The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)

Gamasutra presents part three in contributor Matt Barton's extensive look at the history of computer role-playing games, this time exploring the years from 1994 to 2004. Part one, covering 1980-1983, and part two, covering 1985-1993, are also available.

Welcome back, brave adventurer, to the third and final installment of my history of our favorite computer game genre--the Computer Role-Playing Game, or CRPG for short. If you are new to this series, I'd suggest you stop now and read The Early Years, which covers the dark origins of the genre, such as Richard Garriott's Akalabeth and Sir-Tech's Wizardry series, and of course early mainframe CRPGs like dnd. You should then check out The Golden Age, which picks up from 1983 and extends all the way to 1993, a period which represents the peak of CRPG development.

Hundreds of games and dozens of series appeared during this time, several of which extend into the Platinum and Modern Ages. The Golden Age includes classics like SSI's Pool of Radiance (1988) and Phantasie (1985), or Interplay's The Bard's Tale (1985) and Wasteland (1988), and plenty of highly innovative titles like Sierra's Hero's Quest (1989) and Masterplay's Star Saga (1987). Without a good grounding in the CRPGs of these earlier periods, you might suffer from the all-too-common delusion that recent games like Diablo, Neverwinter Nights, and Oblivion came out of nowhere.

“CRPGs are natural extensions of their traditional pen-and-paper games or table-top miniatures. Instead of simply imagining monsters and moss-covered labyrinths, computer games burst with ethereal life, thanks to ever-evolving graphics and sound effects. Hard-liners may complain that the real magic has been lost; for the rest of us, however, CRPGs are the realization of our dreams - or more often, our nightmares.”

–Scott A. May in Compute!, Jan. 1994.

Instead, these games can all trace their lineage back to Golden Age games, which can in turn trace their lineage back to the late 1970s. Indeed, although it's a commonplace in game history to blurt out things like, "We've sure have come a long way since Akalabeth!", at one level we really haven't taken more than a few timid steps.

Sure, there have been enormous changes in graphics, sound, interface, and so on, but much of what we cherish in a modern CRPG was already present in games like DynaMicro's Dungeons of Daggorath and Texas Instruments' Tunnels of Doom (both 1982). Furthermore, many games that come fairly late in the time line actually seem to some critics to be steps backwards. For instance, although FTL introduced Dungeon Master in 1987, which featured real-time, 3-D graphics in full color, other developers continued to release best-selling turn-based and tile-based games well into the 1990s. And even in 2007, many critics argue that ASCII or ANSI games like Rogue have never been surpassed, since snazzy graphics and intricate story lines just distract from what they think makes CRPGs fun to play.

In short, rather than view the history of CRPGs as a neat time line that begins with total crap and just keeps getting less crappy all the time, I see it as a treasure-filled, monster-infested dungeon. While you can get from one point on that path to any other, you'll never travel in a straight line--and you never know what's waiting for you around the next corner. Let's just hope you brought your loquacious old pal Lilarcor!

To my mind, the games that really represent the best of the genre appeared during the period I've termed the "Platinum Age," which begins in 1996 with the publication of three very important games, Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992), Blizzard's Diablo, and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (both 1996). Other high points of the age include Interplay's Fallout (1997), Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment (1999), BioWare's Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II (2000), Troika's Arcanum (2001) and Sir-Tech's Wizardy 8 (2001).

The single-player, standalone CRPG reached its zenith during this period, and I've begun to doubt if Baldur's Gate II will ever be surpassed. Even in many of these games, though, the presence of online, multi-player options signaled the impending doom of the old CRPG we knew and loved. At the end of the platinum age, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or the MMORPG, dominated the scene, and, at least to this critic, the future of the CRPG is grimmer than anything ever dreamed up by Lord British.

BioWare's Baldur's Gate single-handedly brought AD&D back to the masses.

Not all that glitters is platinum, however. It’s during the early 1990s that we really begin to see games marred by sloppy code, particularly on the DOS and Windows platforms. Many otherwise impressive games were doomed at the start by hundreds of game-crashing glitches, which infuriated gamers and united critics against them.

The likeliest explanation for the preponderance of bugs during this era is an industry-wide shift in development methods. Instead of just a handful or even a single person in charge of the coding, games were being built by increasingly large teams of specialized programmers, who would work on individual parts and then jam everything together. While this process occasionally went smoothly, more often that not bits of the code were incompatible, and finding bugs in such massive piles of code was like finding the proverbial unassigned pointer in the memory stack.

