At their worst, the computer RPG designers of yore were like sadistic dungeon masters, drunk on power and determined to punish anyone who attempted to finish their game. For players, rewards were scarce, death was arbitrary, and hoop-jumping was de rigueur. Even the simplest Fedex quest could give you fits, as you tried to track down a well-hidden NPC (possibly locked behind three doors, each requiring you to solve an algebraic word problem).
Then RPG designers got soft. Those sadistic DMs turned into something more like those genial, fiercely humanistic soccer moms who insist on trophies for everyone. Many features that were once considered standard in RPGs were removed or reformed, with the guiding principle being something along the lines of: "Take out everything that isn't fun."
There are many reasons for this shift. I could write a book detailing how wider societal changes have led the genre to where it is today. Shifting attitudes about the middle class and the role of...
But no, seriously, it's all about World of Warcraft. WoW has proven something that few likely suspected prior to its release: that a fantasy RPG can appeal to a mass market and make lots and lots (and lots) of money. Thus it's no surprise that many of the features that have crept into traditional single-player games either originated in WoW, or were inspired by its "all fun, no hassle" design philosophy.
That's not a bad philosophy. And, it must be said, many recent changes to RPGs - especially those driven more by player feedback than the WoW copycat mentality - have been positive. Still, in the all-consuming desire to make every single moment of their games fun, I think single-player game designers are at risk of losing the sense of challenge that makes games rewarding.
Since the Internet seems to favor things in list format, here are the top 5 features that are serving to "dumb down" RPGs:
1. Quest compasses
It's no fun having to search for NPCs or locations critical to your quest. Thus the idea that every adventurer should have an onboard GPS system has gained traction in recent years. The only thing missing is a synthetic voice that provides up-to-the-minute directions. "Turn right at kobold village. Dragon lair will be on your right."
Granted, many of the old-school games had quests that were needlessly time-consuming due to vague instructions or devious area design. Still, not only are quest compasses immersion-breaking, but they discourage the player from exploring the game world (which I suppose could be a positive for game designers if the game world is dull and shallow). Markers highlighting quest NPCs and locations are similar hand-holding features, but aren't quite as maddeningly officious.
I mean, what next? RPGs that play themselves? What's that you say... there's already one on the way?
2. Penalties that don't penalize
It's no fun to be injured, cursed, poisoned, or lost in a maze. And it's especially no fun to have to tramp back to a temple to have members of your adventuring party resurrected. So game designers have kindly eliminated or watered down those sorts of penalties.
Of course, in reducing irritation for some, RPG designers have also reduced challenge for all. More importantly, they've taken away some of the dynamics that can make RPGs surprising and memorable. I can remember moments in the Infinity Engine games where my character was poisoned, and I wondered which would run out first - my life or my healing potions. Moments like that offer a different sort of challenge than the usual hack-and-slash routine.
It's no fun blundering into a situation you can't handle and getting one-shot killed, or having to wade through a pack of weak monsters to get from point A to point B. Therefore game designers have implemented level-scaling, so the game world adapts to you and encounters are always appropriate for your level.
I've already ranted about level-scaling and how it shatters immersion. What I haven't talked about as much is how it also reduces the importance of careful play and, you know, actually paying attention. In older games, gaining intelligence on your foes through scouting or other means was often valuable. With level-scaling ensuring encounters are evenly matched, that's not so much the case anymore.
4. Ungimpable character advancement
It's no fun spending dozens of hours playing a game, only to realize your character is too weak to beat the next boss. So - unless they're developing a game based on DnD or some other tabletop property - game designers typically keep the rules simple and the decisions limited.
The question is: Should an RPG's character generation system be a game unto itself, with the possibility of failure (in the form of a weak character), or should it merely provide the player with a risk-free means to customize his or her avatar? It's a valid question, and the customization option is a valid design choice for a game. However, that choice is definitely a dumbing (dumbening?) one.
It's no fun having to conserve limited healing potions, or to find a dozen magical long swords when your character is specializing in short swords. To solve this "problem," game designers allow players to create their own items through crafting skills.
Crafting on its own doesn't dumb things down. In fact, it's the only thing on this list that actually increases complexity. The problem is that, in too many cases, crafting minimizes the importance of resource management. With abundant components (because rare components aren't fun), crafting often allows you to churn out healing potions or engineer optimal weapons. If the game isn't balanced for this - and it's often not, because not all players want to craft - then crafting is like turning down the difficulty slider.
Having read this list, you might get the impression that the end goal for game designers is to make RPGs less, well, RPG-like. All the features that are dumbing down RPGs are doing so by lessening the significance of common RPG elements - wide open game worlds, long-term consequences, rules modeling real-world behavior, resource management.
That's great for people who don't like RPGs that much. For those of us who do? Well, these newfangled features aren't much fun.
UPDATE: If you enjoyed this article, you might also want to check out 5 old-school RPG features that should stay dead.