Y’know, these are all pure RPG aspects. They’re all feasible, but you have to think about the conventions that allow you to make a game out of it as well. And that can be the hard part for broaching new conventions; they also have to be familiar to players. The benefit of going with a contemporary setting is that it is more familiar to players, so you can actually use that to good effect. You can pull in more players. I could argue that shooters are, in a sense, capturing that aspirational fantasy. They’re enabling you to become a hero in a war and they’re relying on a lot of RPG elements to enhance that experience. But at the core, it’s still a shooter but it has a lot of properties that you could define as RPGs.
Greg: It’s funny, we had the debate and actually, funny enough, Ray and I were on the same side of it, but GTA. We actually say GTA is actually an RPG. Because it’s really funny when you compare GTA III or the last one before IV and then Fable’s original feature set. Actually, it delivered all of the features of Fable, like, you lift weights to get bigger. All the stuff today, like, it was dressed up-
Ray: San Andreas.
Greg: San Andreas, yup, that’s right. You go, “Holy crap, they actually delivered the exact same feature set!” But they hid it in such a way and then they streamlined it. What they choose to streamline is interesting as well. Y’know, rather than having dialogue choices, they had lots of narrative. Plus, I think that’s one of the challenges, those who have an updated choice. They sort of have a choice of action, y’know, multiple actions, instead of having a choice of narrative: you can’t really direct the narrative per se. You sort of can based on what you do, but not directly. But it’s very interesting when you look at what III has and even why that was so successful, because they were actually marrying a lot of stuff that we talk about into a contemporary action setting. Y’know, they also had a lot of clever cultural references-
Ken: -And avoiding the inappropriate conventions to that particular thing. In other words, keeping the distractions of-
Eugene: I guess the thing that’s missing from that is perhaps the point of archetypes. There isn’t the clarity of, I want to pursue a particular type of archetype.
Greg: Yeah. You’re sort of forced into the role but you can define it in a variety of ways. You can change your outfits.
Ken: I’m talking more conceptual.
Greg: Yeah, you’re right, dude. You are who you are.
Ray: I would say that changing outfits is more progression. One’s intertwined and one is more having a lot of options at the start. I was gonna add something about narrative. I think that Ken had a really important point that we embrace within a lot of our activity chains and a lot of our narrative, and there is more than one way to look at narrative. Narrative often makes you think story, often makes you think words, makes you think conversations; but that’s only one type of narrative, I think. I think there’s a narrative of combat, there’s a narrative... It is actually very relevant to the player if you show the hero’s journey when you surface that. And I think that’s something that’s an opportunity for games to use more; is to show the player’s experience. And persistence in the online state now allows you to share that in a social way. And we’re actually doing that in a few of our future titles, because I think it’s very compelling. It means something to the player. So you go to an area and it’s a town, it’s a safe area, say, and you go there to do some trading, versus another player who goes to the first area and it’s a big combat arena, it’s infested with monsters and immediately you’re set upon and you have to attack. That’s a very different experience and it informs your context for the rest of the game of how you perceive the exploration. Do you approach it more with trepidation and more preparation, or do you approach it more with, “Yeah, great I’m running into this area and it’s all totally safe and I can explore”? And the same thing is true on other areas as well. The ballet of combat moment to moment over 30 seconds; y’know, all the different moves you’ve used and all the moves the enemy you’re fighting use. Or a discussion, or some kind of verbal conflict. Or progression: what items you use when and how you change your character’s appearance over time. These are all different flavours of narrative just as powerful to a player as a story and a conversation.
Ken: Here’s where maybe I get to where I begin to start fighting with the Canadians. I really loathe and detest plot and character in role-playing games because I don’t want anything to get in the way of the hero being the player. I think that narrative, for me, is setting and theme. Those are the things I start really early on. And I want there to be a very wide world. Now, I admit that that was really perfect for Morrowind and Oblivion, and now that I’m doing something with a more crafted character, it’s a heavier burden.
Ray: We’re not misaligned; we see that as one of several different things that go into the story. We see it as a barter. We want the players to actually enjoy our games, too, where you can spend more time exploring and getting progression in combat. Or, if you choose to do story, that’s there as well. And it’s your choice which one you want to do and when.