Another key issue was the lack of industry standards among early graphic and sound card manufacturers; developers had to slap together code to support dozens of different standards—or risk alienating hordes of money-waving gamers. While it's now relatively easy to download and install a patch to address such issues, most people weren't online until well after many of these bug-infested games had passed out of circulation.

The period I've termed the "Modern Age" begins in 2002 with the publication of BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, and includes games like Microsoft's Dungeon Siege and Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil. Although these games have probably sold many thousands more copies than games from earlier periods, they seem to represent more of a looking back than a looking forward, and I'm increasingly worried by the large number of CRPG fans migrating towards MMORPGs. In fact, I don't even consider these games to be part of the same genre, a point I'll get to towards the end of this article.

Up to now, I've tried to simplify things by postponing my discussion of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games), which can actually trace their history as far back as the stand-alone CRPG. I'll explain why at the end of this article.

Let's pick up our story, then, in 1992, a year which culminated in Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a progressive game that demonstrated new and exciting possibilities and would set the tone for much of what would follow.

Towards the Platinum Age

The early 1990s saw the publication of dozens of CRPGs from many different developers, many of whom are virtually unknown today. Although the DOS and later Windows platforms would soon dominate the computer game industry, for now both the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were going strong.

Although highly polished, many of the CRPGs developed during this time are highly derivative and offer little innovation, but a few have managed to attain cult classic status.

A thousand years ago, tucked deep in the beautiful woods to the southeast of Lyramion, there was a small village called Forkbrook. The people who lived there were blond haired and good natured; they lived by fishing and hunting and traded with the nearest town which lay two days travel to the west. In this village lived a small boy named Tar.”

– from the Amberstar manual.

Several of these early 1990s games were German imports. One such game, Amberstar by German developer Thalion, features good graphics, a great auto-mapping tool, and a huge world to explore. It seemed to offer much promise, but even a well-known soundtrack by chipmaestro Jochen Hippel was not enough to win it much fame in the US. The sequel, Ambermoon, was only released in Germany, and the third game (the series was planned as a trilogy) was never completed. Nevertheless, Amberstar is among the best CRPGs for the Amiga platform.

In 1992, Sir-Tech published an English translation of Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny, another successful German game based on the RPG system Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye). The Dark Eye system was a strong competitor for Dungeons & Dragons in Germany, and offered gamers a viable alternative to TSR's rules. One nice innovation is that characters suffer from a variety of negative attributes, such as fear of the dead or a hot temper, which have direct effects on gameplay.

The game sold well enough to warrant two sequels, Star Trail (1994) and Shadows Over Riva (1996), both of which were only available on the DOS platform (the first was available on the Amiga and Atari ST platforms). The last game took advantage of the by-then widely adopted CD-ROM, and boasted SVGA graphics, but all of the games switch between 3-D, first-person perspective in exploration mode and isometric view in combat mode ("isometric view" or "3/4 perspective" is a way of portraying a 3-D object on a flat surface; consider the familiar line drawing of a cube). The combat system is highly tactical and turn-based (reminiscent of an SSI Goldbox game). Of the three, most critics agree that Shadows over Riva is the most excellent, and I'll have more to say about it later.

Other interesting games of the early 1990s are Imagitec's Daemonsgate, Microprose's Darklands, and Flair's Whale's Voyage. Daemonsgate (1992) seems to be an exercise in poor design, and is only noteworthy for its unusual marketing gimmicks. It suffered from a ghastly interface, and its most noteworthy characteristic is that it shipped with a VHS tape. The tape contained a goofy video entitled "Travis Sewerbreath" that had only a tenuous connection to the game. Daemonsgate also featured a "conversation system" allegedly capable of understanding over 70,000 words (few critics seem to believe this blurb on the game's box).

If Daemonsgate is all hype and no substance, Darklands, a meticulously historical CRPG set in medieval Germany, is all substance without enough hype. Indeed, it is undeservedly obscure despite its mind-boggling attention to detail. For instance, not only does the game include historically accurate arms and armor, but even the weights and relative effectiveness are incorporated into the gameplay. It also boasts of a huge gameworld with over 90 German cities and towns, all with historically accurate place names.

The goal of the game is simply to win fame and fortune; the game is quite open-ended and avoids many of the stale D&D clichés. Magic, for instance, is based on the ancient art of alchemy and is quite intricate, and clerics can call on 140 different saints, each with a unique personality.

Many gamers appreciated its intelligent character generation system, which involved adding years on to the character's starting age in return for valuable skills. Unfortunately, the game's code was riddled with show-stopping bugs, and gamers found the save game system irritating at best. Nevertheless, it remains a cult classic with a small but highly dedicated following.

