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.