PC Gamer

League of Legends' Rift Rivals tournament will hit Australia for the first time next month. The 2017 series of tournaments took place in cities like Berlin, Santiago and Moscow, but in 2018 Sydney will be among the destinations – and it'll take place in the plush surrounds of the State Theatre.

Rift Rivals 2018 will take place across five events, with two or three regions represented at each event. The Sydney event, which takes place between July 2 and 5, will feature three Southeast Asian teams (Ascension, Kuala Lumpur Hunters, Mineski), three Japanese teams (PENTAGRAM, DetonatioN FocusMe, Unsold Stuff Gaming) and three Oceania teams (Dire Wolves, Chiefs Esports Club, Legacy Esports).

Events will also take place in Ho Chi Minh, Los Angeles, Dalian, and a yet-to-be-confirmed location in Brazil, taking in teams from eleven further regions.

Tickets for the Sydney Rift Rivals are on sale now with entry starting from $49. There are also limited VIP tickets which include backstage meet-and-greets and the opportunity to actually play on the Rift Rivals stage, which doesn't sound daunting at all.

In semi-related Australian esports news, Aquis Entertainment and Executive Sports and Entertainment have this week established a joint venture establishment called QeSports, which will "focus on innovation in community and event development, consultancy and the development of purpose built esports stadia infrastructure across Australia and New Zealand."

You can buy tickets for Rift Rivals on the State Theatre website.

EVE Online

We originally reviewed EVE Online in 2003. It has grown and changed so much since then, we decided to review it again. Read more about why we've decided to re-review certain games here. Reviewer Brendan Drain is a long-time EVE player, and also heads indie studio Brain And Nerd, which is currently developing a sci-fi strategy game

“It’s not for everyone,” I say as I introduce a friend to EVE Online, hedging my bets on the off-chance that he actually tries the space sandbox MMO. I know that the reality of the day-to-day goings-on in EVE are unlikely to live up to the amazing stories I’ve told him of political intrigue, colossal wars, and record-breaking betrayals. EVE Online is a deeply compelling virtual galaxy in which incredible stories can take place, but only as infrequent punctuation to a more sedate space simulation. Those epic tales you read are EVE's highlight reel, and each memorable moment you might be a part of will be separated by long periods of patient preparation.

When it was first released back in 2003, EVE was a largely empty universe with a smattering of players all trying to grab power and smash each other’s heads in with it. PC Gamer’s original review at the time aptly described it as “a desolate wilderness of constellations,” but for some the challenge of taming that wilderness and carving out a chunk of it for themselves was irresistible. The empty world of New Eden was a newly opened book, and those early players were writing the first chapter in each other’s blood.

I was first introduced to EVE in early 2004 and have watched it grow over the years into a complex sandbox with a wide variety of roles and activities to suit different people. Players who enjoy PvP can become pirates or fight for one of the empire faction's militias, spending their days playing games of cat and mouse with other players through the low-security areas of the galaxy. They could join one of the warring alliances out in the lawless null-security regions and become part of massive fleet battles, or join a ruthless war corporation looking for weak groups to gank in high-security space.

Putting in the hours

Combat in EVE is so high-stakes that new players frequently experience physical shaking.

PvE-focused players can grind missions to help the NPC-run corporations of EVE fight off pirates and rival organisations and collect bounties in the process, or farm endless streams of NPCs in asteroid belts or cosmic anomalies. Explorers can use scan probes to search space for hidden pirate sites in the hopes of making a big find, or even venture through unstable wormholes into one of the thousands of hidden star systems. Industrialists spend their days hoovering up asteroids all throughout New Eden, manufacturing most of the ships and modules players use, and making profit trading on the fully player-run market. 

The one thing all of these activities have in common is that they're slow and deliberate, with a lot of downtime between moments of action or surprise. Players will spend hours hunting for that elusive kill for an adrenaline high (combat in EVE is so high-stakes that new players frequently experience physical shaking). Or they'll spend that time farming ISK (the in-game currency) to replace lost ships, analysing markets for opportunities, and designing the perfect ship setups for particular tasks. You could look at this as busywork or grindy gameplay, but it's all in preparation for those moments of action that matter most.

