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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)
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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)

April 11, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 9 of 12 Next

Arcanum: Steampunk and Magick

Black Isle wasn’t the only company releasing brave new CRPGs that were willing to abandon the old swords and sorcery formula.

A company named Troika scored a triumph in 2001 with Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscure, a game published by Sierra that quickly gained a large and devoted cult following. It certainly wasn’t the first CRPG to try to marry magic and technology; many of the early Ultima and Might & Magic games blended the two quite freely, but SSI’s Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace is probably a more direct precursor. At any rate, Arcanum is the game people think of when they hear the word “steampunk,” and deservedly so.

Arcanum is most often praised for its open-ended gameplay and intriguing game world, which is best described as an industrial revolution taking place in the midst of a high fantasy setting. Usually, magic and technology are pretty strange bedfellows, but when done right (as in Arcanum), the result is “magical realism,” in which objects that would ordinarily look familiar are placed in settings that make them seem strange and exotic.

It can be quite exhilarating, for instance, for a dwarf to draw a flintlock pistol rather than the clichéd old axe or hammer. The outcome of the game depends on whether players follow the magical or the technological path; the choice is left to the player.

"If you're serious about role-playing games--so serious that you don't care about graphics but instead just want to immerse yourself in a different world and try to explore it, perhaps even exploit it, as fully as possible--then Arcanum is well worth the investment of time, money, and effort.”

–Greg Kasavin on GameSpot, Aug. 21, 2001.

Unfortunately, Arcanum is not without its flaws, particularly in the all-important criteria of combat. As we’ve seen countless times, the combat system is often enough to make or break a CRPG. Although the game offers three different modes (real-time, turn-based, and “fast” turn-based), none of them are perfect, though the third comes the closest.

The key problem is the way experience points are doled out; the player only wins them by hitting rather than defeating enemies. This fact makes strength and dexterity all-important, thus ruling out many of the more exciting possibilities. The difficulty also seems a bit skewed towards the magical path; technologists had a tough time finding equipment and surviving long enough to use it. Thankfully, there are usually alternatives to brute force combat.

Arcanum has much in common with the Fallout series, no doubt due in part to sharing some key members on the development team. Both games also share the same wonderful sense of irony and humor, and the aesthetics are guided by a coherent and refreshing style that helps balance out the bugs and difficulty issues. While not as polished and playable as Fallout, Arcanum nevertheless stands out as a viable alternative to the standard formula.

BioWare: The New SSI

We've seen how TSR's valuable license had fallen upon hard times after SSI's last "Black Box" games, the Eye of the Beholder series created by Westwood Studios. SSI's own efforts went from bad to worse, ultimately costing them their exclusive license with TSR, and other companies fared little better despite plastering AD&D all over their products.

Nevertheless, cherished AD&D franchises like the Forgotten Realms were just too promising to remain out of sight for long, and many CRPG fans longed for a return to those halcyon days of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, games with great stories and gameplay set in the familiar and beloved worlds of high fantasy. The problem was how to "update" these hallowed games for the late 1990s. Two possible models existed in Elder Scrolls and Diablo, but these action-oriented games seemed to have little to offer fans of the hardcore, stat-tastic games of the 1980s.

The development team that would finally succeed in winning players back to the Forgotten Realms would not be SSI, Interplay, or Sierra, but rather a trio of Canadian medical doctors turned game developers: BioWare. BioWare created what is perhaps the greatest CRPG engine ever designed; the famous Infinity Engine, an isometric engine used in some of the greatest CRPGs of all time.

Like Blizzard, BioWare's first foray into CRPGs was a critical success: Baldur's Gate, released in 1998. Like Diablo, Baldur's Gate features isometric perspective and allows players to create only a single character. Both games feature real-time gameplay, but with one key difference: Baldur's Gate switches to a hybrid turn-based mode for combat, which allows for much more tactical-style battles than Diablo.

