Thursday, August 13, 2009

TF2 and the Meaning of 'RPG'

Valve is promoting their next update for TF2. They are calling it a "classless" update because typically they will focus their efforts around a single (or pair as in Sniper vs. Spy) class. We are getting a new Arena map, Offblast, which I can't understand given that Arenas (one death Deathmatch) seem to be the least popular map types, and even competitive leagues will use standard capture-point maps, payload, or capture-the-flag maps. King of the Hill is also being added.

Instead of making witty and stereotypical remarks regarding the character of whatever class they are updating, Valve has decided to focus their attention on Hats. TF2 has a very crude item system which was originally designed to allow players to make strategic decisions. Weapons would have sidegrades which could be swapped in and out. The best (and possibly only good) example is the Medigun sidegrade: the Kritzkrieg. The standard Medigun slowly builds √úberCharge which can be used at 100% to make the Medic and his target invincible for 8 seconds. The Kritzkrieg version instead gives the Medic and his target guaranteed critical hits for 8 seconds.

Hats are vanity items which players acquire at random times and are extremely rare (I don't have a single one). They can be swapped like weapons, changing your headwear. Because they are so rare, and often hilarious, players want hats and will comment whenever someone is wearing one. Valve is, of course, playing on that social dynamic:

Throughout history, men have worn hats as a way of showing how much better they are than other men. “I buy hats,” a behatted man seems to say. “I am better than you.”

I don't know who is writing all this, but I find it to be quite entertaining. Here are a few gems someone (Blargh) in my TF2 community posted:

My favorite being the one about hats:

SMELLY UNFORTUNATE: 'Please, sir.... May I have a hat?'
GENTLE MANNE of LEISURE: 'A-ha-ha! You are as PRESUMPTUOUS as your are POOR and IRISH. Tarnish notte the majesty of my TOWER of HATS.'
His COMPANIONE: 'I have maney hats also but did not bringe them.'

I'll bring up the question which has been talked about ad nauseum: how many items does it take to get to the center of an RPG? TF2 has: role-based, tactic combat; items and inventory. Do we need stats other than HP? Weapon ammo can be considered Mana. Are achievements and weapon sidegrades character progression? I would say 'no' considering they are designed to be situational or support different playstyles.

I think it boils down to persistence. DotA and other MOBAs have everything listed above aside from explicit character progression persistence. When the game ends, you start over. If you didn't start over, but played these games with heroes at max level, then would it be an RPG?

What about a story? Do we need a creative team to dream up some world and its history? Single-player RPGs would be incredibly lackluster without a story (would you play FF7 for just the battles?). But is player-generated history enough to support the story requirement?

RPG seems to be one of those really ambiguous terms, like "fun". We know what it is when we see it, but can't describe its components.


Tesh said...

Looking at FFVII as an example, I think of it in "peanut butter and chocolate" terms, where I can and do precisely define its components, but the final product might be different based on how those components are stirred into the recipe.

In FFVII, neither the combat nor the story are very impressive alone, and the progression treadmill and customization (Materia swapping and growth) aren't anything all that deep, but taken together, they are pretty tasty. (Peanut butter alone and cheap American chocolate aren't anything special, but together, they can be pretty good.)

As such, the way the "RPG" term has grown to incorporate diverse elements (a progression metric, customization, story, classes or freeform character control, combat, tactics, etc.) that don't necessarily equate to "role playing" is a bit of a Reese's Snowball in my mind. It's picked up some cruft here and there, but for the most part, "RPG" covers a whole mishmash of elements. Like any good sundae bar at a buffet, you can make a great dessert by mixing and matching elements, and there is enough variety for people to make their own specialty recipes.

Of course, that does mean that "RPG" doesn't mean all that much when you get down to using it as a specific term, but I can live with that when there are as many tasty flavors as there are.

motstandet said...

Perhaps an RPG is greater than the sum of its parts.

Tesh said...

I think some of them are. The "sardines and ice cream" ones don't do much for me, though.

Melf_Himself said...

An RPG is where you win the fight before it started because of your character/party make-up.

Tesh said...

Melf, now you've got me thinking of bad FFX-2 jokes. "Make up", get it?


That aside, you're right, that does tend to be a significant part of these games as they are typically played. There really isn't much question of whether or not you'll steamroll through the vast majority of combat if you're prepared correctly. There's not much risk in most modern RPG combat, for better or worse, and not much chance to make tactical decisions mid-combat to compensate for poor preparation. You just put in your time, grow that Materia, earn your XP and gold, and move on to the next story cutscene.

That is a bit disappointing in that I like tactical decisions, but at the same time, if I want a challenging tactically interesting "RPG", I'll punish myself with Fire Emblem for a while.