Every player you talk to will have small emergent stories of battles they were part of or other interesting things they've done in the sandbox, but underneath each story is painstaking prep. Grinding up ISK to buy PvP ships is what ultimately enables that chance moment where you bag an amazing kill, or lets you join a fleet battle that makes history. Investing the time to forge social relationships and figure out how the game works is what turns you into the expert people rely on, even into a leader of thousands.

Are the infrequent highs of EVE worth the slow plod of progression and preparation in between? I definitely think so, and I'll gladly take hours of mining and fiddling with ship setups if it means that one day I'll have a story to tell.

Starting your space life

EVE may be 15 years old at this point, but the new player experience is practically brand new and starting a character is now quite a polished process. You’ll get plenty of information on each of the four playable races before making your choice, and design the character with EVE’s in-depth body and head sculpting character creator—but keep in mind that this is all largely cosmetic. Any race can train the skills to fly any ship, and your character will only be visible as a small head-shot photo in-game since CCP disappointingly abandoned its ‘walking in stations’ feature.

The tutorial itself gives simple step-by-step instructions and is fully voice acted to keep players engaged throughout, which is a damn sight better than the start I had in 2004. You'll also get to take part in a simulated fleet fight with NPCs, which is a nice touch as it gives a good sense of the scale that EVE reaches if you eventually join a player alliance.

The one thing the tutorial can't guarantee is that you'll have intrinsic motivation to keep playing when the scripted story ends and the reality of EVE’s slow progression sinks in. Many new players report having an "OK, now what?" moment when they aren't being told what to do anymore, and some just decide to stop playing. Why is that?

Above: An example of what a major battle looks like in EVE.

The truth is that EVE Online is a fundamentally slow game that requires a considerable time investment to make progress in, and that can make it very boring for new players. Simple tasks such as travelling to a space station and picking up an item require just clicking a few buttons, but can take several minutes to complete, as you watch your ship slowly warp to the station and dock. Long journeys from one corner of the galaxy to another can take so long that doing them manually would melt your brain, though there's an autopilot feature which will do it all for you (albeit at a reduced speed). Mining is similarly boring in that you only need to interact with the game once every 15 minutes or so to empty your cargo hold, and it takes several hours of mining for a new player to get enough ore to build a new ship.

While these everyday tasks take a lot of time and are thoroughly unengaging, they play an important role in allowing people to play at a relaxed pace or even run EVE in the background and still make progress. I'm not ashamed to admit that I often spend evenings quietly mining or hauling on one screen while playing Overwatch or watching Netflix on the other, and there's something compelling about knowing that I'm still being productive in my downtime.

Making these activities more actively engaging might improve the minute-to-minute experience of new players, but EVE would lose something fundamental—the contrast that makes the exciting bits so exciting and the pain of loss so devastating, the slow progress that makes joining a corporation so important and encourages socialization and specialization. 

When you do have the time to actively engage with EVE, a faster pace of action can be found in other activities such as combat missions and exploration sites. On the extreme end of the activity scale are PvP and the new Abyssal Deadspace PvE dungeons, both of which require your complete attention as you have to rapidly respond to changing and emergent circumstances.

The UI is now a hodge-podge of windows and other elements designed at different stages of EVE s lifetime and following different visual styles.

The user interface is another major sticking point for many new players. My housemate once described it as an “unfriendly, scary, complicated calculator,” and he’s really not wrong. EVE’s age is partly to blame for that, as there are now over 15 years of features built on top of each other and it all has to be crammed in somewhere. The UI is now a hodgepodge of windows and other elements designed at different stages of EVE’s lifetime and following different visual styles. Unifying features such as tooltips, the taskbar, and notifications help add some much-needed cohesion and explorability to the interface, but the rookie help chat channel is still always packed with players asking for help finding the options they want. 

New players also often find the realtime skill progression system unfamiliar and limiting, and some of the higher level skills require several months of just waiting to acquire. Skills essentially act as roadblocks between you and the ships and modules you want to use, and there’s no way to actively train them up through normal gameplay as you would in a typical MMO. Rich players can also buy skill injectors from other players to add skill points directly to their characters and skip those realtime roadblocks, a feature that is regarded by some to be a form of pay-to-win gameplay.

