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Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs

July 2, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 22 Next

4. D&D Gold Box series

Designed by: Jim Ward, David Cook, Steve Winter, Mike Breault (Pool of Radiance), others

Influenced by: D&D, obviously. Also Wizardry, especially in its use of specials.

Series: SSI made many of these, at least seven. SSI also made a couple of Buck Rogers games using the Gold Box engine, and the original Neverwinter Nights (an early AOL offering) was essentially an MMORPG Gold Box game. There was even a publicly-released Gold Box AD&D construction kit in the form of the Unlimited Adventures tool.

Legacy: Probably every D&D-licensed RPG to come after owes a tremendous debt to the Gold Box line.

And so we return to Dungeons & Dragons for a moment. Let's first review the progress of the pen-and-paper game between OD&D and AD&D 2nd edition, which is the version that the Gold Box games utilize.

OD&D gave rise to two different, popular branches of the game, a version called just "Dungeons & Dragons" and was handed to TSR staffers to design, and "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," which was Gary Gygax's baby, and substantively looked like a version of OD&D with all the supplements rolled in, as well as some additions.

OD&D contained a good number of "rule hacks," weird little special cases introduced for one reason or another. For example, in the original books, elves were the only race with special status, able to play as either Fighting Men or Magic-Users, but only one at a time, per adventure. A supplement turned this into D&D's strange "multi-class" rules, giving them the ability to do both, splitting experience between their classes.

It also opened up the ability to pick different classes, and allow other races to multi-class. But since the purpose was to allow races to seem special compared to ordinary people, humans didn't get access to these rules. But then humans began to look like a fool's choice for race, so they introduced the "dual class" rules.

The result was that the rules became ever more complex, and only really understandable to people who had played from the start. Then 2nd edition came out (after Gygax had been forced out of the company), and the rules became simple in some ways, but combat became even more complicated. These are the rules upon which the AD&D Gold Box games are based.

Up until that point, TSR had viewed the burgeoning field of computer RPGs with suspicion. They had released a couple of tools for 1st edition DMs (shamefully, still the best such official tools ever produced), but nothing much in the way of games. This changed with the introduction of Pool of Radiance.

AD&D was not designed to become a computer game, and thus there are some unusual interface challenges at work here. A big advantage coming from its trying to replicate a official pen-and-paper RPG is that some aspects of the game world which almost invariably get simplified out of a concession to workability on a computer did not with the Gold Box games.

Take, for example, Vancian magic, the (in)famous aspect of D&D versions 0-3 that had wizard and cleric characters memorize spells at the beginning of an adventuring day. At "the beginning of a day," even in table sessions of Dungeons & Dragons, is a simplification; 2nd Edition established complex rules determining how many hours of preparation magic users had to undergo before beginning to memorize spells, then the actual amounts of time needed to commit them to retain them. In play sessions DMs usually, and rightly, glossed over this needless complication.

In most computer RPGs, something as weird and flavorful as Vancian magic (something that is only really effective for people who have read Jack Vance's fantasy work) would be considered too much of an interface hassle to make up for the fairly-minimal atmospheric effect from using it. The Gold Box games do include Vancian magic, even though it required a great deal of interface programming at the time to accommodate it -- the games even accurately tally up the hours spent in memorizing spells. They also track encumbrance, and even the funky multiple coin types D&D used at the time, with at least one inn even refusing payment in anything but platinum.

The games themselves are remembered fondly by many players, probably because of their strong non-linear nature and challenging play. Like a semi-directed tabletop campaign, players are given many different possible tasks to accomplish and can do them in the order the wish, or switch between them. Many of the obstacles have multiple ways of overcoming them.

Pool of Radiance (Screenshot courtesy

For example, to enter the dragon's lair at the end of Pool of Radiance, the player's group can either fight its way directly in, or find the laundry and dress up in disguise to avoid some trouble, or rescue a prisoner to get a password to infiltrate the castle, or find a teleporter to take the party directly to the dragon. Pool of Radiance, in particular, was designed so much like an actual D&D adventure that TSR later released a module based upon it.

Second Edition D&D was still a fairly difficult game, and the Gold Box series didn't skimp on that difficulty, but they are leavened tremendously by the save game feature. Second Edition had the most complicated character generation of all the books, so abuse of the save game feature was pretty much required to make headway.

