Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away: The Heyday of the CRPG

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 13, 2012

Joystiq has an article about the year RPGs transitioned into their more “modern” form…. 1995: The Year Role-Playing Games Broke. (H/T to RPGWatch for pointing it out to me). While my knee-jerk reaction was to jump to the defense of earlier-era RPGs, the article is actually pretty straightforward with the facts and not too far-reaching on the speculation.

Those of us who were RPG fans back then may remember the magazines of the era proclaiming the death of RPGs (and the death of adventure games). In the spirit of Mark Twain, such proclamations proved quite premature, but the genre did undergo a pretty significant shift thereafter. Was it more of a reincarnation in a new form than a resurrection? I wouldn’t say it was either, because the genre didn’t really die.  Yes, it suffered a decline, for many of the reasons suggested in this article.  But as I saw it, what really happened was that the genre enjoyed a big surge of popularity in the late 80’s and early 90’s that eventually subsided… but the apparent decline seemed much bigger because the store shelves were choked with ‘cash-in’ products. That’s how it always works.

Assuming my conjecture is correct (or at least defensible), we could instead ask, “Hey, why did RPGs enjoy a big surge in popularity before that?” I think that’s a far more interesting question.  As long as I’m guessing, I’m going to throw a few more darts:

1. The AD&D License. The release of ‘official’ Dungeons & Dragons RPGs (besides some ancient handheld and Intellivision attempts) ignited the enthusiasm of hordes of dice-and-paper gamers who were not already major CRPG enthusiasts, and it had a spillover effect into other games.

2. Technology. PCs were upping the quality of the gaming experience, and technology was finally catching up with the vision. Monsters began to look like monsters, disk drives and on-board RAM were finally large enough to display decent images of monsters, and so forth. And lets not forget the impact of the more visceral experiences of Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld, which were able to use more powerful modern machines to provide new twists on a familiar experience.

3. The Rise of the PC as a Gaming Platform. In some ways, the rise and fall of CRPGs can be tied to the rise and fall of the PC as a gaming platform.  As it gained popularity, existing genres were ready-made entertainment. Maybe we could blame the Playstation for the beginning the  decline of the PC as a gaming platform of choice for gamers (something I personally had a small contribution in causing, I suppose), and it took its most PC-centric genres with it.

4. A Development “Sweet Spot.” This is really conjecture on my part, but this seems to me to be an era where the technology, audience demands, genre requirements, and development team size all seemed to match. An RPG could still be made by a reasonable-sized team which was of acceptable technological quality that it could enjoy moderately good sales and be a big success. A few years later, the team size and development time required to make an RPG of appropriate content level had swelled to the point where RPGs always seemed to be a couple of years behind the technological curve demanded by gamers to garner sufficient sales. The action games, far easier to develop, were setting a pace that RPGs couldn’t match. That’s still an issue today, but we’ve also gone so far past the ‘sweet spots’ (which have moved with technology and industry trends, like off-the-shelf engines) into the realm of diminishing returns that its less of an issue. And most mainstream RPGs aren’t made without the promise of massive marketing and mega-sales to a broader audience than the traditional RPG ‘niche.’

As a side note, it might be interesting to map the decline of traditional CRPGs with the decline of dice-and-paper D&D’s popularity during the same time period. Is there a correlation?

Filed Under: Biz, Retro - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • slenkar said,

    I was going to get on here and rage because I thought you meant RPG’s were broken since 1995 ;/
    The ease of development of 2D games certainly allowed developers to concentrate on the game more..e.g.fallout,jagged alliance 2,torment,baldurs gate

  • slenkar said,

    I think the transition to the modern age was 2000 when every game had to be 3D.
    Many classic games were released between 1995 and 1999

  • slenkar said,

    I think the genre needed a ‘kick up the arse’ in 1995 as most games were Dungeon Master like from ’88 to ’95.
    The CD-ROM enabled many good games to be made like the ones I mentioned before.

  • The New CRPG Heyday… said,

    […] PC games. And I talked about how 1991 was kind of the center-point of what I’d consider the “Heyday” of CRPGs. +/- 2-3 years on either […]