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Avellone, Ziets, Sawyer, Vincke and Kurvitz on the future of RPGs at Kotaku UK and PC Gamer

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Avellone, Ziets, Sawyer, Vincke and Kurvitz on the future of RPGs at Kotaku UK and PC Gamer

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Thu 31 May 2018, 23:51:16

Tags: Chris Avellone; George Ziets; Josh Sawyer; Robert Kurvitz; Sven Vincke

By some coincidence, over the past 48 hours two different websites have published interviews with celebrity RPG designers. Both interviews are about the state of the genre in 2018, a topic which is perhaps more relevant than usual in the aftermath of Pillars of Eternity 2's release. Yesterday's Kotaku UK interview asks Chris Avellone and George Ziets how the definition of RPGs has evolved over the years. Here's an excerpt:

Regardless of the particular definition of the form, as any abiding genre fanatic will attest, most RPGs live or die on the strength of their storytelling. It might be surprising but it wasn’t always that way, as veteran RPG developer George Ziets recalls. Ziets started working in the games industry around the turn of the millennium, eventually working on New Vegas and Torment: Tides of Numenera with Avellone, along with a host of other games including Dungeon Siege 3 and Pillars of Eternity.

Ziets recalls that early computer RPGs like Wizardry and the original Bard’s Tale essentially ported the most popular editions of their tabletop progenitors like Dungeons and Dragons to the personal computer, eschewing epic tales of sword and sorcery to focus on the tactical guts of the pen-and-paper experience. “Originally, most RPGs were Tolkienesque, monster-slaying fantasies,” Ziets says. “Now we have RPGs set in science-fiction worlds, modern times, etc. Similarly, most early RPGs had some version of D&D stats and skills, but many are now evolving away from strict adherence to those rules.”

To Ziets, this slow expansion beyond the realm of twenty-sided dice and Vancian magic reflects the advance of video games as a medium, in the same way as early television programs like The Twilight Zone resembled theatrical productions more than the elaborate multi-camera setups of later decades. “As the art form evolved, and creators discovered techniques that were unique to television, that gradually moved further and further away from the techniques of theatre,” says Ziet. “TV got better and came into its own because creators learned what worked best for their medium, but in the early days, they had to start with what they knew. I see RPGs in much the same way.”

As the genre shed its analogue origins and began to explore the immense possibilities of digital space, however, the expectations of the player-base began to change along with it. Avellone remembers the days when players were expected to draw their own maps, engage in tedious pixel-hunts, or — worst of all — call up premium hint lines for help with labyrinthine questlines. For a generation of gamers raised on the likes of THAC0 and needlessly-Byzantine attack tables (staples of early RPGs) the shortcuts of today seem like ostentatiously easy living. There’s a small-but-enthusiastic audience for games 'hardcore' enough to abandon these modern trappings, such as Caves of Qud or Brogue. Even something as lauded as Wild Hunt caught more than its share of flack for its less-than-immaculate inventory system and inexact player movement.

“I’ve noticed that Fallout has removed some elements and added others depending on the game,” says Avellone. “I suspect that’s done to make progression easier — easier for a more casual user to understand... Players expect quest-markers, an auto-map, easy equipment comparisons. Overall, things have changed over the decades to reduce a lot of the heavy lifting RPGs used to do. I’m not saying that’s bad, but its influences aren’t driven by the RPG market, but player expectations.”

When faced with the onslaught of skill-trees and coloured loot flooding the very top of the sales charts, neither Avellone nor Ziets expresses any serious concern about these mega-action games pushing less mainstream fare out of the market. In Ziets’ view the opposite is happening, thanks to the small horde of high-quality 'traditional' RPGs released in the past two years which grappled for the limited time and hard drives of genre fans: Pillars of Eternity 2, Torment, Wasteland, Divinity: Original Sin 2, the Banner Saga series, and stylish newcomers like Disco Elysium (formerly No Truce With the Furies).

“If anything," says Ziets, "I’m worried that the abundance of RPGs is going to make it harder for any individual game to stand out or cause burnout in the core audience.”
Today's PC Gamer interview with Josh Sawyer, Swen Vincke and Disco Elysium's Robert Kurvitz takes a more direct angle, asking whether the RPG genre needs to evolve from its nostalgia-based fantasy roots. As you might expect, Josh is eager to see change while Swen is more defensive, but it's Robert who is the true radical. I quote:

“The RPGs we play nowadays are based on massive revolutions. The first Fallout was, I think, the last major change to RPGs. It changed the setting and showed you could do completely different things from its high fantasy roots. I was 11 when I played that, but I’ve never seen anything as revolutionary in all my years playing since.”

Kurvitz sees a genre in stasis, and it’s the source of some frustration. “It’s very odd. RPGs are essentially reality simulators, and the hook is that the position the player is put into is the skin of one person. So it also simulates mental and physical faculties, giving not a bird’s eye view of reality but the subjective reality of one person. That seems in and of itself a tremendously open concept that should be constantly evolving.”

The source of this stagnation goes far beyond RPGs or even video games, he says. Kurvitz believes that it’s the product of culture, particularly pop culture, slowing down. “It’s calcifying. The internal generation engine of western pop culture is just very self-referential in general. So that could be one possible reason for it—just people growing old.”

Kurvitz’s solution? Broaden everything. Settings, mechanics, what an RPG means, even who creates them. Writers and artists from other industries with different expertise need to be tempted over, but he doesn’t see that happening until the love affair with high fantasy has ended.

“I’m going to sound elitist, but I’m going to suggest that a lot of really good writers don’t want to write in a high fantasy setting. They don’t want to spend four stressful years on Tolkien fanfic. You just won’t get really talented writers who can do tremendous things for your game that way, and you need to hire artists and writers outside of the usual development circuit.”

If we were to get away from the conventions of the CRPG, one of the best places to look would be tabletop RPGs. Again. Once you move beyond official D&D campaigns and all the expectations that come along with them, the tabletop landscape becomes a lot more unpredictable and experimental.

“People do these amazingly historically accurate D&D sessions of the Peninsular War,” says Kurvitz. “They order actual, real-life memorabilia and objects from the Peninsular War, and models, and play with them. I know that amazingly strange things are being done with tabletop, but CRPGs are really conservative in comparison.”

[...] “I think people are right that there’s a renaissance of traditional RPGs, or the traditional style of RPGs, but I don’t want us to squander this opportunity to really grow the genre into something broader,” says Sawyer. “We don’t need to abandon fantasy or crunchy number systems, but that doesn’t have to be the limit of what we make.”

What Kurvitz wants to see is a complete revolution, imagining RPGs that take decades or even a hundred years to make, flagging and reacting to every tiny thing you do. He envisions RPGs becoming a new mode of literature—programmed literature—putting programmers and novelists together to tell stories that literally span generations. It’s improbably ambitious and far-fetched, but still incredibly tantalising.

“I hope we’re going to get the ball rolling.”
Godspeed, gentlemen.

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