Two Types of Windows Mobile RPGs
I judged a fair amount of categories for this year's Best Software Awards and one of the more difficult to judge was the Role Playing Games ("RPG") category. The reason for this is that this year's nominees generally fall into two categories: (1) those that attempt to deliver the full-blown RPG experience to Windows Mobile; and (2) those that have an RPG look and feel but lack one or more of the necessary RPG ingredients.
What is an RPG?
When most people think of RPGs images of knights and monsters likely come to mind, but there's no reason that an RPG can't be set in other environments. What usually distinguishes traditional RPGs from other game genres can be summarized as follows. RPGs usually:
- Allow for detailed customization of the player's character, or characters. Usually, this means that a character will have a dozen or more traits that can be improved as the game progresses. In a typical RPG, the player gains experience points for doing various things and once enough of them are accumulated, the player advances a level. Advancing a level gives the player a predetermined number of points that can be distributed among the player's character's traits, thus allowing the player's character to be customized by the player.
- Allow for detailed customization of the player's equipment and items. One of the hallmarks of the traditional RPG is that there are hundreds if not thousands of different items for the player to acquire, trade, purchase, sell, make, equip, etc. in the game world, thus making the game world approximate our own more so than in many other types of game.
- Allow non-linear gameplay and exploration of a large world. This RPG element is less homogeneous than the others. Some RPGs take place in a relatively small area while others are fairly linear and don't allow much roaming. However, it is still correct to say that most RPGs afford the player a relatively large degree of freedom to explore the gameworld, and even those with a core of quests that must be linearly completed, usually do not require that those quests be completed by a particular time.
This list may not be exhaustive, but it will suffice for our purposes.
The Two Types of Windows Mobile RPGs
As I mentioned above, Windows Mobile developers that have decided to create RPGs for the platform, appear to have adopted one of two attitudes. The first group attempts to bring the full-blown RPG experience to Windows Mobile. The best exemplar of this type of game is undoubtedly Redshift's crowning achievement: The Quest. The Quest features all of the elements of the traditional RPG: (1) detailed customization of the player's character. There are 5 different character traits; 20 different character skills, and numerous other abilities, different character races, etc. (2) detailed customization of the player's equipment. There are hundreds of different items available in the gameworld and each of them can be improved via enchantment. There are also dozens (if not hundreds?) of unique books in the gameworld, some of which will give you various skills if you read them. Additionally, there are a number of alchemical elements that can be combined to produce potions, etc. (3) non-linear gameplay in a large gameworld. The gameworld is pretty big and you are free to explore it and wander around to your heart's content. The Quest is an amazing game and it proves that full scale traditional RPGs can work on Windows Mobile devices.
The second group of Windows Mobile RPG developers appears to have accepted the notion that only more casual games are fit for such a tiny platform and have consequently produced games that look a lot like traditional RPGs but which lack the necessary depth to satisfy the fan of traditional RPGs. The obvious king of this category are the extremely popular Arvale games. These games are extremely polished: great graphics, great sound and music, funny dialog, etc. However, I would argue that they lack each of the three characteristics of traditional RPGs that I set forth above: (1) very little character customization is allowed. There are four customizable traits. (2) Very little customization of the player's equipment. There is only a handful of different pieces of equipment. (3) While, technically, one is free to wander around the gameworld freely, doing so is pretty pointless because there isn't much worth doing.
Which Type Is Better?
I really enjoyed both The Quest and Arvale. However, I enjoyed The Quest much more because it is an RPG and Arvale is not. I understand that PDAMill probably wasn't intending to make a real RPG when they made Arvale but I really wish that they would make one. There is a serious lack of traditional RPGs for the platform.
The belief that Windows Mobile games should be simple is a fairly common one. Just two days ago, game guru Allen Gall stated that handheld gaming should be "simple in nature" (see towards the end of this review). I have to say that I disagree with this viewpoint. The main virtue of mobile devices is the fact that they're mobile and that they consequently allow their possessors to carry games, utilities, and the like with them wherever they go. I don't see why this mobility should only be reserved for "simple" things. Assuming that the interface is properly done, why are complicated games not fit for mobile devices?