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The Future of Roleplaying: A Link to the 1990s

headerI’m was born 21½ years ago. Growing up in the 90s is probably one of the main reasons I’m very much into playing games and writing about them like I am doing now. I grew up mostly on PC stuff, but also some Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo on the side. I never really had any problem following along with the industry evolving from old dungeon crawler semi-3D adventures like Ultima Underworld to the large-scale 3D worlds of Skyrim or Dragon’s Dogma.

But lately I’ve been noticing a trend that I find very interesting. First Nintendo decided to make a return with a 2D Mario game with 2006’s New Super Mario Bros. But you can say that it truly started to show with Capcom’s decision to release Mega Man 9 back in 2008. The decision to go back and create a side-scrolling 8-bit game in what should be considered a major franchise was a bold step that was quite unlike anything a major company had done at that point.

It most certainly paid off well as Capcom decided to release Mega Man 10 a mere 18 months later. But it wasn’t just the visuals that looked like a 8-bit NES title, the game played like one and was entirely designed to cater to a fanbase that grew up in the late-80s/early-90s. And when it comes to platformers this trend kept on going, not always with the classic visuals, but a 2D platformer is more common these days than a 3D platformer is as evidenced by Rayman Origins, Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Rocket Knight or Contra 4.

wl-wl2So it’s safe to say that platformers have been falling back and began living in the 90s to an extent, and maybe for the better if the vocal fans of most of those games I mentioned are to be trusted. But what about other genres? Is there a fundamental link to the past decades to be found in there as well?

Well, it certainly wouldn’t be the RTS genre. Most people who enjoyed a game of WarCraft II or Tiberian Sun should be able to get into StarCraft II without any big issues as the core-gameplay design remains almost identical to what it was back then. Same thing with racing games or point and click adventure games. While the latter of those two has become sort-of a niche, the genres still holds up the same style of gameplay that it always did; there’s no need to retrograde the genres.

“But Tobbii!” you scream while trying to find a way to speak into your monitor, “what about all those classic throw-back RPGs being made now?”

Yes, that’s exactly where I was heading with this, thank you. As of last year we’ve been seeing more and more of a return to the roots of the western RPG genre. I’m going to refer to these types of games as CRPG for the simplicity of this text. The C stands for computer, not crap. That’s what we used to call games like this, or at least I did. These CRPGs tended to be unforgiving, complex, overly long and in many ways clunky, but it was something that a lot of us actually enjoyed in a weird masochistic way.

fm-logI grew up playing games like Dungeon Master on my old computer, I to this date still have a boxed copy of Dungeon Master II somewhere at my mom’s place left from when I was a kid. It was games like this and Eye of the Beholder that got me into the dungeon crawler genre. A sub-genre to CRPGs that people really haven’t cared for as of lately outside of the Japanese equivalent. And then last year we got Legend of Grimrock, a indie-developed dungeon crawler that I had been following since announcement.

Now there were some key-differences when compared to Dungeon Master, but Grimrock still followed a classic grid-based descent through a dungeon filled with traps, puzzles and unforgiving battles with monsters. It was a great throwback to a time forgotten that sold well enough to warrant a sequel announced earlier this year.

Since the success of Grimrock we’ve seen the throwback concept flourish beyond control. Both with actual in-name sequels announced along with games that wish they had the license to be a sequel but does what it can to live up to the name either way. First one that comes to mind is Wasteland 2, announced following the kickstarter boom caused by the Double Fine Adventure. After 24 years it was finally time for a sequel.

sr-srrThe original Wasteland was a complex CRPG that inspired what we now know as the post-apocalyptic king called Fallout. Fallout even began development as Wasteland 2, but rights and creative direction changed it from what it was going to be into what it is today. Creator Brian Fargo wanted to create a direct sequel for years, but publishers didn’t want to fund a game based on consumer mentalities from 1988, which certainly makes sense, but thanks to kickstarter the game is now well underway.

But Wasteland 2 is not the only CRPG that decided to make its way back into the limelight through Kickstarter. While mainly a pen-and-paper experience outside of the 16-bit console titles, the decision to bring back Shadowrun was met with the same response as Wasteland 2. The success of both Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns made it clear that there’s still a viable market for this type of game, something it didn’t take long for publishers to also take a interest in.

EA announced in 2012 that they were bringing back the Ultima series in a Free-2-Play game largely inspired by Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, largely considered to be one of the most unique and well-made CRPGs of its’ era. The game, being developed by Mythic Entertainment, is called Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar and while the game is not all that classic or back-to-basics in its’ execution by opting for a more newcomer-friendly Action-RPG gameplay-style. You just can’t deny that the brand-value of Ultima is used to garner attention from older consumers rather than people who didn’t grow up on the wonders of Richard “Lord British” Garriott’s classic games.

u4-uforeverAnd while we’re on the topic of Ultima and Garriott, let’s talk about the other “Ultima” project currently being funded on kickstarter. Garriott had been teasing his project called “Ultimate RPG” for a long time, talking about how it was going to be a return to classic CRPG form while still feeling like a modern game. Well, last week the game was unveiled as Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. The game doesn’t hold the Ultima name, but by throwing in both Avatar and Virtues into the title, it’s clear what he’s going for.

Shroud of the Avatar is looking to be more of a extension of what Ultima was going for in the late 90s. Anyone who knows their game-history knows that Ultima IX was a complete disaster in many ways. During the Aliens: Colonial Marines insanity last month I kept calling the disappointing lie-filled Alien shooter the “Ultima IX of the 2010s” for a reason. With Shroud of the Avatar it seems Garriott is going out of his way to heal the wounds left in his fanbase these last 14 years by offering a vast 3D game in the same style of Ultima IX, but with content on the levels of the earlier games promised.

