Playing Roles: The Etymology of RPGs, Part 2

Published: May 21, 2015 1:00 PM /



(Read Part 1 Here)

It was December of 1987 when Japanese designer Hironobu Sakaguchi released what he believed would be his final game. Sakaguchi, working under the game company Square, was frustrated with Square's lack of direction and felt that focusing on something different for the popular Nintendo Famicom would help in revitalizing his passion for making games.

Sakaguchi came up with an idea, an RPG inspired by the likes of Dragon Quest from Enix, The Legend of Zelda from Nintendo, and the Ultima series from Origin’s. The game would be a free-forming RPG in the same vein as Dragon Quest, and for Sakaguchi, it would be his swan song if this game, named Final Fantasy, failed to impress audiences.

“The name ‘Final Fantasy’ was a display of my feeling that if this didn’t sell,” said Sakaguchi, “I was going to quit the games industry and go back to university. I’d have had to repeat a year, so I wouldn’t have had any friends – it really was a ‘final’ situation.”

Many publications have, over the years, attributed Final Fantasy as the swan song of Square at the time, as the company was selling games below expectations. This is, however, not completely true. Square had a very diverse catalogue of games, including Rad Racer and 3-D Battles of World Runner, and producing titles such as Kings Knight and Dragon Slayer for either personal computers or the Famicom. What is true, however, is that Final Fantasy would become synonymous with Square, their very own flagship franchise and would become the standards for their company years down the road.

Sakaguchi worked with a team of seven staff members to create Final Fantasy. Many of their names, such as Akitoshi Kawazu, Nobuo Uematsu and Yoshitika Amano, would become synonymous with the Final Fantasy series for their contributions to the games mechanics, music, and character design, respectively.

Final Fantasy was one of the first major “hybrid games” in role-playing, incorporating many elements from Western role-playing games into its design, while transforming them into something new: the use of character classes for customizing a party, enemy weaknesses to different elements, and multiple dungeons to traverse for treasures and high level boss fights.

What Sakaguchi and his team added were an overarching plot to their game, the emphasis on exploration through a massive overworld, a revamped menu-based combat system, and a level up mechanic that allowed players to track their characters progression with ease. These combined elements made Final Fantasy wholly distinct from the now growing role-playing game market in Japan, and would later become the gold standard for all subsequent role-playing games to follow, both East and West.

While role-playing games were thriving with new innovations in Japan, by the 1990’s, RPGs in the West were in heavy decline. Many titles imported for the consoles, like Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star and Secret of Mana became the new standard for role-playing games. Their use of in-depth storylines and character development, turn-based gameplay through menus, impressive graphics and impressive depth of gameplay elements all contributed to their popularity. All of these elements were the results of an evolution of Japanese role-playing design started by Dragon Quest and made popular by Final Fantasy, which arguably reached its zenith point in the year 2000.

Most western role-playing games were following the Wizardry style throughout the 1990’s, being primarily turn-based dungeon crawls over story-driven experiences. While stories and dialogue were present in many of these games, it was often a secondary part of the title before gameplay, being a linear experience with some instances of choice mixed in. After the release of Wizardry and Ultima in the early 1980’s, many Western role-playing games became the forefront of technological advances for computers, birthing what is sometimes known as the “CRPG," or computer role-playing game. There were very few attempts at making a console-based role-playing game at the time, with some rare exceptions such as Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600.

Most CRPG companies would be as well-known as the Japanese developers, including Interplay, New World Computing, and Strategic Simulations Inc., or SSI. While Ultima and Wizardry were still the top-selling game series on the market during the 1980s, several titles began to challenge both series for dominance. The Bards Tale, Might and Magic, and Pool of Radiance would see major success, offering their own spins on the genre and jump-starting several franchises in the process.

