<< Previous: Classifying CRPGs

This is a second part of a two-part discussion on classifying CRPGs.

                       ACTION   ^   
                            ^   . Action games
                            |   .
                        /   +   -
                        .   |
              Action -- .   +  
               RPGs     .   |
                        \   +       Tactical RPGs           
                            |      /            
      "Traditional" RPGs -- *     *     * -- Strategy RPGs
               (0,1)        |                   (2,1)
                            |                STRATEGY
                            v                elements

Picture the realm of RPGs on a map, bordered by the vast kingdom of Action games to the north, and by Strategy games to the east. Whether a game is eligible for citizenship in this realm is determined by a combination of factors described in the previous section. Similarly, a given RPG can be classified by its proximity to the neighboring kingdoms, that is, by its position on the Action axis and the Strategy axis.

Action Axis

The Action Axis denotes the level of combat abstraction present in the game.

1: (Classic (Traditional) RPGs) This is the level of pen-and-paper RPGs, as well as most 'classic' console RPGs. Combat is important, and is resolved by character skill, stats and the roll of dice. Players influence the outcome of combat by making the right tactical decisions, as well as choosing the right equipment and stats for their characters.

2: (Action RPGs, Type I) Moving up the action scale, we get into the realm of Action RPGs. These games all have in common the action element; now, player skill becomes important in combat since one must deftly maneuver an onscreen character and physically strike foes with a representation of a weapon. Type I action games, specifically, still retain explicit character stats, which can be raised (either by levelling up or by raising the stat directly) by gaining experience points (XP). Games such as Zelda II, Crystalis, and Diablo fall under this category.

3: (Action RPGs, Type II) Raising stats by obtaining power up items, rather than XP, is the defining characteristic of Type II Action RPGs. Examples include Astyanax, Gauntlet, River City Ransom and Dungeon Explorer II.

4: (Action RPGs, Type III) These games have no explicit stats visible to the player (unless one counts life energy), and instead have character advancement through better items and equipment. The most famous example of this type is of course The Legend of Zelda, its various look-alikes (Spiritual Warfare and Battle of Olympus), as well as games like Metal Gear. Their status as RPGs is highly debatable, and most people consider these to be simply action games with strong RPG elements.

4 and above: (Action Games) The exact boundaries between the Type III Action RPGs and action games are somewhat fuzzy. After all, power up items and equipment exist in action games too. Does Metroid belong in action games, or in Type III Action RPG games? In cases like this, the reviewer can't classify a game solely on the Action/Abstraction axis, and must instead make a judgement call based on other RPG elements in the game (characterization, richness of plot, puzzle or strategy components) and tradition.

Strategy Axis

Strategy axis denotes the importance of strategy elements to a particular RPG.

1: (Tactical RPGs) Games that have an explicit tactical battle element (as opposed to the usual tactical decisions a player makes in any kind of RPG combat) fall under this category. Tactical battles involve small parties of combatants fighting in close quarters (from room-sized to the size of a small battlefield). This might be true (in abstract) for any kind of RPG, but these games allow the player to spacially arrange and maneuver the units, controlling battle formations, lines of fire, and so on. Ultima III: Exodus has a tactical element, while Final Fantasy Tactics epitomizes this type of RPG.

2: (Strategy RPGs) Strategy RPGs allow players to supervise entire kingdoms, to raise armies, and conquer whole empires. Set at a higher level of abstraction than their neighbors, the tactical RPGs, these games add an element of resource management and allocation -- land has to be developed, and armies have to be recruited, equipped, fed, and paid for. The difference between these games and the Tactical RPGs above, is that Strategy RPGs treat entire armies as units -- great battles occur instantaneously, and the player never has to see or arrange the individual troops. This type of game became more popular as console technology progressed, but even the NES had strategy RPG titles such as Nobunaga's Ambition and Genghis Khan. Also, as amib has pointed out, many of these games are traditionally considered as strategy games or historical wargames, and not RPGs, despite possessing all the requirements for the label.

Related Genres with RPG elements

Puzzle Games Some puzzle games, while lacking an explicit combat system or character advancement, still contain some RPG-like elements. Some of them have well-defined central characters on a journey, simple skills and items, and even NPCs that one encounters during one's journey.

Interactive Fiction Text-based interactive fiction games, from the ancient Adventure, to the various Infocom games (Zork, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, etc) have many elements in common with RPGs. They often have strong central characters, involved plots, many NPCs, involved puzzles and item manipulation. Yet aside from story progression and the finding of new items, they lack a real combat system or character advancement, and thus cannot be considered true RPGs.

Graphic Adventure Games These are the graphical descendants of the interactive fiction games, and include many famous titles in their ranks, from Secret of Monkey Island, to King's Quest to Maniac Mansion to Shadowgate, down to the more modern 7th Guest and Myst series. The same kind of reasoning holds true for the graphic adventures as for the interactive fiction games -- though they share many elements with RPGs (including very similar setting and fanbase), the lack of character advancement and combat, excludes them.

Multiplayer RPGs

Where do multiplayer RPGs such as MUDs or MMORPGs fit in with this classification? These types of games follow the same criteria, and exist on the same axes as the single-player titles. That is, every mud takes a stance on the abstractness of its combat system, which determines its place on the Action axis. Similarly, each multi-player game orients itself on the Strategy axis by choosing its primary focus, or following the usual heroic storytelling/combat-centered model. Multiplayer games are unique among the CRPGs in that they can be classified by another axis: their focus on the Social aspect. On one end of this axis, interaction with other people plays only a minimal role -- these games are essentially single-player type games that you just happen to play alongside other people (think MUDs which have quests that only one person at a time can complete). Towards the middle, social interaction has an increasingly important role in the game-play, such as in Dark Age of Camelot. Finally, on the opposite end of this spectrum, social interaction is the main focus of the game (e.g. The Sims Online), while combat or puzzle-solving are relegated to supporting roles (if present at all).

Note: This is a work in progress, and as I encounter new and different RPG types, the parameters are bound to change. Feel free to /msg me with any questions or suggestions.

Credits and thanks go to:
MightyMooquack, RPGeek and belgand for suggestions and clarifications.
amib for extensive discussion and ideas for restructuring the RPG categories.

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