Darklands is the most historically accurate and detailed CRPG yet designed.

Whale's Voyage is perhaps best described as a combination of Firebird's epic space-trading game Elite and SSI's Eye of the Beholder, and vaguely reminiscent of Binary System's earlier and much more successful Starflight series (1986, 1989) and Electronic Art's Sentinel Worlds (1989). Whale's Voyage did not fare well among critics, many of whom bashed it for its cumbersome control scheme, which required dozens of mouse clicks just to get one of the player's four characters to attack.

The game does feature a unique character generation method involving eugenics and DNA manipulation. After choosing an appropriate set of parents, players can "mutate" their characters' DNA in exchange for better stats. The trade-off, however, is greater susceptibility to disease. Players also get to choose which schools and universities their characters attend. In any case, the game was not a hit, and although there was a sequel released in Germany, an English version never arrived on American shores.

While we're on the subject of rotten tomatoes, we should probably mention Cybertech's Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace, which almost certainly contributed to its publisher SSI's fall from grace. Although TSR's Spelljammer universe was successful among tabletop role-playing gamers, Cybertech's effort to bring the world to DOS failed just as miserably at Cybertech's, and for much the same reason. Besides lackluster graphics and the lack of a good plot, the game was not properly play-tested and frustrated gamers with bug-infested code.

Ultima and Ultima Underworld: Who's the Dungeon Master Now?

We saw in the last installment how FTL's Dungeon Master represented a significant breakthrough for 3D CRPGs. Although there had been plenty of other 3D, first-person perspective CRPGs before (including the real-time game Dungeons of Daggorath), turn-based games were by far the majority. However, even though Dungeon Master was the best-selling game of all-time for the Atari ST platform, and achieved remarkable success on other platforms like the Commodore Amiga, many gamers and developers seemed reluctant to jump on the real-time 3-D bandwagon.

The first big developer to do so in major way was Westwood Associates, who developed an extremely successful series called The Eye of the Beholder, published by SSI (their so-called "Black Box" games). However, although these games were set in real-time, movement was not fluid but discrete. For instance, if your party turned left, the perspective instantly shifted 90 degrees, cutting rather than panning to the new viewpoint.

Nevertheless, many Dungeon Master clones were published in the early 1990s, such as Raven's Black Crypt, ArtGame's Abandoned Places: A Time for Heroes, and Silmaris' Ishar: Legend of the Fortress (all 1992), a highly-polished game that was successful enough to spawn two sequels (Messengers of Doom in 1993 and The Seven Gates of Infinity in 1994).

Another popular game from this period is Virgin Games' Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, developed by Westwood Studio--the same company that produced Eye of the Beholder. Throne of Chaos was noted for its excellent graphics, music, and interface; Westwood was an experienced CRPG maker at the height of their game. Westwood developed two sequels, Guardians of Destiny (1997) and Lands of Lore III (1999), which we'll discuss later.

Cute, vibrant graphics and humor distinguish the Lands of Lore series from most CRPGs of its day.

Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was the first 3D CRPG to finally achieve fluid camera movement (and is said to have inspired id's famous first-person shooter engine). Developed by Blue Sky Productions (later Looking Glass Technologies), The Stygian Abyss is a spin-off of Origin's celebrated Ultima series, but its gameplay focuses more on quick physical reflexes than its predecessors.

On the surface, it seems like Origin's attempt to mimic Dungeon Master. It's set deep in a dungeon, and the Avatar needs to constantly search for food and light sources (e.g., torches). Even the magic system is similar; spells are cast by arranging sequences of "rune stones" found sprinkled throughout the dungeon. However, unlike Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld features fluid 3-D movement. Players can not only turn left and right smoothly, but also look up and down, climb up, and even swim.

Players also have more direct control during combat: The type of attack (slash, stab, hack) is indicated by the position of the mouse pointer, and the strength by how long the player holds down the mouse button. Many gamers and critics argued that these innovations made the game realistic and thus more immersive, as though players were actually in the game rather than simply controlling it from a distance.

Another nice feature was a "map," which not only tracked movement but allowed players to enter notes. In any case, you don't have to be a game historian to see how this game paved the way for the Elder Scrolls series.

The Underworld series was ahead of its time, but that's not always a good thing. How much immersion does it take to kill rats with a hatchet?

The storyline is fairly straightforward. Somehow, the Avatar has found himself back in Britannia just in time to witness a creature carting off a Baron's daughter in a sack. Naturally enough, the guards suspect the Avatar of being an accomplice. Fortunately, he's spared the noose, but only on the condition that he enter a fearsome dungeon called the "Great Stygian Abyss", and return with the Baron's daughter.

