Points: 5
Cover Story: It Came From Outer Space!
Chasing D&D;: A History of RPGs
In the beginning, there was the d20. And Gygax said: Let there be games.

The history of computer role-playing games (RPGs) starts not with a bang, but a dice roll.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D;), Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's 1974 pen-and-paper game, gave birth to the modern role-playing genre. D&D; introduced the idea of "rolling" characters using statistics to describe strengths and weaknesses. It invented experience points and "leveling up." Even dungeon crawling originated in the pages of D&D.;

But D&D;'s most important and lasting gift is that of roleplay -- the act of becoming another person and leading him or her through open-ended fantasy scenarios. Gygax and Arneson's creation isn't about character sheets or stat crunching; it's about storytelling, creativity, and imagination. Over hand-drawn maps and thrown dice, ordinary people could transcend their day-to-day grind and become extraordinary, morphing into wizards, barbarians, or paladins -- heroes.

It's a theme RPGs have chased since their invention, always trying to capture the magic of those Mountain Dew-fueled Saturday night D&D; sessions. And while the technologies may improve and the quests may change, the games still -- and may forever -- linger in D&D;'s shadow.

This became especially clear after Gygax's death in March. "Gary Gygax was pivotal to the development of the gaming industry, and to my own career," Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series, said in a public statement. "Millions upon millions of players around the world live and play in imaginary worlds built on the back of what Gary first conceived."

Let There Be Games (1974-1984)

Since its release, D&D; has garnered about 20 million players -- easily making it the most popular role-playing system ever made. But the game didn't just emerge from the ether. It has roots in tabletop war gaming, even swiping its predecessors' gameplay mechanic, the act of rolling dice to determine the outcomes of actions.

Unlike earlier boardgames, Gygax and Arneson's system encouraged roleplaying by letting players control one character instead of a military. What's more, as one of the first tabletop games set in a fantasy world, D&D; was able to exploit the mid-1970's obsession with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien fans flocked to the game, lured by its promise of elves, dragons, and magical treasures.

Indeed, D&D; attracted geeks of all persuasions: academics, scientists, computer specialists, etc. Which is probably why the game went digital so quickly: The first RPGs, essentially D&D; clones, spawned on college mainframes just months after the game's initial release.

Very little information about these earliest titles survives. Mainframe admins considered homebrew games unauthorized programs and deleted them on sight.

One game that did endure was dnd, a text-based dungeon crawl written by two Southern Illinois University students in 1974. Although primitive, dnd already included many of what would become RPG staples: experience points, hidden treasures, and enemies that grow tougher the farther a player ventures into the dungeon. It even offered a simple, D&D-style; quest: kill the Golden Dragon and find the Orb.

Several clones soon emerged (including Dungeon, which introduced the party system), but it would take years for a stand-alone, nonmainframe RPG to appear. That happened in 1980, when 19-year-old Garriott released Akalabeth.

Programmed for the Apple II, Akalabeth was a technological innovation: With its Spartan wire-frame visuals, it was the first true graphical RPG. Its story, however, was still rudimentary: The user played Lord British's exterminator, ridding dungeons of a dead wizard's evil monsters.

Akalabeth sold tens of thousands of copies -- an astronomical number at the time -- and Garriott followed up that success with Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness.

Ultima I was even more technically ambitious, using tile-based graphics that saved space and allowed for colorful, expansive environments. It also eliminated the parser, the then-commonplace interface, and was playable entirely by keystrokes.

Ultima also offered a much improved storyline: a blend of time travel and sword-and-sorcery whose influences Garriott lists as The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Time Banditsā??and, of course, D&D.;

The game's initial run sold over 30,000 copies and inspired two sequels. While Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress was well received, 1983's Ultima III: Exodus remains one of the most influential games ever made. Not only did it feature animated characters and a dedicated combat screen, it also emphasized the importance of talking to townspeople and collecting cluesā??thus transforming the RPG from stat-crunching exercise to pseudo-detective story.

Garriott wasn't the only one jumping into the new RPG market. In 1981, Sir-tech, founded by Robert Woodhead and Norman Sirotek, introduced another watershed franchise: Wizardry.

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord was the first RPG to offer color graphics, and its intuitive layout and interface made managing a party of adventurers much easier than its mainframe predecessors.

Whereas Garriott tried to reinvent the wheel with each Ultima, Sir-tech relied on the power of consistency. Wizardry games didn't change much from title to title except to improve graphics and level design.

"It helped that Wizardry was one of the first," says Brenda Brathwaite, a former Wizardry developer who got her start working Sir-tech's call-in hint hotline. "But Wizardry also possessed this incredibly addictive mechanic. It had truly good and clean game design."

While Wizardry and Ultima managed to set certain genre standards, RPGs were still too intimidating for the average player compared to adventure or arcade games. That is, until 1985, when Michael Cranford released Tales of the Unknown Volume 1: The Bard's Tale, the first RPG to score mainstream success.

The Bard's Tale was still hard, especially in the beginning, and its story -- find and kill Mangar the Dark Wizard, scourge of Skara Brae -- is just as flimsy as its competitors'. But The Bard's Tale offered novices an inviting experience with cutting-edge graphics and easy, intuitive rules even a kid could pick up. It was also notoriously addictive -- one of the first "just one more level" style games.

With two sequels and a Construction Kit released soon after, The Bard's Tale games proved RPGs weren't just for the hardcore. Unfortunately, the series' mainstream appeal wouldn't be matched again for almost a decade.

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Comments (3)

  • humorguy
  • Fogot so many - remembered on US game companies.

    Posted: Jan 08, 2009 12:00AM PST by  humorguy

    What about the fantastic Gothic? Or the Witcher? Or, on some level, STALKER? What about Arx Fatalis? Or Arcanum of Steamworks? What about the brilliant Divine Divinity? So many great RPG's from western and eastern Europe, all forgotton by this U.S. centric website that says it's part of the WORLDWIDE Web!!!!

    As a now ex UK viewer, I say poo on your nationalistic arses!

  • Ronin_Magnum
  • Commercial viability...

    Posted: Jan 01, 2009 12:00AM PST by  Ronin_Magnum

     Fallout 3 and The Witcher have proven that there will always be a rabid audience for top-tier single player PC RPGs, while games like Mount and Blade and Depths of Peril thrive as smaller budget SPRPGs. The best of both worlds, all on PC.

    Furthermore, services like Steam, Stardock's Impulse, and Good Old Games continue to expand thier offerings of the RPGs of old. There has never been a better time to play PCRPGs than now.

  • alexes
  • missed titles

    Posted: Jul 29, 2008 12:00AM PST by  alexes

    In Eastern Europe
    Silmarils (French developer) Ishar series of RPGs (four games 1990-94
    Crystals of Arborea, Ishar 1, Ishar 2, Ishar 3) was much more popular
    and influenced then any of the title mentioned in article.

    Home Of The Underdogs:
    The Ishar series is undoubtedly Silmarils' most successful games,
    and rightly so. Silmarils touted Ishar I when it was released in 1992
    as "a new benchmark for RPG"-- a bold statement that turns out to be
    quite accurate: all 3 games boast exceptional 3D graphics for their times,
    huge gameworld, alternate solutions to puzzles, and-- best of
    all-- different personalities and goals of your party members that make
    gameplay tenfold more colorful and fun. Ishar III is the best of the
    series, combining the mundane kill-the-bad-guys-in-Ishar plot with
    time travel elements. Highly recommended.

    Also missed highly succesful in Europe Nethergate by Spiderware.
    Shareware RPG named by several European magazines The Best RPG Of 1998
    (while in USA 1998 was the year of Baldur's Gate).

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