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[Note:The following is part two of Matt Barton's in-depth series on the history of computer role-playing games. We highly recommend referring to Part One: The Early Years before reading this article!]
Welcome back, brave adventurer, to the second part of my history of our favorite genre of computer game--the Computer Role-Playing Game (the CRPG). Last time, we explored the CRPG's murky precursors, which included tabletop war and sports games like Tactics and Strat-O-Matic. Of course, I also discussed the CRPG's most direct ancestor, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's Dungeons & Dragons game, which itself derived mostly from their earlier fantasy-based strategy game called Chainmail. Since so much of D&D consists of mathematics, programmers realized at once that a considerable bulk of the game was well suited for play on a computer. The first CRPGs appeared on mainframes like the PDP-10 and a special educational platform called PLATO. By the early 1980s, these graphically simplistic but technically masterful games had been adapted or ported to almost every home computer on the market. Although the first commercial CRPGs for home computers (Akalabeth for the Apple II and Temple of Apshai for the Commodore PET and TRS-80) are hardly ever played today, they laid the groundwork for much of what would follow.
Throughout the "Silver Age," which lasted from 1981 until 1983, change would come gradually and mostly consist of improvements in graphics and user interface. Important series like Ultima and Wizardry appeared on the market, solidifying every gamer's expectations about what a CRPG should be. Meanwhile, innovative games like Telengard, Dungeons of Daggorath (Tandy CoCo), Tunnels of Doom (TI-99/4A), and The Sword of Fargoal (VIC-20, C-64) offered new alternatives to gamers and new models for developers. In short, by 1983, the field was sown with great ideas and impressive examples, but everyone knew that the best was yet to come.
By 1985, the CRPG would enter what I have chosen to call "The Golden Age," the period from 1985 to 1993, when the very best CRPG makers were steadily releasing masterpieces in an orgiastic frenzy of creative development. Indeed, the triumphs of this period would not be matched until the "Platinum Age" of the mid-90s, when outstanding developers Bioware, Bethesda, and Blizzard arrived on the scene. However, although Baldur's Gate and Diablo may receive far more attention and interest today than Golden Age classics like The Bard's Tale or The Pool of Radiance, we must forever keep in mind that these earlier games were their direct ancestors. Later developers would only refine, not re-define, the genre. Anyone who truly desires to understand the CRPG must turn her attention to the Golden Age, the era in which towering developers like Interplay, SSI, New World Computing, and FTL released games so superbly designed that they are still actively played by tens of thousands of gamers even today. There are few games that can arouse more passion than venerable Golden Age titles like Wasteland, Dungeon Master, and Quest for Glory. But enough of this build-up; it's time to enter the Golden Age of CRPGs!
Let's travel back for a moment and put ourselves in the shoes of a hardcore CRPG gamer living in 1983. If we were asked to wager on which company would dominate the CRPG market for the next five years, the sensible choice would be Richard Garriott's Origin Systems, and indeed, that company did achieve great things. In 1983, Origin's Ultima series was the undisputed market leader, and the games just kept getting better with each installment. Ultima III: Exodus was widely hailed as the best CRPG ever made, and there was a good chance that the upcoming fourth game would make it look like Akalabeth. If we wanted to hedge a bit, we might put some money on Sir-Tech, whose difficult Wizardry series was quite respectable and had its fair share of zealous, hardcore fans. Like Ultima, Wizardry was a long way from dead and had not yet released its most famous games. In short, if anyone had suggested to us that two hitherto unknown developers--Interplay Productions and Strategic Simulations, Inc.--would soon challenge Garriott's throne and put Wizardry in the "where are they now file," we'd have either laughed or scratched our heads. Yet, by 1990, gamers were just as likely to beg their parents for the next Bard's Tale or SSI "Gold Box" game as anything from Origin or Sir-Tech. In any case, 1985 remains one of the most historically significant years for the CRPG.
Nevertheless, there was some exciting stuff going on before 1985.
More of the old mainframe games were being ported (ever more
faithfully) to home computers. Jim Schwaiger's company Bear Systems
released Oubliette for the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS platform in 1983. Oubliette, like
so many other mainframe CRPGs, had been developed for the PLATO system,
but is more directly based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and TSR's
official dungeon guides (i.e., the "real" D&D rules). Oubliette had
originally been a multiplayer game, and the home version retained the
ability to create many characters and select groups of them for each
"dungeon romp." Furthermore, although it is quite limited graphically,
it is quite sophisticated in terms of gameplay. You could choose among
ten classes (including peasant!) when creating characters, and then
join guilds to further refine them. In short, Oubliette offers
a range of options and depth of play that really wouldn't be equaled
until the Modern Age. A company named R.O. Software also ported the
mainframe classic DND to MS-DOS, offering it under a
"shareware" license. Although the author, a mysterious Digital
contractor known simply as "Bill," charged $25 for his game, he did not
bother to get permission to do so from Daniel Lawrence, the author of
the original version. Since Lawrence was trying to earn his fortune
selling his own commercial version for home computers--Telengard--he
bitterly resented what he saw as unfair competition. Bill claimed that
he deserved the compensation for cleaning up Lawrence's "spaghetti"
code. R.O. Software released an update in 1988 called Dungeon of the Necromancer's Domain, a
"ground-up rewrite" of the game that apparently differed enough to
avoid future conflict with Lawrence. For more information about this
quarrel, see the Unofficial DND page, where, incidentally, you can also download many of the games in question.
Another interesting text-based game from this period is Zyll, a game Scott Edwards and Marshal Linder wrote while they working for IBM (the game was submitted to IBM's employee submissions program). Zyll is essentially a hybrid text-adventure with real-time, CRPG elements. Furthermore, it allows two players to either compete or cooperate with each other to find the Black Orb (the game is of the fetch-the-object variety). Although it was intended for IBM's short-lived PCjr. computer, which featured advanced graphics and sound capabilities, Zyll was a text game that would run on just about any PC-compatible (though there are issues with the keyboard layout, since the menus are based on IBM's old PC/XT function key setup).
However, these games are of little interest to modern gamers and are more the domain of historians and older gamers suffering from nostalgia. No, it was a new game from Electronic Arts that was about to strike a new chord, changing the CRPG forever, and in the meantime, the best CRPGs ever made were looming on the horizon. CRPG fans just hadn't seen anything yet.