What is an RPG?

What is an RPG

It used to be very simple identifying a Role Playing Game from other forms of video game. These were the titles that had a clear levelling system, where you ventured out on adventures alone or sometimes with a party of allies, finding loot and exploring vast areas. In the modern market place however it’s a little different, those statements could be applied to a variety of different game types, with nobody arguing that ‘Call of Duty’ is an RPG franchise, yet it contains many of the same elements. The humble RPG has also evolved into a number of variants and sub-genres over the course of its lifespan, leading to the simple question ‘what is an RPG?’

Here at MBU we have a relatively broad scope as to what counts as an RPG, preferring to focus on how the game itself is marketed. If the developers say it’s an RPG, or RPG is listed in its description then we’ll review it. Other more famous sites have more stringent rules, with games such as the ‘Legend of Zelda’ series not making the cut whilst a variety of Visual Novels do. Most tend to focus on the presence of a levelling system for your character or characters as a deciding factor, but the rise of mobile gaming has thrown player levels into a great deal of straight puzzle games as part of the common ‘use energy to play’ system to encourage players to pay out more frequently in real currency. Because of this muddying of the water, we’ll be taking a look at the most common genres of the video game RPG and outlining some of their features.


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Historically these started with early games attempting to copy the mechanics of Pen and Paper Role Playing Games such as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, starting with ‘dnd’ in 1975 and creating a genre of game that went on to spawn every other sub-genre of the catagory, in particular RogueLikes and Dungeon Crawls. High profile releases to this day include BioWare’s ‘Dragon Age’ series and the ongoing ‘Elder Scrolls’ saga. The most visibly differentiating elements of this form of game are the player freedom to create and customize their own character build both visually and in terms of statistics/gear from the outset of the adventure. Modeled on the character creation seen in tabletop gaming, these adventures lean heavily into player choice to customize your experience through dialogue trees and selected responses. Though some now feature real-time combat, many still present hidden dice rolls based on stats to decide the outcome of events.


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Launched in spectacular fashion through the release of ‘Dragon Quest’ in 1986, this take on the RPG genre streamlined the experience for console play and brought with it a popularity boom that can still be felt to this day. Whilst players still outfit and level their party, the games story is far more linear in a JRPG, focused on playing you in the role of a character integrated as the lead in the pre-scripted tale rather than letting you approach situations in your own manner. This has both positives and negatives, streamlining the overall experience but allowing for some of the most spectacularly memorable moments in gaming history such as the famous Opera House sequence in ‘Final Fantasy VI’. Combat in these games is usually turn based, though different developers put their own unique spin on this with Active Time Battle systems and other quirks to the pre-set formula in evidence. Character stats almost always directly impact battle prowess in JRPGS, with very few using them to decide random outcomes for events.



Originating with the Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) in the early days of the internet, the MMORPG took prominence with the arrival of ‘Ultima Online’ and later the gaming juggernaut ‘World of Warcraft’. To this day thousands of players log into a persistent virtual world to roleplay as a self-created character, level and complete quests. A heavy focus on character creation and the completion of missions marks the MMORPG as less of a narrative orientated experience and more of a character building and exploration themed genre. Masses of loot and regularly updated content ensure that players have rarely seen everything that a game has to offer, and trialing different character builds and classes with alternate accounts adds additional depth. These online communities are usually fiercely loyal to the game of their choice, establishing player bases in their millions. Established franchises such as ‘The Elder Scrolls’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ have all produced installments with MMORPG trappings.


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Similar in many ways to the JRPG, Korean RPGs have found a keen focus on mobile devices and handhelds over consoles due to their heavily mission based structures. Usually setting out an over-arcing plot in their initial hour of play time before presenting the player with a wealth of mini-quests and sub-missions that can keep him/her grinding out experience and loot in the games opening areas for days without the need to venture further. An over-abundance of combat and MMORPG-like structure can often lead to the impression that these titles are only intended for short periods of drop in/drop out play. Combat is usually presented in real time, with automated combat once a target has been selected or button-mashing combo mechanics.



Sometimes referred to as Tactical games, others as Strategy titles, these games can fall into sub-classes of any of the above game types and feature a higher than average focus on strategic decision making and combat. This is similar in many ways to traditional tabletop gaming. The earliest example of this is Koei’s ‘The Dragon and Princess’ but more well known are the trend-setters ‘Shining Force’ and ‘Fire Emblem’ published by Sega and Nintendo respectively. Arguably, the biggest name in the genre today is Nippon Ichi with its successful ‘Disgaea’ franchise. Common elements of Tactical RPGs include large character pools from which a fighting force can be selected, grid-based combat that puts as much emphasis on movement and the environment as it does individual character strength, and goals for battles other than simply defeating all enemy units. A common element is the upgrading of characters into new classes through experience, turning weaker units into powerful warriors. Some Tactical RPGs do away with exploration entirely and focus on a string of battles, whilst others play as standard and transition to grids when combat begins.



