Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

So Maybe You Can’t Sell a Million Turn-Based RPGs Anymore, But…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 26, 2010

I really do admire the CDProjekt guys, and their attitude overall towards RPGs, even though they are going even more action-oriented. I was going to come up with an awesome retort, though, to Tomasz Gop’s recent Eurogamer interview, where he explained their rationale. And amusingly ribs Mass Effect a little.

So I was gonna say something like the above title, and prove myself wrong by looking up Persona 4‘s numbers. I mean, surely, world-wide, this quirky, off-beat RPG with turn-based combat sold a million copies worldwide? Woops. Nope. Only 110,000 copies sold in North America – beneath expectations.  It did substantially better in Japan, selling 300,000 copies. But still – that’s less than a half-million total copies.

Very few PC RPGs ever broke a million sales, and I think they’ve all been action-RPGs. The Witcher, Diablo I and II, Dungeon Lords (surprisingly), Dungeon Siege, etc. Gop also talks about their console direction, and makes the very straightforward point that it simply makes business sense. Although the PC sells smaller numbers, the profit margins are traditionally higher, and digital downloads push them higher still. But still… if you figure 100,000 sales is all you are going to make, that’s still a pretty small budget these days.  Maybe enough for a dozen full-time people to work on the game for a couple of years.

So unless some genius figures out how to make AAA quality games for 1/10th of the price, or some surprise niche turn-based RPG comes out of left field and sells millions of units and changes everybody’s math, I don’t think holding one’s breath waiting for a revival of AAA-quality western-style turn-based RPGs is a wise move.  Even the jRPGs are moving in the action-based direction.

So for those who like the more cerebral pace, it’s really going to have to come from the indies. That should come as a shock to nobody, right? The big question is, I suppose, is what’s possible now? Back in 1990, you could throw fifteen man-years at a game and get something like Ultima Underworld or Might & Magic 3: Isles of Terra, and have a reasonable expectation of breaking even.  I think for indies today, it’s more like three.

On the plus side, we have digital distribution, alternative advertising methods, and much better tools and technology to work with. But on the downside, we’ve got major downward price pressure in spite of two decades of declining dollar value, plus a much more crowded playing field that makes it challenging to even give away a game at those levels.

It’s a challenge I’m glad to see the indies tackling. With higher-profile upcoming indie games like Avadon: The Black Fortress (Spiderweb), Age of Decadence (Iron Tower), Eschalon: Book 3 (Basilisk), and Dead State (Doublebear) – plus many others on the horizon – I think the near future is bright for those stalwarts who crave some western-style turn-based CRPG goodness. If there’s a chance of that style of game to make something of a resurgence and push the boundaries of what is commercially viable for what has now become a “niche” subgenre, this is a good one.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • Celso Riva said,

    I’m making a turnbased CRPG too, but as a player indeed I prefer playing action/real-time oriented too… :/

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I enjoy both, though I tend to give deference to the turn-based variety. I note with irony that my two favorite RPGs were actually real-time / action (Ultima 7 and Baldur’s Gate 2).

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I do love a good turn-based game.

    It is a shame that the method is now widely derided as being slow, old-fashioned and unrealistic.

    Even the JA2 remake is being made in real time now…

    I am truly thankful for all indie studios, and I will continue to support them as best I can, but sometimes I do wish my preferred types of game weren’t so niche.

    I’d like to bring up this part though:

    “if you figure 100,000 sales is all you are going to make, that’s still a pretty small budget these days. Maybe enough for a dozen full-time people to work on the game for a couple of years.”

    This is what I would like to see… it would remind me of the likes of Origin, Sierra, Westwood, Bullfrog etc. (in their earlier days at least).

    Are there many medium sized indies? Or does it move from the 1-3 person indie to the 25+ people for a publisher-attached developer?

  • Mark said,

    Turn-based still survives on handhelds.

  • Greg Tedder said,

    I liked Dungeon Lords! Of course I am a bit of a DW Bradley fan. It felt like an adventure, and I got to constantly edit stats. Win win!!! 🙂

    I like turn based because it makes party based PRG’s reasonably possible. I have played several real time party based, and RTS/RPG combos, but the fun is lost on clutsy controls, odd “help you out” AI, and the fact that it is impossible to pinpoint for each character where they need to improve both in stats and in tactics.

    I enjoy action RPG’s too, but the most important factor for me in a real time is smooth control. Divine Divinity is a lot of fun, but very frustrating to play due to the glitchy behavior. Same goes for Sacred and many others. This is why I typically still play either Diablo 2, Fate, or Depths of Peril. Hats off to Depths, it came together really well.

  • sascha/hdrs said,

    I prefer turn-based, though the optimal turn-based practice would probably as it is in games like Baldur’s Gate where you have combat in “turn-based realtime” (every actor does it’s turn automatically) but you can pause it anytime and make decisions without hurry. But then again Dragon Age and Mass Effect do probably the same so I’m not really sure right now where the soft spot lies between the two worlds.

