I’m super-excited about Dragon Age 2, Bioware’s latest RPG.  One thing that always comes up when a new RPG is released however, is whether or not the gameplay has been “dumbed down.” The idea is that hardcore RPG-players want a high level of customization so they can fine-tune their character’s development, while the wider audience just wants to get to the game and run through it. Is one way better?

I have friends who love being able to mess with the numbers that power an RPG world. Finding the ideal combination of powers and bonuses to maximize output is a big part of what makes the game fun for them. I think, though, that the “stats” component exists to allow players to develop a character, not to play a spreadsheet.

Tabletop RPGs are fun largely because of the social component, the group imagination and camaraderie that coalesces around the adventure. The stats and dice rolls are there to provide a framework, a kind of physics that keep the world intact. This, also, is what keeps people playing MMOs like World of Warcraft – it’s not necessarily because the game itself is so spectacular, but because of the friends with whom the game is shared. RPG video games should strive to enable this as much as possible, even in single-player games. RPGs are unique in that they allow players to develop their own character who can go on to shape their world.

This doesn’t necessarily mean stripping out as much customization as possible. As arcane as working with numbers and modifiers may appear to some, they’re what allows the player to mold the game to their will. They’re essentially choices, not the obvious world-altering ones the game’s story sets up for the player, but the little everyday ones that make a person who they are. I think it would be interesting to build a game that is capable of dynamically responding to how it is played, constantly changing form around the player. In the absence of such an engine, we have stats – overly “streamlining” them can actually make the game less immersive.

Dragon Age 2 seems to have tried to streamline the storytelling and gameplay while maintaining the same system of stats and skills from the original game. From what I’ve seen, I think they’ve managed to improve the way the game functions without stripping out the customizability (a major criticism of Bioware’s previous sequel, Mass Effect 2). Bioware has done a lot to explore what RPGs are capable of being, and it seems like DA2 is another step in the right direction.

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