Chasing D&D: A History of RPGs
In the beginning, there was the d20. And Gygax said: Let there be games.
By Lara Crigger
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 Bandits?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 clues?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.
The RPG Hits Puberty (1985-1995)
After The Bard's Tale's success, the RPG market exploded. Players swarmed to the new genre, and as computer technology improved, dozens of new RPGs appeared on store shelves.
For the most part, however, Sir-tech and Origin Systems (Richard Garriott's studio, founded in 1983) dominated the late '80s and early '90s, splitting the genre between Wizardry and Ultima sequels.
Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna marked a short departure from the winning Sir-tech formula, allowing players to become a villain?a first in RPG history. But later sequels returned focus to the good guys and introduced the intriguing multigame mystery of the Cosmic Forge and the Dark Savant. Indeed, 1992's Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant is considered a series highpoint, blending top-notch sci-fi and fantasy roleplaying with then-state-of-the-art VGA graphics.
Ultima also continued to improve. Quest of the Avatar, the fourth game in the series, introduced a morality-based virtue system. Character development now involved more than just pumping stats; you became a spiritual role model as well. The games' plotlines evolved, too, tackling complex social issues like fundamentalism, racism, and xenophobia.
With the introduction of the virtue system, Ultima became "more than a mere fantasy escape," Garriott says. "It provided a world with a framework of deeper meaning?a level of detail [and] diversity of interaction that is rarely attempted."
The series also kept innovating technologically. Its 1992 spin-off, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, was the first game to use fluid, 360-degree camera movement. Ultima VII: The Black Gate, released the same year, was the series' first real-time game, and the first that could be played entirely with a mouse.
"Ultima VII is still my favorite game," says Todd Howard, executive producer of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series. "It's hard not to look at Oblivion and see the Ultima influence."
New World Computing's Might and Magic series was also incredibly popular in the late '80s and early '90s. With its blend of fantasy and time travel, the Might and Magic series recalled the early days of RPGs. But unlike its predecessors, its games were highly nonlinear. 1986's Book I: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum was like a proto-Oblivion, offering a huge open-ended world with over 4,000 locations for players to explore.
Inner Sanctum also incorporated race, alignment, and gender into its storyline, something common in D&D but yet unseen in RPGs. The misandrist city of Portsmith, for instance, injured any male party member that stepped through its gates, and a character's alignment would determine the number of experience points she gained when freeing castle prisoners.
With all these D&D knock-offs finding commercial success, it was only a matter of time before the real D&D publisher, TSR, developed its own line of official RPGs. In 1988, TSR paired with Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), a developer of computer war games, to release the first official D&D "Gold Box" title, Pool of Radiance.
Based off the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, Pool of Radiance wasn't terribly innovative; it combined The Bard's Tale engine with rehashed interfaces from earlier SSI titles. But where Pool of Radiance excelled was immersion; pulling from TSR's vast library of Forgotten Realms lore, the game wowed critics with its epic feel and well-developed atmosphere.
SSI eventually developed more than 30 AD&D games, including another 12 Gold Box titles. Many were excellent, including Curse of the Azure Bonds and Eye of the Beholder. But by the mid-'90s, SSI had begun to squander its license, producing title after title of buggy, forgettable games. After 1994's digital dreck, Menzoberranzan, TSR finally broke its exclusivity agreement with SSI and started shopping the AD&D license around.
However, SSI wasn't the only developer making shoddy games. The early '90s were a creative drought for RPGs, and store shelves teemed with tedious, derivative titles.
In fact, the problem had gotten so bad that "there was this thought that maybe, like adventure games, RPGs were going to die out, too," Brathwaite says. "I wasn't the only developer that thought I'd coded myself into a corner."
The genre desperately needed a reboot. Enter Diablo.
The Premillennial Renaissance (1995-2000)
Developed by Blizzard in 1996, Diablo wasn't even close to groundbreaking or innovative. It wasn't the first real-time 3D RPG (that honor goes to FTL Games' Dungeon Master, released in 1987). It wasn't even the first game to offer randomized dungeons; Rogue, a 1980 UNIX game, pioneered that back in the mainframe days.
But like The Bard's Tale, Diablo was slick, attractive, and incredibly easy to learn. Anyone with a mouse and two fingers could play the game.
Also, Diablo offered multiplayer support, something earlier RPGs had toyed with but never really conquered. Players could play though LAN networks or connect via the Internet to the Battle.net server, facing off against other gamers around the world. Indeed, Diablo was the first to capture D&D's social aspect, although without the burden of finding physical friends to play with.
Diablo eventually sold more than 2.5 million copies -- making it the best -- selling game of 1997?and spawned a sequel in 2000. With updated graphics and a deeper storyline, Diablo II was another monster hit, selling more than 1 million copies in its first two weeks.
Diablo wasn't the only new franchise on the block. Newcomer Bethesda Softworks struck gold with its Elder Scrolls series, especially 1996's Daggerfall.
Like Might and Magic, Elder Scrolls was incredibly nonlinear thanks to its expansive game world. The continent of Tamriel was a living, dynamic empire, featuring night and day cycles and even rain and snow. And while Daggerfall (and its 1994 predecessor, Arena) did include complex storylines, players often ignored them entirely, preferring to lose themselves in the rich in-game environment.
"I think it's one of those games that people can 'project' themselves on," Howard says. "It does so many things and allows [for] so many play styles that people can easily imagine what type of person they'd like to be in game."
Meanwhile, after years of searching for suitable developers for its AD&D license, TSR finally found someone to revive its Forgotten Realms franchise: BioWare, a studio founded by three former doctors.
BioWare's first AD&D title, 1998's Baldur's Gate, was a smash hit. It was like the lovechild of Diablo and Daggerfall, with an isometric viewpoint and real-time gameplay that played like Blizzard's cash cow but with the rich, immersive Forgotten Realms world that felt more like The Elder Scrolls' Tamriel. Plus, more so than previous RPGs, Baldur's Gate was also heavily shaped by dialogue and interactions with nonplayer characters, who could join your party to help construct the game's story.
BioWare followed Baldur's Gate with an expansion and sequel, Shadows of Amn -- another best-seller. The series successfully nailed exactly what D&D games could offer: evocative stories, intuitive rules, and intriguing characters to roleplay.
But the late '90s weren't all sword and sorcery. Some of the era's best games had no elves or wizards whatsoever.
First came Interplay's Fallout in 1997, a postapocalyptic nonlinear game set 80 years after a nuclear holocaust. Strongly reminiscent of the 1988 Interplay title Wasteland, Fallout and its 1998 sequel sizzled with style, snappy writing, and '50s-era Cold War imagery, offering gamers difficult moral choices to test their role-playing skills.
"I think there are a few reasons for Fallout's success," says Chris Avellone, developer for Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment. "It gave you tremendous freedom to let you wander wherever you chose. This freedom -- to take whatever quests you want and solve them however you choose -- is what an RPG was always supposed to be about."
Avellone also designed 1999's Planescape: Torment, often considered one of the most artistic games ever made. (It's also one of the wordiest, weighing in at about 800,000 words of text.) Torment's brooding, challenging story, which brimmed with metaphysics and fallen angels, contrasted starkly with the rest of the RPG genre's light fantasy fare.
Commercially, Torment flopped. But in the years since its release, it's found a huge cult following, especially online. "The idea of a game exploring the nature of man, and making that part of the actual gameplay, was really fresh to some people," Avellone says. "For roleplayers, I think Torment told several good stories -- and some bad ones -- and that was part of its appeal."
RPGs in the New Millennium
Despite the late '90s RPG revival, the genre has once again devolved into a mash of rushed, rehashed clones. What's more, after the new millennium, several watershed franchises ended -- some on a good note (Wizardry 8) and others not so much (Ultima IX, Might and Magic IX).
That's not to say good games haven't come out since 2000. BioWare has released several excellent games, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. Bethesda too has continued to shine with Morrowind and Oblivion.
But clearly, RPGs have fallen out of vogue. PC gaming has changed, and the costs of developing RPGs have skyrocketed over the years, says Brathwaite. "They're so intensive to make," she says. "They're like 20 games mashed into one, and that costs a whole helluva lot of money."
With so many RPG elements being absorbed into other genres, especially MMOs, some critics wonder if the single-player, stand-alone RPG is even commercially viable anymore. Is the MMO the next evolution in digital roleplaying, the best-possible approximation of D&D?
"I'm a firm believer that people still love the single-player experience," Howard says. "They want to be the hero; they want a world that reacts to them, that was built for them alone to have fun."
Perhaps what RPGs need isn't reinvention but a good, hard kick in the ass. Forget the inventories and weapon stats and remember the storytelling, the roleplaying -- the transformation of ordinary gamers into extraordinary heroes. Remember the magic.
I miss the old PC RPG days.