Grass Root Gamers
Mathematics of Fun

When Sports & RPGs Collide

This post has (by request) been retroactively considered to be part of the September 2005 Round Table discussion, chaired at Man Bytes Blog. The topic of this round table, in broad strokes at least, is thinking outside of genre.

I had wondered if and when the big EA sports franchises were going to acquire a sports management layer. There was a certain inevitability. Over here in the UK, we have had a high selling franchise of sports games which are just sports managers (what is called 'franchise mode' in Madden NFL) for some time - and they have been very popular. So popular, in fact that Championship Manager (a soccer manager game) was the cause of a falling out between its developer (Miles Jacobson's Sports Interactive) and its publisher (Eidos) resulted in two competing soccer manager franchises this year.

My attention was drawn to this addition into the EA games by a post at Tea Leaves by psu which compares the new versions of Madden NFL to CRPG games. It's a whimsical piece, combining personal experience with insight and observation unencumbered by artifice or pretention. (Question: do the baseball games have a franchise mode now? I know some people who would love that!)

I'm also grateful to psu for a link to a forum thread at RPGdot in which various players (lead by Dhruin) discuss whether stats are integral and essential to CRPGs. This is a topic I have great interest in, plus Dhruin still likes Kult which is gratifying, because it really is a small and fairly insignificant title when all is said and done. (As an aside, the first build of the sequel could appear on my desk any week now, and I admit I'm really quite excited about it!)

(Incidentally, Dhruin is right to criticise the letter grade ranks in Kult, in my opinion. This was a mistake - the player base for such a small title was never going to include any players for whom that degree of simplicity would be an asset, and as Neil has observed, many players find numerical attributes both familiar and enjoyable. Heretic Kingdoms 2 uses a numerical set of attributes).

Regarding psu's assertion that:

...huge spreadsheet[s] of stats and control over how those stats progress over time is apparently exactly what all the hard core CRPG players live for.

(which is derived from the RPGdot forum thread), I feel obligated to chime in.

The way I see it, using our DGD1 model, there are four groups of CRPG players - one for each of the four play types in DGD1. CRPGs are, apparently, one genre of games which supports all the play styles of the DGD1, although it should be noted that the emphasis on ludic (structured/rules-based) play means that the appeal is firmly entrenched in the Hardcore clusters, and doesn't cross into the Casual clusters very greatly.

  • Type 1 Conqueror's become addicted to CRPGs because of the extent to which they drive their desire for rapid progress. Players vulnerable to this style can become hugely addicted to class and level systems. These games need not be stat based to give the feeling of progress (exploratatory progress or collection-based progress can also be used), but it seems somewhat easier to hook them in if they are.
  • Type 2 Manager's are the archtetypal players who *do* want spreadsheets of stats. It's no coincidence that there is a common term between the cluster tag for this grouping and the 'sports manager' genre.
  • Type 3 Wanderer's enjoy CRPGs because it's an adventure in another world. Stats are more of a hinderence than an asset (although in the context of individuals, many players enjoying this play style will cross over into other styles). Arcade adventures that border on CRPGs such as the Legend of Zelda games are in general better fits to this play style than stats-heavy CRPGs.
  • Type 4 Participant's enjoy CRPGs because of the emotional connections they make with characters... Japanese CRPGs are therefore preferred, as these tend to have more mature storylines. Stats are quite likely to be ignored, so games in which stat management is essential are unlikely to appeal.

It follows, from this model at least (remember - it's just a model; "the map is not the territory") that the more dependent upon "spreadsheets of stats", the more the game will pull towards a Type 1 and Type 2 audience, and away from a Type 3 and Type 4 audience. In some respects, this might reflect a difference between Western CRPGs and JapRPGs.