The most immediate element of these titles is their real-time combat systems that skew away from variations of turn-based mechanics modeled on pen and paper games and instead seek to emulate real fighting. Stats and levelling are usually featured as a way in which characters increase in strength and proficiency when doing this, with equipment adding special effects and mitigating damage. Early examples of this include ‘Final Fantasy Adventure’ from Enix, cult favorite ‘Terranigma’ and the Mana series as a whole. These games usually focus on building a JRPG mechanic for storytelling and narrative around their combat, but examples exist of WRPGs and even MMORPGs in this mold.



‘Rogue’ was a title released in 1980 that recreated the experience of exploring a dungeon as a lone adventurer, but had the draw that every time you played the entire game would be procedurally generated. This means that it is almost impossible to play the same game twice, let alone experience the same events in the same order. Permanent character death is also a key trait of this game type, forcing the player to abandon their hard-won items, currency and levels should they encounter a stronger monster. Every game since Rogue to follow this pattern has been labelled a RogueLike, a format that has found renewed interest through mobile platforms and high profile titles such as the ‘Mystery Dungeon’ series. The ‘RogueLight’ is a recently coined term to describe games with randomly generated content that lack perma-death, and as such are easier to complete.


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Dungeon Crawls date back as far as the first RPGs, which limited themselves in scope from whole worlds to single multi-floor dungeons due to the tools available at the time. Today that’s not an issue, but the Dungeon Crawl remains as a firmly established genre favorite, championed by the liked of ‘Diablo’. Usually experienced in the First or Third person, these games have a heavy focus on training a party to survive a series of dives into either one progressive dungeon or a series of more complex ones, bringing back experience and loot with which to strengthen themselves for another attempt. Most commonly linked with WRPG trappings, thanks in part to titles such as the ‘Sorcery’ series, these games usually enjoy gritty fight or flight settings and pose a stiff challenge to players.


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Though examples of fusing RPG and card game mechanics date back for a while, they’ve risen to prominence on the Mobile market. Based around the experience of strengthening a single player character through levelling and focusing combat on using a deck of cards of varying rarity that must be collected, traded and fused. Card based RPGs have taken on a number of different formats, from the MMORPG ‘Phantasy Star Online: Episode III’, which used many MMORPG staples to keep the game close to a traditional experience and fuse cards with special actions, to games such as ‘Poker Knight’ and ‘Swords and Poker’ which use  traditional playing cards as their focus. These games usually feature complex collection methods that include fusing low-level cards to create stronger variants and often premium cards that are limited edition and require real money to buy. Storytelling does not have to take a back-seat in these titles, but usually takes a page out of the JRPG playbook in order to produce a linear narrative experience.



One of the more recent sub-genres to be added to the list, Social RPGs integrate modern social features from avenues such as Facebook and Twitter in order to add friends to your party, trade items and help each-other out of tough spots. Unlike an MMORPG there is no direct link to an online persistent world, rather the games are a single player experience with social features used to give the feel of a bigger landscape than is presented. Player vs Player is usually a feature in games of these type, but instead of actively dueling another player in real time the title emulates their party and controls them using its own AI. This can lead to unoriginal and repetative combat or cases where your opponent seems to have an omnipresent knowledge of what is about to happen and how to react to it. Whilst initially these games were exclusive to Facebook and browsers, they have enjoyed great success of Mobile and begun to appear on Consoles of late. Many games of this type are free to download and play, relying on their social features to encourage players to get their friends playing and feature mid-game difficulty spikes which can be jumped using in-game transactions for rare items,characters or experience.



‘Puzzle Quest’ has a lot to answer for. Melding traditional match-3 mechanics with the template of a simple WRPG set a precedent that has flooded the marketplace with a variety of similar puzzle games that are keen to experience a slice of the action. At their core, these are usually plot-light JRPG inspired titles that substitute turn based combat for puzzle orientated challenges, dressed in trappings of a violent encounter. These games can be surprisingly deep and well presented, or appallingly simple and shallow based on how much effort the developer has put into producing them and usually fit into a ‘freemium’ model where play is free but shortcuts and powerful items are offered as real-world transactions.


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Yes, MBU went there. Adventure games usually feature no sign of a levelling system and are famously exampled with Nintendo’s ‘Legend of Zelda’ series, but we feel that their narrative structure, dungeons and boss encounters qualifies them for inclusion if their developer decided to market them as an RPG. Some of these games involve an element of choice and many use equipment or items as a key to unlocking previously unaccessable areas or solving puzzles, which are usually in abundance. Player choice is sometimes included, and narrative can be completely altered by these decisions. Visual Novels use a similar premise but rely on character interaction and decision making to forward the story, often stripping away any exploration elements in favour of character orientated puzzles. That most other RPG sites include Visual Novels in their remit and not Adventure Games is an interesting choice.

We imagine that the list above will grow considerably as developers toy with current trends and experiment with different ways to present the humble RPG, but for now the above stands as a simple outline of the many facets of the genre which is becoming incorporated into so many different styles of game and will continue to be a cornerstone of video game development for generations to come.