back, brave adventurer, to the third and final installment of my
history of our favorite computer game genre--the Computer Role-Playing
Game, or CRPG for short. If you are new to this series, I'd suggest you
stop now and read The Early Years, which covers the dark origins of the genre, such as Richard Garriott's Akalabeth and Sir-Tech's Wizardry series, and of course early mainframe CRPGs like dnd. You should then check out The Golden Age, which picks up from 1983 and extends all the way to 1993, a period which represents the peak of CRPG development.
of games and dozens of series appeared during this time, several of
which extend into the Platinum and Modern Ages. The Golden Age includes
classics like SSI's Pool of Radiance (1988) and Phantasie (1985), or Interplay's The Bard's Tale (1985) and Wasteland (1988), and plenty of highly innovative titles like Sierra's Hero's Quest (1989) and Masterplay's Star Saga (1987). Without
a good grounding in the CRPGs of these earlier periods, you might
suffer from the all-too-common delusion that recent games like Diablo, Neverwinter Nights, and Oblivion came out of nowhere.
are natural extensions of their traditional pen-and-paper games or
table-top miniatures. Instead of simply imagining monsters and
moss-covered labyrinths, computer games burst with ethereal life,
thanks to ever-evolving graphics and sound effects. Hard-liners may
complain that the real magic has been lost; for the rest of us,
however, CRPGs are the realization of our dreams - or more often, our
–Scott A. May in Compute!, Jan. 1994.
these games can all trace their lineage back to Golden Age games, which
can in turn trace their lineage back to the late 1970s. Indeed,
although it's a commonplace in game history to blurt out things like,
"We've sure have come a long way since Akalabeth!", at one level we really haven't taken more than a few timid steps.
there have been enormous changes in graphics, sound, interface, and so
on, but much of what we cherish in a modern CRPG was already present in
games like DynaMicro's Dungeons of Daggorath and Texas Instruments' Tunnels of Doom (both 1982). Furthermore, many games that come fairly late in the time line actually seem to some critics to be steps backwards. For instance, although FTL introduced Dungeon Master in
1987, which featured real-time, 3-D graphics in full color, other
developers continued to release best-selling turn-based and tile-based
games well into the 1990s. And even in 2007, many critics argue that
ASCII or ANSI games like Rogue have never been surpassed,
since snazzy graphics and intricate story lines just distract from what
they think makes CRPGs fun to play.
rather than view the history of CRPGs as a neat time line that begins
with total crap and just keeps getting less crappy all the time, I see
it as a treasure-filled, monster-infested dungeon. While you can get
from one point on that path to any other, you'll never travel in a
straight line--and you never know what's waiting for you around the
next corner. Let's just hope you brought your loquacious old pal Lilarcor!
To my mind, the games that really represent the best of the genre
appeared during the period I've termed the "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), Troika's Arcanum (2001) and Sir-Tech's Wizardy 8 (2001).
The single-player, standalone CRPG reached its zenith during this period, and I've begun to doubt if Baldur's Gate II will
ever be surpassed. Even in many of these games, though, the presence of
online, multi-player options signaled the impending doom of the old
CRPG we knew and loved. At the end of the platinum age, the Massively
Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or the MMORPG, dominated the
scene, and, at least to this critic, the future of the CRPG is grimmer
than anything ever dreamed up by Lord British.
BioWare's Baldur's Gate single-handedly brought AD&D back to the masses.
all that glitters is platinum, however. It’s during the early 1990s
that we really begin to see games marred by sloppy code, particularly
on the DOS and Windows platforms. Many otherwise impressive games were
doomed at the start by hundreds of game-crashing glitches, which
infuriated gamers and united critics against them.
likeliest explanation for the preponderance of bugs during this era is
an industry-wide shift in development methods. Instead of just a
handful or even a single person in charge of the coding, games were
being built by increasingly large teams of specialized programmers, who
would work on individual parts and then jam everything together. While
this process occasionally went smoothly, more often that not bits of
the code were incompatible, and finding bugs in such massive piles of
code was like finding the proverbial unassigned pointer in the memory
Another key issue was the lack of industry
standards among early graphic and sound card manufacturers; developers
had to slap together code to support dozens of different standards—or
risk alienating hordes of money-waving gamers. While it's now
relatively easy to download and install a patch to address such issues,
most people weren't online until well after many of these bug-infested
games had passed out of circulation.
The period I've termed the "Modern Age" begins in 2002 with the publication of BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, and includes games like Microsoft's Dungeon Siege and Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil. Although
these games have probably sold many thousands more copies than games
from earlier periods, they seem to represent more of a looking back
than a looking forward, and I'm increasingly worried by the large
number of CRPG fans migrating towards MMORPGs. In fact, I don't even
consider these games to be part of the same genre, a point I'll get to
towards the end of this article.
Up to now, I've
tried to simplify things by postponing my discussion of MUDs
(Multi-User Dungeons) and MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online
Role-Playing Games), which can actually trace their history as far back
as the stand-alone CRPG. I'll explain why at the end of this article.
Let's pick up our story, then, in 1992, a year which culminated in Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a progressive game that demonstrated new and exciting possibilities and would set the tone for much of what would follow.