The engine is designed to allow most battles to be fought by a highly configurable artificial intelligence system; the player need only sit back and watch. However, players can always hit the space bar to pause the game and manually assign actions, then resume the game to see them carried out. This compromise between real-time and turn-based combat resulted in very compelling gameplay, and has much to offer both novices and aficionados of the genre.

"The entire game is played exactly like a true game of AD&D with savings throws, armor classes and to-hit rolls and combat range and speed all computed with every scrap the party gets into. The thing that makes this all so impressive (and very different from SSI's Gold Box series) is that it all goes on behind the scenes where it belongs...Baldur's Gate is, simply put, the best computer representation of Dungeons and Dragons ever made." --Trent C. Ward on IGN, Jan 18, 1999.

Furthermore, Baldur's Gate turns what fans of SSI's Gold and Black Box players might see as a limitation--creation of only a single character rather than a party--into a key story-telling asset. Although players can only create and directly control one character, they can allow up to five other characters to join their party. These characters not only have greatly varied skills, but unique personalities and implications for the plot. Characters of different political and ethical outlook may not get along; a few characters may actually betray the party at a critical juncture.

In short, the gameplay changes considerably depending on which characters the player adds (or doesn't add) to the party. Rather than simplify or dumb down battle tactics, the real-time aspect adds a new dimension to them--the time it takes to perform an action (casting a spell, quaffing a potion, switching weapons, etc.) may leave a character more vulnerable. I lost track of the times I started casting a powerful magical spell, only to see it wasted on enemies who'd already died or fled. Finally, to further sweeten the pot, BioWare offered a multi-player option which let players trade the non-player characters in their party for friends. Although somewhat buggy and not perfectly integrated, this option helped the game compete against Diablo, whose servers had become a swirling vortex for daddy's money.

Like any great CRPG, Baldur's Gate features a rich, nuanced storyline that resists easy summary (and, indeed, reading such a summary would ruin much of the fun of the game; the point is to learn what's happening as you play). The basic gist is that something (or someone) has been causing a serious iron shortage, which has led to widespread banditry across the countryside. Meanwhile, two young wards of a mage named Gorion (the beautiful rogue Imoen and the player's character) have been separated from their guardian and left to fend for themselves. Gradually, the player learns of a large conspiracy involving a secretive organization named the Iron Throne. By the end of the game, the player learns that both the avatar and Imoen are much more than what they seem. It's a complex but not plausible story of political intrigue, and offers much more than the standard black and white view of morality that runs through most CRPGs.

Baldur's Gate was followed up one year later with the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion pack. This pack added new areas, spells, weapons, and made some minor improvements to the gameplay and interface. More importantly, it added four new quests. The general consensus among reviewers was that the pack offered "a little more meat to chew on," but was certainly not to be mistaken as a full sequel. Some gamers resented the lack of true story developments, but others were just glad to have a little more Baldur's Gate to whet their appetites.

The true sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, appeared in 2000 and became an instant best-seller. While the game continued to use the Infinity Engine, the graphics were overhauled (800x600 as well as the old 640x480) and took advantage of the new 3D accelerators that were all the rage among Windows gamers. Shadows of Amn also added new classes, specializations, and cool skills like fighting with two weapons simultaneously. Furthermore, several of the beloved characters are back from the first game, including Imoen, and this time personality (and even romantic) conflicts among party members are even more instrumental to the gameplay. Contemporary reviewers fell over themselves praising the game and giving it the highest possible marks; it didn't take an orb of true seeing to know this game was platinum. For what it's worth, I consider it the finest CRPG ever designed.

The second Baldur's Gate is even better than the first, and is widely acknowledged as the best CRPG ever made.

The story picks up where the first Baldur's Gate leaves off (which is all the more reason for new players to start with the first game). Unfortunately, it's a bit difficult to talk about the story to Shadows of Amn without giving away the shocking ending to part one, so I'll just briefly state that it's mostly concerned with the sinister blood running through your avatar's veins. Unfortunately, your quest for answers is rudely halted by one Jon Irenicus, a wicked mage who captures you and your friends in an effort to steal your powers for himself. The story quickly gets much more complicated and involved, but suffice it to say you'll be going to hell and back.

