In September 2006, the editors of Gamasutra asked its readership of game industry professionals to chime in and vote for which game in the role-playing genre "brought the genre forward" in the biggest way - whether it be an early game that helped define the RPG, or a more recent one which took those core ideas and developed a more rewarding experience than before. Specifically, we asked:
"Which role playing game over the entire history of the genre do you think has made the biggest 'quantum leap', and why?"
On the following pages, we'll first present the "honorable mentions" - games that, while certainly innovative and important, did not receive enough votes to make it into the top echelon.
Following this, we'll present the top five role-playing games voted for by our readers, in reverse order, ending with the overall recipient of Gamasutra's second Quantum Leap Award, which received the largest amount of votes from game professionals.
[Please note that while many games received small amounts of votes in this survey, we could not possibly give adequate attention to each of them. 'Honorably mentioned' games also voted on by our readers, but not making it into the top five _or_ receiving detailed commentary alongside the voting included Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, System Shock, Bard's Tale, The Legend of Zelda, and even Façade. Special thanks to MobyGames for providing art that appears in this article.]
Honorable Mention: Dragon Warrior
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest) for the NES. A very good RPG, with the best elements of an RPG: leveling up by collecting experience, getting gold from monsters, a lot of side quests involving items you can later use, and buying new and super expensive armor & weapons; it also allowed you to try to free roam any place in its world, but you would then find a very powerful monster, which would kill you in one or two blows, which then gave you a need of leveling up to overcome all the obstacles.
Dragon Warrior, of course. Although all it did was translate "Dungeons And Dragons" themes to video games, the invention of the battle system, creative plot, and all of the genre standards were created. If the RPG genre had evolved more, I wouldn't have chosen "the first." However, it hasn't, although I have no problem with that. Now, if they'd only hire better screenwriters.
-Quinton Klabon, Dartmouth College
Honorable Mention: Final Fantasy IV
Although Final Fantasy IV (FF2 US) was a leap from the original graphically, it really brought the story to the forefront. No longer were you playing characters who listened but never spoke. Cutscenes involved conversations, not one-sided, quest-giving monologues. It made you care for the individual characters in your party, not as collections of stats and equipment who could complete quests, but as characters in a story full of internal and external conflict.
-Marc Barber, Troika Games
Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II in US) transformed RPGs by the use of a much more complex and rewarding narrative that set the standard for console RPGs for years to come.
Honorable Mention: Neverwinter Nights
I think it was BioWare's Neverwinter Nights beacause of the quality of tools provided to the players. You could build your own dungeon, city, whatever, and you could, as a DM rule over the gaming experience of the party, in multiplayer mode.
Neverwinter Nights' toolset has given thousands of players the power to design and build their own modules, diversifying the content available in the game and pushing the original creators of the game to do the same. It has offered an inroad for many individuals into the game industry, and also found use in the serious games market. Other games have done some things better (emulated the PnP expererience better (Fallout), hugely broadened the console rpg market (FF7)), but Neverwinter Nights has, through it's community, changed the possibility of what a game can become.
-Alan Rawkins, Rawkins.ca
Honorable Mention: Everquest
Everquest was an enormously revolutionary game because it was the first MMORPG to bring forward elements from both successful CRPGs and MUDs into a cohesive gaming experience. It was the first MMORPG that felt more like a game and less like a "social experiment". Everquest was a gigantic and rewarding world that successfully combined challenging combat with a necessity for social interaction. It's THE video game that defined MMORPGs as we see them today.
Everquest took the player out of the godlike perspective of UO and Balder's Gate and, by adding first person perspective, created a level of immersion that the no other RPG had yet achieved, either single or multiplayer. Its marketplace success spawned dozens of look-alike games and established the MMORPG as a genre in and of itself. No single player or non-massive multi-player RPG has come as close to defining the genre as EQ did. And no subsequent game has taken the genre to the "next level" in quite the same way. The "next level" seems as yet undefined.
Honorable Mention: Baldur's Gate II
I think playing an RPG game is like writing a book with an epic story. Baldur Gate II had a great story, great characters, great humour, great action, great mechanics (D&D 2ED), great graphics...
Baldur's Gate 2 allowed players to make decisions which will affect the outcome of the ending, allow a variety of party combinations which allow for multiple subplot quests, in effect - a near infinite number of variations when you play the game.
