The rise of “Social RPGs” begun with mobile phones running Android and iOS systems, as well as tablet computers – and are therefore to be classified as a mobile phenomenon. But this genre also has it’s niche on desktop computer systems as well. The birthplace of this genre is Japan and the additive “Social” also origins from there (despite being an english word). Im not sure if the tag “Social RPG” will be enforced or replaced by “Casual RPG”, “Mobile RPG” or any other combination later on, but Im quite used to the term already and stick to it.
The premise of this article is that you already know what a “RPG” is and have a good knowledge about the genre. So we take all the basics like a characters, enemies, maps, progression via a leveling system, inventories, items, abilities and magic for granted.
But the “Social” part of the name tag is not that obvious and should not be confused with its literal meaning. Instead it originates from another genre: “Social Games”. This kind of games became very popular as browser games in the past, distributed via social networks like Facebook. Social Games are usually free-to-play and can be played endlessly, similar to MMOs (for example building up a farm or managing a city). Social Games usually provide only light multiplayer aspects, as they are casual by nature (so no fixed raid times and lenghty dungeon runs or such). Most of the social interaction comes from showing off your work to others, competing with other players and climb up the ranking ladder. The times when these games where distributed via social networks is almost over, but Social Games continued to exist elsewhere until today – for example in the AppStores and Steam.
The Japanese are renown for unique game concepts and a individual way of mashing two genres together. It did not take long until casual game concepts (like Puzzle games) where mixed with certain RPG aspects and light multiplayer feature to create this new genre. In terms of labels, the american trend leans towards mashing two game titles together (like “Metroidvania”), while the Japanese simply combine two genre titles to create a new genre label. This way, the term “Social RPG” was born.
Social RPGs often actually only feature very light social elements. Limited to a fighting with or against friends, joining a guild or clan, inviting friends from outside the App for bonus points and so on. These social aspects have not changed much since the invention of the genre, but their presence is one of its defining elements. This fact makes the label a bit hard to understand, if you are confronted with it for the first time. But, the label “arcade game” has not much in common with “Arcades” anymore as well and every now and then we see tags like these pop-up and stick around forever (like “roguelike”).
So, what defines a Social RPG? Like with most genre labels there is no perfect definition for the term as the individual games can vary a lot. But here is a list of common concepts that helps to nail the corner posts down:
- A single, repetitive core mechanic (like a combat system)
- Micromanagement of game objects (like teams) to complement the core loop.
- Leveling up through experience for both the account and game objects
- Features increasingly difficult, short single-player challenges (combat etc.).
- The focus is on challenges rather than exploration or story
- Light multiplayer features like a friendlist, fighting with or against friends
- A wide array of game objects to collect and use
- Loot is gained via a random lotto mechanic termed “gacha”
- Game Objects are tiered according to power and rarity
- Game Objects can be evolved or increased in rank
- Hard cap on all inventories to force players to invest resources to lift the cap
- Rare premium currency that is used for a variety of purposes
- Free-to-Play with optional in App buys of premium currency
- Puts a limit on game sessions via a stamina meter (or energy meter)
- The main battle mechanic can draw from a variety of other genres such as action, puzzle etc.
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