History of Western role-playing video games

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This article is about role-playing video games developed in the Western world. For a history of role-playing video games developed in East Asia, see History of Eastern role-playing video games.
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Western role-playing video games are role-playing video games developed in the Western world, including North America and, in more recent years, Europe. They originated on mainframe university computer systems in the 1970s, were later popularized by titles such as Ultima and Wizardry in the early- to mid-1980s, and continue to be produced for modern home computer and video game console systems. The genre's "Golden Age" occurred in the mid- to late-1980s, and its popularity suffered a downturn in the mid-1990s as developers struggled to keep up with hardware changes and increasing development costs. A later series of isometric role-playing games, published by Interplay Productions and Blizzard Entertainment, was developed over a longer time period and set new standards of production quality.

Computer role-playing games (CRPGs) are once again popular. Recent titles, such as BioWare's Mass Effect series and Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls series, have been produced for console systems and have received multi-platform releases, although independently developed games are frequently created as personal computer (PC) exclusives. Developers of role-playing games have continuously experimented with various graphical perspectives and styles of play, such as real-time and turn-based time-keeping systems, axonometric and first-person graphical projections, and single-character or multi-character parties. Sub-genres include action role-playing games and tactical role-playing games.

Early American computer RPGs (late 1970s–mid-1980s)[edit]

Mainframe computers (late 1970s–early 1980s)[edit]

Screenshot of dnd.
Simple overhead monochrome graphics of dnd on the PLATO mainframe system.

The earliest role-playing video games were created in the mid-to-late 1970s, as offshoots of early university mainframe text-based RPGs that were played on PDP-10, PLATO and Unix-based systems. These included Dungeon, written in 1975 or 1976, pedit5, created in 1975,[Note 1] and dnd, also from 1975.[2] These early games were inspired by pen-and-paper role-playing games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, which was published in 1974, and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[3][4] Some of the first graphical computer RPGs (CRPGs) after pedit5 and dnd included orthanc (1978),[5] which was named after Saruman's tower in Lord of the Rings,[6] avathar (1979),[1] later renamed avatar, oubliette (1977),[7] named after the French word for "dungeon",[6] moria (1975),[1] dungeons of degorath, baradur, emprise, bnd, sorcery, and dndworld.[Note 2] All of these were developed and became popular on the PLATO system during the late 1970s, in large part due to PLATO's speed, fast graphics, and large number of players with access to its nationwide network of terminals. PLATO was a mainframe system that supported multiple users and allowed them to play simultaneously, a feature not commonly available to owners of home personal computer systems at the time.[8] These were followed by games on other platforms, such as Temple of Apshai, written in 1979 for the TRS-80 and followed by two add-ons; Akalabeth: World of Doom (1980), which gave rise to the well-known Ultima series;[9] Wizardry (1981), and Sword of Fargoal (1982). Games of this era were also influenced by text adventures such as Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and Zork (1976); early MUDs, tabletop wargames such as Chainmail (1971), and sports games such as Strat-O-Matic.[10][Note 3]

The popular dungeon crawler Rogue was developed in 1980, for Unix-based systems, by two students at Berkeley. It used ASCII graphics, and featured a deep system of gameplay and a multitude of randomly generated items and locations. Rogue was later distributed as free software with the BSD operating system, and was followed by an entire genre of "roguelikes" that were inspired by and emulated the original game's mechanics, and by later titles such as Diablo.[12] Later examples of roguelikes include Angband (1990), Ancient Domains of Mystery (1993) and Linley's Dungeon Crawl (1997).[13][14][15]

The keyboard was frequently the only input supported by these games, and their graphics were simple and often monochromatic. Some titles, like Rogue, represented objects through text characters, such as '@' for the main character and 'Z' for zombies.[Note 4] No single game featured all of the characteristics expected in a modern CRPG, such as exploration of subterranean dungeons, use of weapons and items, "leveling up" and quest completion, but it is possible to see the evolution of these features during this era and that which followed.[16]

Ultima and Wizardry (early–mid-1980s)[edit]

The early Ultima and Wizardry were definitive games which began to build the genre.[17] Although simplified for use with the console gamepad, many innovations of the early Ultimas—in particular Ultima III: Exodus (1983) by developer Richard Garriott—became standard among later RPGs in both the personal computer and console markets. These ideas included the use of tiled graphics and party-based combat, a mix of fantasy and science-fiction elements, and time travel.[4][18][Note 5] The game's written narrative was an innovative feature that allowed it to convey a larger story than was found in the minimal plots common at the time. Most games, including Garriott's own Akalabeth, focused primarily on basic gameplay mechanics like combat, and paid little attention to story and narrative.[20]

