While Blue Dragon, Fable 2, and Mass Effect are three strikingly distinct games in style, setting, and execution, they are all considered role-playing games. Microsoft today gathered the men behind these games--Mistwalker's Hironobu Sakaguchi, Lionhead Studios' Peter Molyneux, and BioWare's Ray Muzyka, respectively--to discuss "The Evolution of RPG Development" in a 40-minute panel moderated by GameHead host Geoff Keighley.
With the lines between RPGs and other genres becoming increasingly muddied, Keighley asked each member of the panel what makes a game an RPG. Muyzka broke down the BioWare approach to RPGs as a game resting on four activity pillars: great stories and characters, a sense of exploration and awe, addictive character progression, and combat that evokes feelings like fear--all of which feed into one another.
In just one of many moments of mutual admiration that dotted the panel, Molyneux said he agreed with absolutely everything Muzyka said, adding that he was "completely, 100 percent correct." However, Molyneux's definition of a role-playing game focused less on the mechanics and more on the tone of the game.
"For me, it comes back to this one simple phrase," Molyneux said. "'Role-playing game.' You are playing a role. What I want to experiment with is to say, 'What should it feel like to be a hero? To start off as nothing and end up being a hero? That is an emotional journey you're going through, and that's my real focus."
Speaking through a translator, Sakaguchi said what he is trying to accomplish with his RPGs is "to tell a great storyline and [offer] characters and a world view that players can relate to." He also brought up a sense of exploration and accomplishment as key factors for RPGs.
All three developers brought up telling a story and creating an emotional connection with the player as primary goals, but their approaches to achieve those goals differ in a number of key areas. Sakaguchi's Blue Dragon is a traditional Japanese RPG with turn-based combat, but the developer said he is working on a few other projects (Cry On for the Xbox 360 as well as a pair of unannounced RPGs) that were "based on new, different ideas," suggesting he will be venturing outside of the turn-based realm in the future.
Molyneux said Lionhead committed to real-time combat with Fable simply because the team felt it made for a more immersive experience. Muzyka, meanwhile, said Mass Effect and previous BioWare titles have crafted a flexible merger of turn-based and real-time combat in order to accommodate the individual player's tastes.
Following up on that subject, Keighley asked the developers what the future holds for customizable characters and other player-controlled gameplay experiences. Sakaguchi admitted such customization was fun and expects the trend to continue, but he expressed little interest in using it in his own games. He said that movies can tell great stories and reflect a creator's worldview specifically because their characters and story are set in stone.
Molyneux and Muzyka were both warmer to the idea of player customization and characters that evolve uniquely for each gamer, but the two diverged on the idea of branching storylines. Molyneux said he likes the idea, but had a good deal of concern that players would always worry they had made the wrong choice or missed something because of the path they took through the game. Muzyka countered that it was instead a good thing if two players had several different paths through a game, since that would make them feel as if their choices actually mattered and would make the game more replayable.
Keighley's last question to the panel centered on the incorporation of online multiplayer gameplay into the RPG genre. Sakaguchi said he was fond of the idea, noting his work on Final Fantasy XI, and then said he hoped to do another one with the approval of Microsoft Game Studios Genreal Manager Shane Kim. With Kim watching the panel from the back of the room, Sakaguchi had the opportunity to put him on the spot.
"Please Shane, I want to make it," Sakaguchi said in English.
"Whatever you want," Kim responded as the audience laughed.
Ever the opportunist, Molyneux followed suit, asking, "Could I do one as well, Shane?"
One more "whatever you want" later, Molyneux said he found the potential of online role-playing games enormously exciting and "would love to talk about that in great, enormous detail, but I have been gagged by lots of people."
Muzyka also weighed in on the issue, giving a little insight into a future BioWare offering.
"We're very excited [about] where massively multiplayer games are going, because the story that develops between players--the social interaction--is a different kind of story, something you can't achieve in a single-player game. So what if you fused the concepts that great RPGs have built in terms of a great storyline and the emotional impact on players, and you put that into an MMO? That's what we're building at BioWare Austin."
During a short Q&A session following the main panel, the participants were asked if they thought there was a place for modern-day RPGs that dealt with more intimate (mundane, some would say) issues than the ordinary fare. Muzyka downplayed the idea, calling RPGs "aspirational fantasies," saying players wanted to be anything but mundane, a hero or an antihero.
"Either way, you want to be someone you can't be in real life, I think," Muzyka said, adding, "For me the exciting thing is to be able to do things I can't do every day."
Molyneux similarly stressed the player's need to feel important or to be a hero, but noted that it was possible to set that sort of story in today's world. He referenced an idea for a game he calls Dmitri--which he said he can't talk about--which is based on the premise of being a hero in today's world. Molyneux also pointed to TV shows like 24 and Lost as possible models of contemporary stories featuring larger-than-life heroes.
Sakaguchi diverged from his fellow panelists on the issue of more mundane RPGs, saying he'd spent the last decade kicking around an idea for such a game. The hypothetical game involved a schoolboy's attempts to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, but Sakaguchi said "it's pretty tough." When pressed for an explanation of why it's so tough, Sakaguchi and his translator huddled for nearly a minute before emerging with a terse, "We'll do it someday."