Ruthlessly social

The real appeal of EVE Online isn’t in the minute-to-minute play but the things that groups of players can accomplish over time if they work together. Most people who play EVE in the long term aren’t masochists who love the clunky controls and the user interface that looks like it’s straight out of Microsoft Office. They continue play because they’ve become part of a community and feel like they belong to something. MMOs are at their best when played with a tight-knit group of good friends, and EVE does a great job of empowering groups and rewarding cooperation.

A new player will start the game able to fly only his chosen faction's tech 1 frigates, small and fast ships with limited firepower and defences. Alone, they can realistically only accomplish basic PvE and mining tasks. But they can quickly upgrade to larger ships such as high-damage destroyers designed to kill frigates or tanky cruisers that can take a lot more of a beating, and this isn't just a linear upgrade path. Every ship has a purpose in the context of a group, and the lowly tech 1 frigate can play the vital role of PvP tackler after just a few days of skill training and mentoring.

As part of a small gang, the tackler's role is to get close to enemy ships and hold them in place while the big guns do the killing, using a Warp Disruptor or Warp Scrambler to keep the enemy from warping away and Stasis Webs to physically slow their ship down. Further training allows players to specialise into other PvP fleet roles, flying heavy damage-dealing cruisers, logistics ships that repair friendly ships on the battlefield, or electronic warfare ships that can target-jam enemy ships.

EVE Online is to this day the most fascinating virtual worlds to observe and to read about.

EVE Online’s single most defining feature is its shared single-shard and instanceless universe, which allows groups of practically any size to form. This encourages players to band together for mutual benefit, forming corporations and alliances with shared identities, motivations, and long-term goals. Large training organisations such as Signal Cartel, EVE University, Pandemic Horde, and Karmafleet regularly recruit new players and offer everything from free ships and advice to structured activities. Even a small independent corporation can build and maintain its own space stations, see success with roaming PvP gangs, and tackle high-end PvE content such as dangerous wormhole anomalies and combat sites.

The bad news here is that EVE Online doesn’t offer much of a compelling hook for the solo player who isn’t interested in joining a corporation and isn’t out to make friends. Lone wolves will typically only be able to engage in repetitive solo PvE play such as combat missions, mining, and trading, can struggle to stay alive outside of high-security space, and will be extremely hard pressed to find PvP fights they can win. EVE Online is a ruthlessly social game that can be difficult to succeed in on your own, which is both its greatest strength and one of its most cited failings.

Making history

EVE Online is to this day one of the most fascinating virtual worlds to observe and to read about. On the largest scales, huge alliances gather thousands of players together into massive fleets and carve up lucrative areas of the galaxy between them, giving rise to politics and warfare that often mirrors the real world in startling detail. There are areas of space controlled by coalitions of American and European alliances, regions annexed by the Russian power blocs, and countless neutral states and vassals paying tithe to far-off lords.

Most new players will give EVE a try after reading some incredible story of a record-breaking war or political betrayal in the sandbox, only to be confronted by a terminally slow game with so much depth you could drown in it. Many do. A combination of more than 15 years of new features and niche gameplay that remains distinct in the MMO genre conspire to make EVE a difficult game for the average person to get into and enjoy. EVE's big saving grace is its unparalleled scale and welcoming community, from the training corps that will show new players the ropes to the alliances that will eventually bring them into those history-making battles we’ve all read about.

If you’re in the market for a sci-fi MMO that’s more of a long-term hobby than a passing interest, something that you can become deeply engaged with and find a place to belong in, I highly recommend EVE Online. If you manage to scale the learning cliff and aren’t put off by the indirect controls and disharmonious user interface, you’ll be joining one of the most compelling virtual societies in gaming history and a world in which your actions can have real consequences. Just don’t try to go it alone.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2

A new update to Warhammer 2: Vermintide, the co-op FPS about a rodent infestation that's gotten really out of hand, adds new daily quests and challenges to the game, more hats, skins, and potrait frames, and—this is the big part—support for mods via the Steam Workshop. Accessible from the Vermintide 2 community hub, the Vermintide 2 workshop already has mods including a weapon kill counter, a collection of UI improvements, and one that enables the Fatshark intro screen (with all due respect to the studio's work) to be skipped. 