Garriott introduced a system of chivalry and code of conduct in Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985) that persisted throughout later Ultimas. The player's Avatar tackles such problems as fundamentalism, racism and xenophobia, and based on his or her actions is tested periodically in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes unseen.[4][20] This code of conduct was in part a response to the efforts among some Christian groups to mitigate the rising popularity of Dungeons & Dragons.[20] Continuing until Ultima IX: Ascension (1999), it covered a range of virtues that included compassion, justice, humility and honor. This system of morals and ethics was unique at the time, as other video games allowed players to be lauded as "heroes" by the game worlds' denizens, no matter what the player's actions had been. In Ultima IV, on the other hand, players were forced to consider the moral consequences of their actions.[20] According to Garriott, Ultima was now "more than a mere fantasy escape. It provided a world with a framework of deeper meaning a level [sic] of detail [and] diversity of interaction that is rarely attempted."[4] "I thought people might completely reject this game because some folks play just to kill, kill, kill. To succeed in this game, you had to radically change the way you'd ever played a game before."[20]

Ultima III is considered by many to have been the first modern CRPG.[18] It was originally published for the Apple II, but was ported to many other platforms and influenced the development of later titles,[21] including such console RPGs as Excalibur (1983) and Dragon Quest (1986).[22] The series went on to span over a dozen titles, including the spin-off series Worlds of Ultima (1990–1991) and Ultima Underworld (1992–1993), and the multiplayer online series, Ultima Online (1997). Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992) offered players a full 360 degree view of the game world. Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992) was the first real-time title in the series, and was fully playable with the computer mouse.[4] Richard later left Origin Systems and Electronic Arts to form Destination Games, under publisher NCsoft. He was involved with a number of NCsoft's MMORPGs, including Lineage (1998) and Tabula Rasa (2007), before his 2009 departure.

The Wizardry series was created for the Apple II at roughly the same time, in 1981. Wizardry featured a 3D, first-person view, an intuitive interface, party-based combat, and pre-constructed levels that encouraged players to draw their own maps.[18] It allowed players to import characters from previous games, albeit with reduced experience levels, and introduced a moral alignment feature that limited the areas players could visit.[18] The series was extremely difficult when compared to other RPGs of the time,[23][24] possibly because they were modeled after pen-and-paper role-playing games of similar difficulty.[11] Wizardry IV (1986) in particular is considered one of the most difficult CRPGs ever created.[24] It is unique in that the player controls the villain of the first game in an attempt to escape his prison dungeon and gain freedom in the above world.[4][24] Unlike Ultima, which evolved with each installment, the Wizardry series retained and refined the same style and core mechanics over time, and improved only its graphics and level design as the years progressed.[4] The series' most famous titles did not appear until years later,[25] and installments were published as recently as 2001. Wizardry VII (1992) has been said to possess one of the best character class systems of any CRPG.[26]

By June 1982, Temple of Apshai had sold 30,000 copies, Wizardry 24,000 copies, and Ultima 20,000.[27] Ultima and Wizardry dominated the industry in the early 1980s; a historian later wrote that "there seemed to be very little oxygen for anyone else; their serious competition during this period was largely limited to one another. Otherwise there were only ... workmanlike derivatives" like Questron "that all but advertised themselves as 'games to play while you wait for the next Ultima or Wizardry'".[17] Garriott even discussed collaborating with Wizardry's Andrew C. Greenberg on "the ultimate fantasy role-playing game".[28] The first Wizardry outsold (more than 200,000 copies sold in its first three years) the first Ultima and received better reviews, but over time Ultima became more popular by improving its technology and making games more friendly, while Wizardry required new players to play the first game before its first two sequels, and the very difficult Wizardry IV sold poorly.[17]

Telengard, a BASIC port of the earlier PDP-10 game DND,[29] and Dungeons of Daggorath, both released in 1982, introduced real-time gameplay.[18] Earlier dungeon crawl games had used turn-based movement, in which the enemies only moved when the adventuring party did.[30] Tunnels of Doom, produced the same year, introduced separate screens for exploration and combat.[18] Dragon Quest is most commonly claimed as the first role-playing video game produced for a console, though journalist Joe Fielder cites the earlier Dragonstomper.[22]

Golden Age (late 1980s–early 1990s)[edit]

Screenshot of Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back.
Many early RPGs, including avatar, moria and Wizardry, used a primitive form of first-person perspective, and games like Dungeons of Daggorath and Dungeon Master also featured real-time gameplay. Pictured here is Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back (1989).

