The History of CRPGs Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages

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Matt Barton's picture

Well, it was a LOT of work, but I've finally gotten my third and final installment in my massive CRPG history series posted to GamaSutra. This installment covers all the classics from the 90s, including unforgettable games like Fallout, PlaneScape:Torment, Baldur's Gate, Arcanum, Diablo, Morrowind...The list goes on and on. I tried to be more comprehensive than last time, but I finally decided to omit coverage of MUDs and MMORPGs, as I explain in the article. I might also remind readers that I'm not covering console RPGs, or CRPGs that originated on consoles and were ported over later (i.e., the Final Fantasy games). Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the article! Please let me know if you find it interesting, entertaining, and/or helpful. I had a great time playing all these games and reviewing them for your pleasure--the best part is, I discovered lots of gems that I hadn't played or even heard of before. I hope you have the same experience after reading my article.

Comments

Calibrator
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Joined: 10/25/2006
Great article, Matt! I

Great article, Matt!

I didn't read everything, yet, but you really created some kind of "compendium" here!
Also kudos for the well chosen (and sized!) screenshots - the ones in the first two articles were a bit small.

So RPGs are done now - maybe some day you'll do adventure games or as they are called nowadays "interactive fiction"!
;-)

bye
Calibrator

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yakumo9275
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great

Interesting read matt. This was the 'age' I gave up on crpgs (apart from fallout). I had no emotional investment in any of these games and I kept reading thinking in my head 'that game was crap. this game was crap'. :)

I did feel like a lot of games were mentioned for the sake of mentioning only. ie: nobody cares or remembers Gorgon... and putting it in the article didnt gain anything over not putting it in.

Im sure it was a splendid article but not caring about any of the games (yes, even Baldurs Gate II), made me very ambivalent toward reading 12 pages of it.

Im sure it will be well received tho! Congrats on finishing an opus :) How much of all of this will be in the book?

-- Stu --

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Michael McCourt
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Joined: 01/17/2007
I cried out with mirth and

I cried out with mirth and merriment when I saw that this article had been posted such was my gleeful anticipation of it. I'm looking forward to setting aside some time and reading it tonight.

EDIT: Okay, I've been making my way through it and enjoying it greatly. Matt, if there are typos do you want them pointed out?

Matt Barton
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Thoughts on the CRPG Article

Thanks, guys, for your wonderful comments. The article hasn't been online for long, and it's good to see a few praises before the inevitable nitpicking begins. I've already caught a few stupid mistakes that somehow managed to get into the final draft, DESPITE many proofreads. Of course, no sooner do I catch them than some idiot is on Slashdot raving about how ignorant I am. :-P

I did feel that I wasn't able to offer a high level of commentary on many of these games, but felt like even briefly mentioning them was better than omitting them entirely. In general, I tried to describe what made each game different or how it fit into the grand scheme of things, though I'd have loved to spend more time on them. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to do that in the book, where I can give pages to games that only got a paragraph and so on. I'm still trying to think about how I might organize it. I'd like to entertain ideas other than a simple chronological progression, though I think the "ages" bit works well as a general framework.

Of course, there's also the sad fact that I haven't spent NEARLY enough time actually playing most of these games, and had to depend on reviews, Wikipedia, owner's manuals, and fan websites to get most of the info. Nevertheless, I was very reluctant to put anything into the articles that I hadn't personally witnessed via emulation. In other words, the games that get the least mention are mostly the ones I was unable to find or emulate, and wasn't on sound footing from a fact-checking perspective. The way I see it, it's better to be brief than indulge in too much speculation and second-hand information that could be flat out wrong. Then, there's the basic fact that I had to get the thing done in a reasonable time! The thought, "save it for the book" came to me many times.

Still, my overall goal here was to give people a better idea of just how expansive this genre is, and get them talking about the games they know and thinking about games they may have heard of but never tried. As I mention in the article, I STRONGLY recommend you try Baldur's Gate II and PlaneScape: Torment, even if you're afraid you won't like them. I just can't imagine any CRPG fan not enjoying these particular games.

