I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs (TRPG) for 32 years now and computer RPGs (CRPG) 25+ years. The definition of action RPG (ARPG) generally causes some debate. For discussion purposes I’ll start out by calling Gauntlet, Diablo, and Legend of Zelda ARPGs – they have character development over time and yet still feel like arcade games. Strategy RPGs (SRPG) move away from the single character or party based games into an almost war-game or Real-time Strategy (RTS) style game. I’d hazard an opinion that Disgaea and Defense of the Ancients are both SRPGs – and yet very different games.
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is the BIG TRPGs. high schools, colleges and neighborhoods everywhere were seeing players spending too much time rolling funny looking dice and calling out the silly names of spells and monsters from the game. If you could scratch out a rough plan on graph paper you were the Dungeon Master.
Some folks will pine after the days of leading a whole party into a dungeon with the classic Gold Box D&D. That certainly has the feeling a TRPG but only one player and a pre-canned adventure with a cyber-GM. The same era had Gauntlet which allowed up to four players to cooperate together against a continuous threat. Computer players with modems could challenge their skills in a Mutli-user Dungeon (MUD) that could change because the sysop could fix-up the encounters. This same era had the incredible Adventure Construction Set and Eamon Adventures for the computers, which allowed users to build dungeon adventures for other players to explore. I still remember playing Wizardry with 3 other people sitting around a keyboard – everyone had a job to do running the keyboard, mapping levels, keeping track of stats on a clipboard or bringing in more snacks from the kitchen.
The 80′s also brought a boom of TRPGs that broke the ‘dungeon’ mold. Now players could have adventures in Gothic horror, sci-fi, cartoons… the possibilities were endless and the creativity moved slowly away from the mechanized rules of the 1970′s to the creation of truly unique characters that had the ability to change over time and emphasised role-playing over roll-playing. Computers and arcades had nothing on these TRPGs – except you could game anytime you want and many player’s yearned for but did not have groups to join around a table. For many the CRPG was the only game in town – and they never came back.
As computers and consoles both got much better at graphics and storage they became very attractive as the only or at least alternate game for many TRPGers. Players now had more choices and the import and localization of Japanese CRPGs started its boom. Now games like Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior ruled the console market and Might and Magic and Bards Tale ruled on PC. RTS games boom and create the likes of Command & Conquer and Warcraft. Warcraft is such a success for Blizzard that it spawns Starcraft. Blizzard takes a chance on an ARPG – Diablo and the advent of multi-user dungeon crawling on computers rocks the world.
The 90′s were a very interesting time for the TRPG market. Some companies lost their luster, while others grew in strength and loyalty of their fans. Games like GURPs, the Hero System and Vampire pushed the limits and created some of the best TRPGs ever. The advent of Magic: The Gathering and other Trading Card Games (TCG) create a whole new kind of draw for TRPG players – some never come back. Warhammer and Warhammer 40K pull even more TRPGers over the the miniature gaming world - some never come back.
WOTC buys TSR and Hasbro buys WOTC. Now D&D 3rd Edition comes along and literally changes the rules – both in the game and how the after market works. Almost anybody can become a d20 publisher and many do overnight. Over the next 3 years a flood of gaming materials overflows the shelves of local game shops. Feeling a bit out of control WOTC releases a D&D 3.5 Edition to sell more core books and releases the Star Wars and d20 Modern rules. Still the glut of materials pours in – this is great for TRGPers and provides more options than players have ever seen before.
Almost as quickly as it came the TRPG market changes again, possibly because Blizzard releases World of Warcraft (WOW) – a MMORPG that, like Diablo before it, catches on in ways nobody would have ever guessed. The headlines are still full of the success of this single brand and its legions of loyal players. WOTC redesigns D&D and releases 4th Edition – some say as a reaction to the new MMORPG crowd. Time will tell, but the reaction doesn’t seem to have created the rush they were hoping.
This rush of players to WOW has also created a business opportunity for other publishers and big brands LOTR, Star Wars, Warhammer, Star Trek, Stargate and more will all have their MMORPGs.
Interestingly enough the 90′s and 00′s have created a fascinating side market. The indie gamer and indie games – both for the table-top and computer players benefit from the no-frills, yet highly innovative small publisher market. You can buy short-run books or PDFs (Risus, Goblin City, Impossible Missions and more) of a variety of TRPGs and likewise play in CRPGs (Aveyond, that are created on a fraction of the budget of console and larger publisher brands. For the price – these are some of the best fun you can have botharound a table or with a mouse in your hand. You can tell I have fond place in my heart for these games and my only concern is that many of these game developers will never make back the enough money for the time and personal investment they have committed to their passions.
I love to play all of these Role-playing Games. It hardly matters what they are. For the entire time of my late teen to adult life I’ve been consumed with RPGs and especially designing them. Some of my most cherished memories in my career as game developer are working on Star Trek: TNG for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo and then D&D: Eye of the Beholder for Nintendo GBA. A few years ago I tried an idea on an ARPG on mobile phones called Endless Adventures. I’d love to bring that back again now that the idea of publishing small RPGs is so possible on PCs, Consoles and mobile. I would love to hear from each of my readers about your own favorites or insights into how this market has grown and changed over time. Maybe you know another type of RPG I should be listing???