Mod use will be enabled in a separate "Modded Realm" that can be selected from the Vermintide 2 launcher. It's "no holds barred" for mods and custom content, Fatshark said, but it will not award new item drops, enable challenge or quest completion, or grant experience. The studio does have plans for 'sanctioned mods,' however, which will be allowed on the Official Realm. That's expected to happen sometime in the summer. 

"Since Warhammer: Vermintide 2 contains progression systems, we cannot allow mods that 'cheat' or make the game easier in ways that go against our design philosophy," Fatshark explained in a mod creation guide

"The type of mods we will allow (sanctioned mods) are quality of life mods, certain UI mods and similar. We will look at these on a case by case basis and give them sanctioned status where applicable. This means that they will be whitelisted in our anti-cheat software and anyone can use them in the official realm. Mods that do not meet the criteria can still be used, however, progression will not be saved server side and they can only be used on the Modded Realm." 

Also in the update: Okri's Challenges, a set of daily quests and challenges that provide loot chests, skins, hats, and portrait frames as rewards, and an increase in the number and drop rates of hats and other cosmetics. "We feel like there is a good amount of cosmetic and unique looking items right now—and we're happy with the current rate at which they drop," Fatshark wrote.  "So to those of you who have been hoarding chests—you're free to open them now. We're not planning on changing the drop rates for these chests further." 

And finally, there some some tweaks and bug fixes, details of which are available on Steam

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege

New leaks emerging from the test server for Rainbow Six Siege’s new Operation Parra Bellum update might give us a hint as to what type of operators and gadgets we can expect for the rest of Year 3, including a new hard breaching tool and a gadget that might be its perfect counter.

The leaks come by way of redditor Artex3, who has reliably data-mined accurate info from the game’s client on several other occasions. The most interesting bits of info are code strings that refer to a few new gadgets. The first is a blow torch, which would presumably be able to penetrate metal wall reinforcements. The second is something called a “Hole Blocker.” Strings in the code suggest that the hole blocker is a projectile tool that might have utility as a trap, but it feels likely that it will shoot some sort of filament that can patch up walls that have been breached (maybe Ubi actually read my fan post from eight months ago!).

The third gadget is called the “audio alarm” in the code, and according to Artex has been around for a few seasons. This one has a lot of commands attached to it, including lines for “triggered,” stick and “unstickied,” and idle. Portions of the code seem to refer to points gained when killing a player “detected” by the audio alarm.

That’s a lot of exciting stuff to take in, so let’s go over what this could all mean for the future of the Siege meta. The blow torch seems to suggest that we’ll soon be getting a new hard breaching operator, which is consistent with what Ubisoft told us a few weeks ago. This blow torch-wielding operator (who we’ll call Torchy for now and forever) would be the first hard breaching addition to the game since Year 1 with Hibana. This brings the total to three, and while that doesn’t sound like a big deal, the effects could be immense.

On the defense side, more breaching might be a balancing nightmare.

Taking all three breachers, Thermite, Hibana, and Torchy, on one squad would drastically expand how much of an objective can be opened if the defenders aren’t on their toes. Hibana has historically had a higher pick rate than Thermite because of her versatility. She can open two reinforced hatches and still have the juice left over to open line-of-sight into an objective wall. Torchy, on the other hand, could have even fewer limitations to their ability. Perhaps their torch runs on fuel instead of a use limit, meaning you can cut up a wall into any desired shape assuming you don’t run out of gas. And in return, it might take a long time to cut through, leaving Torchy vulnerable in a way their fellow ops aren’t.

It’s cool to think about having more breaching capability on attack, but on the defense side, more breaching might be a balancing nightmare. The most reliable strategies for countering breaching at the moment are Mute and Bandit, and they both share an ultimate weakness: Thatcher. More walls to worry about means stretching their jammers and batteries thinner, and that’s assuming they’ll even be effective against Torchy.

But this could be where the Hole Blocker comes in, which has a wielder that we’ll call Blockley. Blockley could be the perfect addition to all of these breaching antics with their speculative ability to quickly patch up holes made by enemies. The big question is how durable this hypthetical handywork will be. Will Blockley’s patched walls have the durability of a normal soft wall, or a reinforced wall? Or even be somewhere between: a wall that can’t be shot through but can be blown through. On the trap end of things, perhaps the filament can be spread on the ground to slow down attackers like razor wire, and even provide extra protection from below.

