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The Changing Face of the RPG: The Implementation of Online Play


With the release of each console game that seamlessly integrates use of the internet into gameplay, I am reminded of how much the console gaming market and PC gaming market are converging. At the very least, I become reminded of the fact that online play is really starting to be implemented successfully in console games. This has notably affected RPGs; massively multiplayer online RPGs, or MMORPGs, which used to only be available on PCs, now grace our Xboxes, Gamecubes, and Playstation 2s. The next generation of consoles can only increase the ease and frequency of online gameplay's integration with offline play; the Playstation 3 is expected to have a built-in Ethernet port, Nintendo's Revolution touts an integrated wireless connection, and the Xbox360 can only refine upon Microsoft's online subscription service, Xbox Live. That being said, what will this do to the console RPG? Specifically, how will the increase in availability and popularity of online play affect the traditional, solely-offline console RPG that got most of us into the genre? Would a probable increase in the amount of MMORPGs on consoles incur a decrease in the amount of traditional console RPGs, or would these traditional RPGs adapt to the new gaming environment? Would there be any change at all? These are the questions I hope to address here.

So what do I mean by a "traditional console RPG?" An extremely specific definition isn't too important for my purposes here, so I won't delve into this too far. By "traditional console RPG" I mean all those RPGs that haven't relied heavily upon online gameplay to tell the stories that players progress through. Let's think of what this covers: almost everything made by Square, Enix, or SqaureEnix, handheld RPGs, Sega's RPGs...perhaps it would just be easier if I defined them as "every RPG on a console that's not a MMORPG." Of course, there will be a few exceptions to this, such as card games that have no real story to speak of, or games in the Pokemon Stadium series. But based on what I've said so far, I think you should have a basic idea of the type of game I have in mind -- the Final Fantasies (sans FFXI), the Dragon Warriors, the Phantasy Stars (but not the Online ones), the Xenosagas, etc. etc. etc. These games don't showcase online play because it's very difficult for them to by their very nature. Sure, games like Shenmue had interesting features where you could compare your game stats with others by connecting your Dreamcast to the internet, but the gamer's primary focus in that game (and in similar RPGs that feature a simple gimmick that involves use of the internet) was still to proceed through the story offered to him or her by the game. Consider what the internet is used for in console games: multiplayer modes, exchange of game information and statistics, and...I can't think of anything else. Well, neither one of these two functions really translate well when applied to the "traditional console RPG." Adding online multiplayer options to "traditional console RPGs" either makes them MMORPGs, or this addition is attended by a change in the type of storytelling or a decrease in the overall quality of the game's story.

Absent the successful integration of online play with the traditional console RPG, it might seem as if the MMORPG might overshadow the traditional console RPG. At the very least, it seems extremely probable that MMORPGs could detract from the console RPG's fanbase unless there remain enough fans for the now-mature genre. Online gaming is here to stay, and it has observably altered how games of most other genres function. Compare first-person shooters, puzzle games, fighting games, sports games, racing games, even many simple action/adventure console games of today to the games of five to ten years ago. Goldeneye was top dog ten years ago, and now only console FPS games with the most efficient online modes seem to succeed (How many times have you heard anyone even attempt to compare games like Red Faction 2 or Timesplitter 2 to Halo 2?). All of the Madden football games tout competitive online modes so that players can measure their skills against others. Sony and Polyphony Digital almost had to hire riot police to defend their respective headquarters when they announced that Gran Turismo 4 wouldn't feature an online racing mode.

But has the traditional console RPG evolved in a similar manner? No, it hasn't. Instead, a preexisting style of RPG has infiltrated the console market, the MMORPG. Does this spell the end for the traditional console RPG? I seriously doubt that online gaming alone is going to cause the death of the traditional console RPG as a whole; it's going to take a lot to take down those decade-long series of games that still inspire millions of gamers, symphony orchestras, and spin-off movies. However, it's impossible for me to neglect the obvious: that which doesn't evolve usually doesn't survive, and it has been awhile since the traditional console RPG has experienced anything that can be accurately called an evolution. The real question is, will the internet fundamentally change how gamers appreciate their console games? Does it constitute a force strong enough to turn gamers away from the traditional console RPG? We'll have to see.

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