Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What is the Future of RPGs?


I promise to get to more practical design focused articles very soon, but this is a question that comes up a lot. I thought it could be a useful discussion to have from a design perspective rather than an industry perspective as it is usually done. Sometimes as engineers (and game designers can look at themselves as a “kind” of engineer) it is good to examine where one’s products may need to evolve without regarding current restraints or lack of technology. It is a thinking exercise that may (or may not) pay huge dividends in the future. Imagine if you could create a tabletop RPG without any constraints on mechanics, technology, or delivery formats. That’s what I plan to do here. So, if I gaze into my crystal d20 I may see RPGs in the future that incorporate these following design elements:

=The MySpace/YouTube Culture: This isn’t about MySpace or YouTube per se. There has been a trend in the trendy “new thing of the week” department over the last 5 years or so. Look at the names of the following products or services: MySpace, YouTube, iPod, iPhone, Windows ME. Notice a common theme? Bingo! And on the first try, too. Each of these products glorifies “self.” Our culture, especially American culture, is becoming more and more radically individualist. The newest things are all about “me me me!” Social commentary on this phenomenon is meant for another place, but as RPG designers we should take note of this grown self-obsession in our world.

In the future, I believe that successful RPGs will need to include facets of the players’ real lives into the actual mechanics of the game. I have to stop and give Ron Edwards and his game Zero at the Bone some credit for first suggesting this. But it is something I am increasingly coming to believe. Players in the future will want to display themselves in front of their fellow players and be recognized socially for their own merits, flaws, and experiences. Games that incorporate a player’s real life interests, flaws, fears, aspirations, relationships, indulgences and so on will strike a cord with the MySpace Generation.

Want to appeal to new players? Give them ownership of the mechanics of the game. Make the game about them, and they will buy it.

=A Return to the Box (and Board): Role-playing games are games, right? (I do not wish to debate what “game” means, take it to another board) However, most RPGs are sold in the textbook, user manual or comic book style. In the future, I can see RPGs returning to the old fashioned “boxed game” model. RPGs will need to package themselves more like board games, which are hugely successful and getting more diverse all the time, to attract new customers.

In the last two decades, boxed RPGs have fallen out of favor for a number of reasons. Expense and the fact that book sellers find it easier to stock books rather than boxes are two of the big ones. In the future, the boxing of an RPG with helpful maps, graphic organizers, character sheets, tips sheets, miniatures, a physical game space (like a board or grid), quick start manuals, and a letter from the designer will be much cheaper and just as available as POD printing is today. Or at least for RPGs to successfully go back to the Box Model, it will have to get cheaper and more readily available. I can picture a company like Lulu pioneering this return.

Anyway, with a return to the Box, RPGs can position themselves more in competition with board games- which is a much wider audience. Imagine walking down the game aisle at Wal-mart or Toy-R-Us and seeing next to stacks of Monopoly and Scrabble The Shadow of Yesterday, Buring Empires, My Life With Master, and The Mountain Witch all in shiny boxes with maps, tips sheets, actual play examples, and letters from Luke, Clinton, and Tim. Pretty cool, huh?

= Next Gen Customization: GURPS and D20 are examples of games that are customizable. However, they are HUMONGOUS! Sifting through the rhemes of material these two systems provide can take days if not weeks. Then, you have to get everyone to agree what books are in and what books are out. It’s cumbersome and time consuming. But this isn’t meant to be a complain session about GURPS or d20. Let’s think about customization in the future.

First, the core system would have to be both free and available for purchase. A good looking PDF could be put up for free on the Internet and at the same time the company could sell a low cost and adequate print version for those who prefer a manual to hold in their hands. The system would be a bare minimum. It might even be as simple as just the Resolution system of the game with a few examples. Everything else would be up to the players- literally. The designer(s) would add components to the game based on orders from the players. Each person who paid a certain fee would have whatever he wanted for the game designed, printed, and mailed directly to him (or if he preferred PDF, sent through email). If he wanted a character creation system that was just for elves, he’d pay the $20 fee and the designer would write a character creation book about elves for him. If he wanted rules for using laser blasters, he’d pay the $20 fee and get a book on lasers.

This is very similar to what Greg Stolze does on his site with the Ransom model. However, this is totally customer driven. The designer would lean on a few design motifs to keep things consistent, but each book would be unique and personalized for the customer and his needs. Come to think of this, I believe Jonathan Walton mentioned doing something sort of along these lines around GenCon last year. But this is on a much gander and focused scale. Every customer would get his own version of the game based on his vision and play preferences.

