(In a world of infinite possibilities, why are we in this one? Try a remix.)
While the core of RPGs is often seen as 'kill things and loot their stuff', a game based just on 'kill/reward' wouldn't seem to have appeal and depth. It's akin to saying good comedy is just 'setup/punchline'. The execution of the stimulus-reward chain is the essence of good game design in any medium. Good games make people come back. So tackling the idea of an RPG with mass appeal has to go beyond pure RPG theory and look at the execution of successful games in any genre.
RPGs requires a ramp up to reach the immersion necessary for 'in character' play. RPGing is supposed to be hard. It's a medium that attracts people specifically looking to be challenged and given puzzling tasks. If it was easy, it wouldn't be much of a game. And if it was only about instant gratification, it wouldn't have immersion, resonance or catharsis. RPGing as we see it as a long-form work. It's a stage play to the sitcom-like feel of a good board game. It's classical music to computer gaming's rock and roll. Both types are entertaining, but one requires more audience commitment than the other.
It's notable that 'Diablo', a mere CRPG, nailed some of the drama and catharsis and player-shaped experience that makes tabletop RPGing fun. From their post-mortum, "Players feel an ownership of their own game experience in that they are actively generating a unique story. It's enjoyable to tell friends about what you have just done in the game, knowing for sure that they have not done the same thing."
'Diablo' is not just a best-selling CRPG, it's a model of good design. In their Gamasutra post-mortum, the designers offer up their approach. "We used the term "kill/reward" to describe our basic gameplay. Players continually kill monsters and get rewarded with treasure and experience. But the rewards don't stop there. We offer a steady stream of goals and accomplishments to entice the player to keep playing. There's always a quest that is almost finished, a waypoint almost reached, an experience level almost achieved, and a dungeon nearly cleared out."
'Diablo' did right what many tabletop RPGs do wrong. In their words, "On a smaller scale, we tried to make every single action fun. Moving around inventory items produces pleasing sounds. Monsters die in spectacular fashion, like piņatas exploding in a shower of goodies. We strove for overkill in this sense, in that players are constantly on the verge of something great - only a few mouse-clicks away from a dozen interesting things." Sensory overload or just good kinethetics, it's also the same reason why good board games use pretty boards and fun pieces. Even chess uses sculpture. Are RPG actions fun, or are just the results fun?
In computer games, an artificial distinction is made between 'casual games' and hardcore games. RPG publishers would love to mass market an 'RPG casual game', under the premise that such a critter would reach millions of customers. I've often said that any easy mainstream RPG would be so different from current RPGs as to be its own type. And RPGers would not call it an 'RPG'. Is M:TG an RPG? Are minis RPGing? Are CRPGs RPGing? Though CRPGs evolved from tabletop, I think there are good lessons we can take from CRPGs back into our tabletop world. In the industry, many RPG designers have drifted into computer game development, in part because the money is good. I predict that within 5 years, we'll see a radically new tabletop RPG concept launch and hit big with the mass market. It'll be a 'casual RPG', it'll have a mix of concepts from computer gaming fused with tabletop play. It'll be fun yet hard. It'll be so cool... RPGers will refuse to call it an RPG.
People often talk of the potential 'gateway RPG' that is as appealing and accessible as a deck of cards yet has the depth of conventional tabletop RPGing. It'd be easy to learn and allows instant play, yet retains RPGing's customary mix of emotional experience. Where's the fun hiding in RPG actions? RPGing is fun, but is looking up stats fun? Is figuring combat values fun? Where's the joy in each mundane action? One reason CRPGs are popular is they make the non-fun stuff invisible. 'Diablo' used "what we call the "Mom test": could Mom figure this out without reading a manual?"Until next month,