Video showing typical gameplay of an isometric point-and-click action RPG
Typically action RPGs feature each player directly controlling a single character in real time, and feature a strong focus on combat and action with plot and character interaction kept to a minimum. Early action RPGs tended to follow the template set by 1980s Nihon Falcom titles such as the Dragon Slayer and Ys series, which feature hack and slash combat where the player character's movements and actions are controlled directly, using a keyboard or game controller, rather than using menus. This formula was refined by the action-adventure game, The Legend of Zelda (1986), which set the template used by many subsequent action RPGs, including innovations such as an open world, nonlinear gameplay, battery backup saving, and an attack button that animates a sword swing or projectile attack on the screen. The game was largely responsible for the surge of action-oriented RPGs released since the late 1980s, both in Japan and North America.The Legend of Zelda series would continue to exert an influence on the transition of both console and computer RPGs from stat-heavy, turn-based combat towards real-time action combat in the following decades.
A different variation of the action RPG formula was popularized by Diablo (1996), where the majority of commands—such as moving and attacking—are executed using mouse clicks rather than via menus, though learned spells can also be assigned to hotkeys. In many action RPGs, non-player characters serve only one purpose, be it to buy or sell items or upgrade the player's abilities, or issue them with combat-centric quests. Problems players face also often have an action-based solution, such as breaking a wooden door open with an axe rather than finding the key needed to unlock it, though some games place greater emphasis on character attributes such as a "lockpicking" skill and puzzle-solving.
One common challenge in developing action RPGs is including content beyond that of killing enemies. With the sheer number of items, locations and monsters found in many such games, it can be difficult to create the needed depth to offer players a unique experience tailored to his or her beliefs, choices or actions. This is doubly true if a game makes use of randomization, as is common. One notable example of a game which went beyond this is Deus Ex (2000) which offered multiple solutions to problems using intricately layered story options and individually constructed environments. Instead of simply bashing their way through levels, players were challenged to act in character by choosing dialog options appropriately, and by using the surrounding environment intelligently. This produced an experience that was unique and tailored to each situation as opposed to one that repeated itself endlessly.
At one time, action RPGs were much more common on consoles than on computers. Though there had been attempts at creating action-oriented computer RPGs during the late 1980s and early 1990s, often in the vein of Zelda, very few saw any success, with the 1992 game Ultima VII being one of the more successful exceptions in North America. On the PC, Diablo's effect on the market was significant: it had many imitators and its style of combat went on to be used by many games that came after. For many years afterwards, games that closely mimicked the Diablo formula were referred to as "Diablo clones". Three of the four titles in the series were still sold together as part of the Diablo Battle Chest over a decade after Diablo's release. Other examples of action RPGs for the PC include Dungeon Siege, Sacred, Torchlight and Hellgate: London—the last of which was developed by a team headed by former Blizzard employees, some of whom had participated in the creation of the Diablo series. Like Diablo and Rogue before it, Torchlight and Hellgate: London made use of procedural generation to generate game levels.
Screenshot of Damnation of Gods, a Dungeon Master clone. All four members of the players' party move around the game world as a single unit, or "blob", in first-person perspective.
This subgenre consists of RPGs where the player leads a party of adventurers in first-person perspective, typically through a dungeon or labyrinth in a grid-based environment. Examples include the aforementioned Wizardry, Might and Magic and Bard's Tale series; as well as the Etrian Odyssey and Elminage series. Games of this type are sometimes called "blobbers", since the player moves the entire party around the playing field as a single unit, or "blob".
Most "blobbers" are turn-based, but some titles such as the Dungeon Master, Legend of Grimrock and Eye of the Beholder series are played in real-time. Early games in this genre lacked an automap feature, forcing players to draw their own maps in order to keep track of their progress. Environmental and spatial puzzles are common, meaning players may need to, for instance, move a stone in one part of the level in order to open a gate in another part of the level.
Though many of the original RPGs for the PLATO mainframe system in the late 1970s also supported multiple, simultaneous players, the popularity of multiplayer modes in mainstream RPGs did not begin to rise sharply until the early to mid-1990s. For instance, Secret of Mana (1993), an early action role-playing game by Square, was one of the first commercial RPGs to feature cooperative multiplayer gameplay, offering two-player and three-player action once the main character had acquired his party members. Later, Diablo (1996) would combine CRPG and action game elements with an Internet multiplayer mode that allowed up to four players to enter the same world and fight monsters, trade items, or fight against each other.