Technically players could switch out permanently dead or ruined characters with new ones, Wizardry-style, but the newcomers would join at the lowest level allowed by the scenario, but without the benefit of all the early experience opportunities his predecessor was able to claim.

I should say a few more words about ruining characters. D&D had resurrection spells, but they were risky. If the character failed his roll he'd be left dead permanently, and even if he survived he'd lose a point of Constitution, which meant lost maximum hit points for some characters.

Additionally, there was the Haste spell, which doubled a character's actions and movement for a short time, but at the cost of a year of permanent aging. Aging is one of those things that gets thrown around as a different kind of drawback in other games, but D&D aging is fairly difficult to overcome. And the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance Gold Box games are arranged in a sequence, allowing for characters to move from scenario to scenario. Aging a few Haste-caused years per game, characters could easily be too old to function effectively by the end of one of the later games.

Pool of Radiance gets most of its exploration interface from Wizardry. Those games with an overworld present it as single screens of wilderness, with encounters sprinkled around. One of the things that 2E brought to D&D, and works fairly well for the computer games, is its "non-weapon proficiencies," which we might know better as, simply, "skills".

The crowning achievement of the Gold Box games was their fidelity to the 2E rules, which were generally unsuitable to computer play. They are not a direct port; there are plenty of spells, even the basic ones in the core rule books, that aren't present. (Some of them, like Reincarnation, would by mere implication have made the game much harder to develop.)

Many previous CRPGs unofficially used some version of the D&D rules as their base. (One of the telltale signs, visible in Wizardry and Bard's Tale, is the use of "armor class," and whether it counts down as it's improved.) AD&D 2E was the zenith of the game in terms of independence from computer simulations. It has been observed that a likely inspiration for 3E was its suitability to adaption as computer games, and that 4E seems downright MMORPG-like.

Further reading: GameFAQs hosts an excellent guide to the 2nd Edition AD&D rules.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 22 Next

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Tom Newman
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Great article! I'm glad to see Nippon Ichi and Warcraft get their due. Warcraft is often overlooked because it is both current, and it seems like it is trendy to rag on WoW. NIS games get overlooked mainly due to their lack of exposure.

I do feel that Western rpgs carried a bit more weight in the early days. Only going by my personal memories, Steve Jackson's Car Wars was HUGE amongst my peers (maybe it's because I'm from Detroit), and the other TSR boxed rpgs like Star Frontiers and Marvel Super Heros were pretty popular as well in the early 1980's, even though their influence is not as obvious as D&D.

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Bruno Bulhoes
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Not seeing the Shin Megami Tensei series being cited makes me sad. But good article nevertheless.

Tom Ammon
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Um. Minor correction here, but Second Edition was *not* what was used for the Gold Box games; you were hip deep in a stripped down version of First edition AD&D. 2nd Ed hadn't even come out by the time of Pool of Radiance, and wasn't truly used in a game until Baldur's Gate. For further proof, realize that the main villain of PoR was a demon, a particular lower planes denizen which the holier-than-thou people that bought TSR removed from AD&D2, for quite a while.

Sorry about that, but your research doesn't hold up to reality.

Tom Ammon
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Also, non-weapon proficiences are 1st edition, expanded greatly in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide; etc, etc.

Simon Carless
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Thanks, Tom A. - we figure with such a massive article, despite our best efforts, there may be some minor factual snafus, we'll be updating the piece in the near future to reflect your notes.

Roberto Alfonso
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Excellent article. It would be interesting to have a side by side comparison between western and Japanese games, to easily notice how one game in either side could influence the other branch.

"I make no secret the fact that I consider this one of the most pernicious aspects of CRPG gaming, that permanent disadvantages acquired during the course of play cannot be used by a designer because the player will simply load back to the time before the disadvantage occurred. "

I doubt many players indeed keep their own characters dead, and the fact that you can save and restore easily in Wizard-like games makes that pretty improbable. Games like Etrian Odyssey let you retire a character in exchange of another with a bigger level cap, which could be counted as "permanent death". Even in games where characters aged and died (Rise of the Phoenix, a strategy game for SNES, for example) I would usually reset and try again until none died at year's end.

