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Tales of the Rampant Coyote
Stories from the trenches of games, game development, and the indie games world.

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Monday, October 23, 2006
Are Hybrid RPGs Just Poor-Man's RPGs?
The core elements of a computer roleplaying game are pretty simple and straightforward. You basically have a task resolution system for an individual unit based on its statistics. Mix this with the ability to modify those stats through circumstances, equipment, spells, level increase or whatever.

Boom. There's your recipe for a game with "RPG Elements." You now have the right to add a " /RPG" to the end of your genre of choice of your game, and thousands of RPG afficianados, starved for the rare RPG release, will flock to your product in droves. Or so you hope.

Actually, in the old days, that was about all that there was to RPGs. I mean, take the original Wizardry. You had some triggered events and some funky tricks played on you by the map. But for the most part, you wandered about a map beating up on lesser challenges until you managed to make your way to Werdna and defeated him. That's about it for story. Enjoy!

Modern computer RPGs tend to be a bit more complex than this. By "a bit" I mean, "orders of insane magnitude." You've got dialog trees, quest systems, and an overall storyline to maintain. Not to mention the fact that most RPGs are exploratory in nature, which means TONS of content requirements for the player to chew through. And we won't go into the optional complexities of artificial intelligence, class balance, item upgrades, spell systems, and the like.

The hybrid RPG neatly sidesteps these issues. For examples, take a look at three hybrid RPGs available at Rampant Games: Styrateg (strategy / RPG ), Empires and Dungeons ( strategy / RPG, though I want to call it boardgame / RPG ), and Cute Knight (sort of an RPG / Sim ). Cute Knight is definitely closer to being a traditional RPG, but it's still vastly simplified from a storyline or quest perspective than, say, Aveyond - which is a full-blown traditional console-style RPG (with some rather untraditional design decisions).

Hybrid RPG can emphasize some other element of gameplay that are FAR less development-intensive than pure roleplaying games. Thus they are cheaper and easier to make.
Does this make them the "poor-man's RPG?" Meaning a poor / inexpensive substitution for the real thing?

I can make a couple of arguments both ways against this assertion:

* Early Roleplaying Games were closer to the hybrid designs than to modern CRPGs, anyway. This includes early CRPGs *AND* the original pen-and-paper games that were "like wargames, only better." I'd argue Styrateg probably has more in common with early pen-and-paper RPGs than more "pure" CRPGs out today.

* The press tends to praise mainstream CRPGs for having more "roleplaying" when they have three or four multiple endings and branching. Cute Knight has over 50 endings. That's more "roleplaying" opportunity than any ten mainstream games combined! Well, okay, not exactly, due to the relative brevity of the paths getting there, but still...

* A game like Empires & Dungeons is clearly more of a "beer & pretzels" game. If you are going for a deep, detailed roleplaying experience, it is clearly the wrong game. The roleplaying aspects of the game are fairly peripheral.

* While the deep NPC dialogs and quest systems and heavy story elements may have been more of a modern invention in CRPGs, players are used to it, and that's part of what they crave when they think "RPG."

The Verdict Is?

I really do like many hybrid RPGs, and many times they are quite capable of scratching the "RPG itch." I do not like the narrowing the definition of a roleplaying game to only include titles that include the full suite of very specific features. I'm all for stretching definitions and going outside the box. I don't want to imply that hybrid RPGs are in any way inferior - just different. And different can be a lot of fun.

But there is a pretty huge gulf between the depth that you get from a modern (even indie) RPG and most hybrids. There's a lot more to these games than a task resolution system and the ability to go up levels or upgrade equipment. There's a big difference in player experience, and I'm a little bit wary of putting them in the same category.

It's a tough call. What do you think?

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