The Might and Magic series, highly popular in the 1980s and onward, began with the 1986 release of Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum for the Apple II. It encompassed a total of nine games, the most recent of which was released in 2002, as well as the popular turn-based strategy series Heroes of Might and Magic. The series featured a mix of complex statistics, large numbers of weapons and spells, and enormous worlds in which to play.[31] It was among the longest-lived CRPG series, alongside Ultima and Wizardry,[32] It is also notable for making race and gender an important aspect of gameplay.[4][31]

Strategic Simulations, Inc.'s series of "Gold Box" CRPGs, which began in 1988 with Pool of Radiance for the Apple II and Commodore 64,[33] was the first widely successful official video game adaptation of TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons license and rules. These games featured a first-person display for movement and exploration, combined with an overhead tactical display for combat that tried to model D&D's turn-based mechanics. Better known for producing computer wargames,[34] SSI created one of the defining series of the period.[32] The games spawned a series of novels, and titles continued to be published until the game engine was retired in 1993, although users who had purchased Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures were able to create their own adventures and play them using the Gold Box engine.[32] The later titles were developed by Stormfront Studios, who also produced Neverwinter Nights, a multi-player implementation[35] of the Gold Box engine which ran on America Online from 1991 to 1997. As in the Wizardry series, characters could be imported from one game into another.

SSI's earlier "hardcore" RPG Wizard's Crown (1985) featured eight-character parties, a skill-based experience system, highly detailed combat mechanics, dozens of commands, injuries and bleeding, and strengths and weaknesses versus individual weapon classes.[36][37] The game did not, however, offer much in terms of role-playing or narrative beyond buying, selling and killing.[36] Wizard's Crown was followed by The Eternal Dagger in 1987, a similar game that removed some of its predecessor's more complicated elements.[37]

Interplay Productions developed a string of hits in the form of The Bard's Tale (1985) and its sequels under publisher Electronic Arts, originally for the Apple II and Commodore 64. The series became the first outside Wizardry to challenge Ultima's sales.[17] It combined colorful graphics with a clean interface and simple rules, and was one of the first CRPG series to reach a mainstream audience. It spawned a series of novels by authors such as Mercedes Lackey, something that arguably did not occur again until the release of Diablo in 1997.[4][23] The series allowed players to explore cities in detail, at a time when many games relegated them to simple menu screens with "buy"/"sell" options. A construction set released in 1991 allowed players to create their own games, and Interplay re-used the engine in its 1988 post-apocalyptic CRPG Wasteland.[23]

FTL Games' Dungeon Master (1987) for the Atari ST introduced several user-interface innovations, such as direct manipulation of objects and the environment using the mouse.[32] Unusually for the era, it features the real-time, first-person viewpoint now common in first-person shooters and more recent games such as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.[38] The game's complex magic system used runes that could be combined in specific sequences to create magical spells. These sequences were not detailed in the game manual, instead players were required to discover them through trial and error. Sequels followed in 1989 and 1993. The game's first-person, real-time mechanics were copied in SSI's "Black Box" series, from Eye of the Beholder (1990) onward.[38] Dungeon Master sold 40,000 copies in its first year of release,[39] and became the best-selling Atari ST title.[40]

Times of Lore, released by Origin Systems in 1988, introduced the action-adventure and action role-playing game formula of console titles such as The Legend of Zelda to the American computer RPG market.[41] Times of Lore directly inspired several later titles by Origin Systems, including the 1990 games Bad Blood, an action RPG based on the same engine,[42] and Ultima VI: The False Prophet, which used the same interface.[43]

Quest for Glory (1992) was produced by Sierra Entertainment, known for point-and-click adventure games, and combined CRPG and adventure-game mechanics into a unique, genre-bending mix.[31] The series featured involved stories, complex puzzles, and arcade-like combat. The last of its five titles was released in 1998.[31] It was originally conceived as a tetralogy built around the themes of the four cardinal directions, the four classical elements, the four seasons and the four mythologies. The designers felt that the series' storyline made Shadows of Darkness too difficult, and so inserted a fifth game, Wages of War, into the canon and renumbered the series.[44]

Sierra's Betrayal at Krondor (1993) was based upon author Raymond E. Feist's Midkemia setting. It featured turn-based, semi-tactical combat, a skill-based experience system, and a magic system similar to that of Dungeon Master,[38] but suffered due to outdated, polygonal graphics. Feist was heavily consulted during development, and later created his own novelization based upon the game. The sequel Betrayal in Antara (1997) re-used the first game's engine but—as Sierra had lost its license for Krondor—was set in a different universe. Return to Krondor (1998) used a new game engine, but returned to Feist's setting.[31]

Westwood Studios's Lands of Lore series (1993) featured a story-based approach to RPG design. It served as a stylistic "mirror" to Japanese RPGs of the time, with brightly colored, cheerful graphics, a simple combat system borrowed from Dungeon Master, and a semi-linear story. These elements contrasted with Western RPGs' stereotype as dark, gritty and rules-centric games.[45]

Decline (mid-1990s)[edit]