  • Juuso said,

    Didn’t much like Fallout 3’s mix of turnbased/realtime thing. I’d have wanted it to be Fallout 1/2 style.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    Mass Effect is a shooter. So there’s no turn based aspect to the combat. Dragon Age doesn’t have turns as each action takes a certain amount of time and executes as soon as the previous action has finished. But you can pause to assign the actions so it feels a lot like playing their earlier turn-based games.

    Baldur’s Gate (and the other infinity engine games) do actual turns – you could use the options to get the game to autopause at the end of each turn so that it played a bit more like Fallout 1/2’s style of turn based combat. I believe you could set up the autopause for NWN and KotOR to do something similar, but I can’t remember (both those used real turns too).

    I can never decide whether the extra tactical element of true turn-based combat makes up for it feeling like a very fake representation of combat. That the best strategies for turn based combat tends to be an exploitation of the mechanics bothers me more for an RPG than it does for a strategy game.

  • sascha/hdrs said,

    Thanks for explaining fluffyamoeba! Wasn’t sure if there isn’t some turn-based mechanism behind the combat in DA.

    I enjoy turn-based combat in strategy games very much, e.g games like Jagged Alliance and Advance Wars. In roleplaying games I probably prefer the Baldur’s Gates method although I haven’t really played Knights of the Chalice yet, but the turn-based combat in that game seems to be very satisfying too.

  • Kelly said,

    I like buttonsmashing RPG’s (read: Tales of). I am thought to be odd in that respect.

    I actually spent many years despising turn-base games because I tried playing Final Fantasy… Bleh. Eventually I cautiously tried games like Disgaea, Dragon Quest IV, and Aveyond and discovered turn based can be fun too. I think people who make turn based games need to be careful because long fights or quick one attack wins are painful to the player. There needs to be balance.

  • Xenovore said,

    Turn-based games typically lack the immersion I’m looking for, so I prefer real-time; games like Morrowind and Fallout 3.

    Quote: “I have played several real time party based, and RTS/RPG combos, but the fun is lost on clutsy controls, odd “help you out” AI, and the fact that it is impossible to pinpoint for each character where they need to improve both in stats and in tactics.”

    This seems to infer that turn-based is better for party-based RPGs, but this only points to design flaws — the same flaws could turn up in a turn-based game as well. We cannot assume that turn-based is inherently better for party-based games; easier to design perhaps, but “easier” doesn’t necessarily equate to “better”.

    Regarding “shooter”… Can we just not use that word at all when discussing RPGs? It’s really neither here nor there. For example, Fallout 3 and Oblivion are essentially the same game, once the content is stripped away. Likewise with Mass Effect and Dragon Age. My point is: A RPG does not automagically become a “shooter” if you replace the javelins and bows with firearms. (Any more than a game becomes a RPG by adding magic and elves…)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I dunno – for me the breakdown between shooter / RPG depends on whether it depends on character skill augmented by player skill, or vice versa. But even in the case of the latter, I tend to think of it as a shooter / RPG hybrid. Unless it goes the way of Bioshock, in which case it’s a shooter with some RPG elements thrown in for flavor.

  • Xenovore said,

    Quote: “…the breakdown between shooter/RPG depends on whether it depends on character skill augmented by player skill…”

    Exactly. So yeah, let’s make the distinction based on the level of player skill vs. the level of character skill required by the game. Because it’s either a RPG or it isn’t — does not matter if it’s real-time or not, or if the weapons are medieval, modern, futuristic, or completely missing. And does it become a “shooter” because the player needs to aim at what he’s trying to hit? No. For example, would anyone consider Morrowind to be a “shooter”? Yet the player still has to learn to aim when shooting a bow. (And when using a sword or spear as well…)

    My main issue with “shooter” are all the assumptions that seem to come with it, assumptions that completely fail to describe the actual game, e.g.:

    “Mass Effect is a shooter.”
    “Oh, so it’s like Quake.”
    “Well, no…”

    Let’s say something like “real-time RPG with futuristic firearms” instead of “shooter”.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    Oops. I was thinking of ME 2 when I wrote that. The combat system plays like a shooter is what I meant, not that ME2 is a shooter (which was what I said…). Though when I think of the reduction of RPG elements going from ME1 to ME2, it makes me sad.

  • Xenovore said,


    Yeah, ME2 got seriously dumbed down. (Which, unfortunately, seems to be the trend with all games these days…)

  • WCG said,

    I definitely favor turn-based games, at least partly because I like managing a party of characters. I’m finally playing Dragon Age: Origins, and it’s fun, but it’s frustrating to try to manage the party.

    My characters are always doing something completely idiotic, and since I can’t set the combat to pause automatically at the start of each round (I know, there aren’t any “rounds”), my mages will always start a spell – and waste it – when I want to give them different orders.

    And yet, I don’t like the really old games where both sides are just abstract opponents, either. I want to move my characters around as individuals – to see the enemy that way too – and to take advantage of the terrain.