Not So Massively: Online ARPGs are the pizza of gaming

Sure. That sounds right.

I spend a lot of time thinking about online ARPGs these days. It’s always been a genre I’ve enjoyed, and since taking over the Not So Massively column last year, I’ve made a special effort to spend more time playing and analyzing them. Recently it occurred to me that although I’ve played a great many ARPGs and enjoyed most of them, very few of them are what I’d consider to be truly great games.

I wondered why that was, and then it dawned on me: ARPGs are the pizza of gaming.

There is a saying about pizza (and other things) that goes something like, “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” I think the same is true of ARPGs.

The action RPG is a genre with a simple but effective core formula: slaughter hordes of monsters with fast-paced, visceral combat; collect boatloads of loot and XP; rinse and repeat. It’s hard to screw that up so badly that a game isn’t fun at all. Nothing about modern game design can truly be called “easy,” but relatively speaking, it’s “easy” to build a decent ARPG just by following the basic formula.

Therefore, even the mediocre and forgettable ARPGs still end up being fairly enjoyable, most of the time. I’d much rather play a low-budget, generic ARPG than a low-budget, generic MMORPG, for instance.

However, I fear this may have become something of a double-edged sword. When it’s easy to produce something decent, there’s less impetus to produce something amazing. It’s easy to find good pizza, but when was the last time you had truly amazing pizza? When was the last time you played an ARPG that truly blew you away?

When I think of all-time greatest ARPGs, only a few titles come to mind, and all have significant rough edges. The original Dungeon Siege was great for its day but is too simplistic to hold up now. I adore Dungeon Siege III, but it has a lot of jank, especially around the controls. Diablo III is in many ways a triumph, but it took until the first expansion to really find its footing, it still suffers from a lot of quality-of-life issues, and there’s more it could have done to add depth to its story and world.

There are a lot of good ARPGs out there, but it’s hard not to come to the conclusion this is a genre that has a lot of untapped potential. Mostly, they’re just endless slaughterfests, with little too offer beyond combat.

And don’t get me wrong. I get a lot of joy from wading knee-deep in demon entrails. I don’t want that to go away. But ARPGs could be capable of more than that.

Of course, my first thought is that to try to increase the artistry and story-telling of ARPGs. There’s no reason you can’t marry Dragon Age style story and character development with Diablo style action. It amazes me that Dungeon Siege III is the only ARPG I’ve played to attempt anything like this.

I imagine one concern could be that adding too much story would slow down the fast-paced action we want from an ARPG, but there are ways around that. If you pace things effectively, you can include a lot of story and dialogue without causing the action to come to a screeching halt. BioWare likes lengthy sequences of nothing but talking, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Dialogue can be more evenly spaced out, and some of the fat can be trimmed from conversations without losing anything crucial.

I’d really like to see more ARPGs that prioritize developing connections with NPCs. Diablo III did a great job fleshing out its characters, but it would have been even better to have choices about how to interact with them and what kind of relationships you develop with them.

On a related note, why must NPC party members be the sole domain of CRPGs? Why can’t we get some more party-based ARPGs?

I’m not a big of Dungeon Siege II — it’s my least favorite of the trilogy by a significant margin — but it did have one really cool idea I haven’t seen anywhere else. Like a lot of ARPGs, DS2 asked you to perform basic attacks with the left mouse button, and you had an action bar of more powerful cooldown abilities. But in this case the action bar was for your entire party — each party member contributed one ability to the bar.

The execution wasn’t great — the cooldowns were too long, and there wasn’t enough selection of abilities — but the idea is brilliant.

Imagine an ARPG where you control a party of four characters. You control one character directly, as you would in any ARPG, whereas AI has limited control over the others, handling their movement and basic attacks. Each party member then contributes two abilities to an action bar that is wholly controlled by the player. That gives you eight active abilities, which is a good number — enough to have a diverse range of powers, but not quite entering into the realm of button bloat. Assuming multiple options of abilities from each character, that would give a lot of depth to the build system, before we even factor in things like gear or passive abilities.

There are other ways ARPGs could branch out, as well. Puzzles are one possibility. Right now I’m playing a single-player ARPG called Shadows: Awakening that employs a lot of puzzles, and it works pretty well. Non-combat activities like player housing or mini-games could also work.

However it’s done, I’d like to see more ambition in the world of ARPGs. The core formula of this genre is solid gold, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to give up on innovation.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.

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Sean Walsh

FF7R is a great example of a game that is able to weave story into exploration/battle. The overall pacing of the game is just phenomenal, with nary a period of extended battle or story without the other stepping in. I’m sure that game took a large, experienced team A LOT of time to make, but it sure did work!

David Goodman

Man I wish I brought Titan Quest when it was on stupid-sale. I have such fond memories of that game and playing it with my father when he was alive. (it was one of the few games he played, that and JRPGs; his thing was trying to beat the bosses at the lowest possible levels with every possible combination).

