We all have our petty personal crusades to fight. Mine is the endless battle in defence of RPG Maker, accused by many of being a bad engine only used by lazy developers.
RPG Maker games tend to look the same, so this means that only untalented developers use it, right?
I decided to prove people wrong. With science. That's why I took a deep dive in the Steam RPG Maker tag, gathering data about all 559 tagged games released to this day.
Behold the results of my foolish research.
Many RPG Maker versions have been released over the years, and even the older ones are still in use.
Guessing the exact version used to make each game involved a lot of squinting at trees, so I can't assure you my estimations are 100 per cent correct. There were also a couple of games I wasn't able to identify, because they looked too different from your average RPG Maker game.
Having said that, the RPG Maker Steam tag more or less contains:
- 13 RPG Maker 2003 games
- 67 RPG Maker XP games
- 213 RPG Maker VX/VX Ace games
- 145 RPG Maker MV games
- 23 games made with other engines
The result is not surprising. RPG Maker VX has been around for a while, and has the highest numbers of custom resources/plugins freely available to devs. Projects can't be ported between newest versions, so people usually choose an engine and stick with it for years.
Steam reviews aren't truly indicative of the quality of a game, but are a good instrument to gauge if a game is well-received.
Those are the scores of all the 559 games I analyzed:
- 15 Mostly Negative
- 95 Mixed
- 66 mostly positive
- 94 Positive
- 89 Very Positive
- 10 Overwhelmingly Positive
190 games do not reach the minimum of 10 reviews, and therefore don't get a score. "Positive" games are those with a positive score, but fewer than 50 reviews.
On average, an RPG Maker game receive 227 reviews. Most games without a score were released after the launch of Steam Direct.
On average, RPG Maker games have a median value of 76 per cent positive reviews, putting them firmly in the "Mostly Positive" category.
There: RPG Maker games are officially not bad. Science proved it. But why have they got such a bad reputation?
I have a few thoughts that might help us to understand what's going on.
RPG Maker games have always been here
For years, RPG Maker didn't have a Western publisher. People pirated the engine, illegally translated it, and used it to make small RPGs to post, play and comment on in tightly-knit communities.
When RPG Maker VX appeared on Steam, Steam Direct was blooming. For the first time, RPG Maker users got the opportunity to directly release their works on Steam.
That's why the platform got invaded by simple-looking JRPGs. These aren't the cheap works of malicious devs: most games with low scores are clearly the first works of inexperienced developers. After all, why post your first game on a forum when you have the opportunity to put it on Steam like a real developer?
RPG Maker games have always been around: people just used to post them elsewhere.
They are really easy to identify...
RPGs require a massive amount of assets: locations, characters, monsters and menus. Most RPG Maker devs use the default assets the engine provides, enhancing them with the occasional custom character/illustration here and there.
That's why RPG maker games tend to look very similar. It's not a question of laziness: most small developers simply don't have the time, skill and resources to make everything from scratch.
RPG Maker also provides you with many pre-made systems, like a save system, a battle system and default menus. These come in handy, but they are also a pain (or, in some versions, impossible) to modify. Developer may spend hours customizing their works, but in the end the small details, like an options menu, will make the players realise it's an RPG Maker game.
...But the tag is lying to you
Steam tags are added by players, and they aren't always knowledgeable about game engines.
Twenty-three games marked with the RPG Maker tag haven't been made with RPG Maker. Nine of those games have been made with the WOLF RPG editor, a freeware alternative to RPG Maker used in Japan. Others have been made with Game Maker or custom engines.
Those non-RPG Maker games may have been made with different engines, but are still the kind of games you'd expect from RPG Maker developers: classic pixel-art JRPGs reminiscent of the SNES era, full of turn-based fights and big anime portraits.
On the other hand, games that defy the expectations of what an RPG Maker game should be manage to eschew the tag. Colourful collage game Where They Cremate The Roadkill, for example, didn't get tagged, even though has been made in RPG Maker XP.
This is why tags related to engines, in my opinion, should simply not exist.
Other assorted considerations:
RPG Maker 2003 just does not die
RPG Maker 2003 is one of the oldest engines still being used to make games. Nowadays, RPG Maker 2003 is like a retro-console: its strong limitations are fun to work around, but also help solo developers to not overscope their projects.
It makes no sense for it to be still around, and yet I'm glad it is.
Some of the most popular RPG Maker games are the smutty ones.
Of the 559 games I analyzed, 54 (10 per cent) also bear the "sexual content" tag.
Y'all missing the best games
The number of RPG Maker games on Steam is impressive, and yet all the most iconic ones are missing. No Space Funeral, no Ao Oni, no Ib, no OFF, no Gingiva.
These are too punk to be on Steam. But due to their absence, the mainstream public has come to associate RPG Maker with simple JRPGs, and never got to experience what you can do when you push the engine to its limits. When cult classic Yume Nikki landed on Steam because its publisher was also releasing a sequel, it felt like some horrible secret had been revealed to the world.
RPG Maker's ease of use often attracts young, inexperienced developers, but also makes it a good engine for developers who want to focus on art, storytelling and atmosphere. It's a neat little tool for experimental games, and gave us many classics that ended up influencing more famous titles. I doubt we would have had Undertale without OFF, for example. We surely wouldn't have gotten LISA, first born as a Yume Nikki fan-game.
On Steam, the RPG Maker tag has reached the point where it doesn't represent an engine, but rather a genre with defined expectations. We created a false association between the software, the kind of games it produces, and their quality, ignoring a rich culture of creative ripping, artistic experiments and fan games.
If you want to try more imaginative RPG Maker games, then Rpgmaker.net and Vgperson's website are good places to start. And if, after that, you still think all RPG Maker games are bad, perhaps you'll just have to accept that they are simply not for you.