A Computer-based Role Playing Game. See RolePlayingGame for general information.

A computer RPG is one in which the task of running the game, conventionally the work of a game master, is taken over by computer There were a number of clear reasons to develop computer based RPGs, which I will quickly summarize.

This list provides a marred lense into the nature of role playing games and the two main contradictory elements which they encompass: role playing a character, (Immersion) and personal achievement, (AdvancementAndCompletion) achieved vicariously through that of the avatar, or player character. Interestingly, the preference for the term "player character" or "avatar" perhaps reveals a person's preference for one viewpoint or the other.

The flip side of the benefits of using are computer are the detriments. The milieu is fairly static, owing to the inability of the computer to respond to new situations or actions performed by the player. As such, computer RPG games are often not dissimilar from other computer adventure games. The extent to which the environment, story, and characters are produced in advance by the creative team generally places a hard limit on what the player can do in the game: where he can go, with whom and in what ways he can interact, and what significant outcomes are possible. A good game master, on the other hand, working with his imagination and words, can be much more flexible and dynamic. A game master will be limited as well, usually in terms of the wider context, and the detail level of the environment can be expected to remain consistent only if the players are willing to stay within the story which has been presented. But characterization has near infinite potential if the game master is sufficiently experienced. Not so with computers.

Computer RPG developers have deployed various strategies in an attempt to make up for the computer's limited creative ability, but these have mostly come down to one general strategy: random assembly of modular components. This is necessitated by computer's being dumb, by data storage space being limited, and by artists and other creative contributors having only so much time to prepare unique content. Instead of generating fully realized characters and environments, the artists can make them in pieces, which the computer will combine according to algorithms. This result allows a wider variety of appearance of these elements. Diablo employed algorithmic random dungeon generation -- quite obviously. As a rule, the holy grail of random generation has never been found, but it is often enough to help improve that elusive game feature: replayability.

Most heavily story-driven RPG games, such as the Baldur's gate series, use randomness fairly sparingly. It is generally restricted to random encounters, a direct carry over from pen and paper. Of course, any good game master would adjust random encounters to suit the players enjoyment and the challenge, using surprise or the intensity of combat to shape the mood of the game. Computer RPGs have a tendency to insert random encounters as exceptionally undesirable moments -- usually when your weakened party is limping home after a bad encounter in a quest. This can be frustrating, and often slows the game down unnecessarily. At the same time, random encounters rarely provide the party with any benefit other than a bit more experience points. Even this mitigating side effect is lost if the characters have achieved a high skill level, in which case random encounters are nothing but an irritating nuisance. [Aside - the author found this a great hindrance to his enjoyment of latter chapters of many games, from Bard's Tale on up to Morrowind.]

Owing to the problems achieving dramatically enjoyable flexibility in computer-run games, it has been necessary to fall back on two other key ingredients: scripted plot points (and conversations) and a lot of combat padding. I suppose one could also point a finger at the dependency on fancy special graphics and audio effects, but this is an issue in all computer games. It is certainly debatable whether these are good or bad things, and taste has a lot to do with it. Many computer RPG players get great enjoyment from a carefully constructed narrative, which gives them the opportunity to role play in a straightforward way. They are given blatant, if implicit, directions by the writers for how to proceed, and doing so provides the maximum intensity to unique content and story.

Likewise, many players like a lot of combat. As suggested, this gives them the chance to revel in hack 'n' slash, by which they are rewarded copiously, with experience points, new items, new powers, and yet more powerful monsters to vanquish. Once they have achieved heroic stature, they get the added pleasure of being able to humiliate the annoying guards and other NPCs which might have thwarted them as weaklings. (This is true only in those games where such NPCs are fully operational game characters, and not, for example, just magical vending machines disguised as merchants and healers).

It is possible to find examples of games which sway to one side or the other between story driven play and action, and also games which occupy the middle ground. The future holds the promise (or threat) of games which can do all things for all players. They so far come in one of three forms: MMORPGs (EverQuest, Dark Age Of Camelot, ShadowBane, etc.), vast single-player simulation-style games (Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the abandoned Whole Experience), and computer-GM hybrids (Neverwinter Nights).

MMORPGs depend upon the vast number of online players to provide the majority of entertainment. They feature quests to greater or lesser extent. Massive simulation games attempt to give the player the illusion that the world is alive and the player is of no importance unless she can achieve such. They are usually replete with side missions which can be accessed in any order, and allow free roaming all over the land. Often they take place on islands, funnily enough. The hybrid style offers a lot of promise, in the author's opinion, because it means the interactions of the game can be increased dramatically, while retaining the artistic splendour and the highly detailed mechanics.