A pity MUDs are not mentioned (not even as World of Warcraft predecessor).

Darren Tomlyn
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I found this article quite informative, thank you. I've been working on a paper about CRPG's for a while now - (I admit it took me a while to fully understand exactly what it was I was looking at - (it's made it much easier to describe and write about)) - but since my paper is about what RPG's are NOW, and what they should be able to become in the future, most of what you've written doesn't really have much significance for the paper I'm writing - except that is for one paragraph:

"The leeching-off of RPG elements into the greater field of video games has helped to encourage a strange definition of terms: because so many games could be considered role-playing games now, the CRPG genre is now being defined by those elements that other genres are least likely to steal."

I'm afraid I have to disagree with this statement. The reason for this, is that what defines an CRPG NOW, is actually something rather specific, even if the industry as a whole hasn't fully realised it:

I as a consumer and a player, along with many others I know, and some of the websites which are involved as much with the players as-well as the industry, have reached a consensus about what an CRPG actually is, today. The only real problem I've found, is that a lot of people have trouble truly understanding what that consensus is, what it represents, and it's ramifications for computer games in general. In fact, such has been some of the discussions and arguments I've been part of, that essentially the whole of the introduction I'm currently writing for my paper, is taken up precisely with just this one issue, because I think it's that important for people to understand. After all, you can't have a paper discussing CRPG's without people fully understanding what an CRPG actually is, right now.

The fact is, is that most of what made CRPG's what they were, isn't really all that important in the overall field of computer games. What's happened is that we've since focused on what IS important, and started to distil it down to the fundamentals. Or at least tried to. Like I said, I've had quite a few arguments and disagreements along the way. However, at the end of all that, I feel I now fully understand what it is we're dealing with, which is where my paper comes in.

I'm still currently writing, (and re-writing!) the introduction, precisely for this reason, but am unsure of what I should do with is when I've finished, (since I feel the introduction should stand on it's own quite well, even if it is just the first part of a much longer paper). I'd like to submit it to Gamasutra (when done), but am unsure as to how?

Bevan Bennett
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An excellent and well articulated article. I am a little disappointed that the addendum doesn't make note of "Darklands", which was a truly notable game not merely for it's open world, reputation tracking, complexity of skill systems, story and believably historical setting, but for it's ridiculously wonderful character creation system that echoed that of Traveller in both in that it was fun in it's own right (Many people would roll up Traveller characters for fun, but never actually play the game with them) and that you could push things too far and end up crippling or killing your character *before you even started the actual game*.

Robert Boyd
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Excellent article, but I would have removed Mother & the miscellaneous 16-bit Square pages in favor of the Phantasy Star series & Shin Megami Tensei series, both of which did a number of revolutionary things in terms of both story & gameplay and were highly influential on other games. To name a few things:

Phantasy Star series - one of the first RPGs with parties made of defined story characters, one of the first games with a female protagonist, sci-fi/fantasy hybrid back when most games were high fantasy, generation system with branching story paths based on marriage, death of the female lead way before FF7 did it, comic book style cutscene predating CD cutscenes.

Shin Megami Tensei series - recruit monsters on your team long before Pokemon did it, modern/occult/cyberpunk/post-apoc settings, stories & characters based on world mythologies, multiple storyline paths, mix of life sim elements in later games (Persona 3/4).

John Mawhorter
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Now if someone could write one up for each of the other genres that'd be nice (though perhaps more difficult). Beat-Em-Ups, First Person Shooters, SHMUPs, Platformers, etc. These are the kinds of guides that are useful to game designers who either don't have the time to play everything or need some idea of what to play.

John Harris
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I did not know that about 1st Edition AD&D's use in the early Gold Box games. I didn't even consider checking; it was an assumption on my part. I think the assumption came from how the box artwork on the games, which looks 2nd-ish. Now that I know, I can only say that I consider them to be even -more- awesome.

Shin Megami Tensei: Honestly? It's a series I don't yet feel qualified to write about. There's so MUCH there, much of it in languages other than Japanese, and I try not to write on something unless I've had at least some personal experience playing it.