I miss that pizza.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

ARPGs, yes! Diablo 2 set the high-water mark and every single ARPG since has been trying to match it. Some forthrightly like Path of Exile and others just with a nod like looter shooters which are, of course, simply a sub-genre of ARPGs.

The reason Diablo 3, despite all that is wrong with it, continues to thrive is that it knows in its heart what it is. Die evil spawn! Die, die, die! No other ARPG comes close to the seamless, almost effortless combat, the endless mass of demons there are to slaughter, the loot to collect. In its current state, stripped down to the bare essentials, it continues to be satisfying.

The game that comes closest, now that’s it’s had an additional year of development, is Warhammer Inquisitor: Martyr. Inquisitor understands its core purpose is to slay endless streams of demons in as gory and imaginative a way as possible. It even has an interesting story campaign on which all the mayhem hangs.

Talk about some really delicious pizza.

PoE for years was just as satisfying, until they decided to add too much to the pizza menu. No, I don’t want a salad with that. No, I’m not interested in alfredo. And no I don’t want pasta. Thanks!

Because when it comes right down to it. When you want pizza, you just want pizza. And if that’s what you get, and that’s all that you get, you’re happy.

Other gaming genres should be so lucky.


ARPGs are fun but from the ones I’ve played, they all run into a wall where you follow a formula and it just gets really tired out for me after some time. I really enjoy the journey and building the character(s) up and the feel of getting stronger. I also like the risk of hardcore modes where you lose everything upon death. I also enjoy the initial fun of trying to get that build down that enables you to become a lawnmower tearing through enemies left and right.

But then you kind of hit that point where you’re just grinding to grind and push arbitrary numbers. Then you get to a point where you simply get crushed because the numbers are too much for you to handle with your own numbers. And if it’s a seasonal thing, you hit your checkmarks and then rinse/repeat in three months or whatever. That’s where it really gets tiring to me. The endgame of ARPGs just isn’t very good.

But I guess that’s how food is in general. Eventually you get tired of eating the same thing even if you try to spice it up with new toppings/ingredients.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

your comment perfectly describes my experience with Diablo 3 , a game i recently started playing with my 5 year old grandson. He hacks and slashes and blows up the baddies and I outfit his crusader with the goodies( been leaning on hp for hitting type of of build, seems to be holding up). It does become very repetitive quickly and seeing my grandson plow through the content nearly effortlessly makes me wonder about the value of the game itself.Perhaps a greater difficulty level but that does little to combat the fact the arpg style seems a bit tired..


Yeah and Diablo 3 is a prime example of what I was talking about. The ‘endgame’ becomes all about pushing higher levels of Torment difficulty which do nothing but increase numbers (health/damage) on enemies, and pushing Greater Rift levels which function with the same artificial difficulty increases. They try to keep it fresh with seasons, but it doesn’t really change things up enough. And ultimately regardless of which class you choose, they all have similar goals in the end which is to have a lawnmower build that lets you move fast and wipe everything out quicker than it can kill you.

Castagere Shaikura

The problem with these games has always been the end game. That’s when I get bored of them.


I want to like ARPGs. I feel that I should like ARPGs. Lord knows I have purchased and played enough of them. I have even completed a couple of them.

But I just cannot feel the draw anymore for them. The gameplay loop, as it currently stands, just seems so stale and uninteresting (to me).

That being said, I will always look at a new ARPG play through and read some descriptions of game play. Who knows. Maybe someday something will pop for me again. :)


Grim Dawn is the arpg that keeps amazing me. It’s a game where every single class combo, every single skill can be viable, where uniques and legendaries are mid-tier gear and well rolled MI (rares) are your endgame goal. A game that is both incredibly complex to master, but still easy enough that anyone can complete the story on normal. It’s also a game that has an optional hardmode for normal, so that even the very base of your experience will feel like endgame.

Castagere Shaikura

And they are still putting out amazing content for it still.


I think the ARPG genre could do with trimming everything, not just off the top. It would be nice to see a new title where wolves don’t drop gold and swords (what do they even need them for anyway?) and instead have it focused around NPCs and crafting.

Any RPG, it’s almost a given you never buy from the shop unless you did a bad and sold your Hammer of Infinite Banning or something. Goblin Blenders are all and good, a slower-paced style might benefit massively (pun intended). Give me a reason to go into the dungeon that isn’t “well, there’s a cool drop from this boss.” Make it a bit more…I don’t know, predictable?

A curated story would be great to see for this, not just another go out, kill a bunch of things, become a God-King Master of All Universe. That isn’t to rule out RNG entirely, just make it less of the main GM of things.

First comment, btw. Hi all!

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Schlag Sweetleaf

Hello and welcome to you:)


Get out while you still can.

Bruno Brito

Welcome o7