Monday Musings: Shooting For The Future

Apparently the future of shooters is RPGs. Or says Cliff Bleszinski. And it seems like Bioware’s Ray Muzyka agrees with him. Have they both gone mad?

Bleszinski’s comment stemmed from his praise of Ken Levine, the creative mind behind BioShock, in an interview with Develop. He was impressed, not just with BioShock as a game, but with how Levine managed to disguise an RPG as a first-person shooter in order to enable a strange, unconventional game to sell millions of copies.

The Epic man went on to highlight the work of designers Harvey Smith (Deus Ex, Invisible War) and Randy Pitchford (Borderlands, Brothers In Arms) and declare that the future of shooters is RPGs. Later in the interview, when quizzed on where the Gears of War series might go next, he returns to that statement… but without further elaboration.

What does Bleszinski mean? It’s not entirely clear, save to say he views BioShock as an exemplar of this genre hybridisation.

Muzyka’s comments do offer slightly more insight, as he told Wired:

“Genres are almost a vestige of the past,” said Muzyka. “In a way, a lot of the best shooters are RPGs as well, because they allow you to have progression, exploration, combat or conflict, and a story.”

OK, so things are now starting to take shape. I think what both developers mean is that various elements of role-playing games are bleeding deeper into other genres. They’re looking at what other developers are doing across various genres and appropriating the best bits for their own use.

The thing is, RPG elements have been infecting shooters for years. (Or is it the other way around?) At launch in 1994, System Shock was – hilariously, in hindsight – damned for being a clunky clone of Doom, with its complex interface and inventory system and its emphasis on cautious exploration over trigger-happy fragfest. In reality it was a prescient vision of a gaming utopia free from the burdens of genre demarcation.

Deus Ex perfected the crossover, marrying stats-based character progression, functional stealth mechanics, meaningful dialogue options and a multitude of possible mission paths. Yet you could still play it as a shooter, even if it wasn’t necessarily the best straight shooter you could play.

Muzyka told Wired he believes the defintion of an RPG to be “broad”. But if he thinks it means having a strong story or letting the playing explore or having them choose some ability upgrades, he’s wrong. An RPG is more than that; an RPG is focused on enabling players to decide the role they want to play. It’s about choices: where to go, what to do, who to be?

The success of Call of Duty as an online multiplayer game has much to do with its co-opting of an RPG-style experience system. It encourages continued play by offering a clear path to obvious rewards. It doesn’t make it an RPG though it does introduce elements of an RPG. Every new shooter needs a similar XP and class system to stand a chance of building an online community.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a shooter operating within the structure of an RPG. Fallout 3 has much in common with Deus Ex, aside from substituting the latter’s linear mission structure for an explorable open world. Even Far Cry 2, while not conferring any kind of character advancement, lets you explore its world and tackle encounters at your own pace – both elements more at home in an RPG than a typical shooter.

Upcoming games like Borderlands, Mass Effect 2, Brink, Rage, Halo 3: ODST, Modern Warfare 2, BioShock 2, to name a few of the more high profile ones, are no longer quite so readily compartmentalised as strictly a shooter or an RPG. Rather, they all exist at some unspecified point on a fluid spectrum between the two labels.

So, sure, the future of shooters may well be RPGs. But also, isn’t the future of RPGs looking like it’s going to be shooters?

What do you think about the cross-pollination of the shooter and RPG genres? What are these hybrid games gaining and losing? And what are your favourite examples?


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