Western RPGs faced a sharp decline circa 1995, as developers lost their ability to keep up with hardware advances. RPGs had been at or near the forefront of gaming technology, but the improved computer graphics and increased storage space facilitated by CD-ROM technology created expectations that developers struggled to meet.[46][47] This caused lengthy delays between releases, and closures among less popular franchises.[46] A few years later, one magazine wrote that "[d]uring the now-infamous mid-nineties CRPG lull, the toughest dungeons were the bottomless pits of failed designs, and the fiercest beasts the deadly-dull CRPG releases."[48]

Increases in development budgets and team sizes meant that sequels took three or more years to be released, instead of the almost-yearly releases seen in SSI's Gold Box series.[46] The growth of development teams increased the likelihood that software bugs would appear, as code produced by programmers working in different teams was merged into a whole.[49][Note 6] A lack of technical standards among hardware manufacturers forced developers to support each manufacturer's implementation, or risk losing players.[49]

Competition arose from other genres. Players turned away from RPGs, flight simulators and adventure games in favor of action-oriented titles, such as first-person shooters and real-time strategy games.[46] Later RPGs would draw influences from action genres,[46][Note 7] but would face new challenges in the form of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), a late-1990s trend that may have siphoned players away from single-player RPGs.[49] They also faced competition from Japanese console RPGs, which were becoming increasingly dominant around that time,[50] for reasons such as more accessible, faster-paced action-adventure-oriented gameplay,[45][51] and a stronger emphasis on storytelling and character interactions.[52]

Western RPGs changed following this period. Non-player characters were given more dialogue, as in Baldur's Gate, party sizes became smaller, as in Fallout, and combat became faster, as in Diablo.[46] Games became more accessible. Their feel became more cinematic rather than novelistic, and they focused on a single player-made character who progressed through the game as the player's sole avatar.[46] Video games became darker and more thematically consistent. Designers abandoned or reconciled some of the eccentric elements and pastiche of the 8-bit and 16-bit titles. Diablo, for instance, displayed a consistent Gothic style throughout the series, and the Elder Scrolls series downplayed its cat- and lizard-people in favor of the more recognizable Dark Elves and Nords.[53]

North American computer RPGs (late 1990s)[edit]

Diablo and action RPGs[edit]

The dark fantasy-themed RPG Diablo was released by Blizzard Entertainment on December 31, 1996, in the midst of a stagnant PC RPG market.[4][54] Diablo is set in the fictional kingdom of Khanduras, in the world of Sanctuary, and has the player take control of a lone hero who battles to rid the world of Diablo, the Lord of Terror. Its development was influenced by Moria and Angband,[12][54] and Diablo resembles a roguelike due to its focus on dungeon crawling, and its procedurally generated levels. Major differences include the commercial quality of the game's graphics, its simplified character development, and its fast, real-time action.[54][55] A factor in Diablo's success was its support for online, collaborative play over a local area network or through its Battle.net online service. This greatly extended its replay value, though cheating was a problem.[4][54][55] While not the first RPG to feature real-time combat,[Note 8] Diablo's effect on the market was significant, a reflection of the changes that took place in other genres following the release of the action titles, Doom and Dune II.[54] It had many imitators, and its formula of simple, fast combat and replayability were used by what were later referred to as "Diablo clones", and more broadly "action RPGs".[56]

Action RPGs typically give each player real-time control of a single character. Combat and action are emphasized, while plot and character interaction are kept to a minimum, a formula referred to as "the Fight, Loot, and Level cycle".[57][58] The inclusion of any content beyond leveling up and killing enemies becomes a challenge in these "hack and slash" games, because the sheer number of items, locations and monsters makes it difficult to design an encounter that is unique and works regardless of how a character has been customized.[57] On the other hand, a game that omits technical depth can seem overly streamlined.[57] The result in either case is a repetitive experience that does not feel tailored to the player.[57]

RPGs can suffer in the area of exploration. Traditional RPGs encourage exploration of every detail of the game world, and provide for a more organic experience in which NPCs are distributed according to the internal logic of the game world or plot.[59] Action games reward players for quick movement from location to location, and tend to ensure that no obstacles occur along the way.[59] Games such as Mass Effect streamline the player's movements across the game world by indicating which NPCs can be interacted with, and by making it easier for players to find locations and shopkeepers who can exchange items for money or goods.[59][Note 9] Some of the best characteristics of RPGs can be lost when these road blocks are eliminated in the name of streamlining the player's experience.[59]

One action RPG that avoided these limitations is Deus Ex (2000), which offered multiple solutions to problems through intricately layered dialogue choices, a deep skill tree, and hand-crafted environments.[57] Players were challenged to act in character through dialog choices appropriate to his or her chosen role, and by intelligent use of the surrounding environment. This produced a unique experience that was tailored to each player.[57]

