By: Steve Zachmann, contributor
If you’re a regular reader of our blog you’re probably familiar with my love for RPGs. Whether it’s single player RPGs like Skyrim or Final Fantasy VII, loot-fest RPGs like Borderlands or Diablo III, or MMOs like World of Warcraft, I’m constantly talking about them. It seems like Chris and I struggle to get through even a single video without me mentioning Dark Souls in some form or fashion. So how is it that given all of this, you’re reading an article with a title like that so harshly criticizes the genre? I just think that there is one gaping problem with the RPG system that almost no game gets right: Progression.
For me, RPG games always come down to progressing. I love the feeling of leveling up. That can be as simple as the level number next to my character’s name getting higher, or getting new abilities, or better gear. There are many ways to ‘level up’ in an RPG and I love all of them. The main issue I have with progression though is that once you’ve progressed to the point that you feel truly awesome, the game is either over or becomes trivialized. All of that gear you got, all those levels, everything that you worked tirelessly to get is all kind of useless.
Many RPG games recognize and actively try to combat this feeling, but few, even the really great ones, truly succeed. The thing is, it’s a really difficult problem to solve. Oblivion tried using a system where enemies would level up with you so that there would always be some challenge to the combat. The problem with that system was that the feeling of progression was affected by the fact that your relative power always kind of felt the same. You got to a higher level and got some more gear so the enemies got tougher. You felt basically the same. Games like World of Warcraft take the opposite approach and have similar problems for opposite reasons. In WoW you level up and outgrow entire areas of the game. Large expanses, entire continents in fact, become trivial once you’ve out-leveled them, making those places feel completely useless later in the game.
In WoW this concept is made even more glaringly apparent. If you’ve never played end-game WoW, the cycle goes like this… A new patch comes out and with it a new raid dungeon. You get 10-20 or your closest friends and you work your way through the dungeon, usually pretty slowly. Over the course of several weeks or months you manage to defeat each and every one of the dungeon’s challenges and collect all the sweet loot that is in the place. The trouble is, once you’ve conquered the place and gotten all this awesome gear, the entire point of having it is kind of gone. You’ve already beaten the most challenging part of the game so why do you need all that great gear? You end up just waiting for the next patch to come out, with the next raid dungeon, and you start the whole cycle over. Don’t get me wrong, It’s kind of fun. You always know that there is some new challenge and loot waiting for you down the road. There are only so many times that you can go through that cycle before it starts becoming pretty old though. The progression loses meaning when it’s constantly repeated.
WoW (and MMOs in general) are certainly not the only culprits here though. In some way or another it happens in virtually every RPG game ever made. The whole idea of leveling up inherently includes some idea of gaining more relative power over your environment than you had previously. In a sense it’s a problem without a solution. If you level up and become too powerful, the game becomes trivial, if you don’t gain any relevant power then you feel like you’re not getting anywhere.
I have to admit that I’m not sure that I have a good answer here. The game that I believe handles progression about as well as any RPG ever is Skyrim. The enemies level up to you to a degree, but they’re also bound by their geographic location. Enemies in the southern areas of the province tend to be easier, with the more difficult enemies in the north. Given that you can explore the place in any way that you like it’s completely possible (even probable) that you’ll encounter some enemies that are simply too powerful for you at low levels. You can come back later in the game though, once you’ve amassed some cool weapons and armor and some much needed levels, and those enemies will be much easier to dispatch. The only flaw with this system is that once again, they might be a little too easy to dispatch.
The problem of triviality vs. challenge cuts right to the heart of what separates RPGs from other genres. In most other genres the player’s progress is determined more by the game and less by the player. Typically, if an FPS game wants you to snipe someone then they’ll make sure that you’ve been given a sniper rifle before the mission starts. In an RPG though, the player is typically presented with enough play style choices that it’s almost impossible to create encounters that feel balanced.
Again, I’m not sure what the answer is here. What I do know is that it’s become very frustrating as an avid RPG player to constantly be met with the same limitations at the end of every game; that feeling that all the time spent amassing levels and gear has essentially broken the game. I want an RPG where my progression feels like progress, not cheating.