Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPGs: Is Old-School the New School?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 18, 2013

As I’ve said before, the term “old-school RPG” is becoming decreasingly useful. Not that I dislike it – it still brings a smile when I see it in the descriptor of an RPG. The assumption is that people are being inspired by the right games – whatever games those are. But it meant they are pulling from the rich history of the genre, and not – as the big studios are wont to do – imitating the action-game-with-RPG-trappings that sold the most copies last year.

But I’m almost to the point of regretting referring to Frayed Knights as “old-school.” I mean, at the time I started working on it and talking about it, the term hadn’t become trite and overused. Or maybe it was, and I just hadn’t noticed it yet. But now that the indie revolution has effectively won, I’m seeing lots of games on handhelds and Desura describing themselves as “old-school RPG” which seems to mean little more than, “Please excuse the primitive-looking graphics.”

I’m pretty good at that part. Sure, your graphics look like they belong in a (mainstream) game from 10 or 20 years ago? No problem. Your interface is a little clumsy? I don’t think that’s necessary, but I’m willing to put up with that.

What I’m really looking for in an “old-school” experience is something that makes me feel like I did playing my favorite classic RPGs.  I know that’s a tall order, because you can’t just bottle nostalgia.  And I don’t want a simple repeat of what’s come before — I still play those old games, and I’m in no mood for a pale imitation.  And everybody’s favorites – and what pieces encapsulate that experience in their minds – are different.

And frankly, I’ve played a few lackluster indie RPGs lately that have borne that little marketing description now, and it’s not necessarily a badge of awesomeness or anything.

What I’ve really wanted is something I feel we’re coming close to accomplishing – reclaiming our birthright, our heritage, our roots. “Old School”  RPGs took us back to an era that was full of fresh ideas, classic gameplay, and an experience that didn’t feel ‘dumbed down.’ It brought us the 16-bit JPRGs that could have been, the dungeon-crawlers that should have been, and reminded us that turn-based combat could still be a hell of a lot of fun.  With some of the great games and series that have been released already, plus some high-profile (for indie) games that should be released in the next 24 months, I think that the return to “old school” might have been sufficient that it will transform into “new” school.

Maybe I’m being hopelessly optimistic – I do that a lot . But if nothing else, it should shake up expectations. A modern RPG can be  a hell of a lot of things. At that point, hopefully there won’t be a need to ‘prove’ old-school credentials anymore. And from there, RPG developers will feel more free to experiment and play with the medium and genre, to play with the formulas and strike out in new completely new directions. Because that’s the way it should have been, and ought to be.

Lest we forget … part of the “bust” of western-style PC RPGs in the mid-90s came because of exactly the situation we complain about today… too many games all trying too hard to imitate the most recent best-sellers, bringing very little to the table in terms of quality or innovation. The market became saturated with sameness. While that is certainly a danger in the indie RPG world (particularly among the RPG Maker titles), as of this moment in time I’m pretty impressed with the health and variety I see in the genre.  I hope the trend continues.

Welcome to the new school of RPGs.

Have fun.

Filed Under: Design, Indie Evangelism, Retro - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Joshua Smyth said,

    I always preferred the term Neo-Retro 🙂

  • McTeddy said,

    What I would love is a return of the old-school create a character. I miss being able to put my points into charisma and luck… while teaching my character to play music and knit like a master.

    Today’s games are far to focused on combat. Why the heck would I pick a thief if I wanted to be a combat class. But these days “Thief” is just code word for Warrior who can back-stab.

    I recently played the Game of Thrones RPG and found myself highly entertained by making one hero asthmatic and another clumsy. While these played only a minor role on the game… it let me create characters! (Admittedly, it failed on character customization on other levels)

  • Charles said,

    Old school is the present. Ancient school is the future 🙂

  • Cuthalion said,

    The weird thing is, I’m not sure I have the time or patience for old school RPGs anymore. My favorite (and probably the one that got me into the genre) was Exile III, which has since been remade in the Avernum series and is probably going to be remade again in a redone Avernum series in a couple years. So it’s been around the block more than once. But its interface was probably such that I might just not want to play it anymore if I started it up today. I don’t know. Old games tended to do that. Plus, it sucked tons of time that I no longer have.

    My second favorite is Morrowind. Not quite as old — it’s in 3d, after all — but also a large consumer of time and as I recall had a bit of a learning curve. And really, I never played it much anyway. I mostly watched my brother work his way to the top of the Imperial Legion, Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, House Hlaalu… and then mess around with the story quest. I pillaged countless concepts for the mechanics of my tabletop RPG, and the theme music still gives me chills, but would I actually enjoy Morrowind if I sat down to play it?

    I guess I really appreciate games that have an old-school feel, with lots of character customization and a bit of (decipherable) number crunching, preferably with turn-based, full-party-control combat… but manage to make the experience amenable to bite sizes and snappy control.

  • Xenovore said,

    . . .“old-school RPG” which seems to mean little more than, “Please excuse the primitive-looking graphics.”

    This. In my experience, the “old-school” label is just an excuse for crap art (generally worse that actual classic games). And typically you get a crap interface to go along with the crap art. So, I tend to avoid anything “old school” like the plague.

    Turn-based: Not really my thing, so if “old school” means turn-based, that’s not winning any points with me either. A) It’s really only needed for party-based game-play, and then typically only occasionally; the interfaces in Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, etc. proved that with decent AI, most of the time your party members are capable of doing the right thing without intervention. B) I hate micro-managing, especially when it usually consists of just making me sit there spamming some “attack” button.)

    @Cuthalion: I actually pulled out Morrowind a few months ago explicitly to see if I would enjoy it as much as I did back in the day, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself sucked right back in and playing for hours. The key thing there is that if the game design and interface are solid, then it’s still going to be fun, and the graphics quality matters a lot less. (And there are mods to modernize the graphics anyway.)

  • Might! Magic! X! Legacy! said,

    […] this really means to me is a confirmation of the crap I was saying on Monday – “Old School” is  back, baby.  Which kinda makes the term irrelevant, since it soon won’t be so “old” […]