Friday, April 30, 2010

RPGs: Single vs. Multiple Characters

For my first rant on this blog, I'd like to talk about roleplaying games. In particular, single-character versus multi-character (or party-based) RPGs.

Now, I'll admit that I'm a pretty old-school gamer. I grew up with some of the really old DOS RPGs. I still fondly remember the games like The Bard's Tale, the Might and Magic series, the Wizardry series, and other such gems that time hasn't treated well. These contained epic (oh, okay, badly-written to non-existent) stories of a group of adventurers delving (badly-drawn) dungeons and smiting (supposed) evil. This was almost the default at the time, controlling a group of heroes.

Sure, we still get games in the similar vein even today. First the Baldur's Gate series and Planescape: Torment, then we moved into Dragon Age. However, these games are still in the minority, and instead we have the vast majority of RPGs (for the PC) being completely single-player affairs. Epic party-based stories have become replaced with tales of a single hero, games like Gothic, Oblivion, and the vast majority of MMOs.

The genre has been shifting for some time now. Some might argue that this is a result of the genre itself being less common in an age of shooters. Others will point out how most RPGs made today are MMOs, and controlling multiple characters in such a setting is difficult to implement (though not impossible.) Either way, I think anyone who takes a serious look at the genre has a whole will see that single-character RPGs have overtaken multi-character RPGs in sheer numbers and popularity. The question is...why?

It is not as if the two are interchangeable. Multi-character RPGs have a lot of unique aspects that cannot be replicated in their single-character counterparts. For many (or at least myself, but I'll pretend I have a lot of people backing me up here because I have that big of an ego) there's a lot of fun to be had just in creating a team, tweaking each member's skills and abilities, making and designing them to work like a well-oiled machine in perfect tandem with one another. You simply can't replicate that aspect in any other genre. In fact, considering the rise of MMOs and the concepts of specialized heroes (a tank, a healer, a controller, etc. etc.) it seems very odd that you don't actually see many single-player RPGs making use of these roles and creating a game about managing characters like this.

It is also interesting to watch this phenomenon, as there are one or two game series where you can almost see a microcosm of this taking place. A good example is Guild Wars. For those unfamiliar, Guild Wars allows you to control multiple AI-controlled "Heroes" that obey basic commands and who you can change their skills, attributes, and choose what roles they will take. This was largely to allow players better solo-ability and to allow better filling of party slots when the normal four to eight could not be filled with actual players.

News of Guild Wars 2 originally possessed the promise of a "Companion" system, where instead of Heroes that replace players, you would get one Companion that would be AI-controlled and assist you in combat. It did not take the place of a player, so it didn't discourage grouping (a common complaint against Heroes) and it was completely optional, as you could turn it off and get a buff instead. Later, however, a recent interview confirmed that the idea was scrapped altogether, as all of the game's professions would have enough soloability that they wouldn't need a companion...which completely misses the point of why many (again, the royal "many") were looking forward to the system. What makes this even more odd is how the interviewee seemed to believe that this removal was a purely good thing, like a favor was being done to us that we would be spared the pains of having to control more than one character, when it was reported to be an option to begin with.

When did we reach this point? When did single-character RPGs become inherently "better" than multi-character ones?

I certainly hope future opinions will change. Until that point, looks like I will continue to be disappointed by game developers churning out more Gothic and World of Warcraft clones.

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