Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Computer RPGs – A New Golden Age, a Boom, or a Bust?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 1, 2013

Brian Fargo, flush with effectively free money from Kickstarter for not just one but two ‘classic-style’ RPGs, suggested last week on the (near) future of computer RPGs that, “I think you are about to see the golden age of RPGs come rushing back in the next few years.” By way of explanation, he noted his own titles, Obsidian’s games, and CD Projekt’s titles, and said, “But most certainly there was a purity to the development of RPGs in the 90’s in which we were very attuned to our players…. I honestly see that purity and being in sync with the RPG players coming back full circle — in fact it is even stronger than ever.”

While those cited examples are certainly highlights in my book, there are about a half-dozen more recent or upcoming RPGs that I’d cite as examples of a new renaissance in the genre.

Up until three years ago or so, it seemed that the emphasis on the indie side was more on re-creating the past. We borrowed the old forms now that they present very little technical challenge, using new tools and techniques to allow every team member to be four or more times as productive as their old-school counterparts, and riding the nostalgia wave. And I expressed my concern over this. Now, while there are still plenty of new titles that on the surface appear to be not much more than cheap imitations of old classics, there are definitely some talented developers out there who are pushing forward in new directions.

On the mainstream side, well, we talked about that last week. Maybe, just maybe, we could be coming to the realization simply making a straight-up console action game with a handful of stats and inventory isn’t the ultimate evolution of the genre.

This is the world I wished for. And you know what they say about being careful for the things you wish for, right?

In my mind, the “golden age” of computer role-playing games was in the late 80s to early 90s. I personally like put a stake in the ground in September, 1985, when Ultima IV was released, and call that “the beginning.” It lasted for about a decade, though some people were proclaiming the death of the genre a bit earlier. It encompasses such games as Dungeon Master, the SSI “Gold Box” and Eye of the Beholder series of D&D-licensed games, more than half of the Might & Magic series, several Ultimas, the Bradley-designed Wizardry series, Ultima Underworld, the Magic Candle series, and a host of other titles.

As an RPG fan in that era, I felt like I was drinking from the firehose.

Now, other people might set other dates. I have a number of friends who were more fans of consoles (and import Japanese RPGs). That’s entirely valid. But hey, it’s my blog, I’ll label things how I want. 🙂

Anyway, back to the drinking from the firehose thing. We had a great boom in genre in that time, but the boom was accompanied by bigger budgets, bigger scrutiny, and bigger disasters as publishers tried to find ways of economizing or broadening their audience. I actually enjoyed Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse, and I know there were people who really liked Menzoberranzan. So it wasn’t like people weren’t enjoying the perhaps less-than-stellar titles. But the golden age became a plethora, which became a glut, which became – eventually – a bust. If you define a bust as a “correction” back to norms after a boom.

So… on to today.  Desura lists five new or majorly updated games in the RPG category in the month of June. If you include Android / iOS titles, things get significantly more crowded. IndieRPGs.com has several new game announcements (not sure how many of ’em get to market) each week. Throw in the usual trickle of big-budget (or, apparently, some upcoming not-so-big-budget) mainstream publisher titles for PC and consoles, and things are getting pretty busy out there. There are far more games than I have time to play, that’s for certain.

As a parallel from the tabletop “dice & paper” side, I was thrilled with the “Open Gaming License” of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition in 1999-2000. And, to my delight, the marketplace was suddenly overflowing with third-party expansions. Yeah, a lot of ’em were crap. But there were all kinds of gems to be found out there. There were some nice experimental products, some blasts from the past, and what seemed (for a short time) to be an incredibly healthy, booming market. But then came the steep discounts (as a consumer, also an enjoyable development), and products dried out pretty quickly. The release of the “3.5” edition of D&D was arguably rushed in order to deal with steep decline in sales that followed the boom.

And we could look at the North American video game bust in the early 1980s as well…

So now, we’ve got indie games in general, and indie RPGs specifically. Are we heading for a new glut? A new bust? In 2016, are we going to look back on 2012 – 2014 and say, “Wow, those were awesome days to be an RPG fan… so many games. Why don’t people make games like that anymore?”

I don’t know. Obviously, I hope not, and it’s a totally different world and marketplace from 1994.  Or 1982.

Is this even something you are paying attention to, as a gamer? Does it even feel like there’s much of a “surge” in games for you?




Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Brian said,

    There is, and will be, a massive glut. I doubt there are going to be many new Minecraft-style success stories in the near future.

    But that will be balanced by the (relatively) low cost and hobby-esque nature of designing indies. Indies also play into the lowering value of games on the market as a whole, as we go into phase 4 of the recession… Someone that can spend 16 bucks on a new indie title will purchase two of them whereas they might not plonk down 80 bucks for a commercial game because people simply cannot afford it anymore.

    I sincerely wish there were a better avenue for ‘exploring’ new and underadvertized indy titles, rather than the holdovers from old commercialism, such as steam and bigfish.

    The Irony is that it is becoming the indies, rather than the big studios, that are starting to ride the cutting edge of technological progress. Several indy developers are designing 3d games for the new 3d gear that is coming out, and indy devs always seem more willing to spend time on a potential risky venture that may not pan out.

    I understand that no one wants to spend hundreds of hobby hours and possibly thousands of dollars on resources to make a game that goes belly-up, But those cash outlays and hours are relatively minor and would likely have been spent on entertainment of some other form…. very few indy developers are absolutely relying on a risky success in order to put food on the table. I look at the coming glut as a positive sign, not a symbol of doom.

  • Infinitron said,

    What Brian Fargo was really describing was the 1997-2003 “Silver Age” of CRPGs, which began with Fallout and Baldur’s Gate and ended with the rise of consolized western RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    While he talks about working with Bioware, I didn’t get that he was focused on that era at all from reading the interview. Fargo left Interplay around 2000 or 2001, just before the end of that date range, when things had gone pretty far south with their new owner. So I really wouldn’t assume he was talking about anything more recent than 2000.

  • Xenovore said,

    From my point of view, it’s just a glut of everyone jumping on the old-school-nostalgia bandwagon, i.e. the same tired fantasy settings, the same cliched plots, the same character development (i.e. from zero to hero), the same game mechanics. . . All of which I can deal with, as long as the production value is high. But now it’s suddenly “cool” to deliberately use subpar, pixelly graphics as well; that’s the final straw for me. I see screenshots or vids of some of these games coming out; I don’t ever want to play them — they could be free and I wouldn’t play them. ‘Cause I know it’s just gonna be more of the same but with crappy visuals. (Not to mention, if I were to be in the mood for that, I’d just go and grab an actual old-school game like Ultima Underworld or Might & Magic 6 and play that; I know the game-play will be good at least.)

    Someone that can spend 16 bucks on a new indie title will purchase two of them whereas they might not plonk down 80 bucks for a commercial game

    While that might make sense in a game-starved world, it doesn’t really ring true. If the $80 game is actually good, I’ll just wait for it to go on sale, rather than waste money (and time) on indie games that will probably be crap.

  • Infinitron said,

    “In the mid-90 Interplay was home for biggest RPG franchises – Stonekeep, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment, Fallout. Do you think it was a golden age for the computer RPGs?”