Typically action rpgs feature each player directly controlling a single character in real time, and feature a strong focus on combat and action with plot and character interaction kept to a minimum. Early action rpgs tended to follow the template set by 1980s Nihon Falcom titles such as the Dragon Slayer and Ys series, which feature hack and slash combat where the player character‘s movements and actions are controlled directly, using a keyboard or game controller, rather than using menus. This formula was refined by the action-adventure game, The Legend of Zelda (1986), which set the template used by many subsequent action rpgs, including innovations such as an open world, nonlinear gameplay, battery backup saving, and an attack button that animates a sword swing or projectile attack on the screen. The game was largely responsible for the surge of action-oriented rpgs released since the late 1980s, both in Japan and North America. The Legend of Zelda series would continue to exert an influence on the transition of both console and computer rpgs from stat-heavy, turn-based combat towards real-time action combat in the following decades.
A different variation of the action rpg formula was popularized by Diablo (1996), where the majority of commands—such as moving and attacking—are executed using mouse clicks rather than via menus, though learned spells can also be assigned to hotkeys. In many action rpgs, non-player characters serve only one purpose, be it to buy or sell items or upgrade the player’s abilities, or issue them with combat-centric quests. Problems players face also often have an action-based solution, such as breaking a wooden door open with an axe rather than finding the key needed to unlock it, though some games place greater emphasis on character attributes such as a “lockpicking” skill and puzzle-solving.
One common challenge in developing action rpgs is including content beyond that of killing enemies. With the sheer number of items, locations and monsters found in many such games, it can be difficult to create the needed depth to offer players a unique experience tailored to his or her beliefs, choices or actions. This is doubly true if a game makes use of randomization, as is common. One notable example of a game which went beyond this is Deus Ex (2000) which offered multiple solutions to problems using intricately layered story options and individually constructed environments. Instead of simply bashing their way through levels, players were challenged to act in character by choosing dialog options appropriately, and by using the surrounding environment intelligently. This produced an experience that was unique and tailored to each situation as opposed to one that repeated itself endlessly.
At one time, action rpgs were much more common on consoles than on computers. Though there had been attempts at creating action-oriented computer rpgs during the late 1980s and early 1990s, often in the vein of Zelda, very few saw any success, with the 1992 game Ultima vii being one of the more successful exceptions in North America. On the pc, Diablo‘s effect on the market was significant: it had many imitators and its style of combat went on to be used by many games that came after. For many years afterwards, games that closely mimicked the Diablo formula were referred to as “Diablo clones”. Three of the four titles in the series were still sold together as part of the Diablo Battle Chest over a decade after Diablo‘s release. Other examples of action rpgs for the pc include Dungeon Siege, Sacred, Torchlight and Hellgate: London—the last of which was developed by a team headed by former Blizzard employees, some of whom had participated in the creation of the Diablo series. Like Diablo and Rogue before it, Torchlight and Hellgate: London made use of procedural generation to generate game levels.