Two Types of Windows Mobile RPGs

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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?

Nice article!

BTW, as far as the Awards categories are concerned, I've throught of separating "real" RPG's from "Japanese-like" ones. I think Arvele would belong to the latter. This would, probably, be more fair to these titles.

This might also let for including titles like Edge in the Awards.

Thoughts?

I'm not necessarily saying I disagree with your opinion, but based on that it looks like there are only maybe 4 games that qualify for the RPG category in the awards (I've not played Tower Of Souls enough to classify that one). I would argue, however, that "Japanese Style" is a gross misrepresentation of the genre you are looking for. I think a more accurate term would be "Action RPG", coined of course by the seminal entry Diablo.

As to what defines an RPG, yes I do believe there needs to be customizable traits, but I think a game can be just as fun with only 3 traits as with 12. Personally, as much as I like RPGs I don't like to get too bogged down in the details of assigning points and hoping that I'm doing everything right, just to find out after 10 hours of game time that I should have given myself X points in Y trait instead of Y points in Z trait. What might prove to be interesting is a traits setup like the skills setup used in Assaultaire or Earth Day, where points could always be unassigned from one trait and reassigned to another.

While a couple of years ago I might have agreed with the idea of complex games on a portable platform, I'm not so sure I feel that way now. I suppose its because my ability to commit time to any particular game has gone down dramatically, but I just haven't found the same enchantment in The Quest that I did with Legacy. On the other hand, short and sweet games like Knight Tales really catch my attention. I guess I'm suffering mid-life ADD or something.

Anyway, I appreciate your thorough analysis of the current portable RPG situation, and I hope some developers out there are listening up. Maybe one of them can set me back on the straight and narrow :)

Great focus on RPG related issues. . .

One feature I have always liked with RPG games is the "turn by turn" results. Role playing games originated as being a board game thus rolling the dice each turn was the norm for each player. As games were converted to computers, multi-player aspects slowly disappeared and became stand alone single player games. Various aspects were introduced to improve the games enjoyment factor thus tacking away many aspects of what the original concept of a true RPG game entailed.

I still like the "turn by turn" aspect where in one turn, you make a decision to do or not do something. This alters the condition of your next turn and could pose a negative or positive result. A good board game that demonstrates this "turn by turn" action is RISK. Though RISK is not an RPG game, it may have been the basis from which many great RPG games were derived from.

To ensure you forge ahead and complete your mission or quest in any good electronic RPG game, you must save your games position often. This allows you to return to a previously good position if you find yourself at a dead end. I feel that a good electronic game to be classified as a true RPG must retain this aspect of the original board game.

Role playing games as the name suggests will allow you to select and create a character that evolves over time. The actual gameplay could involve still images with (yes/NO) actions only or realtime action which also involves a (YES/NO) action based on realtime decisions.

A good RPG game will allow you to complete the game and then start over again using a new character. This will allow you to experience the game all over again but with a new experience. An RPG game is not like other action games where once it is completed, you are done. Therefore a good RPG game should retain aspects of the original board game where you can continue the game later with the same character or start with a fresh character and experience the challenage and thrills from a new viewpoint.

The market for good RPG games on Windows Mobile is still open to many new titles. New and old developers will do well by understanding what made the original "Dungeons and Dragons" board games so popular. By carrying much of the positive aspects and recreating them in the electronic RPG games will truly make any new title a really big hit in my books. It's not just about the hi-res graphics and superior sound bites.

Another thing to add to this list is that a good RPG should be expandable. Part of the reason that games like D&D were such a hit was that the universe was always growing with new modules, allowing you to experience a variety of worlds without having to jump to a new system every time. I think this is part of the reason that Legacy and The Quest have appealed to so many Windows mobile gamers.

As far as having a new "Japanese style RPG" or "Action RPG" category goes, I'm not sure how the two would be distinguished. What if there was a game that looked like a Japanese style RPG but which had all the characteristics of a great RPG? IMHO the main thing that separates some RPGs from others is that some are real RPGs and others aren't. And I think Eric is right that there aren't that many "real" RPGs for the platform so far. I'll have to think about the category split some more...

Bob, I forgot to add replayability to the list of things that make an RPG an RPG. Thanks for pointing that out.

Great comments and ideas everyone!

This is a great starting resource on what RPG is and how it relates to various areas of development.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Role-playing_game

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out

Eric, yup, the lack of quuality titles certainly make it pretty hard to correctly set up categories. However, with the introduction of Edge, we would have pretty strong nominees in the "traditional" category (I think it belongs more to the "classic" than the "action", "light" RPG's).

What are you referring to when you say Edge? The only thing I can think of is the Palm RPG. I wasn't aware of any title by that name for the PocketPC.

I think the PalmOS title is what Werner is referring to. It can be played with StyleTap I think.

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