2012 is already being described by some as "the year of the RPG," but as I look at some of the titles coming out this year - as well as some from last year - I find that I don't consider a lot of them to be RPGs.

There are, no doubt, a slew of games these days that allow you to grind for gear, sell extra equipment and loot, defeat enemies for experience, and use those "level ups" to improve your character and his/her abilities. But does that make a game an RPG outright, are are these "RPG elements?" Mass Effect is an obvious example; between assembling a party, gaining levels, earning better equipment, and investing points in abilities, it has all the hallmarks of the classics. But the gameplay is largely action/adventure, and combat is strictly third-person shooter. Is Mass Effect an RPG? Is it an "action RPG" since it plays out in real time (save for bringing up weapon and ability radials?) Or is it an action game "with RPG elements?"

"What do you mean, 'the chaotic lawful Krogan Battlemaster fails his dexterity saving throw?' I just want to pick up the sniper rifle and shoot it. This is bull**** "

There are a number of studies out there regarding addicting behavior in video games, and most of what we consider "RPG elements" incorporate several of these gaming designs that are meant to keep players investing countless hours long after the initial novelty has worn off. Not surprisingly, almost every game today has "RPG elements," since these are the incentives that keep gamers coming back day after day. Almost every game I'm semi-actively playing right now has them.

Battlefield 3 allows me to play as different classes, gain experience to increase my rank, and unlock new abilities and weapons. Dead Island lets me level up, gaining more health and letting me invest in abilities, as well as access to better weapons and loot. Gears of War lets me rank up, unlocking characters for multiplayer - but also has a system in Horde mode where building defenses enough reduces their build cost, and unlocks a better type of defensive unit (replacing caltrops with laser wire, for example.) Dungeon Siege is a dungeon crawl in the mold of Diablo, letting me gain experience to level up, better my abilities, and equip my character with better gear, so I can go out and kill more powerful monsters for even better loot drops.

Granted, no one is going to play Modern Warfare 3 and call it an RPG because you get a better shotgun at level 27 or what have you. But Mass Effect 3 got me thinking, where do we draw the line at what is and isn't an RPG? Is gaining experience and leveling up a requirement? Is it investing "points" in abilities or attributes? Is it earning, selling, and equipping progressively better armor and weapons? Is it a combination of some or all of these?

I tried sketching out a mental map of some games I've played, arranging them on a sort of RPG spectrum; on the one end, games that are obviously not RPGs, like Battlefield, and at the other, games that are undeniably RPGs, like Final Fantasy VII. I tried working my way to the middle, to determine what I'd consider the border between RPG and "game with RPG elements," and I came up with two pairs of similar games that I placed on opposite sides of the great divide.

Dungeons and Dragons Heroes for the Xbox was absolute candy for me. From the various playable character types, to the attributes and abilities, to the loot and leveling up, it brought back some of the best elements of old "pencil and paper" gaming without the need for a character sheet more complicated than my tax return.

If you are a human paladin, add 2 to your constitution. If you are married filing jointly, add lines 14 and 17, plus half your charisma, and enter the total in line 21b, "bard wages withheld."

For me, this was clearly an RPG, or at last an action RPG since combat was real-time. Despite incorporating all of these elements, Marvel Ultimate Alliance never felt like an RPG to me. I fight enemies, gain experience, level up, increase my attributes and abilities, and occasionally get some sort of basic loot drops. I can play as a melee fighter, ranged attacker, or a support type. Action is real-time with a 3/4 overhead camera view. But something about it just never felt like an RPG to me. Is it because I get to use adamantium claws instead of a broadsword? Because I need to defeat Doctor Doom instead of some unpronounceable evil wizard?

"Oh, come on - I'm in a castle, sitting on a throne, wearing a suit of armor. What more do you want, dragons? Would a dragon seal the deal?"

Maybe it's because of the emphasis on combat, or the faster pace of the action, or simply because one has a medieval setting. For some reason, to me they're two different genres, despite being almost identical in design.

Another example for me was Borderlands. You also run around, kill things, gain levels, boost your abilities, and grind for better gear while completing main and side quests. But the fast-paced FPS gameplay landed this squarely in "not an RPG" territory for me. On the other side of things, there was another game with FPS gameplay, experience, leveling up, loot drops and main/side quests. Despite it being similar to Borderlands in many ways, Fallout 3 landed convincingly on my RPG list.

Maybe it's the more meticulous combat, or the greater emphasis on character stats and equipment, but something about the effort required to customize your character just right makes it feel like an RPG to me, where Borderlands' "choose four guns, now go kill things" equipment loadouts don't.

So what is it that makes me feel one game is an RPG and another isn't? Fallout proves it's not a medieval setting, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance proves it's not just leveling or boosting attributes and abilities. It's not a matter of first person, third person, or overhead viewpoint, nor is it a matter of largely melee combat vs firearms. As far as I can tell, for me, it comes down to whether the game places higher emphasis on action and combat, or on customizing your character to develop them to suit your style of play. Any number of games can let you customize your character's equipment and stats, but very few make those decisions critical when it comes to your ability to succeed at the game.

Chain mail, but no helm? Good sir Dachshundrake, you'll never survive Mount Adorable so equipped!

That, to me at least, is what makes a game a proper RPG – the necessity to think about your character and what you're equipping. Gear that has benefits other than a single number that decides if something is “better” or “worse” than what you're already holding, abilities that either enhance your style of play or offer no benefit at all, depending on your choices. In other words, the ability to shape your character to suit the role you wish to play, rather than just linearly improving a pre-determined path.

That, and killing orcs doesn't seem to hurt, either.