Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Are CRPGs dead or dying?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 4, 2017

TLDR Version: Are you kidding me? We’re in the new golden age of computer role-playing games, my friends! There’s never been a better time to strap on a digital sword (or laser gun) and enjoy some dungeon-delving fun on your PC. You just have to know where to look.

Full Version: I was one of the mournful folks back in the early 2000s complaining about the lack of good Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs). They didn’t make ’em like they used to, most western RPGs were Diablo clones or otherwise an action-video game with some RPG elements. The giants of the last two decades who had made all those wonderful CRPGs of yore had disappeared in all but name… SSI, Origin, New World Computing, Sir-Tech, etc. And the JRPGs that made it to North America were often … Pablum. Uninspired, unexciting. It seemed that most of the CRPG creativity was going into Massively Multiplayer Online games… which were fun in their own way, but in many ways removed from the kind of experience I craved. The biggest problem came down to the simple fact that CRPGs are among the more difficult and expensive games to produce, and with the ever-rising budgets of the mainstream game companies, they had to be overly conservative in their designs or risk catastrophic failure. It felt like we’d reached… well, not an evolutionary dead-end, but certainly one that wasn’t bearing much exciting fruit.

I looked back wistfully on the “golden age” of PC role-playing games, from the late 80s until the early 90s. Oh, man, back then it seemed there were so many amazing computer RPGs coming out each year that I couldn’t afford either the time or the money to play them – and back then, I had a lot more time! But that era was done, the modern pickings were slim, and they just didn’t make ’em like they used to.

It was such a problem that I wanted to do something about it, since the whole “indie” thing looked like it had potential. I was far from alone, and far more talented folks than me jumped in to address the same problem. Times got really amazing. A lot of the games borrowed heavily from the “retro” designs of old… maybe too much, in some cases, especially with the plethora of RPG Maker titles that were hard to distinguish from each other. Quality ran all over the board, but on the indie front, the CRPG genre exploded. Like crazy.

And it kept going. Still. And the really, really cool thing is that they were successful enough for some of the bigger studios – mid-level and even larger – to take notice. Which brings us to today, where we have some really high-end, AAA RPGs that are often pretty good, if few in number. Then you have sort of a mid-tier games, with budgets generally in the high six to seven figures. Then you have the tons of indie titles, which range from slick, polished, and commercial, all the way to some high school kid’s first efforts with GameMaker Studio or RPG Maker.

Yet I often hear some people wondering if the genre is dead or dying. Maybe it’s mostly hard-core Call of Duty players who honestly haven’t had role-playing games on their radar. Or maybe they are casual or lapsed gamers who are genuinely interested in playing some classic computer-role-playing games like they played when they were younger, and have no idea if people even make ’em like they used to. Ten or fifteen years ago, the answer to that question would have been, “Not so much,” and I might wonder if the genre is dead or dying myself. But today, things have drastically changed.

What’s Out There?

I mean… let’s look at just the last three or four years. On the big-name, big-budget side of things, I have to say things are looking up.  The reinvention of Fallout has been a major success, Dragon Age and Mass Effect have been worthy entries, Deus Ex has continued, and we have some new(ish) titles like the Risen and Dark Souls. And we’re seeing games like the Final Fantasy series and Valkyria Chronicles brought over to PCs in North America. We even got an RPG set in the South Park universe! And yeah, the games like Borderlands which are pretty hybrid.

If I was only looking at the mainstream side of things, I’d say things are improving. Not great, but improving. (I left out one major title here… well, probably a lot… that I’ll get to in a second). Compared to something like 2003, that’s an improvement, albeit a limited one. I’d still be mourning the loss of great gameplay and the styles of RPGs of the old days that I loved. The new stuff is cool and lots of fun, but doesn’t quite scratch the itch.

Well, then we’ve got a “mid-tier” which has taken cues from the success of lower-end indies and have made some really spectacular stuff that exactly scratches the itch. This is a fuzzy definition, but in my mind it includes games being made for budgets in the upper-hundreds of thousands to the low millions. These range from publisher-funded studios making games on a lower budget (like the sadly not-successful-enough return to the Might & Magic RPGs, Might & Magic X: Legacy), to the crowdfunded darlings like Wasteland, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun, Bard’s Tale, Underworld Ascendant, Grim Dawn, and Divinity: Original Sin, to games that are more on the self-funded or funded via investment capital like the Torchlight and Legend of Grimrock series, to moderate-budget Japanese imports that are getting localized for North America.

And then there’s The Witcher, which started as kind of a mid-tier indie game by some guys with a couple of licenses and a low overhead, and launched a series (soon to be two series, I hope, if Cyberpunk 2077 is hugely successful) that was all-the-way AAA, with the latest already being considered a classic.

These games are increasingly visible to mainstream gamers, and from this perspective… just the “middle tier” on up…  my 2003 self would be dancing on air. Life is good, and CRPGs are BACK, baby. Back from the brink, back to being awesome (and often profitable), and back to covering a wide style of gameplay that RPGs have always been known for. (And yes, we were playing action-RPGs on our Apple IIs back in the day, right alongside the text-heavy turn-based titles).

