Welcome, brave adventurer, to the first of my in-depth feature articles exploring the history of our favorite computer game genre: The Computer Role-Playing Game, or the CRPG. For many avid gamers, the CRPG is the perfect storm of gameplay, story, and strategy. Whether we're talking about a randomized "dungeon crawler" like Rogue or a story-driven game like Betrayal in Krondor, a click-fest like Diablo or a stat-crunching Pool of Radiance, the CRPG has always enjoyed a tremendous appeal. Even today, when the first-person shooter and sports games seem to have crushed all opposition, everyday millions of players login to World of Warcraft, and each new installment in the Zelda series sends ripples throughout the entire game industry. Whether acknowledged or not, the CRPG will always play a major role in computer and console gaming. The CRPG is the spine of the electronic gaming industry--and it's not hard to see why. You just can't have more fun with a computer or a console than when you're engrossed in a well-crafted CRPG. But where did the CRPG come from? From what deep, dank dungeon did they crawl? How has the genre evolved into the amazing games we enjoy today? If you've ever wondered about these and other CRPG-related questions, of if you just like reading the very best writing you can find on the net about gaming--then grab a mug of your best ale and prepare to read an article only an author of Armchair Arcade would ever dare to draft!
From Tabletops to Desktops
Although most people would probably think it's a trivial matter to trace the CRPG back to its tabletop, paper-and-pencil based "equivalent," doing so probably obscures more than it reveals about the two genres. As anyone who has actually played D&D is acutely aware, the two games are as different as playing intramural basketball and College Hoops 2K7. Indeed, the typical "CRPG" is not a "role-playing game" at all, or, if it is, that's generally the least distinctive thing about it. After all, you "play a role" when you play PAC-MAN or SPACE INVADERS,and even in games like Tetris you're playing a role--the unseen force that causes those falling blocks to shift and rotate. It's probably more accurate to describe first-person "interactive fiction" games like Zork or Myst as a "role-playing games," since in those games the player literally assumes an important fictional role within the game. Likewise, a first-person shooter like Half-Life seems to come much closer to the ideal of "playing a role" than a game like Icewind Dale, in which you only indirectly control a whole group of characters.
Taxonomic quibbling aside, there is no doubt that while they are not direct descendents, CRPGs were deeply inspired by D&D. At the very least, it's obviously more than a coincidence that so many of the themes and trappings are shared by both genres, and both are highly absorbing and addictive. One wonders if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson knew the full implications of what they were doing when they sprung Dungeons & Dragons on an unsuspecting public back in 1974. However, Gygax and Arneson's classic tabletop "role-playing game" didn't come out of nowhere. As near as I can tell, the clearest precedents were war games like Avalon Hill's Tactics II (1958)and sports simulation games like Strat-o-Matic (1961). However, while D&D certainly borrowed (whether intentionally or not) many of the conventions of these older games (especially an emphasis on caculation), it contained some radical new innovations. For one thing, instead of recreating painfully-accurate historical Civil War battles or the World Series, D&D was set in a fantasy world populated by elves, dwarves, and dragons. Although there's some question about how deeply J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring trilogy played in the development of D&D, most players of the game were hardcore fans of Middle Earth, obsessively reading and re-reading the novels. Indeed, for countless Tolkien-enamored teenagers of the 70s and 80s, D&D was simply a more enthralling way to experience these lavish fictional places. After all, it's one thing to read about Frodo and Bilbo going on fantastic quests, but the appeal of going on one themselves was simply too much for many teenagers to resist.
Strat-O-Matic: Paper-based games like
this paved the way for D&D and CRPGs.
Authors Brad King and John Borland, authors of Dungeons and Dreamers: From Geek to Chic, claim that "it's almost impossible to overstate the role of Dungeons & Dragons in the rise of computer gaming." What could be more true? The "gamer" as we know him or her today was born in the D&D era. Although there have always been games, none of them had the drawing power of D&D. While cards and dice can certainly become disastrously addictive (see Gamblers Anonymous), gambling games were always about prizes the players could win, not the games themselves. Strategy games like chess, meanwhile, are so abstract and "mental" that it's often not clear whether they are true amusements or really just exercises in logic. Furthermore, the fact that you can become a professional chess player indicates that chess lost its status as a mere "game." If you can earn a living doing something, you can no longer describe it as a "pure amusement"--it's become a sport with real earning potential. Finally, board games like Monopoly and RISK, while certainly fun and engaging, are only very rarely enjoyed over extended periods for any significant amount of time. These are games that get hauled off the top shelf of a closet a few days out of the year to keep idle hands busy during the holidays. Though you can find large, highly devoted communities of UNO and ROOK players, these seem more like exceptions rather than the rule.
