Here's how I define an RPG:
A role playing game involves a player creating a character or party of characters.
a) The player can create a diverse variety of highly specialised character builds and over the course of the game improves this build through a variety of stats through either attributes (e.g. Dexterity, strength, mana etc) Skills/Feats/Spells and/or through additional modifiers such as inventory and equipment. These are what I'd call RPG elements
b) The difference between an RPG and a game with RPG elements is that in an RPG these RPG elements are an essential component of the game. The way I test this is to see how far I can play through a game without using the character system or inventory whatsoever. If I can play the game without using the RPG elements, then it's not an RPG, simple as that.
c) (optional) Often but not always the player is able to use this build in other substantial ways such as interacting with the gameworld through either solving quests in multiple ways based on the build (e.g. stealth characters sneak around instead of shooting shit up) or affecting the gameworld and storyline through the player's choices in dialogue or through interaction with the environment (e.g. killing a certain NPC causes a divergent storyline/questline).
This criteria, imo, includes both JRP Gs
and WRP Gs
as both genres place a heavy emphasis on building a character(s) in a well defined ruleset that applies not only to the player but to the surrounding NP Cs
While I personally prefer games that include c) in a meaningful way, I'd have to admit that saying that c) is a necessary component of RP Gs
would rule out far too many games.
So using this criteria, the TES games are all RP Gs
- yes even Skyrim and Oblivion. I don't personally like those games and I think Skyrim is a bit too simplified but the RPG elements are certainly there and they're meaningful.
On the other hand, looking at the Mass Effects.
has fairly detailed character progression, since there were so many stats it allowed for a diverse and specialised build, it'd be impossible to play the game without using the character system since you can't hit anything without pumping some points. IMO, while the gunplay was weak it'd definitely be called an RPG.
on the other hand, featured a highly simplified character system and inventory. You could, maybe argue the case that the game allowed for diverse builds thanks to a class system but those RPG elements were in no way meaningful. On my first playthrough of ME 2
I played an Adept. I didn't put a single point into anything and just shot people with an SMG even though as an Adept I should've been focusing on biotics. The combat mechanics relied purely on player skill and as such, despite having a terrible build, I had no problem with the game on veteran difficulty.
In my opinion, ME 2
therefore isn't an RPG. It's a shooter with some shallow RPG elements.