Article Spotlight: A Fine Line: Making RPGs Accessible (The Grind)

June 14th, 2010


Moving, travelling and then finally starting work overseas has left me with a month-long void of stable internet. I’ve been extremely lucky in that my initial accommodation was smack bang near a free wireless access point, transmitting free, stable internet at the mercy of the CCP’s filter (so no Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, democracy, pornography or anything that is idly swept up). Then I moved across the street into my own apartment and my freebie internet became less stable but still willing to be kind at times, hence I’ve exploited said moments of decent transmission to catch up on my backlog of reading.

In which case I’d like to open a new segment called “Article Spotlight” where I basically take an interesting article I’ve read and use it as a launching pad into further discussion, maybe to develop my own ideas, maybe to critique the arguments of the original author. As was made apparent to me by the direct referencing of other writers by Richard over at the Critical Gaming blog some time ago, there is a vital lack of discussion between most writers on the web. The enthusiast media run a rotisserie of news articles and most blogging communities are too insular to directly address the work of their community. With that said, let’s start.

A Fine Line: Making RPGs Accessible

Article Link

I currently lack the connection to listen to the respective podcast, so I will just respond to the written article.

In A Fine Line: Making RPGs Accessible, Kat observes the way that the abstract rule systems of most RPGs are often poorly conveyed to the player, citing Pokemon, Resonance of Fate and Infinite Space as specific case studies. What she concludes is that these games largely explicate their rules to the player through text (of which sometimes the text itself is insufficient), as opposed to internalising the tutorial into the functional fabric of the game. Furthermore, she references Final Fantasy VII to say that sometimes these games do not even emphasise the importance of vital subsystems, as is the case with the junction system.

RPGs are quite tricky in this regard since they are more heavily steeped in abstraction than other genres such as platforming, fighting or racing. As an extension to what Kat is saying, I think that the recent trend of adding “RPG elements” to other genres is an attempt to make logical the abstract rule systems of most RPGs. Mass Effect 2, Borderlands, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and GTA: San Andreas are good examples. The core gameplay of these games are not embedded in abstract rules, but rather 3rd person shooting, 1st person shooting, platforming and 3rd person action/driving. Since the “RPG elements” are contextualised with the (more) logical systems of platforming, fighting and action, the statistics and grinding make more sense to the player. The two systems are often compartmentalised due to their inherent nature (menus for RPG elements, live gameplay for main genre, for instance), which make it easy for players to mentally organise the constructs of gameplay. As such, complexity in these games stems from the patterns of relationship which players observe and capitalise on between the role playing and action elements.


I digress. To the point: Pokemon, Resonance of Fate and Infinite Space are badly designed, albeit in a genre which is tougher to design well for (due to the complexity of the abstract, often statistics-driven system). What these RPGs ought to do is to establish their rule structures around logical concepts (or as with Strange Journey, at least throw the player a bone once in a while). Pokemon‘s is fundamentally quite a common sense system as it is based around the elements (water beats fire, for instance), however, as Kat briefly alludes to, Pokemon has evolved to the extent that it requires an encyclopaedic amount of knowledge. Consequently the prior tutorial structures no longer provide sufficient in aiding the player’s understanding of this knowledge. Fire melts ice, but is weak against water is quite easy to grasp. How fire holds up against light, dark or steel is less so.

A good example of a well designed RPG is Paper Mario, previously I commented:

This issue of accessibility that Kat and her Grind cohorts have discussed (godamn internet, I want that podcast now!) is a pressing issue for modern RPGs, particularly now as the genre is losing relevancy to other genres which are streamlining themselves far better. Western RPGs have been a part-saviour here considering their introduction of meaningful contexts, yet most RPGs still seem to wallow in esoteric rules, niche fantasy, high school or medieval contexts, marathon play times and repetitive, meaningless grind. It’s no wonder the genre is losing face in an industry that is slowly realising it’s potential. “RPG elements” is therefore a positive change, change from the ground up through logical contexts and embedded tutorials though, is critically needed.

Additional Readings

Critical Conversation – Critical-Gaming Blog

Paper Mario – Mario Wiki

Side Comments

On the flight over from Australia I began playing Rune Factory 2 and I just don’t understand the logic behind some of the exercises. For example, the player ought to embark on fetch quests and other such time fillers to earn respect and money (since you are COMPLETELY stoney broke to begin with and the market for purchasing seeds is obviously a racket) from the local community. A message board in the town centre displays the citizens minor complaints and on tending to a ‘request’ you must find the villager, talk to them and then serve their need. The problem is you have no idea where these people are. Sure, there’s a whole bottom screen dedicated to a map, but why display their location on the map? Instead you must talk to a faux fortune teller who for a hefty toll (defeating the purpose of the quest now, isn’t it?) with give you a vague and almost entirely useless text description of where this person is located. Helpful, isn’t it?

  • Bryan Rosander

    Ironically, I always thought RPGs were an attempt to simplify gaming so that non-gamers didn’t have to develop reflexes for twitch gameplay or remember the controls for all their moves.

    Also, I don’t think that it is the math that makes RPGs inaccessible, but rather the length and puzzle / adventure components. It is very easy to get confused about what to do next when progression means talking to the right person or searching throughout the world for the right button to press.

  • cuc

    >Bryan Rosander:
    >RPGs were an attempt to simplify gaming

    But that’s not how it developed historically. All Japanese-style RPGs can trace their lineage to Dragon Quest, then to Wizardry and Ultima III, then to Dungeons & Dragons.

    >Rune Factory 2

    The fortuneteller’s info is useful enough, once you become familiar with the town’s layout. And the price is nothing compared to the income you’ll soon have. Eventually you’ll also become familiar with the townspeople’s daily routines.

    Rune Factory 3 does display everyone’s location on the map, but that’s another game.

    BTW: your site isn’t blocked by the GFW at this moment, but I’m not sure how long this’ll last.

  • Bryan, it’s funny then that these systems have become so elaborate that they are somewhat self-defeating of their original purpose. Your other points are also significant contributors to the problem too and I really don’t understand the logic behind lengthier games and esoteric progression cues. It all compounds to what is ultimately bad design, I think.

    cuc, I’m hearing you there on Rune Factory, it’s starting to ease up and I’m getting familiar with the town. Sure does throw you in the deep end though. I am hoping that the site stays good in China, but if it doesn’t at least I still have access myself.