What does the future hold for RPGs?

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 301. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

Imagine a roleplaying game in which you aren’t Champion of the Realm, but a homely bystander such as an innkeeper or a carpenter’s apprentice. Imagine an RPG in which you aren’t able to hand-craft your own posse of adventurers, fussing over everything from eye colour to movement modifiers, but must do your best with the character or characters you’re given. Imagine an RPG in which you aren’t there to save the world but simply find your way through it, as cleverly as you can. If there’s a common theme to my discussions with developers about the future of roleplaying games, it’s that the old “pick your stats, level up by killing stuff, decide the fate of the universe” premise is in sore need of an overhaul, or at least some decent alternatives.

“There have been dozens of attempts to reinvent the RPG story, but the heart of the gameplay is always bodding from one combat to the next, gathering rewards that make you better at combat,” says Alexis Kennedy, creative director for Failbetter’s acclaimed Sunless Sea, who now divides his time between the forthcoming boardgame Cultist Simulator and freelance design work for major studios like BioWare. “So characters tend to be warrior-adventurers and stories tend to have a big showdown fight conclusion and generally you’re combing the countryside for things to fight. That’s a really compelling core, and it’s been perfected, but I like seeing other activities emphasised in RPGs. There are other loops than these.”

“I feel like in spite of what some people have been saying, there’s been a lack of really amazing RPGs for a few years now,” says Katherine Holden, a Cumbria based manga artist and designer whose projects include the RPG series Vacant Sky. “I’m sure that’ll be an unpopular opinion, but I feel like all these ‘create your own character, run around doing busywork in a sandbox and meet NPCs who all fall over themselves to give you power and authority’ games get a little tiresome after a while.” Holden points to 2015’s incredibly accomplished but slightly uninspiring Dragon Age: Inquisition as evidence of this stagnation. “Inquisition wasn’t bad, but it was such a shallow, toothless game compared to Dragon Age II, which featured deeply flawed, yet likeable characters and also a very timely story about refugees, prejudice and religious tension.”

Subverting well-worn approaches to RPG design is both artistically desirable and profitable, says Tyler Sigman, the co-president of British Columbia developer Red Hook and designer of the masterfully unpleasant Darkest Dungeon, a game that uses psychological modifiers such as paranoia and claustrophobia to unsettle the otherwise familiar turn-based party combat. “People are quite open to new experiences that make them think about the whole party-building and dungeon crawling thing they’ve been doing for 30 years, but in a new way. Remember Ultima IV? It totally did that at the time: suddenly putting the burden of morality on the player, whereas other games had sort of assumed that since you are The Chosen One, you can do whatever you want.”

Go with the flow

The perennial answer to the question “how should X videogame genre evolve?” is to add more choice—more unlocks to pick at, more variables to explore, more ground to cover. “Roleplaying games nowadays allow players to immerse themselves in the game world, but that immersion is still plagued by numerous constraints,” says Marcin Blacha, narrative director on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at CD Projekt RED. “Sometimes the story forces particular behaviour on the character and you need to surrender yourself to the flow of events to advance to the next chapter. There are a lot of things that aren’t interactive, and the systems fuelling the RPG elements are full of limiting conventions that we decide to turn a blind eye to in the long run.”

Blacha doesn’t think every game needs to be as gargantuan and packed with opportunity as The Witcher 3, and notes that credible, stirring character relationships are just as important as breadth. But he suggests that the key difference between RPGs today and those ten years from now will be the sheer quantity of options. “Because roleplaying gamers love to have options available to them. Just ask anyone who spent hours creating their perfect avatar over and over again before even touching the story. The Holy Grail developers will be striving towards will be a game in which, upon reaching the top of a mountain, you see a breathtaking vista and revel in the thought of the possibilities that await you—as far as the eye can see and beyond.”

The Witcher 3 is a tremendous game, and several of my interviewees cite it as an inspiration and a model. But it’s worth noting that CD Projekt’s achievement rests not just on its number of choices, but on having specific options in specific narrative scenarios—an assortment of deftly told side-stories with multiple endings that revolve around the villages and towns you’ll visit while scouring troubled kingdoms for your adopted daughter. The game may be a sprawling epic, but it’s an epic composed of brilliantly directed moments—tiny decisions that add up to more than their sum. “I think that game has set a new standard for making all quests dramatically meaningful,” notes Tyler Sigman. “It’s amazing how much care and attention seems to have gone into every single sidequest.”

Designer Katherine Holden on developing empathy

"As a lesbian who used to be a literal church choir girl, I discovered the hard way that sometimes a person can be lovely, virtuous and charitable and still hold an utterly hostile opinion towards something about you that you may not be able to help. Not only that, but it’s easy to fall into this trap yourself. I thought I was better than those ‘other girls’ who wore ‘slutty’ clothes and giggled while smoking in the bushes at school. Now one of those girls works in the nursing home doing a great job looking after my gran who has dementia. 

