Are We Having Fun Yet?

I've been playing RPGs for as long as I can remember, starting with Final Fantasy I. They're my favorite genre of games. I've beaten well over a hundred of them, and I have easily sunk more time into RPGs than I have into all the other games I've ever played of any other genre combined. And when I share this simple observation with my friends who have been able to strike a healthier balance between their RPGs, their platformers, their puzzle games, etc., they ask me: "do you even enjoy playing games at this point?"

That's a valid question. And I think it's a question that any frequent RPG player (particularly the MMORPG enthusiast) needs to ask. Is this leisure, or is it mere habit at this point?

After some serious soul-searching, I have come to the conclusion that there are times when I'm playing an RPG that I'm not having fun, but I'll keep playing it. Due to their nature (the epic story-telling, the linear plot, the grand scope and scale) there are going to be times that the game just isn't enjoyable. But you push through, maybe for ten or more hours, because there's something exciting waiting on the other side. Or, at least, you hope so. After all, If the ending is also unsatisfying, then it was truly a wasted effort.

That is, of course, what separates most role-playing games from any other genre: the amount of time you sink into a single "playthrough." For many action-based platformers, if you're not having fun within the first hour, you probably aren't going to have any fun at all. And if you play it for a few hours, and the game loses its fun factor at some point, you probably won't feel any emotional discomfort from putting down the game and never returning. Not so with RPGs, where character development is heavily emphasized, and the dangling carrot of "good things to come" keeps you going. We RPG fans do tend to prefer delayed gratification over short-term, immediate gratification.

Another observation I must make, of course, is the trend towards real-time combat in RPGs. More and more, RPGs are jumping ship from traditional, turn-based, menu-driven combat to systems that look more and more like a 3D action adventure. Final Fantasy XII demonstrated this jump well, and games like Magna Carta, .hack//G.U., and the Tales series all continue to grow in popularity because they are so action-oriented. The only major franchise that remains true to its steadfast turn-based roots to this day is Dragon Quest. There were rumors that Dragon Quest IX would be an Action RPG, but such rumors were unfounded.

Of course, a fun experience does not require real-time action, nor does real-time action guarantee a good time. Strategy/Tactical RPGs remain largely menu-based and slow in nature, though we've seen more and more RTS/RPG hybrids in the past few years, and these games require a quick-thinking brain for all of their micromanagement and strategy.

Even with these changes in the nature of the genre, delayed gratification is still the name of the game. The typical RPG, be it Japanese or Western, will involve gaining experience points and slowly working towards what is hopefully some decent endgame content, with exciting bonuses accompanying your mastery of skills or magic spells, and an exciting conclusion to a large-scale plot. But if the return on your time investment is poor, there's nothing you can do. You'll have played and beaten an entirely un-fun game. This rarely happens to fans of platformers, FPS titles, or puzzle games. So there's a greater risk with RPGs in finding anything enjoyable. But when you find it... in my opinion, the reward is great indeed.

- Patrick Gann


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