Soon enough, the Avatar encounters some survivors of a failed colony, and eventually learns that the kidnapping is only part of a much more sinister plot. It's a good storyline that makes the game more than just a 3D coding feat.

In designing the Underworld system, one of the things we attempted to do was to merge traditional fantasy RPG elements, such as quests and combats and explorations, with a sophisticated three-dimensional simulation of a sensible and believable world.

– from the Ultima Underworld II manual.

Origin followed up in 1993 with a sequel named Labyrinth of Worlds. The sequel made few innovations other than the implementation of digital sound effects and an expanded viewing area. The storyline is also more complex and more closely related to the main Ultima series. A magical crystal of "blackrock" has formed over Lord British's castle, isolating the land of Britannia from its foremost defenders. Fortunately, the Avatar can use a smaller crystal to travel to eight different dimensions in search of a solution to the dilemma. It's a massive game, and the alternate dimensions allow for many intriguing scenarios, such as a fortress floating in the sky, an icy wasteland, and a surreal "Ethereal Void."

Surprisingly, the Ultima Underworld series is not as well known today as later games of its type, such as the Elder Scrolls series. Perhaps the key reason for this is that the games demanded more computer power than most PC gamers could afford in 1992. It's a rare case of when a lengthy production delay could have resulted in better sales.

Stygian Abyss was released for Sony's Playstation in 1997 and was ported to Windows Mobile by Zio Interactive in 2002.

Ascending Pagans at the Black Gate

We might expect that Origin would have incorporated Ultima Underworld's 3-D engine into its main Ultima series, but this was not the case.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate, released the same year as The Stygian Abyss, featured much better graphics than its predecessors, but still relied on the familiar top-down perspective. Perhaps the biggest interface change was a switch to real-time gameplay, which drastically altered the way combat is handled. It was also the first game in the series that can be controlled entirely by the mouse--the manual indicates that mouse play is "highly recommended by Lord British."

We might not think much of this issue today, but this was at a time when many PC owners didn't even own mice, much less see them as a game device.

Even though Black Gate didn't take the leap into 3D, it is still widely hailed as the best Ultima game, rivaled only by Ultima III in terms of popularity. The key assets are the game's gripping plot, well-developed characters, and painstakingly-detailed environments. Much was made of the game's high level of interactivity. How many CRPGs do you know that will let you milk cows and change a baby's diapers just for the heck of it?

Perhaps the best of all the Ultima Games, The Black Gate sports one of the most fully interactive gameworlds ever presented in a video game .

To put it mildly, The Black Gate is an unforgettable experience to those who have taken 60+ hours required to complete it, and will probably always enjoy a loyal and dedicated fan base. Unfortunately, the original games exploited some memory routines that render them incompatible on modern Windows-based systems. Thankfully, gamers can play Ultima VII using Exult, a GPL-licensed program that attempts to recreate the game on modern operating systems.

The Black Gate's plot is quite sophisticated compared to most games of the era, and like most other Ultima games, it has plenty of references and allusions to religion and politics. As the game opens, the Avatar is taunted by the infamous Guardian, then whisked away to the land of Britannia some 200 years after your visit, just in time to investigate the scene of a ritualistic murder. Eventually he learns about a cult called "The Fellowship," which some critics argue satirizes the Church of Scientology.

Perhaps more endearing than the plot are the characters, who are far better developed here than in almost any other CRPG. Instead of merely standing in one place for all eternity just to offer you a thinly disguised hint or geographical tidbit, the characters are shown walking about, engaging in their daily activities--they even to go to bed at night. Conversations with these characters are also more convincing, and can speak about several topics.

The game is also praised for its open-ended gameplay. There are very few guard rails in The Black Gate, a fact that can either thrill or intimidate inexperienced players. It's quite easy for players to end up wandering about the game without the faintest clue what they're "supposed" to do. Obviously, this lack of clear direction wouldn't bother players weaned on Rogue and other "sandbox" style games, but players more accustomed to "Do X, Y, and then Z" type games may find themselves quite disoriented.

Just to give you some idea of how intriguing the world of Black Gate can be, I'll quote a bit from Oleg Roschin's detailed review of the game on Mobygames. At one point in the game, Roschin's party met up with a unicorn, who, as legend has it, can only communicate with virgins. The first time around, Roschin's Avatar was, in fact, a virgin, and admitted as much to the unicorn, who then talked to him.