Diablo was followed by the Diablo: Hellfire expansion pack in 1997, and a sequel, Diablo II, in 2000. Diablo II received its own expansion, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, in 2001. Diablo, Diablo II, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction and the Diablo II strategy guide are sold together as the Diablo Battle Chest, and are still sold over a decade later. A third game, Diablo III, was announced on June 28, 2008, and released on May 15, 2012.[63][64] Examples of "Diablo clones" include Fate (2005), Sacred (2004), Torchlight (2009), Din's Curse (2011) and Hellgate: London (2007).[Note 10] Like Diablo and Rogue before them, Torchlight, Din's Curse, Hellgate: London and Fate use procedural generation to create new game levels dynamically.[66][67][68][69]

Interplay, BioWare, and Black Isle[edit]

Screenshot of Fallout 2.
Interplay popularized the use of an overhead, axonometric projection in its RPGs during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Pictured here is Fallout 2 (1998).

Interplay, now known as Interplay Entertainment and a publisher in its own right, produced several late 1990s RPG titles through two new developers, Black Isle Studios and BioWare. Black Isle released the groundbreaking Fallout (1997) which, reminiscent of Interplay's earlier Wasteland, was set in an alternate history future America following a nuclear holocaust.[70][71] One of the few successful late-1990 video game RPGs not set in a swords-and-sorcery environment, Fallout was notable for its open-ended and largely non-linear gameplay and quest system, tongue-in-cheek humor, and pervasive sense of style and imagery.[4][70] Players were afforded numerous moral choices to shape the game world based on how NPCs reacted to the player, much like the original Ultimas.[4] Fallout was nearly as influential on post-crash RPGs as Ultima was on Golden Age RPGs, and is considered by some to be the first "modern" CRPG.[72] Black Isle produced a sequel, Fallout 2, in 1998. Third-party developer Micro Forté produced Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, a tactical RPG based on the franchise, which was published in 2001 under Interplay's strategy division 14 Degrees East.

BioWare's Baldur's Gate series was no less important, the most significant D&D series to be released since the Gold Box era.[73] The games created the most accurate and in-depth D&D simulation yet, and featured support for up to six-players in cooperative mode.[74] Baldur's Gate (1998) provided an epic story with NPC followers and written dialogue that continued through both titles and two expansion packs.[4] Black Isle produced a more combat-oriented series, Icewind Dale, soon thereafter.[75]

The critically acclaimed D&D title, Planescape: Torment, was developed by Black Isle and published by Interplay in 1999, and became known for its moody, artistic air and extensive writing.[4] Interplay's Fallout, Planescape: Torment and particularly, Baldur's Gate[76] are considered by critics to be some of the finest RPGs ever made.[10]

Black Isle's games during this time period often shared engines to cut down on development time and costs, and most feature an overhead axonometrically projected third-person interface. Their titles, apart from the two Fallout games, used various versions of the Infinity Engine that had been developed by BioWare for Baldur's Gate. Interplay's collapse resulted in the shutdown of Black Isle and the cancellation of the third games in both the Fallout and Baldur's Gate series, as well as of an original title, Torn.[77][78][79] Instead, they published a trio of console-only action RPGs based on the two franchises: Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (2001), Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II (2004), and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004). One of the last CRPGs released before Interplay seemingly went defunct was the poorly received Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader (2003) by developer Reflexive Entertainment,[80] notable for using the SPECIAL system introduced in Fallout.[81]

Interplay announced in 2008 that money from its sale of the Fallout intellectual property to Bethesda Softworks and the sale of its controlling interests to a Luxembourg-based firm would be used to relaunch its game development studio. The plan was to develop Wii Virtual Console and sequel versions of some of its classic console series, including Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Earthworm Jim.[82][83][84][85] A massively multiplayer online game based on the Fallout franchise has been in development, a project for which Interplay retained the creation rights, though Bethesda has filed several injunctions against Interplay in an attempt to prevent this. Development of the game is on hold, pending the outcome of the dispute.[86]

Early 21st century (2000s–present)[edit]

Screenshot of Neverwinter Nights 2 Visual Terrain Editor.
In a nod toward the burgeoning mod scene for first-person shooters,[87] and like previous RPG construction kits, the Aurora and Electron (pictured here) toolsets for Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 allowed users to create and share their own custom modules online with their friends.