The Indies Dwarf Them All

But even taking that wide variety and tremendous quantity of titles out now, that hardly scratches the surface anymore. No, we’ve got tons and tons of indie titles that are well under the half-million-budget mark. Probably – I don’t know the actual budget, and the accounting for donated time and everything probably gets so weird the creators themselves aren’t really sure what the budget really was. While there’s tons of absolute crap in that category, there are some really fantastic titles there that I hesitate calling out even a few here, because trying to be anywhere close to fair about it would turn this into a list of a hundred titles. Anything by Iron Tower, Basilisk, Soldak, and Spiderweb is solid, and games like Darkest Dungeon, Underrail, UndertaleTales of Maj’Eyal, and Stardew Valley have garnered some real success and critical acclaim. But those aren’t even the indie RPGs I’m enjoying right now.

Again, the list can go waaay on. If I was playing these games full-time, I wouldn’t be able to play all of the RPGs coming out for the PC in one year in that year (or, if I tried to play to some semblance of completion, in the next three years). Many of the ones that might not be break-out hits are still fun and enjoyable. And again, they run the full spectrum from text-based Roguelikes, to action-RPGs, to games reminiscent of the 16-bit jRPG style, to party-based turn-based dungeon crawlers, to survival RPGs, to some stuff that I really don’t know how the heck to classify them because they are weird and innovative as all get-out. All tastes, all levels of quality… it’s a wild time on the indie side.

The Indie-Era Advantage

One cool thing is that these indie budgets are often not too far off from the budgets of the “mainstream” RPG titles of yesteryear. With the newer technology, access to cheap game engines and off-the-shelf components, and quality modern tools, indies can make games for the same price that are superior in technical ways. Superior in game design…? Well, that’s another story. But sometimes, the answer is yes. Or at least that they are comparable. Sometimes those old classics aren’t really as great as we give them credit for (but we love them anyway).

And better yet: Games are cheaper than they’ve ever been (adjusting for inflation). With price pressure from indies on sites like itch.io, the great sales and discount pricing on places like Steam and GOG.COM (not to mention their huge library of classic games tweaked to run on modern systems), and astonishing bundle deals from places like Humble Bundle, Bundle Stars, it’s pretty easy to build a huge library of games for relatively cheap, including discounted mainstream titles.

If you are a fan of these games, then you probably already knew much of this. But if you are one of those folks who are just curious as to the state of the genre, I hope I’ve been able to answer things. In my view, the “golden age” of RPGs is NOW.  Enjoy it while it lasts… and I hope it lasts for a good, long time!

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Infinitron said,

    Is this a reference to that YouTube video recently posted about on GameBanshee? It’s a bizarre thing to ask in 2017.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That was the most recent one, yeah. He’s hearing it, and then I’ve caught a couple of threads elsewhere over the last several months – one that I know was really more of a lapsed gamer trying to get back into games and wondering why nobody made RPGs like the old style anymore (feeling like he was too old to keep up with the popular mainstream action-RPGs)

  • McTeddy said,

    I remember having those conversations with you all those years back about how RPGs were dead.

    I never believed there would such a comeback of old school RPGs and fantastic evolution. It’s weird to see that the market has opened up to smaller developers and allowed niche genres to explode.

    I’m excited to play so many games now… but I don’t have time to play any of them!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    LOL, McTeddy! We’ve been in the same boat for a long time, haven’t we? 🙂

    Yeah, those are my two points of contrast. 1994, after a bunch of the big hitters from previous eras went bust or quit producing (as much), and then again around 2003. It wasn’t like RPGs had disappeared (I think in 2003 I was happily still playing Neverwinter Nights… all the great mods!), but it still felt like things had contracted.

    And now… Shadowrun, Bard’s Tale, Ultima Underworld, and Wasteland all have new games out or forthcoming in their series, Divinity: Original Sin is about the closest I’ve felt to playing Ultima 7 again, grid-based first-person dungeon crawlers are “a thing” again… I feel like a starving man who has just been invited to a twelve-day feast and he can’t possibly sample everything!

  • The Old Farmer said,

    As an old gamer (51) I have to agree 100% with this it is now a feast for the RPG gamer like never before. SOOOO many games and not enough time.
    I have to ask the final pic in your set with the pig head what game is that from?

  • Koolz said,

    you forgot to mention how Zionist Jewish Agenda has been brought into games the LGBT crowd.

    Also Final Fantasy is dead….That company is just gone off on their own view of what Final Fantasy is.

    I was pretty blown away by Divinity Original Sin Enhanced.
    I put 220 hours in it. It was pretty amazing achievement for that company.

    Witcher series is always a classic.

    I think a lot can happen with Rpgs now. You have all these people all these creative ideas that can be brought into a game and sold on steam.

    Of course to be honest the music always sucks. Horrible mixing, horrible orchestration, poor use of Sound Stage Placement, and I could go on.

    But still a lot of people have been able to see there visions come to life.

    I think the first RPG I played was the Ultima Series on Commodore 64. I remember my friend got an amiga and we were just blown away by it. But I stll went back to Ultima, I skipped school to play Ultima V all day! Ahh Memories!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @The Old Farmer – that’s from Fall of the Dungeon Guardians. I haven’t played much of it, but it’s on my “now playing” list.

  • The Old Farmer said,

    Thanks for the info I will check it out, and keep up the great work with your blog, always an interesting read.

  • Bring a Friend to Hyboria, Faerûn, the Northern Realms, or Post-Apocalyptic Earth said,

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