RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Aug 26th 2017 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under evolution, rpg, pc, open world, history, theory, editorial

As video games become an aging hobby, it becomes more difficult to grasp the beginning of its tale, or the history and growth of it in general. This does not just mean its actual history, but also its dominant theories of design. For example, when many gamers talk of role playing games, only two dominant styles are generally brought up: The consolized Japanese designed role playing games, and the historically more mechanically complex and open, Western designed role playing games. Despite the fact that these two schools of design are considered different enough to be easily categorized, they share a common ancestor in tabletop games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons. While Dungeons and Dragons has been around since the 1970's, it has evolved and is almost unrecognizable in comparison to its earliest version, as the company that originally created the game went bankrupt, was bought out, and its creator has passed away.

The earliest Japanese games even resembled the dungeon crawls of Western RPGs that were heavily based on the rules of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The schism between these similar Western and early Japanese games is quite easy to identify, mainly because there were just fewer games of the era, period. While Dragon Quest was originally designed to be a simplified amalgamation of the most popular Western role playing games; taking the mechanics and combat style of Wizardy while giving the exploring perspective of Ultima, it set the standard for most future Japanese developed games to have a similar style. The Japanese are a smaller island nation with a vibrant culture, so having their own unique style, even with similar roots to their Western cousins, makes sense. However, the blanket term "Western RPG" covers a much larger geographic area, the entire continent of Europe as well as, generally, the United States and Canada. While these countries share cultural and historical roots, time has lead to a distancing of these areas. At some point in game development history it can be argued that there could be three major schools of role playing design: Japanese, North American, and European. Has that moment already come to pass? It already has, and few noticed its roots.

For all styles of role playing game the root is the same: American developed games heavily grounded in the ruleset of the early versions of Dungeons and Dragons. The early juggernauts of this market were limited to early university mainframes of the 1970's, and more mass market personal computers of the very late 1970's and early 1980's. The most influential of these were the hardcore dungeon crawler Wizardry, the grandfather of open world gaming Ultima, and the namesake for the subgenre called "Roguelike", which is simply titled Rogue. However, these early series are for the most part, dead. Rogue never became a series. Wizardry's popularity shifted to Japan as its Western audience dwindled, and the rights are still retained by a Japanese developer. The collapse of Ultima, however, arguably lead to the birth of the modern European RPG as the Ultima series managed to expand its popularity with almost every subsequent main entry.

Ultima continued to grow its audience until one major event happened - the purchasing of its developer, Origin Systems, by Electronic Arts. This was the early period of EA's studio buyouts and the story of Origin is one of the earliest warnings of the quality of any studio's output after a buyout. Most of them have followed a similar formula, while Origin was the prototype of this series of events. The game that Origin was working on when the buyout happened, the expansion pack to Ultima VII, Ultima VII Part Two: The Serpent Isle, is considered one of the high points to the entire series. Cracks in the corporatized design process immediately followed with the rushed release of Ultima VIII, with Ultima IX being the total collapse of the single player series. Ultima had an ace up its sleeve with the main team working on Ultima Online, which is still available to play as of this publishing.

Ultima IX released in 1999 as the first in the series to move into the third dimension. The technology of the era caused design decisions that horribly crippled the game. The 'whole world' scope of the series was just too big for a hand built open world 3D game in 1999 to shine. While previous games had mostly been turn-based affairs, the series took a more action based approach starting with Ultima VI. This was a move being mimicked by many other entries of less popular series as well, and the dominance of Action RPGs continues in the Western school to this day. There was a late 1990's revival of turn-based gameplay taking the meat of the Western RPG pie as the major player shifted to Interplay for a few years, which has its own long history in the Western RPG sphere. Its not this shift to action combat of the design where this split between North American and European games happened, its more the world design, and the first sign happened almost immediately following the release and failure of Ultima IX.

In 2001 a German developer called Piranha Bytes released a 3D, action combat, open world RPG that looks quite similar to Ultima IX. This game is called Gothic, and where Ultima IX stumbled with the idea of scale in the era, Gothic understood how to handle it. While Ultima IX tries to show an entire world to the player, Gothic literally locks you into a small, but open and hand designed prison colony on a small island in a much larger world. However, the small team was not able to polish some aspects of the game, with the user interface being terrible and the controls not being much better, these controls had a negative effect on character movement. Despite these issues, a player who dedicates themselves to the game for a few hours will find themselves easing into the systems the game offers. They likely still will not be able to take down a single well armed human opponent, but the patterns of the monster enemies become easy to learn and maneuver around.

Gothic also takes a much different approach to player advancement than most games that came before it. In most a player levels up and gets a flat stat boost that marginally increases damage. Most may also offer skills and abilities that will allow a burst of damage along with these stat boosts. Gothic gives you points to allocate what many other series would consider basic abilities, but executes them in a different way. As the Prisoner levels up he is given 10 Learning Points per level. These Learning Points can be allocated to their raw stats for more strength, dexterity, or mana if pursuing a magic build. The player also has the option to spend these points in skills that can allow them to extract trophies from certain enemies to sell, thieving skills such as sneaking and pickpocketing, alchemy recipes and other crafting options. These are normal and expected, nothing ground breaking. It's the weapon skills where this system truly shines. If the player wishes to equip one handed weapons they will watch as their character literally improves their ability to fight with those weapons. In the early game the best strategy against most monsters is to stand in one spot and swing your stick or rusty sword rhythmically from side to side until the monster charging you dies. As you get more skilled your combos will expand, and the very attack animations and damage arcs themselves will change. By the time the player notices this they may have the confidence to start challenging the human opponents the game allows them to fight in the camps who previously mopped the floor with them. Parrying is generally a waste against most monsters, but it is essential against humans and humanoid monsters such as orcs and lizardmen.