“That’s a hard job, it takes a lot of grit to do that. Perhaps those girls all had admirable qualities I was too wrapped up in my own Hermione Granger cleverness to have the empathy to notice. Maybe we could have actually been friends. I want RPGs to teach a player to deal with this kind of thing in a healthy way. Mass Effect has a great message about working together with people who aren’t like you, or who traditionally ‘your people’ are antagonistic towards—I really love that trilogy!”

Meaningful choice, he goes on, should take precedence over scope or variety for its own sake. “Skyrim blew my mind with all the emergent things, the great open world—I played it many times with different characters and never even came close to finishing it. I just wandered around and created my own stories. But I think the next level of achievement in games like that might be to slightly reduce the amount of things that you can do, but make each one a little deeper. I’d rather have fewer NPCs simulated, for example, but for each one to be more meaningful. It kills the immersion when you murder someone, and their buddy comes in to sleep and doesn’t even notice the body.”

Another of The Witcher 3’s accomplishments is to walk the line between a character you define and an existing character with a past and a given purpose. A taciturn mercenary, Geralt of Rivia is dispassionate and detached enough that you feel able to make your own decisions about his actions in most situations, but his gravelly personality bleeds through to the player over time, colouring your approach. By the end of the game, acting just as Geralt would in any given situation feels as important as acting freely. It’s a reminder that, for all the talk of “maximising interactivity”, one of the most entertaining, enlightening things an RPG designer can do is guide or even require you to act a certain way. 

“I really like how, in Japanese RPGs, you don’t make a character—you are given a role to play,” says Kate Holden. “Whether you like it or not, that’s the person you’re playing and you need to empathise with that to get the most out of the game.” 

RPGs should do more to inspire this kind of empathy, she adds, rather than letting players customise their protagonists as they please. “There’s so much to learn from stepping into the role of somebody you’re not, or at least, don’t think you are. Wearing that mask can help you to discover so much about yourself.”

Holden points to Dragon Age II, again, as an act to follow here. “From the beginning, it sets you up as a refugee, an immigrant, and then it forces you to work with people who are really cool, really nice, really strong, but who hold some ideas and prejudices that are actually kind of terrible. Merrill is an absolute sweetheart who just wants to be loved and to see her people, the elves, stop being abused and marginalised, to have some pride in their heritage. The problem is, she embraces dark forces beyond her comprehension to this end, and stubbornly ignores the warnings she is given about the risks.”

Local hero

There’s something to be said for telling a story on a more modest stage, too. In casting you as a saviour or destroyer of worlds, many RPG stories sacrifice a sense of credibility and intimacy. For Michelle Juett Silva, one half of Salt and Sanctuary developer Ska Studios, narrative-driven adventure titles such as Dontnod’s smalltown sci-fi drama Life is Strange have much to offer developers like CD Projekt. “RPG lends itself to fantasy a lot, we see a lot of fantasy or cyberpunk, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of ‘slice-of-life’ fiction,” she says. “I would really love to be able to see day-to-day kind of stuff, maybe diving into relationship issues, just things you deal with on a daily basis. A closer view on individuals, rather than ‘you are the hero, you are the Inquisitor who saves the world’.”

Another way of encouraging players to empathise would be to take the emphasis off battle for narrative and character progression. Asked about specific areas for innovation, Alexis Kennedy points to “non-combat, long-term activities—finding or making your place in the world”. That might mean intrigue, training, base-building, choosing sides, or growing old, he says. “Things which are commonplace in novels or even board games, but tend to be plot-driven or absent in games. 

“There have been dozens of attempts to do this, and some have been pretty good, but generally it tends to be ‘downtime’—a base or hub you go in between playing the actual game, to move furniture around or hoover up resources. It’s a genuinely hard design problem to crack, especially alongside the current gameplay focus, and I wouldn’t say it’s been neglected—but there’s tremendous opportunity for innovation.”

CDP Red's Marcin Blacha on big versus small

"The school of RPGs focusing on player immersion will work to perfect the art of cinematic storytelling and depicting believable characters. Big-budget games will continue to try and reach as broad an audience as possible, and smaller studios will focus on innovation and explore the genre’s nooks and crannies. Developing and publishing games will become easier, but the rapidly growing number and diversity of games will result in only the most innovative titles standing out of the crowd. 

"I think mainstream role-playing games will look to ambitious indie games for inspiration more often, which even now was the case for some of the stories that we featured in The Witcher 3. And it was a good decision. Gamers today like the freedom that open world games offer, but apart from the physical freedom of vast expanses of land, more and more players will be looking to explore the emotional sphere and the relationships between characters."

“I think we have thoroughly explored combat,” adds Chris Payne, a Traveller’s Tales veteran and managing director at Welsh indie Quantum Soup, which was formed to work on original narrative-driven games. “So much combat! Don’t get me wrong, good combat is fun, but there’s a limit to how much story you can tell with it.” Evolving away from fighting as a narrative device is tricky, he adds, because it’s relatively straightforward to model—a primarily physical, inherently dramatic affair that produces digestible binary outcomes. “I’m hoping to see more studios experimenting with new forms of character interaction, but the trouble is you’re moving away from a physical model of weapon range, damage, and bullet trajectories into a much woollier psychological model, where it’s harder for the player to understand the effects of different choices.

