History of Western role-playing video games

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Western role-playing video games are role-playing video games developed in the Western world, including The Americas and Europe. They originated on mainframe university computer systems in the 1970s, were later popularized by titles such as Ultima and Wizardry in the early- to mid-1980s, and continue to be produced for modern home computer and video game console systems. The genre's "Golden Age" occurred in the mid- to late-1980s, and its popularity suffered a downturn in the mid-1990s as developers struggled to keep up with hardware changes and increasing development costs. A later series of isometric role-playing games, published by Interplay Productions and Blizzard Entertainment, was developed over a longer time period and set new standards of production quality.

Computer role-playing games (CRPGs) are once again popular. Recent titles, such as BioWare's Mass Effect series and Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls series, have been produced for console systems and have received multi-platform releases, although independently developed games are frequently created as personal computer (PC) exclusives. Developers of role-playing games have continuously experimented with various graphical perspectives and styles of play, such as real-time and turn-based time-keeping systems, axonometric and first-person graphical projections, and single-character or multi-character parties. Subgenres include action role-playing games, roguelikes and tactical role-playing games.

Early American computer RPGs (mid-1970s–mid-1980s)

Mainframe computers (mid-1970s–early 1980s)

Screenshot of dnd.
Simple overhead monochrome graphics of dnd on the PLATO mainframe system.

The earliest role-playing video games were created in the mid-to-late 1970s, as offshoots of early university mainframe text-based RPGs that were played on PDP-10, PLATO and Unix-based systems. These included Dungeon, written in 1975 or 1976, pedit5, created in 1975,[Note 1] and dnd, also from 1975.[2] These early games were inspired by pen-and-paper role-playing games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, which was first published in 1974, and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[3][4] Some of the first graphical computer RPGs (CRPGs) after pedit5 and dnd included orthanc (1978),[5] which was named after Saruman's tower in Lord of the Rings,[6] avathar (1979),[1] later renamed avatar, oubliette (1977),[7] named after the French word for "dungeon",[6] moria (1975),[1] dungeons of degorath, baradur, emprise, bnd, sorcery, and dndworld.[Note 2] All of these were developed and became popular on the PLATO system during the late 1970s, in large part due to PLATO's speed, fast graphics, and large number of players with access to its nationwide network of terminals. PLATO was a mainframe system that supported multiple users and allowed them to play simultaneously, a feature not commonly available to owners of home personal computer systems at the time.[8] These were followed by games on other platforms, such as Temple of Apshai, written in 1979 for the TRS-80 and followed by two add-ons; Akalabeth: World of Doom (1980), which gave rise to the well-known Ultima series;[9] Wizardry (1981), and Sword of Fargoal (1982). Games of this era were also influenced by text adventures such as Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and Zork (1976); early MUDs, tabletop wargames such as Chainmail (1971), and sports games such as Strat-O-Matic.[10][Note 3]

The popular dungeon crawler Rogue was developed in 1980, for Unix-based systems, by two students at Berkeley. It used ASCII graphics, and featured a deep system of gameplay and a multitude of randomly generated items and locations. Rogue was later distributed as free software with the BSD operating system, and was followed by an entire genre of "roguelikes" that were inspired by and emulated the original game's mechanics, and by later titles such as Diablo.[12] Later examples of roguelikes include Angband (1990), Ancient Domains of Mystery (1993) and Linley's Dungeon Crawl (1997).[13][14][15]

The keyboard was frequently the only input supported by these games, and their graphics were simple and often monochromatic. Some titles, like Rogue, represented objects through text characters, such as '@' for the main character and 'Z' for zombies.[Note 4] No single game featured all of the characteristics expected in a modern CRPG, such as exploration of subterranean dungeons, use of weapons and items, "leveling up" and quest completion, but it is possible to see the evolution of these features during this era and that which followed.[16]

Ultima and Wizardry (early–mid-1980s)

Although simplified for use with the console gamepad, many innovations of the early Ultimas—in particular Ultima III: Exodus (1983) by developer Richard Garriott—became standard among later RPGs in both the personal computer and console markets. These ideas included the use of tiled graphics and party-based combat, a mix of fantasy and science-fiction elements, and time travel.[4][17][Note 5] The game's written narrative was an innovative feature that allowed it to convey a larger story than was found in the minimal plots common at the time. Most games, including Garriott's own Akalabeth, focused primarily on basic gameplay mechanics like combat, and paid little attention to story and narrative.[19]

Ultima III is considered by many to have been the first modern CRPG.[17] It was originally published for the Apple II, but was ported to many other platforms and influenced the development of later titles,[20] including such console RPGs as Excalibur (1983) and Dragon Quest (1986).[21]

Garriott introduced a system of chivalry and code of conduct in Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985) that persisted throughout later Ultimas. The player's Avatar tackles such problems as fundamentalism, racism and xenophobia, and based on his or her actions is tested periodically in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes unseen.[4][19] This code of conduct was in part a response to the efforts among some Christian groups to mitigate the rising popularity of Dungeons & Dragons.[19] Continuing until Ultima IX: Ascension (1999), it covered a range of virtues that included compassion, justice, humility and honor. This system of morals and ethics was unique at the time, as other video games allowed players to be lauded as "heroes" by the game worlds' denizens, no matter what the player's actions had been. In Ultima IV, on the other hand, players were forced to consider the moral consequences of their actions.[19] According to Garriott, Ultima was now "more than a mere fantasy escape. It provided a world with a framework of deeper meaning[,] a level of detail[, and] diversity of interaction[,] that is rarely attempted."[4] "I thought people might completely reject this game because some folks play just to kill, kill, kill. To succeed in this game, you had to radically change the way you'd ever played a game before."[19]

The Wizardry series was created for the Apple II at roughly the same time, in 1981. Wizardry featured a 3D, first-person view, an intuitive interface, party-based combat, and pre-constructed levels that encouraged players to draw their own maps.[17] It allowed players to import characters from previous games, albeit with reduced experience levels, and introduced a moral alignment feature that limited the areas players could visit.[17] The series was extremely difficult when compared to other RPGs of the time,[22][23] possibly because they were modeled after pen-and-paper role-playing games of similar difficulty.[11] Wizardry IV (1986) in particular is considered one of the most difficult CRPGs ever created.[23] It is unique in that the player controls the villain of the first game in an attempt to escape his prison dungeon and gain freedom in the above world.[4][23] Unlike Ultima, which evolved with each installment, the Wizardry series retained and refined the same style and core mechanics over time, and improved only its graphics and level design as the years progressed.[4]

By June 1982, Temple of Apshai had sold 30,000 copies, Wizardry 24,000 copies, and Ultima 20,000.[24][25][26] Garriott even discussed collaborating with Wizardry's Andrew C. Greenberg on "the ultimate fantasy role-playing game".[27] The first Wizardry outsold (more than 200,000 copies sold in its first three years) the first Ultima and received better reviews, but over time Ultima became more popular by improving its technology and making games more friendly, while Wizardry required new players to play the first game before its first two sequels, and the very difficult Wizardry IV sold poorly.[25]

Telengard, a BASIC port of the earlier PDP-10 game DND,[28] and Dungeons of Daggorath, both released in 1982, introduced real-time gameplay.[17] Earlier dungeon crawl games had used turn-based movement, in which the enemies only moved when the adventuring party did.[29] Tunnels of Doom, produced the same year, introduced separate screens for exploration and combat.[17] Dragon Quest is most commonly claimed as the first role-playing video game produced for a console, though journalist Joe Fielder cites the earlier Dragonstomper.[30]