Friday, May 20, 2016

A Brief History of Role-Playing Games


     A role-playing game, commonly referred to as an RPG, is a deep and complicated experience in which players explore a vast world and slowly develop their character. Most RPGs can be expected to run a minimum of thirty hours and it is not uncommon for them to be much longer. When considering side-quests and the freedom of exploration, RPGs often offer more than 100 hours of gameplay.

     Outside of progressing the story, the onus of RPGs is to level-up and advance the playable character(s) so that they become more powerful and capable of confronting the increasingly challenging enemies in the game. Stats such as attack and defense usually increase automatically with experience that is gained from winning battles or completing tasks but there are often much more advanced attributes to consider and mold and every game has a unique system of presenting such extracurriculars. Almost universally all RPGs use what is known as a level system in which the numerical value directly corresponds with the character’s strengths and achievements. For instance, a character at level fifty is guaranteed to be much more advanced than a level five character. Items and equipment are other significant factors, with the reward of powerful new armor and weapons routinely being an incentive for tasks and battles.

     Thematically, video game RPGs are typically akin to their tabletop counterparts (such as Dungeons & Dragons). While there are exceptions, most RPGs are of the fantasy or science-fiction genres and deal with epic tales of adventure and war. In theory, franchises like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings would be most suited to being RPGs if they were made into video games (and indeed, they have been).

     There is a variety of sub-genres in the RPG realm but almost all share some basic elements, including a heavy emphasis on exploration, grand storytelling, and the character customization aspects previously discussed. Action RPGs differ slightly from Turn-Based RPGs which are in turn a step away from Tactical RPGs. Recently, a division between Eastern and Western RPGs has come to represent these distinctions and other cultural differences.

     The roots of RPGs in video games can be traced as far back as the 1970s when PC gaming began to try and emulate tabletop games but the gameplay style as it is known today began in earnest with 1986’s Dragon Quest on the Nintendo Entertainment System. A tsunami of similar titles was soon to follow, including The Legend of Zelda, Phantasy Star, and Final Fantasy. These now historic and beloved franchises continued at a steady pace through the 1990s, with each entry advancing and evolving the formula of the previous. Near the end of this generation of RPGs, Nintendo’s Pokemon captivated gamers like few other titles in history have; the Pokemon franchise remains the best-selling RPG of all time.

     In 1997, everything changed with the release of Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation. The fifth-generation of consoles was the first to use discs instead of cartridges and it is fair to say that perhaps no genre was more affected by this than the RPG. The new format allowed for much longer and deeper games than before and this is when the trademark depth and complexity of the genre really took hold. The storytelling was also greatly impacted as the new technology allowed for beautiful computer generated “cutscenes” that played out like episodic mini-movies throughout the adventure. Final Fantasy VII is regarded as one of the most important and influential games of all time and continues to be revived and renowned year after year.
     The next big step for RPGs came in 1999 with the online PC game Everquest. While online RPGs had existed for some time, it was Everquest that really pushed them into the mainstream and established the subgenre as its own cultural phenomenon. The Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, known as an MMORPG, allows players from across the globe to connect in the same enormous magical world and progress through the adventure together. Everquest and Diablo II put MMORPGs on the map in a big way and the trend continues today with titles such as World of Warcraft.

     In the current era of gaming, Western RPGs (WRPGs) have eclipsed their Japanese counterparts. Titles such as The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Mass Effect have redefined the genre to mainstream audiences with darker themes, more mature characters, and faster-paced more action heavy combat systems. While traditional RPGs (JRPGs) persevere, and blockbuster franchises such as Final Fantasy and Pokemon persist, their influence has indisputably waned.

     RPGs of all stripes remain among the most critically acclaimed every year and developers keep finding new ways to reintroduce elements and evolve the style. Like with anything, the power of direction is ultimately left to the consumer and commercial viability. It is likely that gamers will continue to see a hybrid of traditional styles as well as new growth in the genre as the technology advances. We can only wait in breathless anticipation to see what the game makers of tomorrow have in store for role-playing games of the future.

  Posted by Terry Pierson, Programming Technician