Finally on the kickstarter side of things we have Torment: Tides of Numenera, a spiritiual successor to the classic Planescape Torment. While the game is set in a different world and with a different system from the D&D based original, just the knowledge that the original developers wanted to create a game in the same style of the classic title was enough to garner three times as much money as they were asking for in less than half the time set for the kickstarter.

u9-shroudAll these reports on games that are a return to the classics of the genre made me wonder what caused all this to happen. It’s like we’re turning the 2010s into a secondary 1990s were these games never started to disappear like they did. The more I kept thinking about it, the more my mind came to services such as Good Old Games where a lot of these classic games are available optimized for modern OS. The availability of these games might have helped breed a new-found interests in younger players as well.

Rereleases such as Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition certainly help to reach out to this new audiences as well by putting the classic game on modern mobile devices. The fact that Overhaul Games even went to the extent of stating that their goal is to eventually get to making that long-awaited Baldur’s Gate III after they’ve remade the second title as well just goes to prove that sometimes scenarios that seemed out of reach for such a long time might yet come true.

Staying on the track of major publishers, Ubisoft decided to tease a new game yesterday. Despite the official twitter account trying to be vague, it’s basically a given that the game will be Might and Magic X, a sequel to a series which have been getting nothing but spinoff these last 11 years. Exactly what this new game will entail we do not yet know, but I’m very much excited to see what it’s going to be. Will the 4-character team set-up still be kept? Will the first-person perspective remain? All the cards are up in the air at this point.

mm2-dmmmBut while I’m sitting here celebrating my nostalgia, there are plenty of games that despite having their roots in the 80s/90s era of gameplay have decided to tread further and further away. Bethesda has taken Fallout far away from it’s turn-based isometric roots and The Elder Scrolls have gone from having 35 different skills to specialize in to having 15 skills which you level up almost evenly. The same goes for Diablo III which even decided to opt out the entire skill point system used to level up in the first two games.

Now these changes are not inherently bad or wrong, it has made the games accessible to a wider audience while still being damn fine games overall. In many ways I’m happy that we’re getting to both keep the cake and eat it at once. But it’s still funny how we live in a year where we have a new Ultima, Wasteland, Shadowrun, Might and Magic and Torment game basically just around the corner, because that’s the last thing I would have expected just five to six years ago.

Now to close my little look into the industry’s current state, let me be selfish and talk about what games I would like to see be given a sequel-treatment next. I would personally love to see a new Betrayal at Krondor game, or maybe a remake of the original Rogue that started the term Roguelike, in many ways being the first game to get a sub-genre defined after itself, a practice later popularized with terms like Doom-clone during the late 90s.

r-dodAll in all, I think it’s a interesting thing that we’re bringing back these classic titles and ideas that have been lost for far too long, and while I don’t expect or even want them to become a set-standard for RPGs at this point, the choice and availability is something I’m very much for. So I’m looking forward to trying them all out when they arrive and get frustrated at the game constantly killing me because of it being unforgivably hard, that’s just a part of the charm.

Do you agree? Do you feel that the 2010s are trying to become a new 1990s where CRPGs never died out or became simplified? What titles that are not currently getting sequels would you like to see be given a new chance? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and thank you for reading.

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5 Comments

  • It certainly feels like we’re in the new 90’s, where old becomes new, and I do think that much of that as to do with the current saturation of popular genres (I’m looking at you FPS’s). So people are looking for new genres and new ways to play games and are finding gog to be a really cool way to do it.

    I think that it’s great, mostly because it’s a genre I like and I didn’t get to play that much in the 90’s. I loved Legend of Grimmrock and it was my first experience with a game of that genre. I was mostly into RTS, FPS and platformer games back in the day.

    So it’s great that those games are re-emerging, because I don’t think I’ll go back and play them, since most of them are in 3D and I have trouble playing old games that are not in 2D.

  • I wouldn’t say they’re going back in time as much as filling a niché that’s been ignored for too long. The Witcher 3 and (sadly) Dragon Age 3 are still things being developed. Larian are still making Divinity games, pretty sure there’s a new Risen on the way and more I’m forgetting. These “proper” high budget RPGs are much more expensive to make, so of course people can’t make as many of them, whereas Kickstarter gives you an easy way of developing an isometric CRPG. As a fan of CRPGs The Witcher is all I’ve had to enjoy since NWN2: MotB came out, so what’s happening right now is the best thing in years to me. If there had been a way like Kickstarter for people to use so they could have made these games happen back then I’m certain they would have. I just hope the first batch of Kickstarter games doesn’t disappoint, as they will be extremely important in determining the future of Kickstarter. But so far it’s looking good for all projects I have any interest in. The future is bright.

    • I am excited about the Witcher 3 as well, Wicther 1 and 2 are two of my favourite games, and I love that they are bringing the best of the two games into the 3rd game.
      I have faith for Dragon Age 3, because Bioware, I really hope that after the screw ups they’ve done, they can be back up and kick some ass like in the good old days.

      • Pretty much none of the people who were there to make the good games (BG2, JE, KotOR) are left with Bioware today. I just can’t bring myself to be hopeful about the game or anything Bioware anymore, really. CDPR has taken over as the RPG making powerhouse as far as I’m concerned.

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