Competitive RPGs take a few different forms. The newer variant is Defense of the Ancients
, which is characterized by picking from a pool of characters and leveling it up over the course of a single round. Conversely, more traditional MMORPGs tend to focus on loot and skill trees, while tactical RPGs like Fire Emblem
emphasize team building. Each sub-type offers a very different competitive experience, but a high degree of customization is a common thread that runs through all of them.
The core problem facing all competitive RPG designers is the need to incorporate that customization into the competitive gameplay without sacrificing balance. As an illustration of the unique challenges faced here, let's compare Street Fighter to the average RPG (which have a lot more in common than you might think). Both are heavily stat and skill driven, but in very different ways. Ken's movement is determined by a hidden speed stat, and his hadouken likewise has a power stat and the special ability to knock down opponents at close range. The best players aren't necessarily conscious of these stats, but over time they will develop enough of an intuitive feel for the game to take advantage of any opening they might encounter.
Now pretend Ken is a character in an RPG rather than Street Fighter (yes, I know about Namco x Capcom). The addition of a skill tree and gear means that there can be any number of variations on Ken, from offensive to defensive. Now multiply that across all of the other characters and you'll have an idea of the number of variables at work here.
What happens is that characters end up being categorized by their individual strengths and weaknesses, which defines their role in a given party. It's a concept that should be familiar to anyone with experience playing an RPG, but it takes on increased significance within the framework of a competitive RPG. Rather than trying to balance individual characters, the designers need to balance the roles while simultaneously ensuring that no individual character is too dominant in their particular niche.
That's not always easy, of course. As one example, the Pokémon Garchomp was so good at its job as an attacker that it ended up being banned by some competitive battling communities. Its strength and speed was such that two counters had to be present at all times, and even then that wasn't always enough. Players were so concerned with stopping Garchomp that team building options became rather limited, which arguably made the game less interesting than before. After it was banished to the "uber" tier, teams became somewhat more diverse, and everyone breathed more easily.
What makes Pokémon particularly unique is its peculiar way of handling stats. Every Pokemon has a certain statistical ceiling, but most never approach it thanks to a hidden stat called "IVs." It's what makes one Charmander weaker than another, even if they are the same level, and is meant to add in a little variety. It's not an issue in the battle simulators, where everything is standardized, but it can have a measurable impact in the actual game. It's possible to obtain those stats via breeding, but it's incredibly time-consuming, which inevitably turns off a lot of would-be battlers. The barrier of entry is just too high.
That's the same problem facing many competitive RPGs — they aren't exactly pick-up-and-play experiences along the lines of Modern Warfare 3 (which, interestingly enough, has become something of a competitive RPG itself). The closest is probably DOTA and its spinoffs, where characters are chosen from a pool and level up over the course of a single match. The rest demand hours of preparation, which requires a certain amount of dedication.
That's basically what drew me into Pokémon in the first place. Half the fun is mulling over the different combinations of characters and moves, trying to build a team that takes advantage of their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. There's a certain amount of strategic decision making and prediction involved in the fights themselves, but victory is impossible without a solid set of characters at your disposal.
Ultimately, it's the planning that goes into each character that sets RPGs apart from other multiplayer games. They're more difficult to design, but their sheer depth ensure a healthy fanbase for a long time to come.