Multiple people chat and play online in the MMORPG Daimonin.
Although superficially similar to single-player RPGs, MMORPGs lend their appeal more to the socializing influences of being online with hundreds or even thousands of other players at a time, and trace their origins more from MUDs than from CRPGs like Ultima and Wizardry. Rather than focusing on the "old school" considerations of memorizing huge numbers of stats and esoterica and battling it out in complex, tactical environments, players instead spend much of their time forming and maintaining guilds and clans. The distinction between CRPGs and MMORPGs and MUDs can as a result be very sharp, likenable to the difference between "attending a renaissance fair and reading a good fantasy novel".
Further, MMORPGs have been criticized for diluting the "epic" feeling of single-player RPGs and related media among thousands of concurrent adventurers. Stated simply: every player wants to be "The Hero", slay "The Monster", rescue "The Princess", or obtain "The Magic Sword". But when there are thousands of players all playing the same game, clearly not everyone can be the hero. This problem became obvious to some in the game EverQuest, where groups of players would compete and sometimes harass each other in order to get monsters in the same dungeon to drop valuable items, leading to several undesirable behaviors such as kill stealing, spawn camping, and ninja looting. In response—for instance by Richard Garriott in Tabula Rasa (2007)—developers began turning to instance dungeons as a means of reducing competition over limited resources, as well as preserving the gaming experience—though this mechanic has its own set of detractors.
Single-player games are great, and I love them. They have a great feature. Your life is very special. You are the hero and you get to save the whole world. (...) [Tabula Rasa] is like Disney World... You can go to shops and get food, but when you get on the boat for the pirate ride, you're in your own version of reality. Once the ride starts, you are blissfully unaware of the boats in front of you and behind you.
Lastly, there exist markets such as Korea and China that, while saturated with MMORPGs, have so far proved relatively unreceptive to single-player RPGs. For instance, Internet-connected personal computers are relatively common in Korea when compared to other regions—particularly in the numerous "PC bangs" scattered around the country, where patrons are able to pay to play multiplayer video games—possibly due to historical bans on Japanese imports, as well as a culture that traditionally sees video games as "frivolous toys" and computers as educational. As a result, some have wondered whether the stand-alone, single-player RPG is still viable commercially—especially on the personal computer—when there are competing pressures such as big-name publishers' marketing needs, video game piracy, a change in culture, and the competitive price-point-to-processing-power ratio (at least initially) of modern console systems.[Note 4]
More recently, with more powerful home computers and gaming systems, new variations of roguelikes incorporating other gameplay genres, thematic elements and graphical styles have become popular, typically retaining the notion of procedural generation. These titles are sometimes labeled as "roguelike-like", "rogue-lite", or "procedural death labyrinths" to reflect the variation from titles which mimic the gameplay of traditional roguelikes more faithfully. Other games, like Diablo and UnReal World, took inspiration from roguelikes.
This subgenre of turn-based role-playing games principally refers to games which incorporate elements from strategy games as an alternative to traditional role-playing game (RPG) systems. Tactical RPGs are descendants of traditional strategy games, such as chess, and table-top role-playing and strategic war games, such as Chainmail, which were mainly tactical in their original form. The format of a tactical CRPG is also like a traditional RPG in its appearance, pacing and rule structure. Like standard RPGs, the player controls a finite party and battles a similar number of enemies. And like other RPGs, death is usually temporary, albeit some have permanent death of party members. But this genre incorporates strategic gameplay such as tactical movement on an isometric grid. Tactical RPGs tend not to feature multiplayer play.
A number of early Western role-playing video games used a highly tactical form of combat, including parts of the Ultima series, which introduced party-based, tiled combat in Ultima III: Exodus (1983).Ultima III would go on to be ported to many other platforms and influence the development of later titles, as would Bokosuka Wars (1983), considered a pioneer in the strategy/simulation RPG genre, according to Nintendo. Conventionally, however, the term tactical RPG (known as simulation RPG in Japan) refers to the distinct subgenre that was born in Japan; as the early origins of tactical RPGs are difficult to trace from the American side of the Pacific, where much of the early RPG genre developed.