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PetitPrince (not verified)
Concerning Neverwinter Nights

Hi Matt,

Firstly, I’d like to say thanks for your excellent work. That was absolutely fascinating to read and I’ve read it straight from the beginning to the end. And sorry for my bad English as it’s not my primary language.

I’d like to comment about what you said about Neverwinter Nights (Bioware’s one). It seems that you failed to see what NWN really is. You wrote that "BioWare also included a toolset to let players easily create their own Neverwinter Nights campaign." That’s a lot more than that: Bioware *precisely* created NWN to let players create their own campaign. What was often said was that most of the development time was dedicated to the development of the toolset rather than the campaign, and that the campaign was just an example of what the toolset is capable of. Indeed, most of the fans argue that the original campaign is pretty weak in comparison of what the players made. I’ve myself played a lot more hours with fan-created module (=adventures) than official campaigns.

The fact that it is players who create their own adventures rather than a money, time and editor-bound developer brings a huge liberty of creation.
Players have of course created a great number of simple hack’n’slash, dungeon-crawling adventures or epic quest of monster bashing, treasure hunting and evil villain ass-kicking (my pick: the Shadowlords, Dreamcatcher and Demon campaigns by Adam Miller) but I’ve also played the role of an opensource (sic) wizard in a magicpunk world (the HeX coda, Stefan Gagne), a ninjette in a medieval asian-looking world (Kunoichi, ADK), a royal bastard of an imaginary country located between a medieval France and Burgondy that have a lot more dragon and magic than history book says (The Bastard of Kosigan, Fabien Cerutti)... and I’ve even played an orc tribesman (Orcs, Akkei) !

You should really have a look at Neverwinter Nights Vault, the official non-official website that stores pretty much everything that was made for NWN, and particularly its Hall of Fame: it has countless quality modules.

... but that isn't over ! I’ve only covered the single player part of the game. There’s two popular thing with multiplayers game in NWN: the first one is the persistant worlds (or PWs), which are nothing else than MMORPG created with NWN toolset. They emulate pretty well the “real” MMORPG, including their crafting systems. The other one is dungeon master assisted game. Yes, dungeons master, like those who can be bribed or manipulated with a substantial amount of beer in those good old pen’n’paper games ! Well, there aren’t as omnipotent as in the PnP game (they can’t technically create new areas), but they do pretty much the thing. I unfortunately couldn’t experience how it was to play such a game (although animator created adventures in PW are very similar), but a nice website regularly organize games.

I would be tempt to say that the future of CRPG would have been there, in player-created content, but alas the NWN sequel seems to not meet the same success as its older brother did: six month after its release, there is still no module as good as it was six month after the release of NWN1. I could find excuses in the fact that NWN2 requires a very powerful PC to run it combined by a controversial use of an anti-piracy tool (that, as some says, decrease the framerate by at least 50%...) or the fact that the toolset is so much detailed that it has become too difficult to use it or that the expectancy in terms of quality of players has become very high after the countless pearls that NWN gave.

But I’m still optimistic about the future: maybe the recently announced extension will correct the numerous flaws of NWN2, or that a new game will follow that way. Or perhaps I'm totally wring.

This comment is becoming way too long, I think I’ll stop it here :). I hope that this will be read and thanks again for your articles !

PetitPrince (I'm also a die hard fan of Tetris, funny isn't it ?)

Bonus Post-Scriptum: Needless to say, modules are still being released nowadays. Some especially talented modder or group of modders have been hired by Bioware, or have been offered to release their module as "premium module" (read: not free, but they got paid for thier work). Atari (NWNs' publisher) actually forbade one of the premium module to be released, fearing that it would hurt NWN2 sales (it was nevertheless released some time after NWN2 was released... a bizarre Atari move).