=Serial RPGs (aka the Metaplot Reborn): Eeeeeeeeew, metaplots! Get over it. The “metaplot” isn’t such a bad idea in and of itself. The problem lies in customers getting overwhelmed by dozens and dozens of splat books that move it along before they are ready. A Serial RPG would be a game that starts characters in a small location with a gripping story. The book would be small itself. Containing only the first “chapter” of the plot. At the fastest, a new book would be released every 3-4 months. More likely, a new book each every 6-12 months would open up a larger and larger section of the plot/game-world/story-arc.

They main thing with this kind of Serial RPG that a designer would have to keep in mind would be that he could not tell the players how to play their characters or exactly how they should participate in the evolving plot. That would a difficult balance to maintain and at present I have no idea how it could be done. That’s for a future designer to discover and implement ;)

Anyone who does implement a Serial RPG in this manner would also need to release Anthologies every now and then. These Anthologies would include all the books previously released for the story-arc. This way new players could be brought into the game line. A Serial style of RPG design has the advantage of creating a loyal and constant audience and therefore a high likelihood of repeat buyers.

=Hybrid RPGs: The main competition, as far as adventure games go, for RPGs are video games. This includes everything from computer games to console games to MMORPGs. Once upon a time video games were just part of a geek culture when only a few people had Ataris or Nintendos. Now electronic gaming (thanks to the Internet, Microsoft, Wii, and Madden Football) has gone mainstream. Tabletop role-playing games in the future will need to capitalize on the prevalence of electronics in our society.

Role-playing games will eventually incorporate MP3’s or Podcasts into their design. A company’s blog will add game content and features to the core rules of the games themselves. Videos on places like MySpace or YouTube or Flickr will be readily accessible to gaming groups and offer examples of play or new content. Interactive Maps, artwork, puzzles, dice rollers, riddles, and even sound bites posted on the Internet would be the type of features a game designer will have at his fingertips to weave right into the mechanics of his game. These things could be downloaded into an iPod, PDA, or Laptop for use at the gaming table. These features would either be pay-for-play items with a free core rule book or a set of free features that enhance a core rule book that is available for purchase.

In the future, technology will be seamless integrated into a game’s mechanics.

=The eBook: I’m not sure how this sort of thing will impact RPGs (here is an example made by Sony). It could be a lot, it could be zilch. The basic idea of this thing is that you can download electronic books on to it and read them like a regular book. This would take PDF publishing to the next level. In the future, it may even be possible to add three dimensional objects to such a book or incorporate movies or animations of some kind that demonstrate how to play the game. Being able to quickly and tangibly flip from page to page to reference charts, tables, and rules could be a real advantage for RPGs. I could even see voice activated eBooks that will respond to commands like, “Show me a picture of a vampire…” or “Turn to page 83…” Games that figure out how to maximize the potential of a product like this will have a leg up in finding a new audience.

Of course, all of this is cloud talk. It may happen; it may not. But the object of this article is to provoke thought in the area of RPG design. We need to look beyond the current mechanics and delivery formats we use to what might be over the next horizon. Independent RPG designers are especially nimble enough to maximize the potential use of new formats and technology. So this post is mainly meant to say, “Where we are is good. Where we will be is better. Let’s start thinking about how we can change everything.”




Fang Langford said...

I hope you don't mind, but when you said:

"In the future, I believe that successful RPGs will need to include facets of the players’ real lives into the actual mechanics of the game. I have to stop and give...credit for first suggesting this."

You didn't know about some earlier work in this area. Check out: In Your Element, Out of This World. I wrote this game to completely incorporate the player's life in the game.

Just a point of history.... :)

Fang Langford

Guy said...

There's also a con game being ran in Israel every so often that has players bringing either their dreams or something traumatic that happened to them(I don't remember which) and play revolving around that.

Troy_Costisick said...

Ha, see! The future is now. :)

I wasn't meaning that far off in the future when I wrote this. I'm talking 3-6 years. The fact that there's already some people working on this doesn't surprise me one bit. I appreciate you pointing out this stuff to me fellas. Guy, that convention event soudns scary and incredible at the same time!

I also don't mean to say that the design features I suggested in this article are the only possible future innovations. I'm sure there are some things being cooked up or speculated about by others even now. I can't wait to see them!



PS: Feel free to share your dreams about future designs here as well.

Guy said...

Yes, I heard stories of people leaving this con game crying.

I think it was ran at least 3-4 years ago.

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