I've said in the past that these lists are not consider to be the 20 "most" anything, they're here to provide background for modern game designers, and to illustrate particularly useful design examples. I stand by that, although I'll admit a couple of the games this time kind of got away from that. If you want more info on these games, the best source on them (and indeed, many other games) that I've found is Hardcore Gaming 101. Go there. Read. I sincerely doubt you'll be disappointed.

But yes, it is true, it predates Pokemon, which I pieced together after I turned in the article. I'll see about correcting that soon.

Phantasy Star: Oh, I dearly wanted to write about the classic Phantasy Star games this time. Maybe later.

Mother: The thing about Mother is that it's simultaneously utterly by-the-numbers Dragon Quest in a modern setting, and at the same times something unique and wonderful, especially starting with Mother 2/Earthbound.

Darklands: It's another case of not having gotten around to playing it yet, which is a form of research that cannot always be completed in a timely manner, and not just because of matters of play time. I'm sure I'll be writing about it eventually in some form. (And I've just started looking into Traveller on my own....)

To Darren Tomlyn: It sounds like it could be an interesting paper! Whether Gamasutra picks it up or not, I'd like to read it when it's done, if it's okay with you.

To Roberto Alfonso: Actually, it's a funny thing. Wizardry (and Bard's Tale too, I seem to remember) are special in that they DON'T allow you to return to old saves. If a character is lost forever ("buried"), it's impossible to restore using in-game means. And if you turn off your computer to avoid a battle, when you return to the game you'll find your party is still in the dungeon, and you'll have to "restart an out party".

On players not being willing to suffer with permanent character death, this is one of those things where, ultimately, it is up to the designer. I myself respect a game with permanent death if the game is designed taking it into account (and that *doesn't* mean the game has to be any easier), but I understand that there are players who don't think about it that way. But that is the thing: designing a game around the idea of permanent death and endless reloading produces entirely different kinds of games, and since the latter is 99% of RPGs it means a great swath of RPG design space is being left farrow. To extend the metaphor, it is time, I believe, that the plow is taken up once more.

MUDs: I agree it's an absence, but with only 10 games to cover in each category there were unavoidable exclusions.

Tom Newman: It sounds like I would have liked your gaming circle.

Simon Christensen
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It's probably not fair to say that Tales has no legacy. At the very least, they're the basis for the Star Ocean series - after finishing Tales of Phantasia (the first Tales game) just about the entire design team left and formed Tri-Ace to create the first Star Ocean. The two are very similar as a result. There's probably a fair argument for Tales having influenced the Grandia series too.

ray G
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Wow, none of the Phantasy Stars are up there? really??

Truly and always one of the MOST innovative made JRPG

titles in Japan.

Dave Endresak
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This is a decent summary; I sent it to my professor.

However, you didn't cover either Ys or Phantasy Star. These two franchises were far more influential to Japanese RPGs than Final Fantasy was when all of them first began 20+ years ago. That's why they continue to be rereleased, followed, and mimiced to this day. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Final Fantasy was not that popular compared to Ys or Phantasy Star. Frankly, I'd prefer that it had stayed that way because I think that both Ys and Phantasy Star (especially Ys I&II and the original Phantasy Star I&II) are far superior RPGs, including offering strong heroines as both PCs and NPCs, as well as (for Phantasy Star) offering a hybrid fantasy/sci-fi setting, a theme I used for my own campaign worlds (I combined AD&D and TSR's Gamma World rule set, and got the idea from Terry Brooks' "Sword of Shannara").

One other point that's probably worth repeating (and that I've said several times elsewhere) is that WoW is not that huge when you consider the actual global market. 11 million accounts is nothing compared with the 70 million accounts that Nexon announced for Maple Story or the 17 million that NCSoft states for Lineage II, for example, and it isn't that much more successful than Guild Wars' 6 million accounts (especially since GW doesn't charge a monthly subscription). Blizzard has succeeded in making people think that their game is the standard, but in fact it is just one fish in a very large pond, and there are other offerings that have far larger user bases.

Joshua McDonald
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"Wizardry (and Bard's Tale too, I seem to remember) are special in that they DON'T allow you to return to old saves."

Bard's Tale II lets you return to old saves. That's the only one I've played extensively or recently, though, so I can't comment on any others.