The new century saw an increasing number of multi-platform releases. The move to 3D game engines, along with constant improvements in graphic quality, led to progressively detailed and realistic game worlds.[88][89][90]

BioWare produced Neverwinter Nights (2002) for Atari, the first CRPG to fuse the third-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules with a 3D display in which the user could vary the viewing angle and distance. New game content could be generated using the Aurora toolset supplied as part of the game release, and players could share their modules and play cooperatively with friends online. Based in part on experiences while playing Ultima Online, one of the goals during development was to reproduce the feel of a live pen-and-paper RPG experience, complete with a human Dungeon Master.[87] Neverwinter Nights (NWN) was very successful commercially, and spawned three official expansion packs and a sequel developed by Obsidian Entertainment. BioWare later produced the acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which married the d20 system with the Star Wars franchise;[50] as well as the original titles Jade Empire (2005), Mass Effect (2007), Dragon Age: Origins (2009), Mass Effect 2 (2010) and Dragon Age II (2011), all of which were released for multiple platforms.[91][92]

During the production of Fallout 2, some of Black Isle's key members left the studio to form Troika Games, citing disagreements the development team structure.[93] The new studio's first title was Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001), an original, nonlinear steampunk-themed RPG with fantasy elements. Several Arcanum designers worked on Fallout, and the two titles share an aesthetic and sense of irony and humor.[93][94] Arcanum was followed by The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003), based on the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition rules and set in the Greyhawk universe; and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004), based on White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade. All three games received positive reviews—as well as a cult following in the case of Arcanum[94] but were criticized for shipping with numerous bugs.[93] Troika's reputation became "Great Ideas. Never Enough Testing", and by 2005 the studio was in financial trouble, no longer able to secure funding for additional titles.[93][95] Most of the developers left for other studios.[93][94]

When Black Isle closed down, several employees formed Obsidian Entertainment, who released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords (2005), a sequel to BioWare's successful Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Obsidian later created a sequel to another BioWare game: Neverwinter Nights 2 was released on Halloween of 2006, and featured the 3.5 Edition D&D ruleset. It was followed by two expansions and an "adventure pack", in 2007 and 2008. Obsidian Entertainment began development of a role-playing game based on the Alien film franchise in 2006, but it was canceled, along with an original title under the working name of Seven Dwarves.[96][97][98] Obsidian's most recent RPGs are Alpha Protocol (2010), a modern day spy thriller released for multiple platforms, and Fallout: New Vegas (2010), the latest installment in the Fallout franchise. The company released Dungeon Siege III on June 17, 2011.[99]

The Gothic series, by German developer Piranha Bytes, began with the first title in 2001. Lauded for its complex interaction with other in-game characters and attractive graphics, it was criticized for its difficult control scheme and high system requirements.[100][101][102] The third game in particular was notable for a "ton of quests", rewarding exploration, and approachable combat, but also for its high system requirements, unfinished feel and "atrocious" voice acting.[103] Piranha Bytes split from publisher JoWood Productions in 2007, and due to a contract between the two companies, JoWooD retained some rights to the Gothic name and to current and future games released under that trademark.[104] Piranha Bytes have since developed Risen, with publisher Deep Silver. A fourth, "casual" installment of the Gothic series, this time by developer Spellbound Entertainment, was released by JoWood in 2010.[105] The rights to the Gothic series may revert back to Piranha Bytes following the release of Risen II.[106]

Bethesda[edit]

Screenshot of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion exemplifies the switch toward real-time polygonal graphics since the early 2000s.

Bethesda Softworks has developed RPGs since 1994, in its The Elder Scrolls series. Daggerfall (1996) is notable as a 3D first-person RPG with an expansive world. The series drew attention to sandbox gameplay, which gives the player wide choices of free-roaming activities unrelated to the game's main storyline.[4][107] The Elder Scrolls series was seen as an alternative to the "highly linear, story-based games" that dominated the computer RPG genre at the time,[107] and the series' freedom of play inspired comparisons to Grand Theft Auto III. According to Todd Howard, "I think [Daggerfall is] one of those games that people can 'project' themselves on. It does so many things and allows [for] so many play styles that people can easily imagine what type of person they'd like to be in game."[4]

The series' popularity exploded with the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002), for the Xbox and PC. Morrowind became a successful and award-winning RPG due to its open-ended play, richly detailed game world, and flexibility in character creation and advancement.[107] Two expansions were released: Tribunal in 2002 and Bloodmoon in 2003. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006), released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as well as the PC, was a much-enhanced sequel that featured scripted NPC behaviors, significantly improved graphics, and the company's first foray into micro transactions, a recent trend among Western RPG makers.[108] Two expansion packs, Shivering Isles and Knights of the Nine, were developed, as were several smaller downloadable packages that each cost between $1–3. Oblivion's immediate successor, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, was released to critical acclaim on 11 November 2011 and remains one of the most successful, favourably reviewed RPGs (or video games in general) to date.

