Movies > RPGs < MMORPGs?

Single-player role-playing games. We are seeing less and less of them as the videogame industry matures. Much in the way that we don’t see as many people playing Dungeons & Dragons with pencil and paper anymore these days, we are seeing fewer single-player RPGs being developed and released for home consoles and the PC.

So, why is the situation on home systems deteriorating? Surely, if RPGs were still profitable enough for consoles and PC, there would be just as many in development for those platforms as there are for handhelds these days. No, only a select few titles that have rabid, built-in fan bases such as the Final Fantasy series or anything with a BioWare name attached remain. We just don’t see as many new comers to the genre as we used to.

Yes, RPGs are still a booming success in niche markets that don’t quite fit in the same business model, like handhelds, since there is no massively multiplayer online role-playing game market yet possible there. Surely, once future generations of these devices are permanently connected to the internet via wireless, we will see much of the same phenomenon as we are now in our homes. You could say that the hardware is already moving in that direction as the line between cell phones, PDAs, and handheld gaming devices are starting to blur and overlap.

Ever since the first commercially available role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, came out in 1974, RPGs have generally had three primary elements of entertainment to them, those being:

1) an engaging social interaction with friends
2) a feeling of pride and accomplishment in one’s character(s) or achievements
3) the ability to experience an engaging storyline

Single-player RPGs did away with one of the three elements, which was the social experience provided by sitting around a table with a bunch of friends, playing a traditional pen and paper RPG. Despite this, videogame RPGs still became a popular alternative to the pen and paper variety because they retained the other two elements of the genre, while also allowing the player to choose when and where they wanted to play.

When MMOs came about, they reintroduced the missing social aspect of the RPG experience, while still retaining the other two elements and the ability to play anywhere, anytime (just as long as there’s Internet access). One can make a very strong argument to show that the MMO experience provides a much stronger sense of pride and accomplishment than a single-player RPG, since your character is on display for everyone else to see. In fact, those accomplishments (in the form of level, items, etc.) can be used to compete against or defeat other players, further reinforcing one’s sense of pride. Another strong argument can be made that the story in most MMOs is weak due to the sandbox nature of the game; although many gamers are perfectly content with their own day-to-day experiences in the game serving as a unique, non-contrived storyline of sorts. Still others choose “role-playing servers” where most players within attempt to remain within character to increase the level of immersion.

With MMOs in the picture, it seems the one bastion of hope that single-player RPGs have left to hold onto is that of an epic story. A lot of developers know this, which is why we now get hour-long CGI cut scenes in RPGs. This has actually resulted in a lot of complaints from players that were under the silly impression that a “game” actually involves interaction.

Unfortunately, most single-player RPGs also fall into the “story on rails” design model, meaning they merely create the illusion of choice, though very little role-playing is actually involved. To combat this, many RPGs have started trying to provide a “good” and “evil” path to arrive at different endings, but even these games are usually not developed well enough; most of the game’s content (in the form of character interaction and quests) ends up being biased towards playing the traditional hero role and the player often misses out on a lot if they play otherwise.

So then, what separates most RPGs from just being movies that you have to level up to watch progress? For the average person who just wants to be entertained by a great story, what really does a single-player RPG provide that a Hollywood movie can’t (other than hours of grinding on mindless, treasure-carrying baddies in between snippets of story)?

What leg does the single-player RPG genre have left to stand on as a viable alternative to playing an MMO or simply watching a movie?  Is the genre destined to virtually disappear into obscurity, much the way simulation games have?  If not, then what need does the single-player RPG genre still fulfill that the other two can’t?