Playing Roles: The Etymology of RPGs, Part 1

Published: May 15, 2015 9:00 AM /



To quote from my previous article on Rogue Galaxy:

“Even as early as 2005, fans in the “JRPG” and “WRPG” debate have pitched their wagons, arguing over tonal, mechanic, even artistic differences between the two labels, in the process categorizing hundreds of games between them based upon these arbitrary listings. Today we see forum debates constantly bringing up this debate all the time, yet due to this stigma behind both "categories," many games tend to suffer from it, especially through the misconceptions, or assumptions, of their design.

If only there was a way to explain why? To maybe get some points across on all of these different subgenres, issues and discussions on role-playing games…”

The debate between these two supposed genres of games is a long one, and frankly not something people want to hear. Go to any forum or you tube video, and you will see hundreds of debates on the validity of these styles of games, circulating through a laundry list of pros and cons to support their personal conclusions.

Yet, what do the terms really tell us? The biggest problems with such terminology is how misleading it can be, the assumptions of a game being made in a certain country notwithstanding. Many tend to cite graphical aesthetics, story and presentation, even battle mechanics as the primary differences between a Japanese and Western role-playing game.

Typical JRPG tropes often cited are turn-based combat mechanics, a storyline with linear plot progression, oftentimes party-based mechanics with pre-rendered characters that deal with personal relationships to show characterization, and simpler user interfaces. Whereas, a WRPG is often employ real-time combat mechanics based on tabletop games, customizable protagonists, and often a fantastical setting that relies heavily on European folklore and literature, such as J.R.R. Tolkien. This is not a specific definition, however, as both terms are fairly broad in what people encompass as role-playing tropes.

Even now more and more games have begun to mesh styles together in creating a hybridization of gameplay mechanics which are much more common than people realize. For example, By the early 2000’s, most role-playing video games created outside of Japan were gaining in popularity through the imitation of some mechanics and aspects from Japanese games. Emphasis on a deeper plot was very rare for most western made role-playing games, with notable exceptions such as the Ultima series and Wasteland.

Early role-playing games often built upon each other in mechanics and style, despite being primarily dungeon crawlers.
Early role-playing games often built upon each other in mechanics and style, despite being primarily dungeon crawlers. Here is a flow chart showing some of the earliest video game RPGs ever made, from CPRG Addict.

Companies such as BioWare, Black Isle, Troika and Bethesda however were the first western companies to build games with more nuanced plot-lines instead of the standard “dungeon-crawl” style typically seen, while using tabletop dice rolling in the background. Thrown into the mix are linear story-lines, often presented in semi-linear progression, essentially, an illusion of choice within the game parameters. Games such as Fallout and Baldur’s Gate are often credited as being quintessential computer role-playing games, however they were among the first to mix a large world with a linear plotline, a trait often seen in many early Final Fantasy games.

Even years later, BioWare and Bethesda have more or less eschewed typical tabletop-roleplaying mechanics for customized systems not based on Dungeons and Dragons of GURPS. Both companies have been joined by other custom RPG systems found in games like The Witcher series by CD Projekt Red. This facet of their design, including the focus on interpersonal relationships, semi-linear, cinematic storytelling, and the removal of “hard numbers” in favor of customization makes the games by these companies more in line with the stereotypical mechanics touted for JRPGs, despite being labeled the contrary.

This does, however, go both ways. The Japanese role playing market was directly influenced by Western games based upon tabletop role-playing mechanics. Some of the earliest, successful role-playing video games included Akalabeth: World of Doom by Sir Richard Garriott, and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, by Sir-Tech Software. Both would be dungeon crawlers, turn-based, first person role-playing games which had a party-based paradigm and used modified Dungeons and Dragons rules in their mechanics. Other games came before it, such as Oubliette, Moria and Avatar, but were not commercial successes.

So as you can see, it would not be stretch to argue that the base mechanics found in most role-playing games are, in fact, fluid enough to not be tied down to such labels. Ignoring the stereotypes of battle mechanics, presentation of aesthetics or even character development, role-playing games is much more diverse than the East vs. West label implies.

The heart of the matter should be the etymology of what RPG actually means, not the initialism first created in the late 1990s. A “role-playing game” is a difficult term to really even define, let alone describe in this case; as I stated in my review of Pillars of Eternity, it really does depend on your preferences. We can talk about visual style, story construction and even societal differences between the East and the West, but most of this becomes irrelevant to their base mechanics, where many core differences come from.

Instead, it may better to dissect the origin’s of role-playing game mechanics first, and see where these terms actually came from. As stated earlier games like Wizardry and Akalabeth were first released on Apple II computers in the early 1980’s. Both titles were turn-based dungeon crawlers heavily influenced by pen and paper role-playing games, and were extremely popular with audiences with home computers at the time in the West.

