Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Is Old-School is Back In Session?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 18, 2012

Maybe it’s just because it’s the object of my focus, but it feels like “old-school” RPGs are back in favor … at least a little bit… everywhere but at the big publishers. Game journalists are talking about it. Kickstarters for games like Wasteland 2, Dead State, and now the huge response to Obsidian’s Project Eternity have taken off, as experienced dev teams find grassroots support for doing new games in classic, older styles. Inquisitor, Legend of Grimrock, and Avadon are all moderately high-profile releases embracing “old-school” classic western RPG sensibilities, and there have been a slew of lower-profile current indie releases (like Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, Eschalon series), and upcoming releases (Age of Decadence, Swords & Sorcery Underworld – Gold, etc.) that are likewise built solidly on the tradition of classic western RPGs.

Not to mention the avalanche of 16-bit JRPG style games…

Is it because the market is finally responding to pent-up demand? Is it just a quick nostalgia trip? jIs it just a few misguided indies jumping aboard a phantom bandwagon to make games for a much-smaller-than-believed audience?Or am I totally reading too much into all of this?

I don’t really know. I’d love to believe that we’re seeing a resurgence of old-school RPGs, that the old school is back session, and that RPGs are going to kick some serious butt the way they used to kick serious butt and all that.

I’m thrilled to see this surge in classic-style RPGs, particularly in conjunction with more mainstream fare. I like both.

So if this is really a Thing, where would we go from here?

Here are a few of my opinions on the subject of old-school role-playing games:

I believe that there is no unified theory of “old-school goodness.” If anything, RPGs from the 80s and much of the 90s were far more diverse than what we have today. There was an awful lot of experimentation going on that is very rare in the modern, mainstream, risk-averse arena. The indies can recapture that spirit. But we need – as both customers and developers – to be willing to deviate from the conventions of the big hits of the era. In a lot of ways, what contributed to the drop in popularity (and availability) of the genre was a host of “me, too” clones of poor to mediocre quality.

I believe that the “old-school” has a lot of lessons for game designers that have since been at least partly forgotten. And yes, I believe a lot of these lessons are in the “what not to do” category.  Or at least, “what should be improved upon.” But a little bit of retro-gaming… including some of the less successful games of the era that were perhaps flawed gems and quietly forgotten … can reveal a lot of great ideas that could be improved upon today.

I believe that “old-school” is an origin, not a destination. I don’t believe that the classic games of the past were in any way perfect (and, after reading many interviews with their designers, I’m sure they’d agree). I think that modern RPG styles have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in some cases, abandoning aspects of the old classics not out of disrespect, but out of a mandate to broaden their audience and to follow the success of their more immediate predecessors. I feel there are a ton of potential evolutionary branches that could be pursued using, say, a couple of games from 1992 as a starting point instead of 2010. I think we’re going to be as creatively bankrupt if we dogmatically imitate the past classics as imitating the most recent multi-million-selling hits. But I think we have an incredible potential today to build upon a foundation consisting of multiple decades.

I do feel that a lot of modern, mainstream titles have found interesting ways of incorporating some of the flavor and mechanics of their classic predecessors. But I don’t feel that’s the “only way” to do it.

I want to see indies branch out – and I believe they are. I think a lot of indies are now re-learning the lessons of the past, and in many cases must learn these lessons the hard way, just as our predecessors did.  But it’s a good start.  I hope that the indies can share their experiences with each other, to take advantage of combined experiences – what works, what doesn’t. How to do things better. I hope what we’ll really get out of this in the near future is a wonderful variety of indie RPGs built with old-school sensibilities, modern techniques and conveniences, and some unique mechanics and flavors completely of their own.

Filed Under: Biz, Design, Retro - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Rachel said,

    another blogger was just discussing this! Do you read Critical Missive? He posted about how old-school isn’t always better. http://criticalmissive.blogspot.com/2012/09/inquisitor-perils-of-old-school-design.html

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yes, I read his re-post on Gamasutra. This wasn’t a direct response to his article, but it did inspire me sum up some thoughts I’ve had for a while about “old school” gaming – why I love it, why it’s important, and why it’s not the be-all end-all.

    Mainly, though, my own feeling is optimism. I’ve felt for a while that the mainstream biz has painted itself into a corner in the RPG genre, and that we may need to back up to move forward. I feel that indies are really doing that, and while we may have some rough first steps to re-learn the old lessons, it’s a freaking EXCITING time.

  • Xenovore said,

    “…the mainstream biz has painted itself into a corner in the RPG genre, and that we may need to back up to move forward…”

    If by “back up” you mean “stop trying to make half-assed quasi-movies and start making RPGs again” then… hell yeah, amen bruthah, preach on! =)

  • Felix said,

    I like to think of this phenomenon as the maturing of the market. We’ve seen how far we can go with millions of polygons, shaders of all kinds, motion capture, lip syncing, dynamic lighting… blah blah blah. Now we can relax and apply the appropriate tech level for what we want to create. After all, if you have a novel in mind, you’ll write a novel, not a million-page hypertext document chock-full of multimedia. Similarly, if 16-bit art would befit your game, why go for something that pushes even CryEngine 3 to the limit?

    IT has been been a teenager for long enough. I welcome the change.

  • Barry B said,

    If any game that features characters and weapon/armor with stats and a few D&D professions is defined as “old school,” then a case can be made for it making a comeback. I’d question such a generic, all-encompassing definition of a genre, however. Can we really draw useful conclusions in this respect from a genre that includes the Baldur’s Gate series and the Diablo series? Are first or third person shooters really RPGs just because somebody is shooting off magic while wearing a funny peaked hat? Just my two cents.