Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 16, 2012
I’ve talked about how 1991 was a wonderful year for discovering 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 side.
I think one could make the case that we’re in a new one now. Pardon me while I go off for a bit with some giddy optimism:
Exhibit A – The Indies: The list I posted yesterday of upcoming and recently-released indie CRPGs. When I started getting involved as an indie game developer a few years ago, RPGs were still a very rare indie endeavor. There was Spiderweb, and precious few others. And now look at things! Yes, we’re a little flooded by RPG Maker titles, which like anything else are 95%+ crap, but even at the traditional ratio there are some real gems being produced every year. And the variety of other styles of RPGs! Yes, I’ll insert the obligatory Frayed Knights reference – I’m quite pleased with that one – but when I started that one I didn’t expect the quality and quantity of competition. We’ve got big and small indie titles that are coming out far faster than I can play them (warning bells!), and many are quite good. And when we bring consoles (particularly XBox Live Indie Games), and mobile devices, things are even more clearly exploding in popularity. There are several indie titles that I’m looking forward to more than any mainstream release. Which brings us to the next point.
Exhibit B – Mainstream: During much of the last decade, mainstream CRPG fans who preferred single-player experiences – particularly PC gamers – often had a bit of a wait major between releases. The wait has definitely shrunk over the last five years or so. While we can argue over the meaning of role-playing game and how far these mainstream games have moved to being conventional action games and shooters, the mainstream games professing to be RPGs are more plentiful and happily show off their big or bigger budgets. While the purist in me may gripe, they are still plenty of fun (and sell plenty of copies…)
Exhibit C – Expanding Middle Zone: Somewhere between an indie working solo on a game in his basement and the latest EA-owned Bioware release costing eight digits to produce, you’ve got this nebulous, fuzzy zone of games that don’t seem to be truly indie or mainstream. Torchlight. Bastion. The Witcher II. My traditional view of indie is more along the lines of “self-funded, not a large publisher,” but things have gotten more and more complicated as the industry has grown, matured, and started weaning itself from its dependence on the big publishers. But obviously, these guys are also making RPGs, and succeeding at least moderately well at it. And speaking of interesting funding methods…
Exhibit D – Crowd-Funded Games: This week we got a double-whammy of a traditional graphic adventure game by Double Fine getting crowdfunded to something like 8x their goal, reaping a budget of almost 3.5 million between Kickstarter and private offers. This led Brian Fargo of InXile to try crowd-funding for the Wasteland RPG license he’s been unable to do anything with for years. The response has been almost as impressive, with the game’s original $900k budget getting met within 24 hours, then easily exceeding a million the following day. This is for an classic style, turn-based, party-based RPG. The kind that the industry and media have mocked for over a decade. I don’t want to overstate this, as this is hardly going to make EAexecutives commit seppuku over their failure to recognize a vibrant potential market or anything. A million or two bucks is still pretty “niche” in the modern games industry. And it’s not like a no-name indie (like me) could march up to Kickstarter and treat it as an ATM to grab six-digit funding. It is not going to happen, folks. But do I think this is a good development that is going to send positive signals around the industry about traditional RPGs and their fans? You bet! Will it be repeated? Sure. Not regularly, but I doubt Wasteland 2 will be the one-and-only.
Exhibit E – Baldur’s Gate Resurrected: While Baldur’s Gate is not quite as old as Wasteland, it’s still a classic franchise that has had a fork stuck into it by the industry to tell us all that It’s Done. Bioware is no longer making those kinds of games. But now somebody is. Not just those kinds of games, but literally the Baldur’s Gate series. Overhaul Games (a division of Beamdog) – which includes some ex-Bioware folks – has negotiated the rights to re-release an enhanced, modernized version of Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, including all expansions and some brand-new content. New platforms are planned. And a Baldur’s Gate III is planned, as well. Obviously, someone has faith that there’s a new audience that would enjoy these classic games, and that old fans would enjoy a cleaned-up, enhanced version to revisit. And a new game in the series using updated versions of the old technology. Hey, it apparently worked for the Monkey Island adventure series, so why not the most famous of the D&D-licensed game series?
Exhibit F – Retro Gaming A-Go-Go: Retro-gaming has never been easier to do (nor as easy to do legally), through a number of competing digital content providers. And RPGs are a big part of that. At least that’s what I tell myself when I look at the huge pile of classic RPGs in my Steam, GamersGate, and GOG.COM accounts. I don’t know how I’m going to get through playing them all…
Exhibit G – RPGs are Getting Talked About: Many of the above games are getting a lot of virtual ink spilled talking about them. People are talking about RPGs – from Mass Effect 3‘s endings to the success of super-cheap Cthulhu Saves the World. The Legend of Grimrock has gotten plenty of media attention for an indie ‘retro-style’ RPG, and Wasteland 2‘s crowdfunding success has garnered quite a bit of conversation in the last couple of days. Has the tone become more positive lately, treating RPGs a little less like the fat kid in class when picking kickball teams in elementary school? I dunno. Maybe.
So what does this all mean?
None of these things, taken in isolation, are earth-shattering developments for CRPG fans. And even taken as a whole, they aren’t accompanied by the songs of angels ushering in a new golden age. But I think they are indicators of a positive trend-shift for CRPG players. Particularly for those willing to put up with less-than-cutting-edge graphics. I think what it does signify is a growing maturity in the industry. There’s now room for this kind of thing. Ten year ago, not so much.
The big problem that has almost always plagued RPG development is that it takes a lot more effort to make the end-product than most other genres. This means that the ROI (Return On Investment) on RPGs is generally going to be a lot lower, simply because you have to spend 3x the resources to produce that complex of a game that’s comparable to other genres in terms of apparent quality (and number of sales). This leads to the perennial question among biz types as to whether or not the market for RPGs remains viable. It seems that for now, the answer has returned to “Yes” (it changes about every 6 years).
And as a gamer – well, there is a hell of a lot to play right now. Retro, indie, mainstream, console, mobile, PC — these are pretty good times to be a CRPG fan. I don’t think it’ll last – nothing ever does – but for right now you’ve got no excuse for being bored. It’s like it’s 1991 all over again.
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