The Japanese, however, would not see their “first” role-playing game for home computers until a game called The Black Onyx, which was released in 1984 for the NEC PC-8801. The Black Onyx was developed by Henk Rogers, a Dutch-American living in Japan, who took elements of the Wizardry titles and created a Japanese language-styled dungeon crawl. The game so popular in Japan, it was awarded “Game of The Year” by Login magazine, the largest Japanese computer magazine at the time.

Many role-playing games were first released on home computers in Japan. Unlike the United States at the time, Japan had a very diverse PC market that emerged from the late 1970s. The NEC PC-8801 is often credited as the first major 8-bit computer in Japan, and became the platform of choice after it’s release in 1981. It faced stiff competition, however, from old and new PC models from NEC, as well as the Sharp X1, the Fujutsu FM-7, and the MSX brands, which all took shares of the gaming landscape at the time.

Most Japanese RPGs prior to The Black Onyx were considered text-adventures in terms of their structure. PC’s in Japan had higher display resolutions to allow the reading of Japanese text with ease, which in turn made text-adventures extremely popular. Many well known Japanese companies, such Enix, Nihon Falcom and Square also started with text-based adventure titles on personal PC’s. Some of the earliest adventure titles that had “RPG elements” in them included The Dragon and the Princess and Bokosuka Wars. These elements were basic, but included some of the first iterations of random encounters, strategy-game elements, and action oriented combat mixed with adventure game progression.

The Black Onyx would open the floodgates for many followers. In the same year, games such as Dragon Slayer, The Tower of Druaga, and Hydlide would be well received in Japan, and are often credited for the further development of the role-playing game genre. While role-playing games would thrive on the computer markets in Japan, just as they did in the West, outside of this niche no role-playing games existed. Many would eventually see ports made in the latter half of the 1980’s, but RPGs remained a very small market, despite it’s grow in popularity. One title, however, would change this, and that is the game Dragon Quest, by designer Yuji Horii.

Horii began working in the industry in the early 1980’s, working with the company Enix on several text-adventure titles. One of the most well known, games Horii worked on was The Portopia Serial Murder Case, a text adventure which Horii and fellow designer, Koichi Nakamura, would design from the ground up. It was during the development of Portopia where both men would be exposed to Wizardry at a Macworld Conference & Expo. They were so impressed by the game, they incorporated dungeon crawl sections in Portopia as a part of their design.

Both men believed that home consoles would be a good medium to introduce a role-playing game in the vein of Wizardry, especially after the runaway success of the Famicom system in Japan by Nintendo. Horii, however, felt that most role-playing games being made in Japan had too niche of an appeal. “At the time I first made Dragon Quest, computer and video game RPGs were still very much in the realm of hardcore fans and not very accessible to other players,” he stated in an interview in Nintendo Power. “So I decided to create a system that was easy to understand and emotionally involving, and then placed my story within that framework.” The goal was to make role-playing games accessible to wider audiences, as most RPG fans were computer players in Japan.

To compensate for the lack of memory and power on the Famicom, Horii and Nakamura would take specific elements of games such as Wizardry and Ultima and formulate a new gameplay system around it instead of outright copying the tabletop inspired mechanics. Creating accessible menus and a customized level up scheme, Horii’s changes to the standards found in RPGs at the time were highly influential for their innovations to the genre. So much so, when a port of Wizardry was released a year later on the Famicom, they borrowed the menu and inventory system found in Dragon Quest to make the game accessible.

Drawing further inspiration from Portopia, Horii would incorporate a narrative into the game, using an adventure game interface. This would allow players to talk and search commands, which would be utilized to advance in the game. This also gave the world of Dragon Quest more detail compared to dungeon-crawls like Wizardry, which focused primarily on the battle mechanics with a storyline found in the game manual.

Needless to say, Dragon Quest became a major success not only on the Famicom, but on personal computers in Japan. Released in May of 1986, Dragon Quest would go on to sell over 2 million copies, and would be the first role-playing game for home consoles. It is, however, not the most popular, including it’s eventual release as Dragon Warrior in the West. It would be another game that would achieve great popularity in both the East and the West, a game that was believed to be the final title of a struggling game company…

To be Concluded

*Authors Note: For some reason, the two video links were dead for a few hours. This article was edited to fix the video links. They should be working fine now. Sorry about that. 

Well guys, thank you for checking out my new editorial series, Playing Roles. It will be a bi-weekly series that discusses role-playing games, ideas, genres and sub-genres, and will also encompass reviews of role-playing games, both old and new.  Thank you for also putting up with me splitting this one in half, next time, we will swing the pendulum the other way, and talk about what Japanese games influenced in the West. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below! 

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| Staff Writer

A longtime player of games, creator of worlds, and teacher of minds. Robert has worked many positions over the years, from college professor to education… More about Robert