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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 Page 1 of 12 Next

Welcome 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.

Hundreds 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.

“CRPGs 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 nightmares.”

–Scott A. May in Compute!, Jan. 1994.

Instead, 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.

Sure, 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.

In short, 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.

Not 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.

The 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 stack.

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 12 Next

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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.