The Evolution of the Role Playing Video Game
It is all but impossible to determine which of many video games should be labeled as the first role playing game. But, whichever game it was, two NES titles clearly defined the video game genre for decades to come. These two games were Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy and they set the standard through a combination of popularity, quality game play, excellent story and timing of release.
Role playing games differed from the majority of video games in the amount of dexterity, timing, and button pressing skill that was needed to succeed. This standard was especially unusual for home consoles, as the controller was specifically designed to conform to action games. Yet, both Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy were highly successful games and this success bolstered the popularity of role playing game.
For years after, role playing games followed the formula of these two games with nearly no deviation. The number of titles in the genre expanded, especially as the most popular computer role playing games were ported onto various consoles. But, whether ported from a computer version or created specifically for a console, the basic idea that finger speed was unimportant remained true.
The first branch in development of the role playing game occurred a few years later. Often referred to as the action role playing game, Crystalis, Faxanadu, Simon’s Quest, and The Adventure of Link are examples of this branch. In truth, these were basically action games that borrowed the concept of gaining experience, levels, and new abilities that was common in role playing games. Eventually, this concept became central to most action games and this branch simply got absorbed by the action genre.
The next major branch in the role playing game was the introduction of semi-real time battles. The active time battle (ATB) system in Final Fantasy IV was the first major example of this, and with the success of the game, many new role playing games were quick to follow. The basic idea of the system was that rather than battles occurring is discrete rounds, each ability would take a specific amount of time to activate and monsters would attack even if the player entered no commands. Most of these systems were only partially real time, allowing players to pause the action and think or automatically pausing during some menus.
While generally popular, this new idea did create some schisms in the fan base of role playing games. Many purists felt that speed of thought and finger speed should be unimportant in a role playing game and these games were not real role playing games, due to that. As the genre grew in popularity, both traditional and active role playing games were released in greater numbers.
During the 5th console generation, the action role playing game returned, this time to stay. Holding mostly to the traditional formula of a role playing game, the action role playing game required the player to press button combinations or even control a character on an active battlefield during battle. But unlike actual actions games, battle and non-battle time was clearly delineated and most action role playing games still used some limited form of round based combat.
With the line between action game and role playing game becoming ever murkier, another new concept appeared in role playing games. Up to this point, in the vast majority of role playing games, the player controlled every action of all the characters. A number of 5th and 6th generation games strayed from this.
The first example of this new trend actually appeared in a NES game called Dragon Warrior IV. In the final chapter of the game, the player could only control the actions of the primary character and the AI controlled the other characters based on a role assigned by the player. This control scheme was highly unpopular at the time and did not reappear until years later.
Yet, it did reappear and this time it seemed to work much better. The best examples of this were Kingdom Hearts, Star Ocean, .Hack//Infection, and Final Fantasy XII. In these games, the AI controlled all but the main characters, choosing actions based on the roles of these characters and additional AI instructions provided by the player. Final Fantasy XII was especially built around this AI system, allowing the player to create an entire programmable battle heuristic for each AI character, while also manually controlling other characters when necessary.
The concept of directing characters rather playing characters seems to have become the new standard, as very few modern role playing games allow direct control of every character in a party. In fact, of recent highly popular role playing games, only Dragon Quest XIII, ironically a sequel to Dragon Warrior IV, allows full control of all characters and has no active time feature.
The most anticipated role playing game of 2010, Final Fantasy XIII, is the prime example of the evolution of the role playing game genre. This game allows the player to define combat roles for AI characters and revise these roles mid combat, but only allows direct control of the main character. The revising of roles and combat in general requires quick thinking and reflexes and battles are actually scored based on speed of completion. For decades, this popular series has set the standard for the genre and it can only be assumed that Final Fantasy XIII will greatly influence that standard.
As games continue to evolve the genre is growing more unwieldy. Just a few years ago games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, or Bioshock would be clearly labeled as first person shooters, yet today the first two are labeled as role playing games and the last is generally referred to as an action game. At the same time, tactics games like Disgaea 3 are also labeled role playing games. And, of course, traditional role playing games still exist on various consoles. Only time will tell if a new definition is necessary or whether the genre can continue to support the wide variety of games that currently falls within it.