Every childhood has its talismans, the sacred objects that look innocuous enough to the outside world, but that trigger an onslaught of vivid memories when the grown child confronts them. For me, it's a sheaf of xeroxed numbers my father brought home from his law firm when I was nine. -- Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You
Not so with D&D. In so many ways, D&D was more of a lifestyle choice than a "harmless diversion." Indeed, the closest equivalent I can think of is the children's game of "make believe," in which a group of kids pretend to be in various social and occupational roles--such as a father, doctor, superhero, and so on. The other kids will "go along" with the fantasy, helping to perpetuate it (generally in return for similar reinforcement from the other children). For instance, two boys will take turns being the "cowboy or the Indian," or I suppose nowadays the "Republican and the terrorist" or some such nonsense. Often enough, these games can get quite elaborate, with imaginary pals, exotic fictional settings, and plenty of simulated action. I must confess to having played many such games with my younger sister, when we "went on vacation" to all sorts of fantastic locales. Of course, once a kid gets to a certain age, playing "make believe" seems too juvenile or irrational to engage in (at least openly), so all of these impulses are repressed--at least until D&D comes onto the scene. Suddenly, playing "make believe" is back, and players can enjoy the activity without being accused of being immature or schizo. Indeed, the strength of D&D lies in its combination of make-believe, play-acting, and a logical, math-based rule system. As Johan Huizinga illustrates in his book Homo Ludens, such play is a vitally important part of learning. The more kids get to play "make believe," the more intelligent they become! As Steven Johnson would say, playing D&D makes you smarter!
Sadly, when enough "concerned" citizens realized that so many young people were having so much fun playing this new game, they began insinuating and then outright accusing players of engaging in a "Satanic ritual" or, at the very least, dangerously influenced by hidden subliminal content (for a sickening example, see this analysis of a Chick tract). We might perhaps be more sympathetic to these folks; they knew just enough about D&D to make them dangerous. For instance, they quickly learned that they involved graphic violence, magic (or, "witchcraft"), and often demonic forces (dragons, hell hounds, demons). No doubt, walking by and hearing a 7-year old cry, "I summon forth a black demon to annihilate your cleric!" was enough to convince any well-meaning parent that something odd was going on here. Furthermore, as then as well as now, occasionally news surfaced of some genuinely disturbed gamer performing some horrific crime and then blaming it all on the game. The same could be said about the D&D-themed "heavy metal" music of the era. Obviously, Iron Maiden or Judas Priest was a powerful catalyst for evil during all those dice rolls for initiative. The fact that so many people are still willing to buy into this rubbish is far more fearful than any demonic foe encountered in a D&D session! Ironically enough, many of the friends I played D&D with were far more devout Christians than anyone else I knew. Even the ones who weren't religious tended to live more morally upright and ethical lives than most other folks--another reason, no doubt, for religious hypocrites to despise them.
Still, no matter how someone feels about the moral influence of D&D, no one can deny it played a highly constructive role in developing the computer game industry. Besides creating a new type of person--the "gamer," and sowing a generation with seeds of creativity and imagination, adapting D&D for computers became one of the Holy Grails of early computer programming. Although many game historians cite Richard Garriott's Akalabeth as the first CRPG, we can find earlier precedents in the world of mainframes.
The Mainframe Era (The Dark Ages)
Hackers on university mainframes got an early start on developing CRPGs, trotting out games as early as 1974 (the same year Gygax and Arneson released the first Dungeons & Dragons). Unfortunately, the history here seems a bit murky (thus the title "Dark Ages"), and declaring which game was the "first" seems a bit foolhardy. What is clear is that there were several CRPGs on machines like DEC's PDP-10 and PLATO, a computerized learning system. The first of these appears to be Rusty Rutherford's pedit5 for PLATO. Pedit5 had most of the basic features of the genre, such as an explorable dungeon, monstrous foes, collectible treasures, and a magic system. Unfortunately, we will likely never learn much more about this game owing to the short-sightedness of PLATO administrators, who had a rather nasty habit of deleting this game wherever they found it (the many kids who managed to stay a step ahead of these party-poopers were denigrated as "zbrats"). There may very well have been text-based CRPGs before Pedit5 that may have simply been lost to history.