“And if you expose the mechanics—like Fable’s opinion modifiers popping up like damage reports—then it kills the illusion of interacting with real people. There’s a lot of work to be done there.” Payne’s hope is that the increasing sophistication of videogame acting will help subtler kinds of encounter take priority in RPG design. “I’m pleased to see Ninja Theory’s amazing performance capture work, because a good actor can communicate a lot about what’s going on in their character’s head. As game characters get better, we can rely more on performance to convey the mechanics of character interaction—reading a character’s face to see if they liked what you did, instead of text messages saying ‘Solas approves’.”

Can new technology such as virtual reality play a part in all this? Possibly. Payne thinks VR has a lot of untapped potential. The sense of being present “applies to characters as well as places,” he says. “When I first played the Oculus Rift intro experience, and you’re spawned face-to-face with a photorealistic alien—that was quite a shock. Having a character like that inside your personal space, looking directly at you is incredibly powerful. Imagine a character equipped with AI that responds to your virtual body language, so it might step back if you get too close. Or it might not, and just look you in the eye and demand you back off.” Again, this could support better performance-driven storytelling and dispense with clunky interfaces. “There’s definitely potential to get away from the trusty multiple choice dialogue selector in VR.”

Ska Studios’ James Silva is less impressed, noting that enabling player movement without confusion or discomfort is still a “huge barrier to feeling present in a VR world, and being able to explore it”. This is a problem all first-person VR games share, and in theory RPGs are an easier fit because the pace is slower. But RPGs also typically involve more to-ing and fro-ing, and it’s hard to imagine roving the moors of Skyrim comfortably using a look-and-click teleport-jump, let alone the Vive’s room-scale motion-tracking. 

In a perhaps telling show of how transformative VR really is, Ska Studios’ founders have spent a fair chunk of their time in virtual reality playing Dungeons & Dragons via the AltspaceVR platform—poring over a lovingly recreated simulation of the classic table-top game. “It’s this crazy ouroboros of technology where we all want to be there in person playing this analogue, real-feeling game —none of these icons on a battlefield or anything like that,” says James Silva. “So we’re going to do VR and now we’re all present again, but none of it is real!”

Engine room

Katherine Holden also confesses to feeling “a little leery” about VR’s applications for RPGs, commenting that the bigger tech revolution for indie developers, at least, is the current plethora of free, high-quality game engines. “Unreal Engine and Unity in particular allow even a small-time dev to be on even tech footing with the big kids,” she says. “Mostly I develop lower end kind of games, so unless tech is viable for Joe Average on their serviceable but long-in-the-tooth i5 machine, it’s often not really relevant for me.” InXile CEO Brian Fargo also talks up the lower bar of entry for underfunded teams who are looking to make a splash alongside the likes of Bethesda. “We’re making gigantic strides in presentation and immersion,” he says. “And as hardware improves this becomes more accessible too, meaning even non-AAA developers can make some amazing-looking games.”

Gloomiest of all on the subject of VR is Alexis Kennedy. “I’m going to make some preposterously specific predictions,” he says. “Half-hearted VR support will start showing up in some big RPGs, and generate forum threads full of people angry that it’s only half-hearted. There will be some carefully budget VR-first indie RPGs which are in other respects extremely traditional, and which will do OK. There will be a high-profile indie Kickstarter by AAA veterans for, approximately, VR-first off-brand Skyrim, which will make like a million dollars on a half-million ask despite commenters pointing out that’s not remotely enough money, and ride the hype train right off a cliff.”

Kennedy does allow that “better pipeline technology—voice synthesis, say, or better content tools, or smart use of procedural generation to create raw material for creators to customise—means the cost of RPG content will gradually drop off in real terms, and the sophistication of content will continue to improve.” But he also argues that roleplaying games are too heavily rooted in convention and nostalgia to benefit greatly from injections of exotic hardware. “RPGs are a bundle of beloved traditions. If you radically change one tradition, the others suddenly make less sense. The games which are transformed by technology will be more innovative forms which have repurposed RPG mechanics and are no longer really recognisable as RPGs.”

If RPGs are bundles of beloved traditions, there’s plenty left to achieve within the ambit of those traditions. There will always be a place for RPGs in which you don the armour of a legend, mix-and-match abilities to create devastating class builds, and make decisions that shape the story without interference as you tour a vast, opulent landscape. But my conversations with developers reveal a hunger for more provocative, directed and personal experiences, that aren’t as beholden to the old stereotypes or notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘fantasy’—games in which ‘choice’ doesn’t just mean reshuffling your party composition, or trying to work out which dialogue responses will lead to the greatest reward.

“I’ve always found the definition of a ‘roleplaying game’ a bit frustrating myself, because the actual mechanic that defines the ‘genre’ doesn’t reflect what makes a great RPG to me,” Katherine Holden says. “The actual definition of an RPG seems to be: you have numbers that represent your abilities, you gain a resource called experience for doing things—usually, for making stuff die—and that makes your numbers go up. I’ve always felt this is a million miles away from the actual experience of playing a role, stepping into the shoes of another person.”