-Jarrod Loidl, Monash University
Honorable Mention: The Ultima Series
[Whether an unfortunate side-effect of having a decades-long legacy or testament to the parity of each of its volumes, no one entry in the Ultima series was nominated enough to make it to the top five, but likewise no other game in the Awards brought in the same level of meaningful responses. So though it will have to stay in the honorable mention category, it's clear that the series has left a deep and lasting impression on a generation of role-players.]
I've played role playing games since the early '80's, and the most innovative role playing game I can remember in all that time is Ultima III (for the Apple IIe). With its real-time animations, soundtrack, gripping storyline, and in-depth game experience, this game formula has been emulated countless times since. Find a role playing game that doesn't borrow from Ultima in any way... I dare you!
-Ethan Wilson, New Visions Enterprises
Any genre as nebulous as role-playing games is bound to incite some highly divisive claims when seeking to identify its lineage. The evolution of RPGs is not a straight line, but a tree with a truly bewildering amount of branches: tabletop, LARP, console vs. computer, action-RPGs, tactical RPGs, not to mention all the games from other genres that incorporate RPG elements. How does one classify the "definitive" works in a genre with so many definitions? The only hope is to find a common ancestor. Leaving aside D&D, which everyone knows is a satanic occult ritual and an affront to the civilized world anyway, the game with perhaps the most convincing claim is Ultima. Whether you were weaned on Final Fantasy or Fallout, Lord British's epic series remains the wellspring from which the others sprouted. In the interest of specificity, I'll cast my vote for Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Not only was it a landmark in the often tumultuous marriage of games and stories, it was also the first to introduce the revolutionary notion of ethical simulation that would become a staple of later games. In so doing, it elevated RPGs beyond the level of mere hack-and-slash and became a pinnacle not just of the series, but of the RPG genre and gaming as a whole.
-James Stevenson, 1st Playable Productions
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. It brought interactive morality into the foreground, where it ought to be.
-William Stepp, Eternal Eye Productions
The game I would have to vote for (which also happens to be my all-time favorite game) is Ultima V. I know many other people would probably single out Ultima IV from the series for introducing morality and consequences for your choices, and doing away with the "evil wizard taking over the land" cliche. But Ultima V is the first game I ever remember playing and feeling like it was a living, breathing world. Suddenly the pubs had tables and chairs and plates of food that could be eaten, the residents of each town all had daily schedules and homes with beds and mirrors, people had affiliations with and opinions on the two opposing factions - the Resistance and the Oppression, lit torches could be taken off the walls, your range of vision changed as the sun rose and set, and time held new significance as you were told to meet a member of the Resistance by the old well at midnight or as you discovered when and where to find the Shadowlords by observing the stars in the night sky. I think Ultima V marked a time when all the little details in RPG worlds began to be important - when setting and story started taking its place at the side of combat and other mechanics.
-Clarence Simpson, Vicious Cycle Software
Ultima V - The Ultima series allowed the player a level of freedom found only in a few games today. Through the origins of the series, the game had fits and starts where some ideas worked and others did not. By V, however, the central core of the game was completely worked out and many games today are 3D versions of this ground breaking title: Elder Scrolls comes to mind. Though other games at the time were similar, Bard's Tale for example, they did not have the scope of story and adventure, nor did they encompass so many technologies of the time.
-James Edwards, Microsoft
The Ultima series as a whole has made a number of significant quantum leaps throughout its history. It was probably the first game to moralize a character's actions and create accountability for the player's actions which directly affected the character. Ultima 6 created a world in which the items the player collected were actual physical entities, rather than just elements on a menu which affected numbers. Ultima 7 introduced a persistent, physically changeable world and further refined the Ultima series' non-linear storytelling methods. Ultimately I feel the Ultima games made the largest leap with Ultima 6, creating a world full of side quests, vignettes which had no effect on the plot but were interesting to participate in, the ability to change objects in the world, rather than just collect them, and reunited the graphical subgenre with the textual genre in quality of storytelling and depth of exploration.
-Tom Benda, Beefsteak Games
For me the game that made the biggest leap has to be Ultima 7 (+ pt 2). What I still find amazing is that, even over 15 years ago, it still managed to effortlessly accomplish what many RPGs are still trying today. It had a feature list that would look impressive in a AAA RPG of today: massive free-form seamless world, interesting characters and storyline, NPC with personality, real time combat, etc. None of this really describes how alive the world felt, though. In my opinion, no game since has gone as far in recreating a living, breathing world that appears to go on with or without the player around. In the game farmers would tend their fields, head to the tavern in the evening, perhaps attend a town meeting and then go home to bed; warriors would train; beggars would beg and then congregate together for warmth in the cold evenings; bakers would bake and mutter to themselves - occasionally opening windows for air and peasants would er... peas?