Later that year, two programmers at Southern Illinois University named Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood created dnd, also designed for PLATO. This graphical game contains many features that would become staples of the genre, such as the ability to create a character and assign stats for characteristics like strength, intelligence, and so on. There was also a "level up" system based on experience points. Monsters got tougher the deeper players went in the dungeon. This game also marks the first appearance of the "general store" where players can purchase equipment. Perhaps most important, dnd featured a story and a quest--kill the dragon and fetch the Orb. It is certainly no surprise that fetching an all-powerful "orb" will show up again and again as the defining quest of CRPGs! Whisenhunt and Wood's game would later be the inspiration for Daniel Lawrence's famous Telengard game for the TRS-80 and Commodore 64 platforms. We'll have more to say about Telengard momentarily.
Meanwhile, a student at Claremont Graduate University in California, had designed a game called Dungeon, which ran on the university's PDP-10 mainframes. Like dnd, Dungeon featured a level-up system. However, one key innovation was the ability to create and operate a whole party of adventurers rather than just a single character. To this day, there is debate about whether it's more fun to control a single character or a whole party of them. Dungeon also featured a graphical map system with "line of sight" vision, which meant that players could only see in the direction their characters were facing--and took lightness and darkness into account (elves and other creatures with infravision could see in the dark).
dnd (mainframe): Pic from
Wikipedia (public domain)
Perhaps the most famous of all CRPGs, however, is the UNIX game Rogue. Created in 1980 by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold, Rogue was known for its randomized dungeons, ASCII-based graphics, and complicated gameplay. Rogue represented the player's character with an at sign (@), and monsters were designated by the first letter of their name (Z for zombie). The story was simple and would be copied (with slight modifications) in later games like The Sword of Fargoal: descend to a specific level of the dungeon (in this case 26), retrieve a magic item (in this case the Amulet of Yendor), and escape the dungeon. However, players might have just as much with the game even if they aren't aware of this quest; just wandering about killing monsters and gaining treasure and experience points are plenty of fun. Still, Rogue is a very challenging game with a steep learning curve. For one thing, there's an abundance of confusing keyboard commands to learn (R for remove a ring and r for reading a scroll), and players practically need a legend to make sense of the "graphical" display. Secondly, besides dealing successfully with the many monsters and traps in the game, the character must also be constantly fed. Nevertheless, Rogue was so successful that it spawned a near limitless number of ports and derivatives called "Roguelikes." Several of these games have also achieved lasting fame, such as Hack, Moria, Larn, and Omega. It's very easy to find a version of Rogue or at least a roguelike on just about any computing platform (indeed, I'm not even sure we could call something that didn't have some form of Rogue a "computer platform" at all!). I spent any number of hours sloughing my way through both Larn and Hack on my Commodore Amiga computer, even though I also had access to games with "better" graphics. A boy with an imagination is content with a warm bowl of ASCII every evening (though ANSI is quite nice once and awhile).
The question that seldom gets asked about these early "CRPGs" is to what extent they really recreate the tabletop D&D experience. Although they do manage to mimic some parts quite effectively--particularly the dice rolling and number crunching--they seem to fall rather flat in the play-acting department. Somehow I doubt that anyone sitting down for an evening of Rogue ever donned a pair of cheap elf ears and a faux leather jerkin, though such accouterments are common enough at real D&D games. Furthermore, although dnd players might belt out an obscenity every so often, I doubt any of them did so in a Dwarvish accent. What was clearly missing was the element of "role play" that was such a huge part of the tabletop game. At best, the computerized versions could simulate the mathematics of D&D combat and to some extent the strategy and exploration components, but the inherent abstractness and aloofness of the medium seemed to stop true role-playing at the gate. Although later on we'll discuss CRPGs that have tried to address these issues in interesting ways, it's important to see for now that D&D and its computerized "equivalents" actually have far less in common than most people think.
The Bronze Era (1979-1980)
Although thousands of people may have had their first CRPG experience on a mainframe, most of us would kill our first digital dragon on a personal computer. Although exact dates are hard to come by, we can say that as early as 1979, at least two commercially-published CRPGs were available for home computers. One of these was developed by a high schooler named Richard Garriott, who was sufficiently enamored with D&D to call himself "Lord British." Garriot's game, Akalabeth: World of Doom, featured wire-frame graphics in first-person perspective (other parts offer top-down perspective), and was, in many ways, far ahead of its time. Akalabeth was only available for the Apple II, and some controversy exists over whether it was first published in 1979 or a year later. Garriott insists that it was released in 1979, although the first disks and cassettes had copyright 1980 on their label. The other game was Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai, by Automated Simulations, Inc. (later re-named Epyx). Temple of Apshai was the first of a five-game series, though only the three games making up the "Apshai trilogy" are well known today. Temple of Apshai was first available on the TRS-80 platform, then the Commodore PET, but was later ported to the Apple II (1980), Atari home computer (1981), DOS (1982), and finally to the Commodore 64 and Vic 20 in 1983. Let's take a look at Akalabeth first.