However, the biggest issue facing a lot of these games was stagnation. Pool of Radiance, for example, was the first major SSI 'Goldbox' title to not only use the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons license, but faithfully replicate the gameplay. Many, however, criticized how similar Pool of Radiance was to the competition. In an issue of Computer Gaming World dated from 1988, author Johnny Wilson, writing a preview for the title, noted the game brought a “sense of déjà vu ... The basic screen looks a lot like the CRPGs in our ‘Hall of Fame’ and in the top ten of our game listings.” Although this had no bearing on the gameplay improvements, which were lauded at the time, it does hint at the problem of many CRPGs being too similar to one another to be distinctive.

This led to the CRPG market becoming a decisively niche market. Few games attempted to break out of the mold founded by Ultima and Wizardry, often working within it by being a primarily turn-based dungeon crawls, or a top-down exploration titles. Many critics at the time saw anything less as being substandard or introductory to proper role-playing games. For example, Origin’s released an action role-playing game named Times of Lore, inspired by the overhead exploration found in console action-adventure games like the Legend of Zelda, or arcade RPGs such as Gauntlet. Many critics, however, took note of that when reviewing Times of Lore, calling it a “novice-level Fantasy role-playing game” or “a beginner's computer role-playing game,” regulating it to a secondary status compared to the bigger players by default.

During the early 1990s, there were some attempts to innovate the genre further. Quest for Glory incorporated role-playing mechanics into a point-and-click adventure game. Betrayal at Krondor, based on author Raymond Feist’s Midkemia setting, featured a turn-based, semi-tactical system coupled with pre-determined characters and a skill-based experience system. Legends of Valour was the first sandbox style role-playing game without a non-linear plot line and would later be named as one of the primary influences of the Elder Scroll's series.

All of the above games were criticized as role-playing games in the West upon release. Notable problems included a poor user interface, unusual gameplay mechanics, bad graphics or lack of depth found in most other CRPGs at the time. Essentially, they deviated too much from the winning formula. Even Quest for Glory was considered more of an adventure-game than a true RPG and much like Times of Lore, was relegated to “novice-level” status rather quickly.

This stagnation led to the major decline of the CRPG market. As reviewer Mark Walker put it, “During the now-infamous mid-nineties CRPG lull, the toughest dungeons were the bottomless pits of failed designs, and the fiercest beasts the deadly-dull CRPG releases.” Many issues stemmed from ballooning budgets for software development, longer development times, and heavy competition not only from other PC games, such as more fast-paced first-person-shooters and strategy titles. Tastes were also shifting to Japanese role-playing games, leaving many western RPGs with a shrinking audience. By 1997, Western RPGs were at their all time low.

This would change with a trio of games that would change the landscape once again, this time borrowing from less traditional sources. The first would be Blizzard’s Diablo, an action RPG that was heavily influenced by the roguelike Telengard from 1982. Eschewing the slower pace of a dungeon crawl, Diablo was quick and accessible, heavy on combat and action, and had a vibrant online community when it was released in 1996.

A year later, Interplay, with a new developer called Black Isle Studios, would release a game called Fallout. Based on a previous Interplay title called Wasteland, Fallout was set in a post-apocalyptic future ravaged by nuclear war. The game would feature an open, non-linear world, heavy emphasis on character interaction, turn-based tactical combat system, and distinct aesthetic presentation. All of this allowed Fallout to stand out and further revitalize the CRPG market with a fresh approach to the genre, both in terms of mechanics and presentation.

Fallout is sometimes named the first ‘modern’ CPRG, although that title is up for grabs with another influential game by the BioWare Corporation, Baldur’s Gate. An homage to the Goldbox SSI titles, mixed with several elements found from numerous sources across the board. BioWare at the time had a development team of sixty people who never had made a game before. In retrospect, former BioWare founder Ray Muzyka stated that the success of Baldur’s Gate can be attributed to a “collaborative design spirit” between their inexperienced team and publisher Interplay.

Baldur’s Gate would mark the return to prominence for the Dungeons & Dragons license in CRPGs and would be further influenced by several titles, both from the SSI Goldbox games, the Ultima series, and even Final Fantasy. Many major innovations would be the linear story arc; the numerous, recruitable characters with memorable character traits; the use of pause and play combat; and tons of PC interaction, leading to numerous side-quests in the process.

