The World of Western RPGs


It is generally agreed upon amongst video game historians (god that sounds so sad) that the genre "RPG“ was created by series like Wizardry and Ultima. Of course these series were not just born out of nothing, but who still remembers games like Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai (1979) or Akalabeth (1979)? I really do not want to go into those murky depths of the 70's where everyone programmed a dungeon and called it an RPG (the era of mainframe RPGs). I hope a fellow MobyGamer will do an article about those games. Anyway, these two series pretty much laid out the foundation for both branches of the RPG genre. Wizardry particular gained a huge popularity in Japan (in fact, it was probably more popular in Japan than in its homeland) and the creators of Dragon Quest (the game that pretty much defined the Japanese RPGs) took a lot of things from both Ultima and Wizardry - the most obvious features being the overworld map of Ultima and random combat of Wizardry that have become trademarks for JRPGs. Later the Wizardry series faded away from mainstream to a more hardcore public, while Ultima went on to define a big part of the WRPG genre.

But what about these first games in the series? What kind of games were they? Well we would have to take a little look at their creators. These games were made by guys who most likely were nerds, spending more time playing Dungeons and Dragons than banging girls (I apologize for resorting to cliché statements like these). And they liked computers. Thus they somehow came to the idea to make games on computers for their own amusement. They were not the first ones, it was a common way for people like them to amuse themselves those days. But they managed to turn it into companies and while most of them got burned out from the industry, others like Richard Garriott, the creator of Ultima series, became multi-millionaires that still are actively involved with the industry. Okay, this actually just applies to Garriot alone, and he is also the first game designer to venture into outer space.

Anyway, this description should give you an idea what kind of games they were. What kind of a game would a nerd create? Of course, the kind of game to boost his ego and self-perception. That's right, the early RPGs are nothing more than hardcore number-crunching dungeon crawlers that take an eternity to solve. No intellectual writing, no philosophical thoughts about humanity, no party members with bad childhood, no choices and consequences – only pure monster-killing loot games with a lot of mathematical equations to solve. And this is how the genre RPG was born. As a way for the lonely guy to feel mighty. Which means that these games were really meant for sad people.

Later, when these two series had already produced at least three games, about 1985-1987, other series joined them to define the genre. 1985-1988 is also the time when the Japanese RPG was born with titles like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star.

But on the Western side Ultima and Wizardry were joined by Bard's Tale, Might and Magic and the Gold Box games. Bard's Tale and Might and Magic basically took the stuff that made the early Wizardrys and Ultimas, and gave it their own touch – Bard's Tale concentrating on hardcoreness, and Might and Magic on user-friendliness and accessibility (except for those MM games that were made in the 80's). Needless to say, the Might and Magic series survived a lot longer than Bard's Tale. At this time the Ultima series stopped for a moment to think what the possibilities of the RPG genre were and then went on to create moral plays in a simulated fantasy world. Gold Box games however are the direct fathers of today's BioWare games. What they did was tell a moving story in a linear fashion (though still providing lots of exploration) broken up by combat. Sounds familiar? Yes, that is how to describe a JRPG when you want to sound intelligent.

So you see, even in its early days, the world of Western RPGs can be best described by its striking differences amongst the individual games. We basically have three different designs now – dungeon crawler, simulated world and the plot-driven experience.

Now let's take a look at these early years in a more detailed manner.

Sidenote: of course, like I previously mentioned, they were not the only ones. In the early days there were a lot of stand-alone programmers who created games, but the titles mentioned here are the most influential ones.

Continued: From nerd to an artist – the 80's

Table of Contents: The World of Western RPGs