And then there’s the new audio alarm, which sounds most likely to be an operator gadget, not a secondary gadget like the new bulletproof camera or nitro cell. This is because of the portion of the code that refers to it being a sticky device, possibly fired from a launcher. The alarm could take any number of forms, but I get the sense it’ll be a small device to make hiding it easier. The biggest question is which side will utilize it. It may seem like an obvious defender gadget, but it could also prove to be an interesting anti-roaming tool. Imagine entering a building and setting alarms at various doorways to catch a blood-thirsty Caveira in the act of sneaking up behind you. Either way, there’s probably more utility to this gadget than can be gleaned from what’s here.

What makes these leaks especially exciting is that they seem to be bringing things to the Siege meta that fans have been thirsty for. The breaching dynamics of Siege have been stagnant for a long time, so new breaching methods and new counter plays are refreshing compared recent operators that have focused mainly on intelligence and combat buffs. Hopefully we’ll see the fruition of this info soon, maybe even in the next seasonal drop.

The Elder Scrolls®: Legends™

Some big changes are coming to Bethesda's digital CCG The Elder Scrolls: Legends, beginning with the team that makes it. The publisher told IGN that developer Dire Wolf Digital is being moved off the game, which will be taken over by Sparkypants Studios, the developer of the 15-minute RTS Dropzone

The handover won't mean a complete reboot of the game, but it will bring about a new client, with updates to the interface, menus, and graphics. "I think the overall game design and mechanics are solid, and that’s not changing," Bethesda marketing VP Pete Hines said. "When players get their hands on the new version it will still play like the game they know and love. Their collections will be intact, the in-game store will offer the same items, the keywords and mechanics will all still be there." 

Hines said the change was not the result of unhappiness with what Dire Wolf was doing, calling The Elder Scrolls: Legends "an excellent game." Instead, it is "an opportunity to alter the direction" of the game and help it achieve its "untapped potential." The Elder Scrolls: Legends has "mostly positive" user reviews on Steam, and we liked it quite a bit when we reviewed it in March 2017; more recently, we said that the release of the Houses of Morrowind expansion, which went live in April of this year, keeps the game "fresh and exciting." 

Nonetheless, and in spite of Hines' cheerleading, Bethesda obviously isn't happy with the current state of the game and the number it's putting up. Today's peak Elder Scrolls: Legends player count on Steam is 1619, compared to 7623 for the competing CCG Shadowverse. Hearthstone's daily active user numbers aren't readily available but it's fair to say that it vastly outstrips TESL; Blizzard said last year that more than 70 million Hearthstone accounts had been registered, while SteamSpy (before it stopped working) reported that less than one million Elder Scrolls: Legends players on Steam.

Dire Wolf Digital is currently working on an original free-to-play digital card game called Eternal which, the studio announced today, is expected to go into full release on Steam sometime in the next several weeks. Hines said that didn't factor into the decision to take it off of The Elder Scrolls: Legends either, but allowed that "having a singular focus from our new team will only help the game."

TESL community manager Christian Van Hoose weighed in on the change on Reddit, saying, "The UI, on-boarding, audio/visuals, and new features are all things we  believe we can improve upon greatly." He shared similar thoughts on Twitter:

Insane Robots

Playniac insists Insane Robots is not a card game. It's a card battler, meaning its cards are just weapons and strategic tools, not items to be collected. It doesn't have "costly expansions or time-consuming customization," the studio says. You pick a robot, build a deck that matches their abilities, and get right down to throwing rectangles at each other like the robot god intended. Not only that, it evolved from a prototype of a board game, so genetically it's probably closer to a deck builder like Dominion than a CCG like Hearthstone. 

Insane Robots features multiplayer battles and leaderboards, but it also sports a full-fat single-player campaign. You play as a robot vigilante leading a rebellion in a dystopian machine society. You can choose from 46 playable robots, whose play styles can be further customized with over 100 abilities called augments. No matter who you choose, you'll be fighting countless enemy robots in randomly generated arenas, upgrading your deck as you progress. Playniac says the flow of Insane Robot's campaign will feel familiar to fans of roguelikes, especially FTL. (It's also quite similar to Slay the Spire which, funnily enough, just added its third playable character: a robot.) 