Interplay's decision to scrap plans for Fallout 3 and Bethesda's subsequent acquisition of the Fallout brand created mixed feelings among that series' fan community.[109] Bethesda released Fallout 3 in North America on October 28, 2008, to critical acclaim and much fanfare,[110] and the game was followed by five "content packs". The sequel Fallout: New Vegas, created by Obsidian Entertainment, used the same engine as Fallout 3 and was released to generally favorable reviews in 2010.[111][112]

Video game consoles and multi-platform titles[edit]

Multi-platform releases were common in the early days of RPGs, but there was a period during the 1990s when this was not generally the case.[90][113] The sixth generation of home gaming consoles led many game developers to resume the practice, and some opted to develop primarily or exclusively for consoles.[90] The combination of the Xbox and DirectX technologies proved especially popular due to the two systems' architectural similarities, as well as their common set of programming tools.[90][114] Multimedia and art assets, which account for a greater proportion of the development budget than in the past, are easily transferable between multiple platforms.[90]

This affected several major PC RPG releases, mostly due to console exclusivity publishing deals with Microsoft. BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was developed primarily for the Xbox, and ported to the PC several months later. Their original IP, Jade Empire (2005) was also an Xbox exclusive,[115] and did not receive a Windows version until Jade Empire – Special Edition (which included bonus content) was released on Feb 26, 2007. Obsidian's KOTOR sequel was released in December 2004 for the Xbox and followed by a PC version in February 2005, and Fable (2004) by Lionhead Studios received a PC port along with its reissue as a Platinum Hit in 2005.

Sequels to many of the above titles were also developed for next-gen systems, including Lionhead's Fable II (2008) and Fable III (2010).[116] The Fallout and Baldur's Gate series of PC RPGs spawned console-friendly, Diablo-style action titles for the PS2 and Xbox as their respective PC series ended.[Note 11] Bethesda's Oblivion was released simultaneously for console and PC, but was considered a major launch title for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.[117][118] BioWare continues to produce launch-exclusive RPG titles for the Xbox 360, such as Mass Effect (2007) and Mass Effect 2 (2010).[119]

The change of focus from the PC platform to console systems has been criticized, due to the concessions required to adapt games to the altered interfaces and control systems, as well as a need to appeal to a wider demographic.[121] Developer Josh Sawyer lamented the decline of high-profile computer-exclusive RPGs, and claimed that the collapse of Troika Games meant that there were "no pure CRPG developers left", outside of small companies like Spiderweb Software.[122] Other criticisms include the increasing emphasis on video quality and voiceovers, and their effect on development budgets and the amount and quality of dialogue offered.[88][123] BioWare was considered the "savior" of the Western RPG following the drought in the mid-1990s, but its prominent Mass Effect series now sheds the novel-like writing style, and other conventions of Western RPGs, in favor of the cinematic style and streamlined action of Japanese console RPGs and other video game genres. These changes raise debate as to whether games such as Mass Effect and its sequels are truly RPGs.[61] On the other hand, BioWare's success has been attributed to successfully "marrying western mechanics with Japanese-style character interactions".[124]

There have been more subtle shifts away from the core influences of Dungeons & Dragons that existed in the 1980s and 1990s.[125] Games were originally closely tied to the system's basic mechanics such as dice rolls and turn-based tactical combat, but are now moving in the direction of real-time modes, simplified mechanics and skill-based interfaces.[Note 12] Dungeons & Dragons itself is diverging from its roots, as the 4th Edition D&D rules have been compared to role-playing video games like World of Warcraft[125] and Fire Emblem.[126][Note 13] Even as some non-role-playing games adopt RPG elements, developers and publishers are concerned that the term "role-playing game" might alienate non-RPG gamers.[125]

Development for multiple platforms is profitable, but difficult. Optimizations needed for one platform architecture do not necessarily translate to others. Individual platforms such as the Sega Genesis and PlayStation 3 are seen as difficult to develop for compared to their competitors, and developers are not yet fully accustomed to new technologies such as multi-core processors and hyper-threading.[90] Multi-platform releases are increasingly common, but not all differences between editions on multiple platforms can be fully explained by hardware alone,[Note 14] and there remain franchise stalwarts that exist solely on one system.[90] Developers for new platforms such as handheld and mobile systems do not have to operate under the pressure of $20 million budgets and the scrutiny of publishers' marketing experts.[88]

Independent games and European game studios[edit]

Screenshot of Legend of Grimrock. In the center of image, a monster stands behind the metal bars of a dungeon. On the right, the inventory of a party member.
An in-game screenshot of Legend of Grimrock, a real-time, first person view, tile-based dungeon crawler in the style of Dungeon Master.[127]

The technical sophistication required to make modern video games and the high expectations of players make it difficult for independent developers to impress audiences viscerally, to the degree that large game makers with extensive budgets and development teams are able to,[128][Note 15] but innovation and quality need not necessarily be stymied. Europe, and Germany in particular, remains more receptive to PC-exclusives and, in general, to older, more "hardcore" design decisions.[54][88] Like the movie industry, the indie video game scene plays a crucial role in formulating new ideas and concepts that mainstream publishers and marketing departments, stuck in their old ways, might otherwise deem unworkable or too radical.[88] And, history is filled with examples of movies that would never have passed muster among corporate decision makers, but ended up being huge hits and all-time favorites anyway.[88] For example, indie developers can offer more dialogue or include one hundred hours of content; whereas bigger companies cannot are constrained by the expenses and expectations of voice-overs and advanced graphics.[88] Independent developers can be successful in focusing on niche markets.[88]