I personally think the JapRPGs are a more well-rounded genre on the whole, although this may reflect my own personal biases. Certainly, in Japan (based upon the last CESA report I saw) CRPGs are the most popular genre. I believe this is because JapRPGs can hit all four of the play styles of the DGD1, and so are more balanced in terms of play style. Western CRPGs, by comparison, rarely hit the needs of the Type 4 Participant (read: poor or vacuous story content), and generally alienate the Type 3 Wanderer by being intrusive with their incompetent mechanics. In part, this is inhereting the clumsiness of D&D mechanics - although we mustn't think ill of a system for being so flawed when it was the genre-busting game which took us from tabletop strategy games to role-playing games, one of the largest genre jumps in game history. We should feel free to lambast games which continue to copy the flaws of D&D blindly, however (I'm talking to you, most Western CRPGS!).

Returning to the idea of sports managers being akin to CRPGs, the parallel is apposite - but mostly from the perspective of players preferring the Type 2 Manager style. The great thing about including these managerial layers is that it diversifies the variety of play needs these games can meet. That's a great thing from a commercial perspective, and it's good news for players, too.

On the whole, there is a healthy trend in the upper market towards supporting more diverse play needs - such as the "B-spec" driving manager mode added to GT4 (a game which already widened its audience by setting driving in an RPG context). The big gun publishers know they need to support more diverse play than ever before, Sony even said this to me directly. Sadly, a lot of developers and many of the other publishers have no idea how to go about doing this, and often end up trying to merge different styles of play instead of aiming to support diverse play styles.

Why doesn't merging play styles work? It's what we call the set intersection error in the book. If you want a larger grouping you want the union of two sets, not the intersection of two sets. Developers would do well to learn this lesson. Look for ways that different players could play your game in different ways - when we do, everyone benefits.

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"(read: poor or vacuous story content)"

I couldn't contain my laughter here, I'm afraid: while I won't say that many Western RPGs have incredible stories (although I hear the BioWare games do; I haven't the immense time resources to find out however), I can't say the Japanese have succeeded either. Certainly in the cases of Final Fantasy et al franchises, narrative content has been anemic to say the least. I simply don't want yet another CRPG with an angsty rock-star race-neutral hero based on Gackt. Or the three female roles that apparently are pre-ordained to the Japanese (the naive, innocent white mage who is typically the love interest, the detached and often buxom warrior/black mage, and the spunky jailbait rouge/theif to appeal to Japanese men.) It's too much for me. And being that the stories are still either the type 1) assassinate someone or type 2) acquire some valuable loot, there's no real revolution there.

Now of course I am sure there are counter-examples to all this, I think it's settled that this is the mainstream of Japanese RPG narrative - no less poor than what we have in the West, I think. Personally I think it stems from the cutural Noh theater, with its overwrought melodrama and exaggerated characters (although honestly I don't know a ton about Noh.) There is an Ico here and there to change how narrative is done, but I think by and large the Japanese narrative is in the same bad shape as Western game narrative.

OK, now that I've finished my rant on Japanese games, I have a question on your Tpye 1 and Type 2 gamers in this genre - they seem to overlap a lot; stats are just an enumerated form of advancement. Is there a particular thing that seperates the two player's interest here or is the overlap intentional?

I think there is a problem with Western reliance on D&D as an archetype; although not because D&D is somehow a flawed system but rather it seems to be the only inspiration. I'm not sure if I agree that Western RPGs are more stat oriented however - the FF franchise in particular generally only gets one new micro-innovation each iteration, and it is almost always some new stat progression system - the Sphere Grid of X was certainly a min/maxers dream. I think Western RPGs are less stat-based then they are loot-based, although honestly thats only a small technical difference.

I will also note here that Western RPGs typically offer much greater nonlinear freedom than their Eastern counterparts, which (I presume) fits into your Type 3 Wanderer a little better (though I don't know much about DGD1 so I can't say for certain.) Japanese RPGs, in my experience, are entirely on-rails experiences; whereas I treasured the openness of the Fallout games (and my understanding is BioWare RPGs are similarily nonlinear.)

Also, you mentioned that ludic-oriented play (vice narrative oriented play, I assume?) is geared more towards hardcore audiences. In that case I ask what of Katamari? Is that more of a narrative experience due to its surrealism and soundtrack, or would you classify it as more ludic (as I would) for its very different and unique gameplay? While I know it hasn't exactly sold to the mainstream, it seems very casual-friendly. What do you mean, then, by very ludic play?

