What makes an RPG? As well, how do you make a good one? Really big swords don't hurt.
So two things first off just having a system doesn't make a game an RPG. Skills and classes and big swords can be seen as sort of trappings of this. If it's an RPG it will have this stuff but not because you just have to have these things to be a good RPG.
We live in a day and age where every game has RPG elements apparently. Is Mass Effect an RPG in the same sense as Ultima? Beyond that RPGs have sort of diversified so much that we have this niche problem where people say "I like DRPGs" in that "I read the New Yorker" dialect we all imagine when someone says they "only play old Koei games."
Not to fall apart too much but this article isn't going to land in a "Sub V. Dub" sort of debate, in that analogy we're looking at RPGs as a whole and not going to pretend that one iteration might be better or worse. I do like DRPGs though, so you can read this in that "I contribute to the New Yorker" voice if you want.
So when a person is looking at games like RPGs, as we said before there are enough RPG-likes out there that if you don't really want a pure RPG experience you don't have to have it. This sets up a sort of problem where all these different titles have skills or levels or side quests but at some point there exists a point in the scale where you push away from these elements being trappings and actually existing cause it's an RPG.
To break into philosophy you might of heard the phrase "a hammer is a hammer" meaning a sort of self evidence of a thing. You have a hammer, it totally hammers shit, thus it is a hammer. This is at once circular but not inherently a false line of logic because of that. It's just not sound. Nevertheless a hammer is a hammer because it performs as a hammer and that's all we can say.
With an RPG we can say it's an RPG cause it gives us choice. I mean every game gives us choice how is an RPG different? Well, in an RPG the whole reason fans find themselves into these games is that we get to really enjoy that function. Do I make this warrior into a Paladin eventually or Samurai? Do I have my Dalish elf shit on the other Dalish he finds or does he actually play his role? These examples are fairly diverse but still it's about choice in play and having these choices feel meaningful in some way. If we go with a Paladin we get extra heals and can be happy. If the Dalish elf kills all the other Dalish elves buzz you have to imagine a role playing reason for that.
Role Playing of course being important because in the end why gaming storytelling works is that over the time you play you grow attached to characters. In movies or TV you see them trying to make you like a character in just a few minutes. Often games have a much longer window before you make up your mind on a character. And if you're playing as that character it's sort of hard to actively dislike them.
Which leads into story. Story actually matters in a game. At least in an RPG. There has to exist a world and it has to be self sufficient. Out of the world comes a story that the player engages in. The worst damn thing a game can do is to make the player feel powerless in an RPG. Yeah the opposite problem does exist, looking at you Bethesda, but characters still matter. Any story worth telling is the most important story of a person's life. Remember that.
In an RPG you often end up playing as a character who is brought into a series of conflicts that tie them up in a greater conflict that will change the world. There is great drama and conflict and whatever else, but you're placing characters that are playable in the middle of all of this. Maybe players have a lot of control in shaping events, maybe they are sort of hand-tied in matter. But on top of the systems in place affecting combat and everything else the story and the world have to be there. Nobody wants to spend hours and hours in a boring world with dumb people when they pick up an RPG.
We end up back at that same problem though: what is an RPG? Well on one hand it's what players want.
So how do people make a good RPG?
The big bad problem can't be nuked.
So while pretty much every RPG ends in a multi stage boss fight where we kill the bad guy and he turns into a dragon, the problems affecting the world can't be fixed by just killing a guy. Yeah you might want a big bad in your game, but if things are so simple that a few well placed assassins could get that problem out of the way the world isn't interesting enough to be a good RPG.
Characters need to be customizable.
This means a lot to different people, and that is important to point out. We can have so many different types of RPGs now because there are different types of players who want different things. One person may be fine with just upgrading their space sword to a flaming space sword +1 and call it a day while another wants their own house and wife and a title. As a player knowing how much control you have in this choice all comes down to expectations and not demanding a game that is much more about weapon customization become a dating sim. However developers have to understand what they're doing with regards to this sort of stuff.
Choices have to matter not just feel like they matter to have a great game.
Seriously if I have spent time thinking about a choice in a game it needs to pay off.
When you play a shooter, like a pure one like the recent Wolfenstein, you're dealing with tactically working your way through a level. That' what you do. With an RPG you're burning through all sorts of choices constantly in smaller and larger ways. However developers need to actually think about how much energy a player might spend thinking about a given choice. Don't make me puzzle over the final choice if they all give you the same ending. Part of this comes down to how your express this choice to players, but in the middle of an RPG it needs to be shown whether or not certain decisions matter.
Don't be boring.
Not everyone is into every type of RPG, but seriously if you're making a game and it takes 20 hours to get to the good stuff you messed up. If you're a plot heavy game but the plot is boring cut that shit out and spend more time adding dragons. If you try to make a game where players can have conversations with anybody but realize along the way it sucks move on. There's nothing worse in an RPG than having that one system in the gae that doesn't work. Learn to leave that stuff out and you'll find a much stronger game can come out. Sure you might be able to work out an interesting improvement to a boring crafting system while you're making the game, but if this stuff isn't really working out it's better to move in a new direction than to force players to work with a boring crafting system. This goes for every system in a game.
So there. RPGs: big swords and an epic story to go through. You can't really say RPGs are the only type of games that gives players certain feelings of progression or characterization any more. However there are RPG fans out there so more games are going to be getting made, and there are great games out there that seem to just keep making RPG fans. Whether drawn into the genre due to the stories or the choices or customization all RPGs have a diverse selection of influences. Over time that means we have a diverse selection of RPG fans, but so long as the people making games remember a few of the rules to making good RPGs we should be fine. It doesn't take a million dollars or anything like that, just giving players interesting choices.