There is a difference between “mass appeal” and “accessibility,” though some word-slingers and comment fanatics find the terms interchangeable. Who uses them determines a large part of their meaning, as a lot of gaming discussion also determines who belongs to the “in group” and who belongs to the “out group.” Games striving for mass appeal tend to come from a series or lineage of some sort that include conventions that appeal to hardcore gamers but also attempt to broaden their audience by watering down complex features. The phrase is used pejoratively, devaluing other gaming styles while calling out developers with their eye on gaining more customers. Accessibility is a design philosophy that opens up games to more people without changing the experience for the original audience. It also aims to value a plurality of gaming styles instead of “one over all others,” such as higher difficulties being the ultimate vision or true version of a game.
Arguments concerning mass appeal and accessibility frequently occur over RPGs, a genre going through an identity crisis by trying to satisfy the old guard while fighting stagnation by expanding into new territory (the purgatory of the “give us something new but keep everything the same” demand of gamers). A focus on stats or numbers in general is often included in many gamers’ definitions of what an RPG is, but the focus on micromanaging numbers is the only one way to express character progression. It is far more likely that statistical progression is a given and that a game is built around such progression rather than an organic component of what it means to be an RPG.
Assigning numerical values to attributes at character creation, adding points as you level up, the chance that the player can find their character build irreparably flawed well into the game—all of these tie into the feeling that we get playing RPGs, which is centered around character progression. However, these qualities are not necessary for a successful game of this sort. Consider the shift away from traditional character creation in The Elder Scrolls (in which all of the decisions dealing with numbers are translated into different mechanics in the game). Many called foul at this change and journalists still see Bethesda’s games as primed more for mass consumption but very little actually changed.
The focus on player input in the series involves a larger amount of people managing their character’s progression without being inundated with extraneous information. Anyone who has played earlier Elder Scrolls games will find themselves doing the same exact things with a similar amount if not more flexibility in Skyrim. This is because deciding 5-point differences between Charisma and Intelligence is simply one way to influence skills that panders to the tastes to a particular set of people, while it isn’t a loss of experience to simply pick pockets to become better at it and it allows enjoying perks if you want to specialize.
Styles of play remain the same without traditional specializations, with abilities and the game-world funneling players into the usual warrior, rogue, and mage trifecta while allowing for some experimentation if players want the challenge. On the other end of the RPG spectrum, you have games like Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II that maintain a standard set of statistics with little benefit. With numbered requirements for skills and equipment, the player is doing work that the computer could be doing instead and the system offers little in terms of flexibility.
Putting points into attributes doesn’t offer some players much in terms of game interaction, such stats exist only for those who enjoy watching the numerical value of attack values and armor points rise and fall. For RPGs that show some of the strongest concentration on character development through narrative development, the old draping of D&D character sheets are anachronistic. This is only the start of a conversation about some of the Final Fantasy games, which would remain largely unaffected as gaming experiences if you took away the status screens showing the party members described in numbers.
The tension between “hardcore” players and a wider audience echoes the politics of the relationship that developers and gamers have with game design. The diversity of RPG styles doesn’t match the increasing range of identities in the player base, which is important because of how much interaction is necessary for enjoying games. The backlash that social minorities are combating in gaming is similar to the resistance to valuing other experiences besides the simulation or abstraction of technical skills in gaming culture, and the demographics that represent each side aren’t too different. Video games reflect themes and skills found in boys’ styles of play as children, and any introduction of qualities that are different from that (especially if tagged as feminine) are cast out as inferior “casual” games. The movement of making games accessible gives designers the opportunity to boil down what works without the trappings of conventions that exist “just because they’ve always been there” and establish new ways of interacting that would be unavailable in generic RPGs.
Numbers and stats in RPGs don’t have to go away forever but probably deserve to be more niche than they are currently. Taking the lead from Skyrim and Dragon Age II, there are other directions that the core idea of character progression can go that don’t involve a superficial process that blocks enjoyment for the current “out group.” As the genre and all of gaming struggles with its identity and direction, a critical look at how we resort to convention and whose convention is valued will reveal roadblocks once assumed to be essential mainstays of the medium.