I'm going to hook everyone up with the answer key, clearly the answer is Ultima Online. Yes, there were MUDs and MUSHes but they were weak sauce compared to UO. UO was a pioneering game because it was the first real fantasy RPG MMO (with graphics) that people played and paid for and it introduced a lot of the mechanics that are still in these games today. One could make a case for Everquest as well since EQ's group mechanics form the basis of a lot of the continued success of the genre (witness World of Warcraft). I think that UO is still the true quantum leap and EQ is a mere 'leap' above that.
Ultima Underworld II
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds by Looking Glass Studios, because of the technology, the story, and the graphics. The technology was incredibly well-executed. You could actually jump, swim and look up and down in real-time first person view (in 1993) - which was perfected in UU2 compared to UU1: The Stygian Abyss. The story, where the evil Guardian locks Lord British, and his friends inside a huge sphere of blackrock gem, and where you as the Avatar must venture down through the sewers to find a way to defeat the guardian was excellent and very immersive. The graphics - especially the textures were very very detailed and beautiful for the time, and the music was... gaah! I could go on!
-Rasmus Harr, University of Copenhagen
5. Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger. It was the first CRPG to really do an elegant job of handling time travel, something which has yet to be repeated since.
-Ian Schreiber, Minerva Software
Chrono Trigger, the first game that gave you the choice to avoid fights. The first game that had multiple optional features including several endings. One of the best stories of all rpg games.
Chrono Trigger. It was successful in establishing an immersive and enjoyable game world, while limiting interruptions of gameplay through the use of seamless battle integration. It was also very innovative, as far as the battle system goes, through its use of combinations of Tech Attacks.
-Cory Hunt, Hantosoft
4. Deus Ex
Deus Ex's many paths and its roleplaying elements (character improvements...) were not just a boring listing of figures...
Deus Ex - while not strictly an RPG, it introduced elements of RPG into action games, and expanded upon what was previously thought possible of storytelling in a FPS.
-Richard Hughes, M7 Productions
3. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
I think Oblivion definitely should get the nod because you can do virtually anything in that game...and I do mean anything. My roommate stole a horse, was being chased by guards, eventually evaded them, and was getting attacked by wolves, accidently hit the horse and the horse attacked him until he had to kill it. He then ended up coming across a guard on horseback, lured him off and stole his horse, left it in the woods and came back 3 days later (in game) and it was still sitting right there. The fact that you can interact with every character is phenomenal...Over all it is one of the most immersive games I have ever played, (over 100+ hours and have barely even touched the main quest).
Elder Scrolls Oblivion -- not only is it the best RPG, but also is one of the best games ever. The graphics are probably the biggest quantum leap for an RPG. Most RPGs don't have cutting edge graphics and quality art like this game, and I don't consider cut scenes like in the Final Fantasy series as "game graphics," since they are pre-rendered. Other things that make this game great are the size of the world, the number of quests, and best of all the nearly perfectly balanced gameplay. I never felt like I was a professional exterminator, unlike other RPGs.
I wanted to say Phantasy Star 1, for honing the Japanese format and setting the standard for the next 20 years, but I have to tip my hat the the new generation. Oblivion allows the player to create their own story in a way that no other game has up to this point. It takes the ideas of the past and finally in one fell swoop, blends them into a near perfect experience. It is the biggest "quantum leap" to me because role playing games should allow the player to feel as if they are the star of their own amazing tale, and that the "role" you "play" is important and dynamic. Others have tried (including Morrowind), but Oblivion actaully pulled it off, raising the bar far above and beyond any other RPG experince. It challenges players, but more importantly, it throws down the gauntlet for the whole industry.
Oblivion has made the biggest quantam leap ever for an RPG. There has never been such a significant advance in gaming in one game. End of story.
I would say the Elder Scroll series. It took elements from classic games like Bard's Tale and Eye of the Beholder and blended them together into a fully 3d interactive environment. I loved Morrowind, but Oblivion takes the cake as the single BEST RPG i have ever played.