If the card battles are the meat of the game, then the arenas are the potatoes. They play out as grid-based mini-strategy games with environmental hazards and branching story events. In other words, the decisions you make in arenas will affect your standing in battles, so you're not just moving around. 

Insane Robots is scheduled to release on July 12. 

Frostpunk

Frostpunk's good, ain't it? Chris called it a grim and engrossing city-builder in his review, and I was already engrossed after talking to developer 11 Bit Studios earlier this year. Today, 11 Bit announced a slew of free content which will be added to the frosty society sim throughout the year, starting with a tough new survivor mode arriving next month. Frostpunk is plenty hard already, so I shudder to think what challenges survivor mode's "new, special modifiers" will bring. 

Additionally, another mode called 'endurance' is in the works. 11 Bit describes endurance mode as a direct response to mounting demand for an endless or sandbox mode, but in a Steam blog post, the studio said "it's gonna be our distinctive take on this feature." A new scenario called The Builders, said to be "the most substantial update for 2018," is also on its way, but 11 Bit is keeping details close to its chest for now. 

Outside of new modes and challenges, a few quality of life features are planned for the year. Customization options for citizens, both human and automaton, are perhaps the most interesting. It will just be names at first but more options are planned for the future, and as Chris said in his review, anything that helps you connect with your citizens is a plus. 

Finally, a photo mode will let you capture better shots of Frostpunk's gorgeous wintry landscapes. Smaller patches loaded with tweaks and fixes will arrive between these more sizable updates, and 11 Bit says new content will continue to roll out well into 2019. 

Assassin's Creed™: Director's Cut Edition

Update: Ubisoft hasn't answered my inquiry, but it did drop this on Twitter, confirming that Assassin's Creed: Odyssey will be officially announced at E3.

It's a very "This is Sparta!" moment, isn't it? We'll find out more in a couple of weeks: Ubisoft's E3 press event is slated for 1 pm PT/4 pm ET on June 11.

Original story:

A rumor surfaced in March on Comicbook.com indicating that the next Assassin's Creed game will be set in ancient Greece. "Several sources" said it was so, although the site advised approaching the story with all appropriate caution; but it also noted that "murmurs" of a possible Greek setting had previously come up earlier in the development of Assassin's Creed: Origins.   

French gaming site JeuxVideo added weight to that story today, and also a possible title, with an image of an Assassin's Creed: Odyssey "collectible helmet keychain." The helmet is very clearly in the Greek style, and the Odyssey is a famed epic about the Greek hero Odysseus, who takes the long way home after the Trojan War. That could make the Assassin's Creed timeline a bit hinky—Ptolemaic Egypt, the setting for Origins, didn't come into being until nearly a millennium after the Trojan War—but it's also possible that "Odyssey" isn't a specific reference to the poem as it is a cool word that very loosely fits the motif. 

It's strictly a rumor at this point, but two consecutive, consistent reports—not to mention the fact that ancient Greece is obviously fertile soil for an Assassin's Creed game—makes it a reasonably solid one. The proximity of E3 lends weight to the report as well, as this is the time of year when surprises seem mostly likely to be blown. I've reached out to Ubisoft to inquire about the title, and absolutely do not expect a response—but if I get one, I'll let you know.

XCOM® 2

I inadvertently returned to XCOM 2 last week, after discovering this hilarious Red Dwarf voice pack mod. The work of prolific creator ∑3245 has since caught my eye—whose player-made Metal Gear-inspired additions to the turn-based alien invasion are great.

Over the last several weeks, ∑3245 has added Scout Uniforms, Enforcer and Battle Armours, a selection of Sneaking Suits, Snake's iconic bandana and eyepatch, and Haven Trooper armours—as first featured in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, and the PS3's MGS 4: Guns of the Patriots and Metal Gear Online. 

The above support XCOM 2's War of the Chosen expansion, and look something like this:

Combine ∑3245's work with Jblade35's Venom Snake and Quiet Voice Pack—which adds 124 lines "for most actions in the game"—and turn The Phantom Pain into a turn-based strategy affair. 

For more player-made projects, check out our respective best XCOM 2 mods and best XCOM 2: War of the Chosen mods lists.   