Many tactical RPGs can be both extremely time-consuming and extremely difficult. Hence, the appeal of most tactical RPGs is to the hardcore, not casual, computer and video game player. Traditionally, tactical RPGs have been quite popular in Japan but have not enjoyed the same degree of success in North America and elsewhere. However, the audience for Japanese tactical RPGs has grown substantially since the mid-90s, with PS1 and PS2 titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Suikoden Tactics, Vanguard Bandits, and Disgaea enjoying a surprising measure of popularity, as well as hand-held war games like Fire Emblem. (Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1 is often considered the breakthrough title outside Japan.) Older TRPGs are also being re-released via software emulation—such as on the WiiVirtual Console—and on handheld game consoles, giving games a new lease on life and exposure to new audiences. Japanese video games such as these are as a result no longer nearly as rare a commodity in North America as they were during the 1990s.
Western video games have utilized similar mechanics for years, as well, and were largely defined by X-COM: UFO Defense (1994) in much the same way as Eastern video games were by Fire Emblem. Titles such as X-COM have generally allowed greater freedom of movement when interacting with the surrounding environment than their Eastern counterparts. Other similar examples include the Jagged Alliance (1994–2013) and Silent Storm (2003–2005) series. According to a few developers, it became increasingly difficult during the 2000s to develop games of this type for the PC in the West (though several had been developed in Eastern Europe with mixed results); and even some Japanese console RPG developers began to complain about a bias against turn-based systems. Reasons cited include Western publishers' focus on developing real-time and action-oriented games instead.
Finally, a steadily increasing number of other non-RP video games have adopted aspects traditionally seen in RPGs, such as experience point systems, equipment management, and choices in dialogue, as developers push to fill the demand for role-playing elements in non-RPGs. The blending of these elements with a number of different game engines and gameplay styles have created a myriad of hybrid game categories formed by mixing popular gameplay elements featured in other genres such as first-person shooters, platformers, and turn-based and real-time strategy games. Examples include first-person shooters such as parts of the Deus Ex (starting in 2000) and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (starting in 2007) series; real-time strategy games such as SpellForce: The Order of Dawn (2003) and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (2009);puzzle video games such as Castlevania Puzzle (2010) and Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (2007); and turn-based strategy games like the Steel Panthers (1995–2006) series, which combined tactical military combat with RPG-derived unit advancement. As a group, hybrid games have been both praised and criticized; being referred to by one critic as the "poor man's" RPG for omitting the dialogue choices and story-driven character development of major AAA titles; and by another critic as "promising" for shedding the conventions of more established franchises in an attempt to innovate.
RPGs seldom test a player's physical skill. Combat is typically a tactical challenge rather than a physical one, and games involve other non-action gameplay such as choosing dialog options, inventory management, or buying and selling items.
Although RPGs share some combat rules with wargames, RPGs are often about a small group of individual characters. Wargames tend to have large groups of identical units, as well as non-humanoid units such as tanks and airplanes. Role-playing games do not normally allow the player to produce more units. However, the Heroes of Might and Magic series crosses these genres by combining individual heroes with large numbers of troops in large battles.
RPGs rival adventure games in terms of their rich storylines, in contrast to genres that do not rely upon storytelling such as sports games or puzzle games. Both genres also feature highly detailed characters, and a great deal of exploration. However, adventure games usually have a well-defined character, whereas while RPGs may do so, many allow the player to design their characters. Adventure games usually focus on one character, whereas RPGs often feature an entire party. RPGs also feature a combat system, which adventure games usually lack. Whereas both adventure games and RPGs may focus on the personal or psychological growth of characters, RPGs tend to emphasize a complex eternal economy where characters are defined by increasing numerical attributes.
Gameplay elements strongly associated with this genre, such as statistical character development, have been widely adapted to other video game genres. For example, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, an action-adventure game, uses resource statistics (abbreviated as "stats") to define a wide range of attributes including stamina, weapon proficiency, driving, lung capacity, and muscle tone, and uses numerous cutscenes and quests to advance the story. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, a real-time strategy game, features heroes that can complete quests, obtain new equipment, and "learn" new abilities as they advance in level. Multiplayer online battle arena genre, that originated as a mod for the Warcraft III, is a fusion of role-playing games, action games and real-time strategy games, with RPG elements built in its core gameplay.
According to Satoru Iwata, former president of Nintendo, turn-based RPGs have been unfairly criticized as being outdated, and action-based RPGs can frustrate players who are unable to keep up with the battles. According to Yuji Horii, creator of the popular Dragon Quest series and Ryutaro Ichimura, producer of Square Enix, turn-based RPGs allow the player time to make decisions without feeling rushed or worry about real-life distractions.