Post-Scriptum deux: Oh, and you didn't talk about the excellent but bug-infested Vampire: The Mascarade - Bloodlines, a brilliant representation of White Wolf's Vampire: The Mascarade universe and Troika's last game before it went bankrupt. Fortunately, fans are still developping patches to fix the numerous bug that exist within the game

Post-Scriptum trois: And Planescape: Torment have such a deep and somewhat moving storyline that it is a crime for any CRPG fan to not play it (I'd rather say "experience it"). (I think I will force myself to stop adding post-scriptum from now on)

adamantyr
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Indeed a great ending to a great article series!

I thought personally some more praise for U7: Serpent Isle was called for, but that's just me. :) I didn't find any particular issues playing it myself with dead-ends... only two come to mind.

One is that I had a character trapped in the List field once, so I used a gunpowder keg to blow the doors off so he could escape. Afterwards, I could never train again, because the guard who went to open the door would spew a bunch of C error jargon about missing objects and then followed with "Uh... the list fields are closed right now! Bye!" I find it hilarious that they worked their debug code INTO the game.

The second was less dramatic; you could find the Chaos Hierophant's spirit in a small house north of the Sleeping Bull Inn, near the swamps of Gorlab. In-game, you're supposed to summon his spirit much later at once of the shrines near Spinebreaker, but the game lets you short-circuit that a bit. I think this bug was repro'ed even in Exult.

Also, you failed to mention the early game engine issues with Fallout... namely that it was originally going to use the GURPS engine, developed by Steve Jackson games. Why it was dropped and a custom-designed game engine used instead has been debated for awhile; both sides tell their own tale. (One rumor is that Steve insisted on total creative control, which irked the designers, another was he was offended by the small cinematic of a soldier gunning someone down with a shot to the back of the head... most of the rumors tend to be slanted to make Steve the bad guy.) I suppose it wouldn't be relevant, except that it explains why some tabletop game companies have been reluctant to enter the CRPG market.

CapComMDb (not verified)
Pretty exhaustive overview of American CRPGs

Congrats on finishing this exhaustive overview of American CRPGs. Any plans to look at Japanese RPGs and find their connections? (or to perhaps team up with someone who knows a lot about Japanese RPGs?)

I think the biggest barrier to looking at Japanese CRPGs is that many of the games are so obscure and require extensive knowledge of Japanese (if they haven't been translated). One of the best hubs I've seen for this kind of information is at Hardcore Gaming 101 ( http://hg101.classicgaming.gamespy.com/ ), but as far as I know there doesn't seem to be a solid survey of Japanese games. Power Up seems to be the closest, but it overlooks PC gaming. Further, if studying early computer game history is difficult enough in the US, it is even harder in Japan because Japanese computer games don't appear to be very well documented.

This barrier in specialty between console historians and PC historians is a big problem as there doesn't seem to be much cohesion between the two. At least it hasn't resulted in the sort of brutality you find between PC gamer fans and console gamer fans over 'which is better' when it's really a matter of taste.

I'd also like to hear your take on 'hybrid' games such as Capcom's Dungeons and Dragons arcade games and King of Dragons (both brawlers with the ability to level-up your character, though D&D has a greater focus on narrative) and also other action games with 'RPG elements' such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. These games tend to be shorter and more linear and place greater focus on action. Their origins really lie within their respective genres (brawler and action/adventure) but were infused with 'RPG elements' like experience points to make the games a little more dynamic. These types of 'mixed genre' games are an interesting puzzle.

londiste (not verified)
but what about

system shock
arx fatalis
and maybe deus ex?

DarkLord (not verified)
Your article...

was simply awesome. I enjoyed reading it from start to finish. Great work!

I did note one small error though. You mentioned that in the Atari ST version
of Dungeon Master, that you could not control the movement keys with the
keyboard. That is incorrect. You can.

That doesn't detract from a great effort though - well done! :D

Matt Barton
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Controlling movement

I'm glad you liked it! Thanks for the compliments. Actually, I was able to control movement in the ST version with the keyboard, but couldn't find a way to rotate left or right. This pretty much eliminated its use. I had asked all around if anyone knew how to rotate with the keys, but no one seemed to know. You should see this earlier review of the game I posted here at AA.

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