The revival of the CRPG market in the late 1990s would spawn into multiple genres for both consoles and the PC; we would see an increased number of roguelikes and real-time combat RPGs, the dawn of open-world, sandbox style role-playing games, and even turn-based games in the same vein as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. This was the spark that the Western RPG market needed to avoid poor design and stagnation.

Many of these features above are now often synonymous with Japanese role-playing games, but originally got their start in games like Baldur’s Gate. Other role-playing games developed in the West, such as Anachronox, Shadow Madness, or Septerra Core would faithfully emulate the Final Fantasy series, both in terms of progression and turn-based combat, whereas the Japanese have been creating less traditional “Japanese styled” RPGs for decades. Titles such as Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner and Chrono Trigger avoided some of the standards of what a Japanese role-playing game are by offering real-time combat, a semblance of non-linear progression, customizable parties, side-quests, and even multiple endings.

As shown here, the influence does indeed go both ways. Within the past five years, we have seen both Japanese and Western role-playing games blend together, formulating hybrid-styled games that are not fully pegged into one category or another. Titles like Dragon Age and The Witcher now mingle with Dark Souls and Xenoblade Chronicles in more than just shelf space, as each of them has a distinct style and are inspired by mechanics from several sources, both Japanese and Western. As Jeremy Parish of 1-Up puts it, “To me, [games like] Xenoblade throws into high relief the sheer artificiality of the gaming community's obsession over the differences between 'WRPGs' and 'JRPGs.' ... Gamers do love their boundaries and barriers and neat little rules, I know, but just because you cram something into a little box doesn't mean it belongs there."

Others, such as Rowan Kaiser of Joystiq, have pointed out how the categorization of “JRPG“ and “WRPG“ have been problematic for a long time. “Games like Betrayal At Krondor and Lands Of Lore proved back in the 1990s, and games like Dragon Age demonstrate today, the supposed inherent structural differences between Eastern and Western role-playing games are dramatically overstated, and always have been,” said Kaiser. He also attributes the divide to a different source all together, stating that “Conventional wisdom holds that role-playing games are easily divided into two categories: Japanese and Western, or, before the technical lines got blurred a decade ago, console and computer games.”

In the modern day, role-playing games now have tapped into so many forms and design philosophies, such blanket terms to categorize them further do not play. The question asked last week is what do these labels really tell us? The answer, I would argue, is not so much.

While aesthetic design, story beats and presentation, and even subject matter and context of these games are important factors in any RPG title, they are not enough to fully categorize a game as a “WRPG” or “JRPG.” And with one of the major aspects of role-playing games being their inherent mechanics, be it based on pen-and-paper games or an entirely unique system, the genres are so diverse that attempting to categorize games with them leads us to artificially stereotyping games further, when it may be a consequence that is not warranted in the first place.

For me, the true value of deciding what type of RPG you like would fall under the specifics of their mechanics. Do you prefer a turn-based RPG or real-time RPG? How about an action-RPG, or a rogue like? Do you want to experience a tactical-RPG, or would you prefer a story-based RPG? For years, we have used these terms to categorize the sub-genres of many role-playing games, and for years these terms have been the basic tool for determining the mechanical tastes of role-playing fans worldwide. You learn more about the basic mechanics and setup of an RPG if you call it an action-RPG over a JPRG, for example, as it tells you what type of game you are really playing, instead of a blanket term that can include mechanics you are not a fan of.

If nothing else, it is food for thought that we live in a time where role-playing games have become one of the most dominant forces in video games. Role-playing games are taking on new designs yearly, adapting and evolving their mechanics beyond their definitive roots from the early 1980s, even challenging players for what qualifies as a role-playing game. No longer just the stereotypes of the dungeon crawl or the turn-based simplicity found on computers and consoles respectively, RPGs have grown beyond the stereotypes found in the “WRPG” or “JRPG” categories, and that is a good thing for the growth of this genre.

Thank you for checking out Playing Roles. Look out for more articles about RPGs in the future here on Techraptor. If you have any comments or questions, 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