The new millennium saw a number of independently published RPGs for the PC, as well as a number of CRPGs developed in Europe and points farther east, which led some to call Eastern Europe a hotbed of RPG development in recent years.[125][Note 16] Examples of independently produced RPGs include Spiderweb Software's Geneforge (2001–2009) and Avernum (2000–2010) series, Pyrrhic Tales: Prelude to Darkness (2002) by Zero Sum Software, Eschalon: Book I (2007) and Book II (2010) by Basilisk Games, Depths of Peril (2007) and Din's Curse (2010) by Soldak Entertainment, and Knights of the Chalice (2009).[132][133] Examples of Eastern and Central European RPGs include Belgian developer Larian Studios' Divinity series, starting with Divine Divinity (2002); Russian developer Nival Interactive's series of tactical RPGs, starting with Silent Storm (2003); German developer Ascaron Entertainment's Sacred series of action RPGs, starting with Sacred (2004); Polish developer CD Projekt's The Witcher (2007), and Polish developer Reality Pump's Two Worlds (2007). Hybrid RPGs include Russian developer Elemental Games' multi-genre Space Rangers (2002) and Space Rangers 2: Dominators (2004),[134][135] Ukrainian developer GSC Game World's hybrid RPG/first-person shooter S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007),[136][137] and Turkish developer TaleWorlds' hybrid RPG/medieval combat simulator, Mount & Blade (2008).[138][139]

The Finnish independent development studio Almost Human released Legend of Grimrock, a Dungeon Master-inspired game, in 2012.[127] A reboot of the long-abandoned tile-based dungeon-crawler sub-genre, it was a commercial success that reached the top of Steam's "Top Sellers list" in April 2012.[140] Examples exist in which developers leave larger studios to form their own, independent development houses. For instance, in 2009, a pair of developers left Obsidian to form DoubleBear Productions, and began development of a post-apocalyptic zombie RPG, Dead State, using Iron Tower Studios' The Age of Decadence game engine.[141][142][143] Three employees left BioWare in 2012 to form Stoic Studio and develop the tactical RPG The Banner Saga (TBA). Dead State and The Banner Saga are both supported in part by the public, through the crowd funding website Kickstarter, a recent trend in independent gaming.[144][145][Note 17]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Pedit5 was later deleted and lost to history.[1]
  2. ^ Note the lower-case letters, as the PLATO mainframe's file system was case-insensitive.
  3. ^ Chainmail was the official combat handbook for the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons.[11]
  4. ^ Certain games, such as avatar, moria, and oubliette experimented with a first-person view, while others, such as orthanc and Rogue, featured an overhead view with branching corridors more reminiscent of table-top RPGs.[5]
  5. ^ Some of these elements were inspired by Wizardry, specifically the party-based system.[19]
  6. ^ Several titles were affected by this, ruining what might have otherwise been impressive efforts.[49]
  7. ^ For instance, Baldur's Gate's Warcraft-like interface, and The Elder Scrolls' first-person perspective.[46]
  8. ^ Diablo was originally conceived as a turn-based game more like its roguelike ancestors. Other series under the same pressure, such as Ultima, also abandoned the "core principles" (dice rolls, turn-based battles, multi-character parties) of RPGs in favor of real-time action at about this time.[54]
  9. ^ There is debate over whether games like BioWare's Mass Effect (2007) and its sequels constitute action RPGs as opposed to more traditional RPGs, though the sequels pushed more in the direction of action games,[57][60] or whether they can be considered RPGs at all due to the amount of streamlining.[61][62]
  10. ^ Hellgate: London was developed by a team headed by former Blizzard employees, some of whom had participated in the creation of the Diablo series.[56][65]
  11. ^ Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004), and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (2001), respectively.
  12. ^ Examples include Mass Effect 2's lack of inventory system and Alpha Protocol's Dialogue Effect System.[125]
  13. ^ E.g., whereas pen-and-paper RPGs previously would influence their video game counterparts, the reverse according to some appears to be occurring now.[125]
  14. ^ Rather, they can often be attributed to developers' willingness (or lack thereof) to support all the optimizations needed to expose a platform's full potential.[90]
  15. ^ Though managed development environments such as Microsoft's XNA platform and GarageGames' Torque engine are meant to make this easier.[128][129]
  16. ^ Russia also happens to be Europe's largest video games market,[130] though the country ranks behind the UK and Germany in total video games sales.[131]
  17. ^ Other examples of "kickstarted" RPGs include Wasteland 2 (TBA) and Shadowrun Returns (TBA).

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