Pillars of Eternity

It wasn’t so long ago that the isometric CRPG seemed like an endangered species, consigned to annals of video game history, or at least the '90s when classic like Baldur's Gate were released. With the rise of crowdfunding and indie developers, however, the genre has returned in a tidal wave of spiritual successors and fantasy romps. So much of this resurgence is tangled up in nostalgia, though, begging the question: how does the genre move forward? 

The friction between nostalgia and innovation is an obstacle inherent in any game trying to evoke the classics. In RPGs, it’s even more apparent because an overwhelming number of them are set in high fantasy universes full of elves, dwarves and handy magical swords. When an RPG does eschew the fantasy setting, it usually leans into science fiction. 

“I don’t think RPGs are really shackled to sci-fi and fantasy, it’s just tradition,” says Josh Sawyer, most recently Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire’s game director. “I think a lot of it comes from the background of roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons started as Chainmail, which is really a fantasy wargame, and since then a lot of RPGs have been fantasy, trying to ape the experience of D&D.”

RPGs are great at simulating dice rolls and fights, reckons Sawyer, but social interactions and relationships are a taller order. “Heroic sci-fi and fantasy, and their dark counterparts, are easier to understand in a roleplaying context because RPGs are built around violent struggles, typically between a party of people and a faction or an evil overlord. It just works well there, and it’s harder to conceive of what an RPG is when you step out of that comfort zone.”

While Sawyer doesn’t think that people are hostile towards the idea of an RPG that doesn’t fit the traditional mould, he still feels like there are more reservations about RPGs with a modern setting, unless it’s a modern setting with supernatural elements. It’s one of the reasons the first Pillars of Eternity was set where it was.

Deadfire gets away from medieval castles and bucolic fantasy kingdoms, replacing them with pirates, tropical islands and an exploration of colonialism.

“With the first Pillars, I admit that I was being very conservative. So much of the company’s fate depended on its success. I was so concerned about making something that was too far away that I cleaved very tightly to traditional Western European, Forgotten Realms fantasy. But once Pillars did well, for Deadfire I said, ‘Let’s get out of here!’ We kept familiar elements, but we changed the scenery and societies you’re interacting with. It’s still fantasy, but a different kind of fantasy.”

Deadfire gets away from medieval castles and bucolic fantasy kingdoms, replacing them with pirates, tropical islands and an exploration of colonialism. It’s also a rare RPG where white people are in the minority. There’s this clear path from Baldur’s Gate to the first Pillars of Eternity, but Deadfire quickly takes off in a different direction, getting less and less like its progenitor as the game progresses. 

Swen Vincke, Larian Studios’ CEO, sees Divinity: Original Sin and Original Sin 2 as steps in the evolution of RPGs, an evolution that will continue well into the future. That doesn’t mean, however, putting the fantasy tropes out to pasture. 

“I don’t think that setting is necessarily that important, as long as it’s a setting that appeals to a large enough group of players and generates some initial interest. It’s what you do with a setting that’s important. It’s perfectly possible to come up with a brilliant fantasy game and do something that has never been done before. That’ll be the case forever, I think, and it’s the same for science fiction.”

The sheer number of fantasy RPGs, even if they do tweak the formula, can make the genre seem homogeneous, but Vincke believes that a lot of the fantasy exhaustion is coming from the media. “I think the press doesn’t like fantasy, but our audience does,” he says. For reviewers, at least, the slog is definitely amplified when you’re working through more than the one or two RPGs a year most people have time to play, but everyone is just as capable of growing tired of the overly familiar.

For Vincke, there’s still limitless potential in fantasy, and Original Sin 2 certainly takes the genre to new and weird places, full of empathic, cannibal elves and posh lizards. He doesn’t find fantasy restrictive, then, but that doesn’t stop him from thinking about spreading out.

“I have a couple of settings that I’d really like to explore, but I have to remind myself that there’s a big risk that, if I do, nobody’s ever going to want to play them because there’s only a small group that’s interested in the setting.”

So there are expectations. That a Divinity game is going to be a fantasy game, that an RPG has to have weapons, that everything, increasingly, needs to include crafting. Something being expected or traditional, however, doesn’t equate to good game design. If not meeting those expectations negatively impacts the player experience, says Vincke, that’s not good game design, either.

“When players come to a game like Original Sin 2, they come with a bunch of expectations. If you don’t match their expectations, it actually affects their enjoyment of the game. So you’re better off putting them in there, and you often notice that, when you do, the players find more enjoyment in the game. It doesn’t mean I necessarily like putting them in there.”

Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium’s lead designer, is betting on people being willing to plunge into an unconventional RPG. It’s a hardboiled detective affair where your personality and instincts take precedence over combat, and dialogue involves wrestling with your gut. It’s a social, single-player RPG. He hopes it will maybe kickstart a new kind of RPG, or a different way of looking at them.

RPGs are essentially reality simulators, and the hook is that the position the player is put into is the skin of one person. So it also simulates mental and physical faculties, giving not a bird s eye view of reality but the subjective reality of one person.

Robert Kurvitz, lead designer

“The RPGs we play nowadays are based on massive revolutions. The first Fallout was, I think, the last major change to RPGs. It changed the setting and showed you could do completely different things from its high fantasy roots. I was 11 when I played that, but I’ve never seen anything as revolutionary in all my years playing since.” 

Kurvitz sees a genre in stasis, and it’s the source of some frustration. “It’s very odd. RPGs are essentially reality simulators, and the hook is that the position the player is put into is the skin of one person. So it also simulates mental and physical faculties, giving not a bird’s eye view of reality but the subjective reality of one person. That seems in and of itself a tremendously open concept that should be constantly evolving.”

The source of this stagnation goes far beyond RPGs or even video games, he says. Kurvitz believes that it’s the product of culture, particularly pop culture, slowing down. “It’s calcifying. The internal generation engine of western pop culture is just very self-referential in general. So that could be one possible reason for it—just people growing old.”

Kurvitz’s solution? Broaden everything. Settings, mechanics, what an RPG means, even who creates them. Writers and artists from other industries with different expertise need to be tempted over, but he doesn’t see that happening until the love affair with high fantasy has ended. 

“I’m going to sound elitist, but I’m going to suggest that a lot of really good writers don’t want to write in a high fantasy setting. They don’t want to spend four stressful years on Tolkien fanfic. You just won’t get really talented writers who can do tremendous things for your game that way, and you need to hire artists and writers outside of the usual development circuit.”

If we were to get away from the conventions of the CRPG, one of the best places to look would be tabletop RPGs. Again. Once you move beyond official D&D campaigns and all the expectations that come along with them, the tabletop landscape becomes a lot more unpredictable and experimental.

“People do these amazingly historically accurate D&D sessions of the Peninsular War,” says Kurvitz. “They order actual, real-life memorabilia and objects from the Peninsular War, and models, and play with them. I know that amazingly strange things are being done with tabletop, but CRPGs are really conservative in comparison.”

Sawyer’s designing a Pillars of Eternity tabletop game, which is proving to be liberating after working within the framework of a spiritual successor. “When Feargus Urquhart suggested a stretch goal that was a pen and paper starter guide, I said I’d do it as long as I’m able to do whatever I want. I’m not going to make the game to fit someone else’s criteria. I’m going to pick the mechanics that will make a great game. If it’s not like D&D, too bad, and if it is like D&D but you don’t like it, too bad.”

Tabletop roleplaying’s variety does introduce one obstacle, however, and it’s one that games have already dealt with. “There’s only one thing I hate about my board game weekends,” says Vincke. “Reading the rules.” The tropes and conventions of CRPGs give players a vocabulary and understanding of the genre that can be transferred to other games, letting them dive in without a manual. Shaking things up could threaten their accessibility.   

Variety also means, however, that there can be RPGs that are easy to understand, dense and complicated sandboxes and adventures that do away with abilities and skills and gear. There are plenty of directions that the genre should be able to take, all at the same time.

“I think people are right that there’s a renaissance of traditional RPGs, or the traditional style of RPGs, but I don’t want us to squander this opportunity to really grow the genre into something broader,” says Sawyer. “We don’t need to abandon fantasy or crunchy number systems, but that doesn’t have to be the limit of what we make.”

What Kurvitz wants to see is a complete revolution, imagining RPGs that take decades or even a hundred years to make, flagging and reacting to every tiny thing you do. He envisions RPGs becoming a new mode of literature—programmed literature—putting programmers and novelists together to tell stories that literally span generations. It’s improbably ambitious and far-fetched, but still incredibly tantalising. 

“I hope we’re going to get the ball rolling.”

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