The Top Ten Greatest Innovations in CRPGs

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Matt Barton's picture

When you got 300 shortswords.No copper breastplate left behind.This week, I'm looking at what I consider the ten best innovations in CRPGs. That means, I'm looking at games that introduced new gameplay elements or at least adapted existing concepts, forging something that has become (or should have become) important, influential, or at least pretty damn awesome. Keep in mind that the game as a whole might be weak or even a flop; that isn't relevant here. What is relevant is which games introduced which concepts and when. So, let's get started with #10:

10. The mule in Dungeon Siege. Year: 2002. Concept: A pack animal to help carry your lootz. I don't remember much about the original Dungeon Siege game, but I will never forget that crusty pack animal. I'm pretty sure the thinking behind the mule was simply utilitarian; "Hey, that'd be handy to have around." But in one stroke the designers made a game ten times more memorable and self-parodying. And how many times did a battle hinge on the kicking of your mule? Mules literally kick ass. Wait, is that possible? Now I'm so spoiled that I always want a pack of them in assorted colors--what, I'm supposed to just leave that solid gold Elminster statue behind?

9. The automap in Bard's Tale III. Year: 1988. Concept: Why have players bother with graph paper when the computer could map the dungeons for them? I doubt any gamers under the age of 30 remember when games like Wizardry included graph paper in the box. That wasn't put there as a collectible. Indeed, some people actually enjoyed making their own maps and nerd-raged on the new systems, but to hell with it. Those of us with directile dysfunction are forever grateful. Might and Magic 2 also had automapping the same year, but apparently BT3 beat it by a couple of months, and it had Becky Burger Heineman.

8. The procedural generation in Beneath Apple Manor. Year: 1978. Concept: Instead of having fixed maps, why not let the computer generate one algorithmically, randomly placing all the treasures, secret doors, and traps? That way, every run through would be unique. Now bear in mind that this concept wasn't new; mainframe games had been doing it for years. But as far as I know, this 1978 game from Software Factory is, if not the first, clearly one of the earliest to do so on a home computer. The same thing shows up in Rogue and Diablo and plenty of other games.

7. The turn-based, tactical combat in Tunnels of Doom. Year: 1982. Concept: Combine strategic wargaming with fantasy role-playing. A lot of people think Wizard's Crown (1985) or Pool of Radiance (1988) were the first to offer turn-based tactical combat, but they don't know about this little gem for the TI-99/4A. No wonder; most people probably think a TI-99/4A is a graphing calculator. Granted, the combat here is much simpler and less interesting than those later games, but credit where it's due. I did a Matt Chat on this game back in April 2010.

For every monster, turn, turn, turn.For every monster, turn, turn, turn.6. The real-time gameplay in The Dungeons of Daggorath. Year: 1982. Concept: Unleash the beasts. Another game that most people missed, at least those who weren't stuck with a Tandy Color Computer (the CoCo) instead of an Apple or Commodore and had to wait for Dungeon Master. It's not much to look at, just wireframe 3D dungeons, but you do have monsters wandering around on their own--you can turn up your sound to figure out how close they are. Phil Landmeier is who you have to thank for that--and the awesome beating heart that makes this game about a million times more intense. If you haven't seen it, I wrote a review of it in 2006 and followed up with a Matt Chat in Feb. 2010.

5. The user-generated modules in Eamon. Year: 1980. Concept: Let users make their own adventures. While most of us are happy just getting to play a role-playing game, others aren't satisfied unless they're the ones creating the adventures (i.e., the dungeon masters). Back in 1980, that meant either sticking to the pen and paper version or learning how to program--at least until Don Brown came along. Don's system allowed users to create their own modules, and he gave them the tools and manuals to do it. There are still people today playing with this system. And the best part--it was free! Of course, later on you could choose from The Bard's Tale Construction Set, Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures, and...geez, does everybody have one?

4. The morality of Ultima IV. Year: 1985. Concept: Turn mindless hack'n slashers into paragons of virtue. I've talked to folks who are slightly freaked out by Richard Garriott (Lord British). Maybe he would've founded a cult if he hadn't a games company to keep him busy. His earlier games had been amazingly successful, but by 1985 he was no longer striving so much for technological superiority as spiritual enlightenment. In the words of Jack Black, he didn't just want to blow your mind--he wanted to blow your soul. Thus we get Quest of the Avatar, a game that made us all into Good People. It did so by punishing you for doing the stuff that got you ahead in other CRPGs, such as stealing. This karmic concept shows up in countless later games. Sure, there's no one around to see you steal those coins from the offering plate...But Lord British is watching you...

Nomad, vagabond, call me what you will!Nomad, vagabond, call me what you will!3. The bard in Bard's Tale: Title of the Unknown Vol. 1.. Year: 1985. Concept: What kind of party can you have without music? Warrior, healer, rogue, wizard; we all know the routine. But what about entertainment? I mean, can you really picture an epic battle with a dragon without a minstrel somewhere strumming a lute? It might seem like a silly concept, at least until you consider the battles of history that were won or lost depending on how well the little drummer boy could keep tempo. Oh, I give up. Bards are just cool, accept that and let's move on. I'll mention in passing that Skara Brae is also an epic innovation; it was the first town in a CRPG that really felt like a town and not just a menu. I did a Matt Chat on this game in which I donned a cap and performed the theme myself. Yeah, I'm that kind of nerd.

2. The party in Wizardry. Year: 1981. Concept: Why have one character when you can have six? CRPGs evolved out of the tabletop role-playing games of the 70s, which were social in nature. You wouldn't have much fun sitting alone at the kitchen table rolling a D20, now would you? However, how did you translate that experience into a single player game for a computer? Most games just put you in charge of one jack-of-all-trades like character, but Wizardry let you lovingly create an entire party of six adventurers, including a samurai and a ninja. You could even create a lord named British if you were truly vile and pernicious. I covered Wizardry back in episode 29.

Yeah, I know, a guy this white ought to be wearin' sunblock.Yeah, I know, a guy this white should wear sunblock.1. The graphic modes in Ultima. Year: 1981. Concept: Game world. Ultima is an important game for many reasons; but what probably proved most influential was the tile-based graphics of the overland map and the 3D wireframe graphics of the dungeons, which Garriott had created a year earlier for Akalabeth: World of Doom. The tile-based graphics would become a staple of JRPGs, whereas the mode switching in the dungeons made the world seem, well, more like a world and less like a map. This wasn't just a dungeon game; this was four freaking continents. This setup would be endlessly copied and refined in later games, as it should be. When Garriott combined the 3D, first-person view of Akalabeth with the top-down, tile-based graphics of Ultima, the whole was greater than the parts. Ultima players let us crawl out of the dungeon and see the sunshine.


JemyM (not verified)
Some of my favorite

Some of my favorite innovations that I do not remember who started with are;

1. Skills, attributes or perks give you access to new dialogue-options (Fallout, Baldur's Gate etc)
2. RTS-style combat/party-control that allow the player to pause the game (Baldur's Gate)
3. Game-Master mode (Vampire: Redemption/Neverwinter Nights)
4. Inventory-boxes. You know the box that is magically dragged along with you when you move to a new area. Yes, I actually like these.

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