Let's talk about the video game genre "RPG".
The RPG genre is completely stagnant right now. But that's probably because it doesn't actually exist. The genre we call "RPG" is actually just box we toss JRPGs, wargames, and tabletop RPGs into. Any features it has on its own are incidental: it's less like a proper genre and more like a Frankenstein's monster put together from random bits and desperately zapped with electricity.
There are loads of conventions that are part of the "RPG" genre, because each of the various niche subgenres we stitched in has conventions, both video game related and not. For example, the typical fantasy storyline. All of these conventions have been investigated by proper genres and by designers looking for interesting things... and most of them have been adopted elsewhere. The ones that remain solely in the "RPG" genre are those which have failed to be good enough to steal. IE, the worthless ones.
For example, running around on a world map and then popping up a completely unrelated fight screen when you encounter an enemy. This is part of almost all JRPGs, wargames, and tabletop RPGs, and in those niche genres it makes sense due to their assumptions and constraints. But it's not a very good mechanic in general, and very few video games actually find it to be useful, as shown by its extremely low adoption rate. On the other hand, leveling up and inventory management have both become core parts of the gameplay in a huge variety of games in every genre.
So, this is the heart of my problem with the RPG "genre". If anything is said to be "an RPG", that means it's using the leftover gristly mechanics that nobody else wanted. Otherwise it'd be "a shooter with RPG elements" or "an adventure game with an RPG feel" or something. Some other genre that actually has something to say and a framework to fill... plus a bit of the good parts of the RPG genre.
The question is: what is the RPG genre trying to do? What is its heart?
Well, let's start with the most common element that is an "RPG": combat mode. That is, the game will play along with you exploring and opening chests and whatever, and then KRAKOOMDWEEDWEEDWEE you are suddenly in combat mode, where the rules are completely different. Sometimes this actually pulls up a completely different screen with completely different graphics. Other times it just forces you to obey combat rules using the same basic assets. For example, Knights of the Old Republic did the latter: you were still on the standard exploration map, but now within the rigid confines of turn-based combat.
Even action-RPGs tend to have this system - it's just that the combats happen in real time instead of turn-based. I would argue that the fundamental break between combat and noncombat is much more important than the specific way combat is executed. The break creates a fundamental requirement for how the game functions, which in turn creates the RPG's heavy focus on progression-based single-player game modes.
Let me restate that: having a "combat mode" means that the RPG must be a progression-based single-player game.
To be clear, a progression-based single-player game is a game where the state of the game all but requires you to play in specific patterns. Spend X time adventuring, then Y time talking to townsfolk, then Z time buying and equipping... the game has a rigid structure where it requires you to play specific game modes for a specific amount of time, then forces you into other game modes, slowly evolving them over time. This happens whether it's a linear RPG or not: it's a fundamental result of having distinct play modes you have to switch between.
The RPG genre actually avoids creating gameplay that is good enough to stand on its own. Instead, every game mode ties into every other game mode, forcing players to switch gears and evolve modes B and C by playing in mode D for a bit.
This pattern means you can't easily play multiplayer, because they are going to be at a different level of progression and playing in a different game mode. It also means you can't just jump in and play your favorite mode: you have to follow the requirements of the game.
Now, many games have different play modes. For example, leveling up in an action game, or managing inventory in an FPS. These create some progression-based play, same as an RPG, but it exists to allow the designers to show you the full breadth of interesting play available in the primary play mode. In an RPG, they exist to create a web of interconnected pieces, none of which stands on its own.
The primary mechanic of an RPG is an endless array of progression knobs, where the player constantly switches mode to move one knob a little so they can switch back to another mode and find they can move another knob another notch... RPGs are the genre where you have dozens of control panels and they all control each other.
If we take a modern, high-quality RPG such as whatever the most recent Bioware game is, we can see that they've started to shave off a lot of the leftover crap. They file off the pieces of the RPG genre nobody else wanted because, fuck it, we don't want them either. But they still focus very heavily on mode-switching... they're just making it a little less obnoxious. You still explore so you can fight enemies so you can level-up your characters so you can get better equipment so you can fight a particularly hard enemy so you can explore in a new place so you can fight other enemies... you're still twiddling a knob on one control panel so you can twiddle a knob on another control panel.
Unfortunately, this knob twiddling is, as mentioned, progression-based gameplay where the player is forced to play in various modes no matter what he wants to do. And, in general, the player's interests are not going to be in all of the modes. Most players have more interest in one of the modes or another.
This is where we can start to consider innovation in the RPG.
The reason that the knob-tweaking gameplay is still so popular is specifically because it is a scaffold in which stories can be told. If you create "meh"-grade spreadsheet play like in most RPGs, you can scale it and scale it and scale it and it'll always be the same grade of "meh". If your gameplay is robust and interesting, you can't arbitrarily scale it because it skews and breaks pretty rapidly. So games with 'good' gameplay can't have indefinite progressions, but you can tell an 80 hour story by stretching and stretching and stretching the same "meh" spreadsheet gameplay.
You could say these epic stories are the heart of the RPG... but when's the last time you played an RPG and found that the 40-80 hours of story were interesting enough to merit exploring? When you sit down with a buddy and tell them about the new RPG you played, what do you tell them? Do you tell them the convoluted, stale storyline? "Oh, the important thing about this game is that the old king is dead and therefore the boundary between dimensions is weakening and..."
No. You tell them how cool combat is, how the world looks, and how cool the character creation system is.
Tell no stories.
That's right. Oh, there can be stories, but the player has to be the one telling them or assembling them.
Give up on having the player do A and B and C in places X then Y then Z. Instead, assume the player is in your world to fight, see cool shit, and create/evolve characters.
What can you do with that? What other kinds of play does it support? What sort of multiplayer? What sort of progression system? How do you keep the cool shit feeling cool ten hours in?
What can you do if you let the player role play rather than telling him a story?