First things first, narrative in JapRPGs... It should be understood that I didn't praise the stories in Japanese RPGs. But, in my role as a writer, I am extremely sensitive to badly constructed narrative. The stories in many JapRPGs may not be great (I can't vouch for Final Fantasy as I have never played a Final Fantasy game unless you count Tactics Advance), but they are at least professionally constructed and could at least be compared to the standard of (say) bad TV shows. Conversely, most (but not all) Western CRPGs are very poorly constructed in narrative terms, and are often on the standard of (say) bad tabletop role playing game campaigns. Remember: this isn't about how good the plot, characters or story is, it's just about the quality of the narrative construction. Western CRPGs, in my experience at least, have been considerably worse. (Note also that outside of the genre of CRPGs, there are many well constructed Western game narratives - it really is the Western CRPGs I am singling out here).

Also, as with any such topic, no-one plays every game in a genre, so different people will inevitably have a different perspective. :)

Regarding Type 1 and Type 2 players; it should be understood that the four play styles of DGD1 wrap around: Type 1 blends into 2, into 3, into 4 and then back to 1 again. So there certainly are commonalities between Type 1 and Type 2. The key differences are:

Type 1: biased towards goal orientation and tendency to focus on single tasks in (sometimes obsessive) isolation. Preferring a faster pace and greater challenge (hence greater fiero).

Type 2: biased towards process orientation and a capacity to focus on many different elements in parallel. Preferring an even pace, and a level of challenge commesurate to their abilities.

So, when I talk about the lure of a spreadsheet of numbers to CRPG players preferring Type 2 play, this should be understood to reflect a need or desire to juggle lots of information in parallel. The Nippon Ichi games (e.g. Disgaea) are great examples - you maintain potentially huge stables of characters, with an array of stats to explore. Type 2 players really seem to connect with this; Type 1 players generally seem to prefer a single character or at most a small party dynamic.

Although you doubtless get tired of me plugging the book, it would be great if you did decide to buy a copy - I would welcome your insight and perspective on our work on audience models.

Thanks for your point about the open structure of Western RPGs - yes, this is spot on! JapRPGs tend towards linear structure which suits Type 1 and Type 4 play better than other styles.

In principle, open structure is a much better approach for Type 3 play - although many Western CRPGs are too punishing for the typical Type 3 Wanderer player. There's also Type 2 appeal in the open structure.

Finally, when I talk about ludic play, this is versus paidic play. Ludus, in Caillois' model, is structured play, while paidia is unstructured, spontaneous play. Katamari is a wonderful example of paidic play, in my opinion; most CRPGs (with their complex rule systems) are much more ludic in nature.

Why is Katamari better recieved by Hardcore players if I'm correct to assign a more ludic bias to them? Because Katamari is strange and unusual and (collectively) the Casual gamers tend to prefer the familiar.

Also, the ludic bias is mainly common to the H1 and H2 subclusters - the H3 subcluster (for instance) is more drawn to unique and inventive play than to interesting game rule sets. The desire for originality I'm associating with the H3 play needs is also expressed by other Hardcore players - it is just more prominant in the Type 3 cluster where ludic needs are more relaxed.

"Remember: this isn't about how good the plot, characters or story is, it's just about the quality of the narrative construction"

I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean by this. When I say something has a good narrative, I mean to say it has interesting characters and a well-crafted plot. What exactly do you mean by construction if not these elements?

I actually plan on picking up the book soon, as I just recently ran out of things to read; and I'm always in need of a new game design textbook :)

Most of the major baseball games do have some kind of franchise mode. I don't know how extensive they are compared to Madden and the like because I do not play baseball games.

Psu - thanks for the info about Baseball franchise modes!

James - as with any craft, there are good and bad practices. For instance, a novel may have a great plot and characters, but be marred by poor writing practices such as choppy exposition, incompetent structuring or even something as basic as poor sentence construction. It's perfectly possible to have something which is well crafted in writing terms, but doesn't have an interesting plot or involving characters, and the reverse is equally possible.

This might be the sort of thing that one has to be either a writer or a writing critic to fully appreciate... writers often talk about films and books in terms such as "it was well made, but it didn't engage me."

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