I was just slightly too young to enjoy the height of the computer RPG. Throughout the 80s and 90s, text-heavy, often turn-based computer role-playing games were booming, but by the time I played some the classics of the form - Planescape: Torment, Fallout, Baldur’s Gate - they were already a decade or more old. (I loved them anyway. Those games didn’t age like their contemporaries did. Good stories, good RPG systems and turn-based combat never really age.)
By the time I was in my late teens, RPGs were graphically intensive and often action-based. We’d had Oblivion, Dragon Age, the later Final Fantasies. Bethesda’s new Fallout 3 was on the horizon, and it really couldn’t have been further removed from the originals in technical ambition. In the years inbetween, the MMO had taken over. Nobody was making old-school CRPGs, with their walls of text and their complicated inventory screens and their simulated dice-rolls. I felt like I’d missed out on the glory days of a genre that I adored.
But the CRPG is back, with a vengeance. Divinity: Original Sin, a crowd-funded follow-up to Larian Studios’ older RPGs, has sold 500,000 units since it came out in June. “So much for turn-based fantasy RPGs not selling, crowdfunding not working and a developer like us not being capable of bringing a game to market without the help of seasoned publishers,” said studio head Sven Vincke in a recent blog post. Today, Wasteland 2 is out - another massive Kickstarter success, and a sequel to one of the pioneering CRPGs of the 80s. I expect it to consume much of the rest of my year. Pillars of Eternity is well on its way to completion. There are plenty more in development, most of them funded by the people who loved them first time around.
One of the most prolific RPG-making studios of the 80s and early 90s, Strategic Simulations, Inc, has recently been sort-of reborn as Tactical Simulations Interactive, whose recently-announced Seven Dragon Saga aims to be a modern successor to the Gold Box-engine RPGs, which were Dungeons and Dragons-based games released by SSI between 1988 and 1993. It’s being designed by Keith Brors and David Shelley, both of whom were at SSI during the height of its success.
“Back in the SSI days and it was a very dynamic time, and I was happy to get the opportunity to work on a number of the different products,” says Shelley. “I got into design especially with the Gold Box games... From there, I moved up in the whole RPG side of SSI. I became the head of the scripting department when we had multiple RPG titles, so it was an exciting time. I’ve had a few opportunities to sort of work in the RPG realm since - I was working on an MMO with David Perry over at Acclaim a few years ago.”
Larian's Divinity: Original Sin.
TSI’s President David Klein reached out to Shelley when he was founding the company, hoping to bring on board established RPG talent to make something new. “I was really encouraged by the success of some of the great games that are getting made...the times have changed a little bit, right?” he says. “There are opportunities for digital distribution, there’s some terrific middleware that allows you to take an engine off the shelf–things that weren’t present even five years ago.”
It’s these changes that have enabled the return of the CRPG: digital distribution, crowd-funding, tools, the diminishing importance of publishers when it comes to getting a game in people’s hands. Seven Dragon Saga isn’t going the crowdfunding route, but it will doubtless benefit from the revitalising effect that games like Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin are having on the old-school role-playing game. But given that both those games were crowd-funded, I wonder whether the audience for the CRPG is almost entirely people who played things like Baldur’s Gate or the old Dungeons and Dragons games 20 or even 30 years ago, and who miss them. Are modern CRPGs bringing in a new, younger audience, too?
“I think it’s a combination of both,” Shelley reckons. “If people’s first experiences were with the classic games they’re certainly going think of a lot of the aspects of them in a positive light. At the same time, with the advent of the new technologies and new distributions, it’s easier to put something in the same style out again and bring it forward to a new generation. Obviously, art cost has somewhat gone up from the little pixel-pushing days, but it gives us a chance to create much better experiences. We don’t have the memory limitations that we had back in the day, so you can approach the same classic style in a different way that makes it interesting, I think, to even a much younger audience who didn’t have the chance to experience those early games.”
Menus! Such glorious menus!
Seven Dragon Saga itself might be old-school in its sensibilities, but it’s intended to be decidedly un-cliched in its execution: we’re not talking about playing as powerless a farm-boy starting out with a rusty sword and amnesia. The protagonists already hold a lot of power, right from the beginning of the game.
“We’re placing the player at the start as representatives of the empire – which is the power in this world – going to a remote kingdom that’s been recently subdued,” Shelley explains. “So the player is the potentially the bull in the china shop. They have the power of the empire behind them. They can through the storyline and the social side of the gameplay and go, ‘I want this, you’re going to do that,’ and not care about the results, and that’s going to alter the way that the player is going to end up interacting with the world. The main balance of the storyline is going to be that ability to choose whether or not you want to become part of the society that’s there, or stomp on it from above, or try to upend it.”
In its turn-based combat, like Divinity: Original Sin, Seven Dragon Saga will embrace choice, chaos and possibilities, Shelley says. “There will be a range of magic each with its own flavor to it. You can use stealth - there’s certain classes which can effectively become invisible to a majority of enemies and that can either be used to bypass some combat or set up your battle so that you have tactical advantage at the start, or simply cause a lot of mayhem as they suddenly appear in the ranks of the enemy. With melee you have the standard combinations of two weapons combat, weapon and shield, two-handed weapons, and then a variety of ranged combat.
“Certain classes will have a leap ability or they can jump up into higher positions to get bonuses to accuracy or to avoid being caught up in melee. There’ll be certain terrain that’s destructible, allowing the player to clear away enemy cover and use debris to create areas of difficult terrain. There will be regions where you can alter the terrain buildably by destroying the right object, and so it changes the tactical complexity of the game.”
Concept art for Wasteland 2.
Seven Dragon Saga won’t be out until 2016. There will be a lot of other CRPGs out between now and then - we’ve gone from having almost none for years to having turning up at once like idiomatic buses. Will the resurgence have petered out by then? Is TSI worried about all the competition in the meantime?
“I actually consider that encouraging because it feeds the interest in that genre, “ says Shelley. “Obviously if five games were to come out the same day, I’d have significant concerns simply because we’d get lost in the noise, but I see it as a steady growth of one game coming out after the other and, I don’t know who will be there [with us] in Q1 2016 but I think that a successful game like a Wasteland 2 or Pillars of Eternity, or any of the others will simply grow our potential audience through exposure.”
I hope he’s right. I do love a good fantasy setting, but the great strength of the computer RPG is that it can take you anywhere. I want to play more science-fiction stories, dystopian stories, even modern-world stories told through beautiful words and turn-based encounters. If the CRPG reaches critical mass again, who knows what we might see.