On a later visit, however, the Avatar had slept with a harlot at Buccaneer's Den, and the Unicorn refused to speak with him. As usual, we see that Garriott subtlety; sure, you can do sinful things, but you won't always get away with it. Later on, Bethesda would capitalize on this high level of interactivity in its celebrated Elder Scrolls series.

Origin released an expansion for the game called The Forge of Virtue later that year, but it wasn't until 1993 that Serpent Isle appeared. Instead of calling this game Ultima VIII, Origin chose to label it as Ultima VII: Part Two. This odd naming convention seems to arise from Garriott's principle that no two Ultima games should share the same game engine.

Serpent Isle may have shared the same game engine, but was much more linear and story-based than The Black Gate, a fact which divided critics pretty evenly between the two games. The story begins 18 months after the first part, and involves traveling to a land named "Serpent Isle" to restore the balance destroyed there by the Guardian.

Apparently, the game was rushed through production by Origin's new owner, Electronic Arts, and thus contained many dead ends (players who found themselves in one had to restore to earlier saved games). Origin's struggle with Electronic Arts bear an uncanny resemblance to Garriott's earlier conflict with Sierra On-Line. That conflict had also led to a lackluster entry in the series, Ultima II. Origin did release an expansion to the game called Silver Seed in 1993.

On a side note, in 1997 released its Ultima Collection for DOS and Windows, which includes the first 9 games (including a PC port of Akalabeth) and both expansions. Unfortunately, not all of the games run properly in Windows, but with a little work and a tool like DOSBox can run them under emulation.

In 1994, Origin released Ultima VIII: Pagan, a game with a somewhat controversial title that aroused even more controversy among long-term fans of the series. Again, Garriott seems to have returned to the drawing board and decided that what players really needed was more physical than intellectual challenges. Thus, like so many console hits of the day, in Pagan the Avatar can run, jump, and climb across moving platforms.

Combat was reduced (or, enhanced, depending on your perspective) to a series of rapid-fire mouse clicks, requiring more dexterity than strategy to win. As you might expect, the game gravely disappointed some fans and thrilled others, but the general consensus was that the game wasn't up to the Ultima standard. Many of the key innovations that had made The Black Gate so successful, such as a realistic night and day system, were abridged or altogether omitted.

As if these faults weren't enough to commit Pagan to the flames, a plethora of bugs surfaced, frustrating even fanatical Ultima fans. Again, Garriott blamed the problems on Electronic Arts and a rushed production schedule. However, the worst was yet to come.

The last and worst of the single-player Ultima games, Ultima IX: Ascension, was published in 1999, and fans were even more disappointed than they had been with Pagan. The problem this time seems to lie mostly in a bait-and-switch game played by Garriott, who had promised a game more in line with the classic Ultima games, and went to fans for advice—who provided it, diligently. Unfortunately, the production cycle hit gravel early on, and the code went through at least four different versions and no small amount of drama.

Ultima Online was also in production as this time, and no doubt added to the chaos (I'll have more to say about that game in a later section of this article). The end product was a buggy and even more action-oriented game than Pagan, and abandoned the by-then conventional isometric perspective for a fully 3-D world in 3rd-person perspective.

Most Ultima critics bitterly dismissed Ascension out of hand, but the game has managed to attract a small but dedicated fan base. The complaints and defenses are many. One of the most often heard is that it's really more of an "action adventure" than a true CRPG, a claim based on Ascension's rather limited "leveling up" capabilities and rather linear plot structure. Fans of The Black Gate were also irritated by the rigidity of many of the game's events, such as a love story that some felt was "shoved down their throats."

At any rate, no one complained about the game's lush graphics, and the day/night cycle returned, and the music is quite excellent. There is also a high level of interactivity with objects. However, a combination of poor voice acting, lackluster dialog, and rather banal characters certainly haven't helped the game win over diehard Ultima fans, much less large audiences.

Indeed, even a special "Dragon Edition" large-box version of the game that included several trinkets--a nod towards older and more revered Ultima games--wasn't enough to win over jaded fans. Needless to say, Ascension was a sad way for this grand old series to end. It was as if George Lucas had died just after rushing Jar Jar and the Ewoks Save Christmas into theaters.

Transcending Ascension: The Gothic Series

Even though Ascension failed miserably, German developer Pirahna Bytes was able to follow more successfully in its footsteps, pushing the “action” and “adventure” boundaries even further. The Gothic series debuted in November of 2001, and features a real-time, 3D world set in 3rd-person “over the shoulder” perspective. Gameplay focuses on inventory-base

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