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.