"There's little doubt that Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn deserves to stand among the very best games of the era, or indeed among the greatest games of all time." -- GameSpot Editorial Team, Mar. 27, 2006.

One of the most-praised aspects of Shadows of Amn is the degree of freedom it presents to players. Many quests are optional, and there are many different paths through the game that substantially alter events. Players can either "stick to the main plot" and ignore these many diversions, or get so involved in them that they might lose track of the main story altogether. And, as with the original game, party dynamics play a huge role in the gameplay that goes far beyond just simple combat tactics. Mixing and matching characters with differing ethics and values can lead to some very interesting "drama" that everyone should experience at least once--particularly in a game with such good voice acting. Multi-player is also supported, so gamers with a few similarly-devoted friends can get even closer to the old tabletop experience via their home network.

In 2001, BioWare released an expansion for Baldur's Gate II called Throne of Baal. This important expansion represents the final chapter of the saga, and required playing for any fan of the other games. It also adds new items, spells, and even more class abilities. The expansion also adds a dungeon named "Watcher's Keep" that can be accessed during certain chapters in the Shadows of Amn game. However, perhaps the aspect most people remember of this game is the degree of god-like power your avatar has achieved by the game's ending. It's a fine ending for a fine series.

What makes the Baldur's Gate games so great? Again, I think it's clear it's more a question of craft than genius. With Baldur's Gate we get good stories, fun characters, meaningful quests, high-stakes combat, and an intuitive interface. The graphics, sound, and music are appealing and add much to the game's subtle ambiance. Perhaps the best testament to the game's lasting appeal is that no single element seems to rise above the others. There are no gimmicks; just solid platinum gameplay.

It just doesn't get better than Baldur's Gate.

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Shawn Yates
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"Platinum Age," which begins in 1996 with the publication of three very important games, Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992), Blizzard's Diablo, and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (both 1996). Other high points of the age include Interplay's Fallout (1997), Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment (1999), BioWare's Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II (2000),

Man those titles combined to waste a lot of my youth. How come they dont make them like they used to? Absolutely fantastic article, made for a fascinating read!

catus joquth
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Anybody know where the World of Warcraft European servers are located? Someone said they are all in Britain but I am not sure. Would they have some in Germany, some in Finland etc?

I am trying to do a business plan for my own massive multiplayer game and was wonder how they spread out the resources.

WoW Europe Gold

David Schwarz
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This is a fantastic series of articles.

The comments on Diablo really resonate with me. It came out during a relative drought of RPGs in the mid-'90s, and with all the rave reviews and RPG of the Year awards, I decided I had to give it a try. I remember sitting there playing it in my college dorm room and thinking, "This is fun and all, but it's not an RPG. It's Gauntlet with bosses and a mouse interface." I was disappointed in the amount of subsequent CRPG development effort that was sunk into Diablo clones, and for a long time avoided anything described as an "action RPG."

About the Ultima series, one thing that wasn't mentioned in the article was Origin's tendency to lock themselves into the wrong technology while developing yet another cutting edge game engine. Ultima VII was produced at a time when games were starting to push the 640 KB conventional memory barrier of MS-DOS. Rather than use one of the emerging standard extended/expanded memory managers, Origin "rolled their own." Their Voodoo memory manager made the game a nightmare to get running, and impossible to run on later operating systems without an emulator.

Years later, they made a similarly bad call with Ultima IX, optimizing it to work with 3dfx's Glide graphics API. The graphics looked great if you had a 3dfx Voodoo3 or better graphics card. Anyone with a card optimized for the now-standard Microsoft Direct3D API was in for a slide show at release.

But that's not what killed Ultima IX for fans, nor was it the multi-year delay (apparently due to Origin and Garriott's focus on the emerging MMO market--indeed, all indications are that Garriott was barely involved in the production of Ultima IX), nor was it even the repeated engine rewrites. It was that the game was jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the series. Elements of the plot and dialog were blatantly, factually irreconcilable with the history established by the previous games, and the linearity of the game progression flew in the face of every single previous game of the core series. The world was far less interactive, and felt much smaller. It was as if the game had been designed by a group who either did not know or did not like the rest of the series.

