Analysis: Western RPG

The Primordial Era of Western RPG (1975–1980)

Basically, everything between the release of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 and the rise of the Ultima and Wizardry series in the early 80s. In this era, programming geeks fed the D&D ruleset into their mainframes and implemented text-based interfaces for players to interact with, producing the Ur Examples of the genre like dnd and Dungeon. This period is crucial to understanding the difference between pen-and-paper role-playing and role-playing video games: while the classic D&D-style RP is one part number crunching, one part freeform make-believe, its video game implementations have, from the very beginning, been all about the numbers.

The Golden Age of Western RPG (1981–1993)

The Eighties were the time when the RPG genre (alongside Adventure Games) dominated the PC gaming market, breezing even past The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 with hardly a scratch. 2D graphics, annual releases, and Long Runner series were in vogue (in fact, the genre still owes its longest series to this era), and RPGs regularly pushed the boundaries of contemporary gaming technology. That is not to say that all games from this era were flawless. Low production costs (compared to later periods) let developers produce many an uninspired and buggy hackjob and get away with it—at least, until the market grew saturated and they became a contributing factor in the following Dark Age. However, thanks to the Nostalgia Filter, this period's highlights are far better remembered today than its lows.

The essential series from this period include:

  • Ultima (ORIGIN, 1981–1999): The chief trailblazer of Western RPG genre, pioneering a lot of innovations that are still being rediscovered.
  • Wizardry (Sir-Tech, 1981–2001): Ultima's main rival that focused on conservative (and teeth-crushingly hard) Dungeon Crawling.
  • The Bard's Tale Trilogy (Interplay, 1985–1988): Competed with Wizardry and M&M for the hardcore dungeon crawler crown but wound down early.
  • Might and Magic (New World Computing/3DO, 1986–2002): The last of the Big Three (with Ultima and Wizardry), which focused much more on accessibility and user friendliness.
  • Gold Box (SSI, 1988–1993): The Dungeons & Dragons adaptation of the Golden Age. Not so much a single series as an anthology of smaller series running on the same engine.
  • The Magic Candle (Mindcraft, 1989–1993): An oddball that came out of nowhere, brought original ideas to the table, yet disappeared with little legacy.
  • Quest for Glory (Sierra, 1989–1998): Sierra's fondly-remembered attempt at marrying the adventure games they're best remembered for with RPG mechanics.
  • Eye of the Beholder (Westwood/SSI, 1991–1993): SSI's short-lived Spiritual Successor to the Gold Box.
  • Realms of Arkania (Attic Entertainment, 1992–1996): One of the few European (German, to be precise) RPG series of the age to rise to fame.
  • Lands of Lore (Westwood, 1993–1999): Westwood's standalone project after SSI took over Eye of the Beholder completely.

Some notable standalone games (that got either no sequel, a negligible sequel, a sequel way too long in the making):

Five Golden Age studios that had a particular impact upon the genre—ORIGIN, Sir-Tech, Interplay, New World Computing, and SSI—are sometimes dubbed its "mythic forefathers". Four of them closed during or after the subsequent Dark Age, so nearly all major Western RPG producers nowadays trace their lineage to Interplay Entertainment in one way or another.

The Dark Ages of Western RPG (1994–1996)

The Golden Age came to an end in the mid-90s, with many factors contributing to it. The likely main reason was the failure of the leading studios to keep up with the advances of video game technology (new storage tech like the CD, 3D graphics, full-motion video, voice acting, etc.) and the ever-mounting development costs that came with them. As a result, the Western RPG market was filled by derivative, half-baked productsnote , while the big series of the Golden Age frustrated their fans with extended Sequel Gaps. Some, like Quest for Glory, managed to wrap up satisfactorily when they finally delivered, but others, like Ultima and Might & Magic, met rather ignoble ends. SSI lost the D&D license and went out of business after 1995, and Wizardry 8 (2001) would ultimately become the swan song of the Golden Age.

The Elder Scrolls (Bethesda, 1994–ongoing) is the most famous title that hails from this period (even though it first came into full force during the Modern Age) and bears the honor of being the oldest continuous still-running Western RPG series. System Shock (Looking Glass, 1994) was among the earliest examples of the FPS/RPG hybrid genre, and some fans still fondly remember Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession (DreamForge/SSI, 1994), Stonekeep (Interplay, 1995), and Anvil of Dawn (DreamForge/NWC, 1995). It was also during the Dark Ages that the Exile series (Spiderweb Software, 1995–1997) emerged as likely the first indie WRPG in modern sense; its creator went on to develop many successful indie RPGs over the next two decades: Nethergate (1998), Avernum (2000–2009, rebooted in 2011), Geneforge (2001–2008), Avadon (2011–ongoing).

The Silver Age of Western RPG (1997–2002)

The genre emerged from the turmoil of the Dark Ages in the late 1996-early 1997 with a double-punch combo of Blizzard's Diablo and Interplay's Fallout, both of which shaped the following Silver Age considerably. Gone were the Golden Age's crazy Science Fantasy antics—style consistency was now the order of things; Long Runner series were out, replaced by duologies and trilogies; instead of entire player-created parties of old, the games now focused on lone featureless player avatars; Turn-Based Combat was phased out in favor of real time (with pause); Story Branching and plot-altering choices became a norm, as did the Virtual Paper Doll trope for playable characters. Overall, the developers have adapted to the new technology standards, extended the development cycles, and upped the production values, but the full 3D leap would wait until the Turn of the Millennium (while Isometric Projection ruled the field in the meantime).