By all accounts, Garriott was both a big fan of Tolkien and of Dungeons & Dragons. The name Akalabeth, for instance, is taken from one of Tolkien's more obscure works, The Silmarillion. The game was written in BASIC, a fact that makes the game all the more impressive from a technical perspective (and allowed players to cheat or modify the game as they saw fit). As mentioned above, the game features wire-frame first-person perspective, but switches to a top-down view when the player is on the surface. This innovation would be seen in countless later CRPGs. Akalabeth's story is straightforward enough. Lord British, "Bearer of the White Light," has recently driven the evil wizard named Mondain from the kingdom of Akalabeth, but Mondain's monsters still dwell in dungeons below the surface. The player's task is to descend into these dungeons, slaughtering foes and venturing to the surface to purchase equipment and procure new quests from British. British will raise the character's attributes upon completing quest--as well as give him (or her?) opportunities to advance in rank, such as from peasant to knight. These quests involve finding and killing increasingly difficult critters.
When players begin Akalabeth, they are presented with a few text screens with information about the game. The first establishes the back story. Subsequent screens tell players what "strength" and "dexterity" are good for, a list of keyboard commands, and so on. Finally, players are given the choice between playing a fighter or a magi. As might be expected, the fighter can't use "the magic amulet," whereas the magi can't fight with rapiers or bows (though axes are allowed). The magic amulet was an unpredictable item--sometimes it even turned the player into a powerful Lizard Man. Finally, although the players can select a difficulty level from 1 to 10, the game is still challenging since the character gobbles up food with every step. If the food supply runs out, it's game over--a situation that can easily put even the most powerful players into an unwinnable situation. To make matters even worse, thieves roaming about the dungeons are more than adept at swiping your character's gear--carrying a few extra of each item is probably a wise precaution.
I can't spell, have no grammar techniques, and have read less than twenty-five books in my life. -- Richard Garriot (Lord British), as quoted in Hackers by Steven Levy
Akalabeth (1980): Kill this thief quickly,
or he'll swipe your gear!
Unlike Akalabeth, which is easily found online and also available in some Ultima compilations, Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai is a very difficult game to come by. Epyx re-released three games in this series as the Apshai Trilogy in 1983, which featured updated graphics. Try as I might, the only version of the original game I could find in working condition was the Coleco Adam version! Unfortunately, that version is comparatively crude to the versions offered on other platforms and probably not very representative. The Trilogy is very easy to find on a variety of platforms, however. I played the Apple II version, which I hope is at least similar to the original.
Anyway, I was able to find a scan of the original manual, which is a true treasure for any historian interested in the early history of CRPGs. Back in 1979, game developers couldn't expect players to already be familiar with most of the conventions of the genre (they didn't even exist, yet!). What's interesting about the Apshai manual is the great lengths it goes to try to convince players they should give RPGs a chance. I'll quote an excerpt here from the manual's introduction:
Did you grow up in the company of the Brothers Grimm, Snow White, the Red Fairy Book, Flash Gordon serials, The Three Musketeers, the knights of the Round Table, or any of the three versions of the The Thief of Bagdad? Have you read the Lord of the Rings, the Worm Ouroboros, The Incomplete Enchanter, or Conan the Conqueror? Have you ever wished you could cross swords--just for fun--with Cyrano or D'Artagnan, or stand by their sides in the chill light of dawn, awaiting the arrival of the Cardinal's Guard? Ever wondered how you'd have done against the Gorgon, the hydra, the bane of Heorot Hall, or the bull that walks like a man? (...) If any or all of your answers are "yes," you're a player of role-playing games--or you ought to be.
The manual goes on at some length in this vein. "RPGs allow you a chance to step outside a world grown too prosaic for magic and monsters," it claims. Although players may be total losers in the "real world," the RPG offers them a chance to test their true mettle. Furthermore, RPGs "can and often do become, for both you and your character, a way of life."