Andrey Dyumaev
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Face it, guys, we're just too far along the way of trading in our Acne Cream for Extra-Strength Rogaine...

The game industry figures we're too old.

HOWEVER, despite my lack of a proper education in the field of marketing, having worked a bunch translating tens of thousands of pages of generic market research and hopefully amassed some grasp of the theoretic and the practical - I'm just plain old baffled at the lack of anything past occasional low-budget late sequels or crappy remakes in the Nostalgia Market or Mature Adult (no, NOT pron) Category.

WE'RE HERE. WE'RE OLDER, SO WE ACTUALLY HAVE *CASH*. WE GO AND GET WHATEVER EXCITES US YEAR-ROUND, NOT JUST FOR CHRISTMAS. It's like the car industry - 16yos may salivate over convertibles with monstrous engines, but it's the older guy coughing up the cash for a lease on a ride he's wanted since he was 16. That's why $40-100k+ convertibles come with lots of leather, but no gigantic plastic spoilers. Hell, if older guys stopped buying sweet cars, chances are that the teenagers would stop dreaming about them - it's part of what makes or breaks the appeal. Smoking is cool because adults smoke, gas guzzler phallic symbols are cool because prosperous adults drive them, and since EVERYONE knows that the computer game is also the work of The Devil, what's so different with games??


Seems like the entire industry should be falling over themselves, salivating over the prospect of such a target audience. They're not, although it's really a no-brainer. What gives?

John Ingrams
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Surprised Matt didn't mention the one thing has has kept the Elder Scrolls alive - and that is the Construction Set that came with Morrowind and Oblivion. For example, if Oblivion had not had a Construction Set I believe it would have only sold 1/3 of the titles it actually did on PC.

I think the cRPG die has been cast. You want a console style 'action-RPG' with each subsequent title having more 'action' and less 'RPG' for your PC - then you get U.S. developed games from companies like Bioware or Obsidian or Bethesda with their Mass Effects and Alpha Protocols and Borderlands and Bioshock, etc.

You want 'old-school' RPG's designed for PC first and then (maybe) console - you buy games from European developers like CD Red Projekt or Piranha Bytes or 1C, with their titles like The Witcher Risen, Two Worlds, Drakensang and Space Rangers 2. All bonafide old school cRPG's.

The fact is, the large North American publishers seem wedded to their $30 million production costs, meaning they have to sell 3.5 million units to break even. 80% of AAA titles don;t make money, and so we have a downward spiral.

Europe on the other hand, can bring PC games to market for under $10 million. Meaning a STALKER, selling 3 million units, was making profit at under 1 million units! This means while North American cRPG will be of the Mass Effect 4 5 million unit sales on PC and console variety, European developers will be able to go for the niche markets of old school cRPG's on PC that sell in the 1-3 million range.

This is how the cRPG market will break down. Many U.S. gamers will have to work harder to get the European cRPG's, but the half of the market that is in Europe will get used to the fact they are buying more and more 'local product'!!

cam smith
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The repeated assertion that in Baldur's Gate (I and II) one could only control one 'main' character is incorrect.

By selecting 'multiplayer' instead of singleplayer' anyone could create a full team of 6 original custom characters. In point of fact, it was 'normal' to start any new game as multiplayer, as the game remained the same in every aspect with the exception that one could at any time introduce custom characters to the party.

This information was available from any basic walkthrough at the time.

Furthermore, the inbuilt NPCs could also be easily customised via third party programs.

Icewind Dale (I and II) pale in comparison to the BG series of course, even without this non existent advantage, as these games really lacked any of the lateral storylines typical to most Bioware games.

PS: This website's account information requirements are completely out of control. I guess that's why no one has corrected this error in the comments section for 3 years, despite this article being referenced in Wikipedia.

Seriously - asking for addresses and job descriptions is absurd and intrusive.