"11 million accounts is nothing compared with the 70 million accounts that Nexon announced for Maple Story or the 17 million that NCSoft states for Lineage II"

All of these need to be considered in the appropriate context, though. 11 million is "Current paying subscribers" for WoW. How many of Maple Story's players still play, ever played for a significant period of time, or ever paid any money? Their 70 million would have to be compared to the total number of accounts ever created on WoW (including trial accounts) which may compete with or even surpass it.

Likewise, from all of my research, Lineage II's 17 million is the total number of accounts ever created (I don't think it ever exceeded 3-4 million concurrent users). My main source was, which appears to be defunct, so I'd like a current source on this. I think that the lineage series overall has made more money that WoW, but I don't think it ever matched its subscriber numbers except during WoW's first year, which means that WoW will shortly overtake it in total profit if it hasn't already..

Likewise, Guild Wars 6 million is total number of box sales (including their 2 expansions). WoW's total sales of original game and expansions are WAY more than that.

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Arthur Payne
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That article was fantastic, though given your obvious love of Wizardry and games like it, I'm surprised you didn't mention the Megaten series of JRPGs even in your Addendum. If by chance you have missed them, I highly reccomend the games to you. I believe they inspired Pokemon far more than Dragon Quest, and quite a few other games as well.

In any regard, this was a good read, as were your previous articles which I reviewed prior to reading this article. Thank you for publishing them!

Dave Endresak
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There are two points that I was making that seemed to be missing in your reply. The first point is that these companies state their own numbers rather than being tracked by any sort of independent organization; therefore, we must go with what they report regardless of who the company is. Blizzard's statements are no more valid than NCSoft or any other company. We certainly cannot take the reports of one of many miscellaneous sites as having higher validity as a reference than the actual companies who offer the numbers in the first place. The second point is that gaming is a global medium, not national or local. WoW is big in the English market largely due to Blizzard's hype and promotion, but that's about all that can be said for it. Ten years ago, Everquest was the biggest in the English market, but the same observations still applied (many people did not play even amongst hardcore RPG gamers, etc). Many people do not play WoW, particularly in other countries where other tastes in styles and mechanics are preferred. In a reply in another article, one person here (I think it was Tommy) stated something to the effect that, "anyone who wants to play an MMORPG has chosen WoW." Obviously, this is an inaccurate statement and rather misleading about the nature of the overall global market for MMORPGs. The same thing happens with other types of games and genres, so it's not too surprising, but we should be more critical (and inclusive) when we report about the industry as a whole.

As I said, WoW is merely one fish in a very big sea, and it is not the largest fish as far as users if the entire global market is considered. People tend to think of their own standards as being universal, but that's usually not the case when the bigger picture is considered. In fact, much of research is inherently ethnocentric due to language barriers and basic business competition (companies not allowing independent tracking, for example).

Jhypsy Shah
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I would say nice article but.. that's a book, hehe. I've played alot of these games years ago on a commodore 64/128. I've played thousands of others, some more recently on a MAME with 7k+ games. I must have missed mention of MUDs..that's a shame, I was always fond of them.

Joshua McDonald
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Where did I say that the numbers coming from the companies weren't accurate? I said that the numbers from the companies refer to different things. The number of people who have ever created a free Maple Story account compared directly to the number of CURRENTLY PAYING WoW subscribers does not tell you which game is bigger, more popular, more profitable, etc.

Until a company other than WoW gives a number that can be reasonably compared, I'm going to assume that WoW is, in fact, the biggest fish in the ocean, if for no other reason because no other company will actually tell us useful numbers. They inflate them by keeping the terms vague (which means that they probably refer to every account ever created, since that's a valid interpretation of their words).

That being said, I do think that you have a valid point that people in U.S. focus too much on WoW and fail to realize the size and popularity of other MMO's. I just think that you need to consider exactly what the numbers that you read refer to instead of linearly comparing the largest number you hear from each company.

Amber Viescas
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Not bad. It's clear you know a lot about Western RPGs, but I think you should have restricted your already sprawling article to them; it would have allowed for more substance there, and there is quite a bit missing from the JRPG section.

