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Battle Systems & The RPG Landscape

Trent Seely

For the past two weeks, I've been surveying gamers to see where their personal tastes were in terms of battle systems. The initial intention was to gauge the size of each gameplay audience, but I eventually noticed an interesting trend that correlated with industry activity: more casual gamers (the largest demographic of surveyed gamers) tended to prefer more action-oriented RPGs, which have been more heavily represented throughout the past generation of console systems. There are a lot of RPGamers out there with different tastes, but are those preferences becoming less relevant as publishers focus more heavily on commercial appeal?

If you use the pace of combat as a benchmark, differentiating one type of RPG from another becomes pretty simplistic. The slowest moving battles typically belong to tactical RPGs like Disgaea, Tactics Ogre, and Jeanne D'arc. Traditional turn-based titles like the Lunar and Dragon Quest series are next in line as they rely on pattern algorithms. Active Time Battle systems, as seen in games like Grandia and Chrono Trigger take the same turn-based approach, but attempt to implement real-time to engage the player in the 'flow' of combat. Finally, active systems allow a more brisk approach to combat as a single button press typically results in an action (Mass Effect, Kingdom Hearts, the Tales games, etc.). I know that splitting RPGs into four fairly broad categories is generalizing, but I could spend an entire article differentiating RPG series based on their qualitative attributes so please bear with me.

Looking at these broad categories, I'm sure we could irrelevantly argue all day over which styles of gameplay are better than others (likely without a single acknowledgment that personal taste dictates subjective quality). However, I'm more interested in why we we've seen a decline in title releases for games with more time-intensive battle systems and what it means for the RPG landscape in general.

The RPGs that move substantial amounts of units today aren't Tactical titles like the Disgaea games or traditional turn-based RPGs like Lunar. Those titles maintain niche markets composed largely of dedicated, long-time RPGamers. Because video game publishers have to maintain fairly sizable profit margins in order to appease shareholders, a heavier focus is placed on titles that are expected to ship more units. This limits the ability of individual studios to produce titles that are more niche and if these titles are released, distribution is typically limited. While these units are eagerly anticipated and consumed by their target audience, this distribution strategy limits the growth of that audience. A limited release also means limited investment in production costs, meaning that the objective quality of the title may suffer as a result and might also hurt the likelihood of growing the audience. While it may not seem like it at first, our unwillingness to purchase a title en masse because we individually lack interest in its battle style could inadvertently hurt the game's intended audience - not only ensuring a limited release of their favorite type of RPG (if there is even a release), but possibly ensuring that gamers outside that audience are missing out.

Your first thought when examining my theorization of RPGamer buying power might be to blame the big publishers for their failure to have faith in niche markets and unwillingness to take risks, but your ire would be misdirected. Businesses have to survive and in times of financial hardship they can only go with "safe bets." To put it plainly, it's not their fault that they don't distribute more units of non-action RPGs - it's ours.

Again, we all have personal tastes that dictate what we buy and I wouldn't necessarily expect someone who only has love for MMORPGs to buy a tactical RPG just to satisfy other people, but is it possible that we've stopped taking as many risks with our purchases and it is limiting the level of variety in the RPG landscape? Clearly we can't purchase every RPG that hits the market (nor would we necessarily want to), but if you look at your gaming collection would you say there is enough variety in the types of RPGs you own? Would you be interested in giving other 'styles' of RPGs a chance if you aren't already?

You don't have to become the salvation of underrated RPGs (especially if you aren't a fan of that battle system), but in a time where tactical and turn-based titles are as endangered as bengal tigers, I'd love for us all to do what we can to maintain some semblance of variety in the RPG video game landscape.

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