What's even more interesting is how the manual introduces CRPGs as a more convenient way to role-play. "Ordinary role-playing games require a group of reasonably experienced players, an imaginative dunjonmaster willing to put in the tremendous amount of time necessary to construct a functioning fantasy world, and large chunks of playing time." Indeed, "twenty-hour marathons are not unheard of." What the CRPG offers is a pre-constructed world and automatic handling of all those complicated math problems. "While there are greater practical limits to your actions that is usually the case in a non-computer RPG, there are still a large number of options to choose from." Indeed, many of the more intriguing features of the game seem to be attempts to bridge the gap between RPGs and CRPGs. For instance, instead of merely buying items for a set price, players must haggle with the storekeeper. Furthermore, much of the in-game text is "in character," with "Medieval" tendencies like using "ye" for "you" and "thy" for "your." The manual also includes textual descriptions of each room of the dungeon--probably a concession to the limited memory of early home computers. Interestingly, though, this same "feature" would show up in some later games, particularly Pool of Radiance. My guess is that by then, placing important information in a game manual was a subtle form of copy protection.
Temple of Apshai: Players could get textual
descriptions by looking up the "Room No."
in the manual.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Apshai series is its combat system. The manual claims that the developers were inspired by "historical research, a knowledge of various martial arts, and practical experience in the Society for Creative Anachronisms." At any rate, a "fatigue" system that limits how often you can attack and how far you can run (your character's wounds and the weight of his equipment also influences the fatigue rate). The character can also "hearken," or listen for the presence of a monster in an adjoining room, and even try to talk monsters out of combat. If your character dies, he will suffer one of four fates--either consumption by a roaming monster, or rescue by a dwarf, mage, or cleric. If it's the dwarf or mage, your character will lose equipment. Temple of Apshai was quickly followed up by Datestones of Ryn, Morloc's Tower, and Curse or Ra. The other Apshai games included Upper Reaches of Apshai and Gateway to Apshai. Epyx released the Trilogy compilation for a variety of platforms in 1983, but perhaps the best of these was the Commodore Amiga version released in 1986. Anyone seriously desiring to play the series today will prefer the Amiga version's enhanced graphics and control scheme.
I jumped every time one of those swamp rats appeared. My sword arm got sore from gripping the hilt of the joystick, and there are wrinkles in my permanent-press armor from hours in front of the monitor. -- Steve Hudson on Gateway to Apshai, from COMPUTE! ISSUE 60 / MAY 1985 / PAGE 56
Although neither Temple of Apshai nor Akalabeth are particularly playable today, their historical value cannot be overestimated. Both games were successful in their own right, and helped launch vitally important series (particularly Akalabeth, which led to the Ultima series). However, the genre was still crude and left much to be desired in terms of interface and design. There was tremendous room for extensive development. Although the "Golden Age" of CRPGs wouldn't happen until the mid to late 80s, the "Silver Age"--which we'll discuss next--introduced some games that are still playable and rewarding today.
The Silver Age (1981-1983)
In 1981, the CRPG wasn't nearly as recognizable as a genre as it is today. Only a precious few commercial games took on the title, and these were cumbersome and hard to play compared to arcade and adventure games. What the genre really needed was a definitive game (or preferably a series) that would help garner momentum for the genre. This boost would happen in 1980 with the release of Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, developed by Richard Garriott and published by California Pacific Computer Co. Ultima, of course, would quickly become the premier CRPG series which enjoyed some two decades of installments. Another series that spawned an important franchise was Sir-Tech's Wizardry, which began in 1981 with Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Wizardry would also enjoy a very long career--the eighth installment arrived in 2001. Together, these two series helped define the genre. However, Ultima and Wizardry weren't the only CRPGs on the shelf. Daniel Lawrence released his Telengard in 1982, a game based on the old mainframe dnd game described above. Two other important games released in 1982 are Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99/4A, and Dungeons of Daggorath for the Tandy CoCo. Rounding out this era are The Sword of Fargoal, released in 1983 by Epyx, and Ultima III, a game that many CRPG enthusiasts cite as the first modern CRPG. Let's start, then, with the Ultima series.
The Ultima Series
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness marks a number of important firsts for the genre. Perhaps the most important is the game's use of tiled graphics. Tiled graphics required much less storage space and allowed for large, colorful environments. Like Akalabeth, the game was originally available only for the Apple II platform, though Sierra On-Line released an Atari 8-bit port in 1982, with more ports to follow in 1986. At the time, the game was hailed for its immense size and "evolutionary" aspect--players started off in the Middle Ages, but later traveled through time. What other game started with daggers and leather and ended up with blasters and spaceships? It was truly an ambitious game. The ga