Next Generation Role Playing: Epic and Visceral Edition

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As the videogame landscape changes, is the RPG betraying its tabletop roots or finding its way? This is the question made by Next Generation, and in the midst of all the opinions transcribed we can find Bethsofts Pete Hines take on this:

Player freedom and the idea of immersion are issues of which Bethesda Software, the developer of Oblivion and Fallout 3, is acutely aware. “It’s obviously something that’s had a big impact on us and the way we’ve approached our games,” says Bethesda’s vice president of marketing, Pete Hines. “Let the player create the character they want and go out and make their own choices. Go where you want, do what you want. You decide how to deal with problems and what to do next.

“But in a videogame it is at least somewhat important that you do not allow the player to break the game, either intentionally or unintentionally. So I don’t know how much we can do away with the rules, but we do the best to bend and stretch them as far as possible to allow people the most freedom possible. I don’t know how far we can stretch that freedom, but I assure you we plan to find out.” Hines suggests that much of what can make videogaming a transparent, believable experience is predicated on enabling a purer and more direct kind of roleplay, eschewing immersion-breaking mechanics like turn-based combat, and dependence on stat screens. But removing the abstraction of PnP introduces new challenges: since they rely on visual representation rather than imagination, videogames have to reconcile the disparity between a player’s desired action and his avatar’s capabilities in a way that is clear and avoids frustration.

“PnP games are about being limited by what your character can do,” explains Hines. “You make choices, but what usually ends up determining your success or failure is your character and a roll of the dice. That’s a tougher thing to balance in a videogame as we try to walk the line between having the player meaningfully interact with the world around you, and having the skills and abilities of your character determine your success or failure. We’ve already talked about this a bit with Fallout 3, where we want the condition of the weapon you are using, and your character’s skill with using that weapon, to determine whether or not you can kill that creature over there – not your ability to put crosshairs on a target and pull the trigger.

“Because you’re manipulating this avatar within a videogame, there’s a layer of feedback that has to be provided to the player, visually, that you don’t have to deal with in a PnP. You attack, roll dice; if you get a good roll you hit. If not, you miss. It’s pretty cut and dry. You may curse the roll but there’s no questioning what happened, unlike in a game where you may say: ‘Wait, my sword passed right through him’, or: ‘He was right in my crosshairs, why did I miss?’ I think we did a pretty good job of it in Oblivion where the player has control over what’s happening, but ultimately your character, and his or her equipment, abilities, etc, determines whether you succeed or fail.”

Ultimately, it raises the question of how the medium best serves the purpose of roleplay. “I think technology has expanded what we can do in terms of roleplay, not limited it,” counters Hines. “It takes things that were done in abstraction and brings them to life vividly. We’ve gone from NPCs in roleplaying that stand around and provide info like talking kiosks to characters that move around the world, interact with each other, and so on. The more horsepower you have to spend on things like AI, or physics, or animations, the more believable the whole experience will be. I think most of us were looking for something in PnP that really grabbed us and pulled us in to a world we wanted to be a part of – an experience we could get lost in. I think videogames continue to make strides toward that goal.”

Bethesda’s own Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion arguably stands as the high-water mark for this blend of roleplaying and responsive visualization. Its minimization of interface and choice of firstperson view is entirely geared toward delivering information to the player intuitively, rather than by reams of statistics. Even the way you advance your character is a natural extension of playing a role. “It rewards you for using your skills, rather than giving out experience points,” says Hines. “So we like for the player to simply get better at doing whatever it is they do. We don’t need to beat them over the head with stats.”

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