I'm repeating things here, but Megaten and Phantasy Star are the most obvious omissions (Nowadays there are LOTS of Megaten games over here too). There's also Crystalis (serving as a connection between Zelda and other action RPGs such as Seiken Densetsu and the Soul Blazer series), Star Ocean (as part of the Tales legacy) and Castlevania (which dovetails with Tales series, especially the recent ones). In addition to Shining Force, Fire Emblem also inspired the Super Robot Wars series. And I'm not a JRPG expert; I'm sure I'm missing a lot more.

Given your desire to emphasize the "RP" portion of "RPG", I'm also surprised you didn't even give a nod to RPG "morality systems," the duality of which mostly derives from the early DnD "Law/Chaos" system, either directly (Ogre Battle, Megaten, and Baldur's Gate), or indirectly (KotoR)

Daniel Biesiada
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Nice article although not complete and not accurate in many places.

What I miss is aggregation of decade long leaders and leaders thought for what they defined as RPG game.

That could be nice to build conclusion to where are we going.

Especially in times where lider of the Millenian period - Bioware - now is as gigantic and strong as SSI was a decade earlier, simiar thing is with a monolith long-living Bethesda which evolved even from the past times many companies and product lines didn't survive. From the other hand RPG still bring new players with innovative ideas not afraid that rpg is one of the hardest video game to produce.

This way of thinking can be helpful to make "RPG 101 - how not to fail for the future".

Anyway, Albion was a PC game made by ex-Thelion programmers who made game of the era for Amiga called "Ambermoon". I presume you thought on about that title when thinking Amiga. Nevertheless both Albion and Ambermoon are games which sentimental rpg-gamer can come back playing even now (if possible).

Another really cool example of Wizardrish/M&M mixed gameplay is Ishar serie. Many players also remember that one very well

Kumar Daryanani
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Very good article, although as has been said, the lack of Phantasy Star, Persona/Megaten, Front Mission, and others is noted.

@Dave: I think you have things back-to-front, as regards WoW and Guild Wars. Guild Wars, with 6 million accounts, but no subscription, is nowhere near as successful, financially, as WoW with 11 million accounts all paying a subscription fee / pay to play plan. I do agree that WoW is just one fish in the pond, but to run with the analogy, it's actually a Kraken with a thousand tentacles, right now.

Troy Lonergan
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I'm very surprised I couldn't see a mention of Breath of Fire series. The 3rd is a wonderful little game, with some great characters and a cracking story.

Nice to see at least one nod to Azure Dreams though, that was fantastic.

Joe Walker
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Mr. Harris,

Excellent article among your many. Like many posters, I would have loved to see some mention of my pet game. In this case, the fantastic, yet incomplete Alternate Reality series:

Surely you would have seen this in the C64/128 release lineup?

Adam Sims
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There is no doubt that many mistakes made in modern day CRPGs are repeats of mistakes already made in the pen and paper roleplay arena and other alternative forms of gaming.

The issue I see in my dealings with games producers is the lack of respect and value producers see in forms of gaming such as pen and paper roleplay, and often disregard it.

Its a shame, but in many causes appears to be the reality and achilles heell of some development studios today.

Joshua Kahelin
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Darklands is a significant omission. Especially as a influence to the Baldur's Gate series. The Bioware doctors themselves have mentioned it as a direct influence. Specifically the "real-time with pause" style combat.

Paopao Saul
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Very nice article. I guess you had to pick the 20 from the ones you were familiar with. With that said, the Realms of Arkania series is a notable omission, as its one of the deepest old school RPG series out there. Also, ff tactics had a lot more in common with the front mission series. It would also be nice if the list wasn't constrained to US/UK,JP developed RPGs, as well as more board games. To reiterate though, very nice read!

Mike Carrico
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This was a great article! Just a side note though, on Page 22 Additional Games, you mention Dungeon Master was made for Amiga, PC, and SNES. You forgot to mention in that list that Dungeon Master was also made for the Atari ST. Other than that, the article was very complete.

Edward Williams
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I completely agree with you, Mr. Harris, on Skies of Arcadia, and I'm glad it got a mention! The only real problem with it was the horrendous load time between world and battle. Aside from that, it was easily my favorite JRPG.

Fantastic article! It introduced me to a world of RPGs (from both sides) that I had not even heard of. Time to start exploring :-)


Marc Cram
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One the Gold Box games .. it was really Lewis Castle of Westwood Associates that was a key designer of the all of the games.