-Stefan Park, Gen-i Limited
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the first to implement the trifecta of role-playing games. 1) It was able to bypass on-screen text as the primary form of communication between game and player. 2) It was able to provide a truly open-ended and seemingly endless world of gameplay and, most importantly, 3) it achieved the very definition of what an RPG is: playing a role in an immersive and fantastic story. "Immersive" is the deciding factor. In Oblivion, you are always playing, never watching. Your actions are followed by believable consequences that ingeniusly results in an unprecedented quality of choice for the player. You play the game and sometimes the game plays you (anyone who killed a guard within the first few hours knows what I'm talking about). And it is the one true game that is successful in blurring the line between RPG fan and casual gamer because it succeeds in everything an RPG fan wants, and everything a non-RPG player didn't know they loved. This is unmatched by any other story-based RPG I have played. I'll never forget the first hour of playing it. I stole something, was caught, resisted arrest, somehow escaped and killed a guard, ran and hid on a docked ship, went to sleep only to wake up and discover the ship had been hijacked, saved the crew and returned to port. The absolute joy was none of it felt forced, repetitive, guided or scripted. Bravo, Bethesda, and thank you for making a believer out of this RPG pessimist.
-Matthew Allmer, Rendered Vision
2. Planescape: Torment
Planescape: Torment took the somewhat cumbersome structure of the dialogue tree and turned it into a tangled dodecohedron of wonder within the wierd. While in many ways it refined tropes and technology from the tradition of Baldur's Gate and Fallout, Torment's approach to storytelling transcends its form, providing characters that unveil through interaction like layers of an onion, and a setting just as mysterious and complex. Every named NPC would have some bizzare-psuedo quest to unleash, replete with brilliant writing and EXP. From a nation of undead haunted by cranium rats, to a brothel of intellectual lusts, to a pile of skulls in the first of nine hells, Torment's setting breathed with just as much character as its core NPCs. Whats most innovative about Torment, however, is its abondonment an empty vessel avatar for a layered, complex character identity the player could explore through play - though the Nameless One was something of an empty vessel on his own, one found. What can change the nature of a man? Great role-play design, thats what.
-Patrick Dugan, True Vacuum
I'm torn between Planescape: Torment and BG2: SoA. I would nominate Planescape: Torment; not only because it still represents the best-written and most engagingly populated role-playing game I've played to-date, but because it was one of the first adult role playing games ever made. By adult, I don't mean that it contained restricted or child-inappropriate content, I mean that it looked at important issues of morality, guilt, and atonement in a serious and "adult" way. Most previous games in the genre turned around the semi-sociopathic "kill stuff and sell their gear/bodyparts to get cash to buy more stuff while engaged in your never-ending quest to save your girlfriend/people/world."
-Adams Greenwood-Ericksen, Institute for Simulation and Training
Again I have to praise Planescape: Torment, for many reasons. Among them are the fact that it broke away from traditional subject matter, had an deep, involved storyline, and allowed players to solve puzzles in various ways including non-violent solutions.
-Meg Haufe, Sony Online Entertainment
It's gotta be Planescape: Torment. Why? Simple: ROLE PLAYING. Baldur's Gate 2 had "epic setting" nailed, the two Fallout games take the crown for non-linearity, Neverwinter Nights had its unmatched online implementation, System Shock 2 probably tops the "successful innovation" stakes... but for going back to basics and getting the most important thing in a single-player RPG - the writing - absolutely bang on, nothing else is in the same league. I guess it's something of a sad commentary on the genre as a whole that I'm considering that a "quantum leap", but there you go.
-Matthew Woodward, Cambridge University
Fallout, because it proved that gameplay and story can make a financially successful RPG in the age of the dawn of obsession with 3d graphics, because it proved that brand new gameplay mechanics (i.e. the SPECIAL system) can be far superior to existing D&D systems slavishly adhered to by less adventurous developers. In short, because it innovated in all the areas that make a game different from its counterparts and sold enough copies to warrant a sequel!
Fallout - this rpg really has everything a great rpg needs: incredibly robust player character development, not just combat skills; great original story and setting, not just another rpg with elves and orcs; a great turn based combat system for people who like to think, but yet has some of the most rewarding critical death animations that rival any game, not just rpgs; a rich world full of interesting npc characters, enemies and places; functional UI, and great character dialogue system; because the game was open ended and the character development was really deep, it is actually replayable more than 3 times.
-Anonymous, Electronic Arts
Fallout - simply because it was the first RPG that offered you realistic choices in a believable environment: YOU made the story and it looked REAL.
Fallout: the first open ended RPG, with a unique atmosphere, visual style, characters and plot. It allowed you to play whatever type of character you wanted-and is one of rare games truly deserving the title of a "Role-playing game".
Fallout, because of the quantity of possibilities it offered to the player : for the first time, you were really "role playing" ; I mean playing the role of someone else, in an whole graphically developped universe. The best video role-play experience ever, both in gaming design and in a technical point of view.
-Arnaud DAVID, SupInfoGame