When reminiscing about the Silver Age, most people think of the Gold Box's successor—the Infinity Engine (the Baldur's Gate series, Planescape: Torment, and the Icewind Dale duology, by BioWare and Black Isle, 1998–2002), but it's unfair to identify it with the entire period. Both Fallout and Diablo received sequels and a slew of imitators, while Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000), Gothic (Pirahna Bytes, 2001), Dungeon Siege (Gas Powered Games, 2002), and Divine Divinity (Larian, 2002) managed to start successful series that found their place in the Modern Age. Other games never got a sequel and are now undeservedly forgotten: Darkstone (Delphine, 1999), Revenant (Cinematix, 1999), Nox (Westwood, 2000), Vampire: Redemption (Nihilistic Software, 2000), Arcanum (Troika, 2001), Siege of Avalon (Digital Tome, 2001), etc. The Neverwinter Nights series (BioWare/Obsidian, 2002–2009) and The Temple of Elemental Evil (Troika, 2003) would become the swan songs of this era.

It was also during the Silver Age that the MMORPG branch split off from the main genre, thanks to Ultima Online (ORIGIN, 1997) and EverQuest (Sony, 1999).

The Modern Age of Western RPG (2003–ongoing)

If Golden and Silver Age RPGs were Doorstoppers, the Modern Age ones are Epic Movies. Having sat out on most of the Silver Age (cross-genre spin-offs notwithstanding), The Elder Scrolls came back in force to herald a new age of Western RPGs: Morrowind (Bethesda, 2002) was a massive Multi-Platform fully-3D hand-crafted Wide Open Sandbox, and was followed closely by Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003)—a massive Multi-Platform 3D hand-crafted narrative RPG with fully voiced dialogues. This new model of Western RPG let them challenge Eastern RPGs on their console home turf but came with heftier production costs than ever before, slowly turning the genre into a AAA domain of a few big studios, chief among whom were BioWare (which was acquired by Electronic Arts), Bethesda (which struck the deal of the century in 2007 by purchasing Fallout from Interplay), and Blizzard (mainly known for their World of Warcraft MMO, 2004–). Troika didn't survive the ill-fated release of Vampire: Bloodlines (2003)—a game well regarded today but riddled with bugs upon release—but Obsidian managed multiple times to hang on by the skin of their teeth, and CD Projekt RED joined the big club in 2007 with their Sleeper Hit The Witcher. Smaller studios and their series remain largely overshadowed by the big ones: Gothic, Dungeon Siege, Divinity, Sacred (Ascaron, 2004–), Fable (Lionhead, 2004–), Torchlight (Runic Games, 2009–), Risen (Pirahna Bytes, 2009–), etc.

Modern Age Western RPGs are characterized by Multi-Platform releases, action-oriented combat, fully voiced dialogue, and extensive usage of in-engine cutscenes. Multiplayer modes, commonplace during the Silver Age, went out of favor concurrently with the rise of MMORPGs—at least, until Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, 2012) found a way to make them cool again—but it's not to say that the genre didn't make any use of online capabilities: Downloadable Content was pioneered by Oblivion (Bethesda, 2006) and quickly picked up on by other developers. On the bright side, the AAA industry has polished and codified a lot of the usability and interface features that many players have come to expect from a modern RPG (others prefer to call it "dumbing down for consoles").

The Western RPG Renaissance (2012–ongoing)

A decade into the Modern Age, a curious phenomenon occurred in the genre: an increasing number of RPG developers, both old guard and new blood, are tackling an almost forgotten market niche between AAA and Arthouse Games—the medium-budget, PC-only "B titles". This flavor of Western RPG seemed to have died off (the Jeff Vogel phenomenon notwithstanding) before being rediscovered thanks to the emergence of affordable game tech and new business models. The term "Renaissance" was coined for this movement because the vast majority of such RPGs are (often explicit) throwbacks to the Golden and Silver Ages and set out to marry the gameplay and story ideas of the older games with modern advances in video game technology and gameplay design.

Common traits of a "Renaissance-era" Western RPG include:

  • Developer: A small, often independent studio, either European and obscure or American and led by disgruntled industry veterans.
  • Budget: Very limited (commonly under $5 million); usually Kickstarted, otherwise crowd-funded, or self-funded.
  • Platform: PC-only, although commonly Multi-Platform by virtue of supporting Mac and Linux in addition to Windows.
  • Distribution: Digital multi-channel, commonly including Steam, GOG.com, and other DRM-free distributors.
  • Engine: Self-produced or Unity with tweaks.
  • Gameplay: Manifold and complex game systems with a ton of Character Customization options but little hand-holding.
  • Video: Fully or mostly 3D, but often with a fixed top-down (pseudo-isometric) view.
  • Audio: Few fully-voiced characters, even when the game contains a lot of written text. A professional soundtrack.
  • Story: Decidedly un-cinematic, with few prerendered and in-engine cutscenes and a focus on exploration.
  • Quality: Lack of polish upon release compared to AAA titles, mitigated by the devs' quick feedback and patch cycle.

An incomplete list of Renaissance-era RPGs: