Many of the most successful games of all time have one thing in common – they are so-called role-playing games. But what makes “Dark Souls”, “Ultima”, “World of Warcraft”, “The Elder Scrolls”, “Fallout” and Co. so popular and how do they fit into the almost 50-year history of the gaming role-playing game?
Role playing games are one of the most popular gaming genres in the world. The most important criteria of a so-called RPG (Role-Playing Game) are the modifiable game character, the quest structure that leads through the game and usually includes the fight against monsters, and the imagined game world. Over the decades, of course, this basic concept has been softened a little and partially expanded. The core of “playing a role” is always the same.
The early forerunner: pen and paper
The genre has its roots in the pen & paper game, in which fictional characters and worlds are designed using pen and paper and stories based on them are told. The game rounds are moderated by the so-called game master. This decides on the framework of the plot, the sequence of events and the locations, but above all on how the characters behave that are not taken over by other players. The most famous pen & paper game is certainly “Dungeons & Dragons”, in which the focus is clearly on the game plot and the development of the characters.
First computer games of the genre in the 70s
In 1974, in the same year as “Dungeons & Dragons”, RPG appeared: “dnd“. The computer takes on the role of the game master, but the basic concept and game mechanics are the same as in the analog version. Unlike today, RPG computer games were an absolute niche product. The first developers were mostly students, because next to the big universities hardly anyone had networks with sufficient computing power – especially not private households. For the universities, on the other hand, the RPGs were primarily technical gadgets. In order to save storage space, a lot was deleted again.
“Dnd” (“The Game of Dungeons”) is the oldest surviving role-playing game for the computer. The player controls a self-created character through a large dungeon (cave), which has several levels or levels. He has to fight against different monsters and develop his skills. What is remarkable is the already clearly developed skill system of the game, to which many of the future orientated themselves. Skills are the character’s abilities such as magic attacks or maximum life.
1975 followed with “Dungeon“Directly the next milestone. The surroundings and what the character sees were also shown. Thanks to the so-called “line-of-sight” principle, the avatar moved from bottom to top across the screen. Even in the 70s there were already the first multiplayer role-playing games for the PC, which were strongly based on “Dungeons & Dragons”. In particular, here are primarily “Oblivion” and “Avatar“- both also student projects.
Increasing success of role-playing games in the 80s
The game “Rogue“. Developed at the University of California at Berkeley, it was the first (role) game with a randomly generated world. In order to make this mathematically possible, the game elements were represented purely graphically with ASCII characters (letters, numbers and special characters). An approaching monster could only be seen by the player as a moving “M”. The aim of the game was to find Yendor’s amulet in the dungeon and to defend yourself against numerous opponents by finding better weapons and developing skills – that is, very basic role-playing elements.
One of the most famous games from this time today is “Last“(1981), which over the years grew into a large, multi-branch franchise. Not only was the “Britannia” game world well worked out, the new tile look also shaped the genre for many years.
Also in 1981 appeared “Wizardry“, The first” real “multiplayer role-playing game. At the beginning the players could create a group of up to six people and choose from different races, attitudes and classes. The biggest step, however, was the graphics. For the first time, the environment was completely three-dimensional, which heralded the birth of the first-person perspective. The success was enormous: the game not only sold well in North America, but also in Japan and laid the foundation for well-known role-playing games from Asia.
In a milestone list of role-playing games, “Dungeon Master“From 1987 is not missing. Real-time battles were a big novelty in this case. Previously you fought, completely in the “Dungeons & Dragons” style, turn-based on text commands. In “Dungeon Master” this was combined with elements of the up-and-coming action-adventure genre, which made the game more exciting and less strategic – and gave its popularity a huge boost.
1990s: The cornerstone of large RPG franchises
The real breakthrough in RPGs came in the 90s. Many of the great and still known classics of the genre were created during this decade. To proceed chronologically, we call “Neverwinter Nights“(1991) in first place. The development contract was given by Internet provider AOL with a very transparent business model: an hour of gaming fun cost a proud 6 US dollars. This was primarily intended to cover the enormous Internet costs for the provider – “Neverwinter Nights” was the first massively multiplayer online game (MMO).
The next milestone and at the same time a real classic is “Diablo“From 1996. Apart from the enormous importance that the game had for developer Blizzard, it was also groundbreaking in terms of character development for a character. Another special feature was the fixed isometric view in the randomly generated game world. Through the viewing angle, this enables the view of objects that would not be visible from a top or side view and thus creates the impression of a 3D environment. This underlines the step towards action role-playing.
In 1998, “Baldur’s Gate“- for fans of the genre to this day one of the best role-playing games of all time. The development studio BioWare had a clear focus on sophisticated characters and storytelling. The core conflict is the semi-divine ancestry of the protagonist, who is on the run from his divine inheritance and his evil half-brother. The much-praised narrative style is mainly possible thanks to the cleverly used bottle neck principle. The next chapter is only reached after a series of tasks have been completed.
Also in the 90s, the first parts of two large RPG series were published, which still determine the genre today: “The Elder Scrolls: Arena“ (1994), „The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall“(1996) and”Fallout“(1997). The former are huge fantasy hams with an open world from Bethesda, the latter a post-apocalyptic action RPG peppered with lots of black humor. Both series exist to this day and provide their fans with fresh supplies. Overall, the 90s paved the way for the entire genre in terms of technology and content and established it in the mainstream to a certain extent.
The beginning of the new millennium
The big names of the 2000s are far too numerous to list and go into in detail. “The Elder Scrolls“Part 3 and 4,”Gothic“, „Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic“, „Neverwinter Nights“(The new edition of Bioware),”Mass Effect“, „Deus Ex“And so many more. But from 2004 a fantasy RPG from Blizzard dominated the gaming world and thus underlined the trend of the genre and above all the potential of MMOs: “World of Warcraft“. As the first MMORPG ever, WoW made its breakthrough in Europe and opened up an important market for role-playing games. It enabled a completely new kind of interaction and a special bond with the avatar.
For the spread of role-playing games, however, the hardware developments of the 00s are almost even more important than the big titles just mentioned. The PlayStation 2 (to this day the best-selling game console in the world) and gaming platforms such as Steam did games of all genres a big favor.
The 2010s are a decade of RPG sequels
Anyone who looks at the big RPG innovations of the past 10 years sees one thing above all: sequels. An exception is “Dark Souls“, Which was first released in 2011 for the PlayStation 3. In contrast to many other prominent representatives of the genre, there is almost no stringently narrated plot in the game. Instead, the player is encouraged to explore the game world themselves within a rough framework. The particular challenge lies not in completing quests, but in pure survival. The fights in “Dark Souls” are generally considered to be the most difficult of all time.
Also in 2011 was part 5 of the “Elder Scrolls” series, “Skyrim“. To this day it is one of the best rated games ever and sets the standard in terms of game world and character development. Thousands of hours of gameplay can be spent running through the snowy Skyrim, completing quests, collecting herbs and furnishing houses. For Skyrim, like no other role-playing game, the following applies: The path is the ultimate goal.
Even if “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt“It’s not a classic role-playing game, it fulfills enough criteria to be an action-RPG. Released in 2015, CD Project Red sparked a wave of enthusiasm for fantasy games. “The Witcher 3” is a real milestone, especially when it comes to storytelling and influencing the game world. The main quest alone can end in ten different ways, depending on how the player has decided over time. The possibilities of character development are clearly limited by the existing book by the Polish author A. Sapkowski. However, the game continues the path that “Skyrim” has already taken: The game world is the main element.
2017 was a decisive year for role-playing games, but also for the entire gaming world. In March, Nintendo launched its hybrid console, the Nintendo Switch. The RPG “Zelda: Breath of the Wild“. The attentive role-playing game fan will not have escaped the fact that this article has so far almost exclusively spoken of milestones in Western role-playing games. Big names like “Final Fantasy“Or”Dragon Quest“Haven’t fallen at all yet. This is in no way intended to deny their importance, so-called JRPGs (Japan Role-Playing Games, used synonymously for East Asian role-playing games) are based on criteria other than those mentioned above. The latest “Zelda” offshoot combines the various role-playing traditions like hardly any other game. The main quest known from its predecessors, the rescue of Princess Zelda, is at times a minor matter in the huge game world. Instead, the game rewards diligent exploration, hiding so-called shrines everywhere in Hyrule, the little nature spirits called Krogs, fairy springs and much more.
An outlook – that could still await us in the 2020s
The new decade has already started and big role-playing titles like “Cyberpunk“Or”Assassins Creed: Valhalla“Provide little hints in which direction the genre could develop in the next few years. What both games have in common is an extremely detailed and graphically powerful game world. This trend, which was already apparent in the 2010s, is very likely to continue. Big technical leaps or innovative new combat systems are hardly to be expected. On the other hand, there are lots of exciting stories and branched quest structures that invite players to fully immerse themselves in the game world.