Many other RPGs that focus on action combat give the player plenty of options for maneuvering, specific dodging commands or just using the general movement speed and smooth controls for endless circle strafing. Gothic's clunky movement does not allow this as an option, either by lack of time to polish or by design. This ends up with Gothic having a combat system which can be looked at as an extremely early prototype for the kind of action combat that the mainstream has seen in the Western inspired modern From Software games. The monster design and placement is also deliberate, and does not scale with the Prisoner's level. This means the game is technically an open world, but not in the sandbox style that has become almost completely synonymous with players when they see a game be advertised as 'open world.' It has much more in common with Fallout: New Vegas than Oblivion in this regard. But, this combat design is not the main part of the schism remember? The world of Gothic has a believable, living, breathing quality to it that many argue is still unmatched in the modern day.

Gothic's world is immediately shown to be harsh and uncaring to the player. The Prisoner they control is tossed unceremoniously into the prison colony where his welcoming party proceeds to immediately punch him in the face and knock him out. Only a friendly face in Diego takes enough pity on him to give him a couple warnings and early bits of advice and answers to his questions. The individual characters in the various camps all have their own personalities, even the nameless workers, warriors, and mages around the camps. They also all have their own schedules they follow, as Gothic features a day, night, and weather cycle. The entire game is essentially a quest of discovery for this world. The only guidance the player has is to deliver a package to the head of the Fire Mages. The only problem is that the Fire Mages are locked up in the central keep of the Old Camp in the center of the colony. A magical accident in the dual ritual between the Fire and Water Mages to create the magic barrier of the prison trapped them all inside this prison. While this plot point is basically a convenient way to limit the size of the game world, it also is the main driving force for the Mages. While the entire prison started off as only the Old Camp, three major factions ended up forming. A New Camp which splintered off from the leadership of the Old Camp. A Swamp Camp also formed near old temple ruins, its denizens praying to a god they call the Sleeper and cultivating Swampweed to trade to the other factions. A small group of orcs also ends up trapped in the prison colony to add to the political tension of the region. This all ends up leading to a world which is almost the conveniently perfect size to feel open, sprawling, but most importantly, believable for its era.

The Camps not only serve an important narrative function for quests and personalities of the Prison Colony, but also the way the player builds their character. If the player wishes to build a melee juggernaut then the Old Camp is their best best, as they have the best options for two handed weapons, crossbows, and heavy armor. The New Camp is where more lightly armored players may wish to shack up with, as you'll end up with the better one handed, bow, and medium armor options. The Swamp Camp is where the magic stoners want to end up; players will spend more of their points on their mana pool as well as the major crafting options in the game, alchemy, rune crafting, and scroll making. The other camps do have an option for characters to put on a bit of magic as well, with the New Camp's Water Mages giving a few more options than Old Camp Fire Mages. This world has plenty of options for multiple playthroughs, and the design laid out in this first game remains consistent for Gothic's first sequel Gothic II.

Gothic and Gothic II, were not too popular in the United States and Canada, but did make a splash in mainland Europe. It is well regarded by the mainly targeted German market. They are also well regarded in the mostly ignored Eastern European markets as well. One who plays the first three Gothic games can almost see a similar ascent of scope, combat, and world design in a trilogy of a more modern role playing series developed by a certain darling of Eastern Europe. The chapter based narrative progression in Gothic I and Gothic II fit perfectly for the first Witcher game, which had chapter title cards just like these two earlier games. The first Witcher took it a step further by giving new open areas to explore with each chapter. Gothic II features this as well, with its Chapter 2 being a backtrack to the entire map of Gothic I, with a veteran player likely feeling bittersweet at returning to the familiar world. The lack of enemy scaling in the series also serves as a bit of a hard limit to player exploration, which ends up having a similar function to The Witcher's system of moving Geralt from place to place without player input. Gothic II and the Witcher 2 also share a base of narrative design, as both end up being a journey answering the questions that the ending of the first left lingering for players.

Gothic 3 was the largest in scope of the Piranha Bytes developed Gothic games, but suffered from a rushed release that lead to the complete splintering of Piranha Bytes from its publisher of the time, and later tried would remake the clunky, unpolished, immersive magic of the first two Gothics with a trilogy of games in the Risen series. On the flipside, CD Projekt Red works for itself, beholden to only its own executives, who decided to take their time and adapt the ideas that came before they released their third entry to its main claim to development fame. The Witcher 3 is still a paragon of gaming virtue in the eyes of many, but it took well over a decade for this style of European RPG to truly reach the global mainstream market. Any time a style, or splinter of a style comes out, there are growing pains. The early Wizardries and Ultimas are awkward, antiquated, and limited in scope compared to later entries in their series. Wizardry arguably hit its stride for design in its third entry, while Ultima did the same, and reached a fan favorite peak in its fourth entry. The first Dragon Quest is limited, simple, and quite dull in many areas of its design compared to even its own sequel. Dragon Quest II originally had many parts of the game go untested by staff and suffered from balance issues as a result. It was only Dragon Quest III where the series began to hit its stride. These early examples of Western and Japanese RPGs had some advantages that the newer European style was not fully able to take advantage of. These growing pains for design and development happened much further in the past, when hardware was simpler and far less powerful. These were 2D games designed for 2D hardware in a time where people could only design games that looked and sounded similar to each other. Variation in gameplay was more difficult to achieve as a result of far weaker processing power, this meant design experiments could be tested and verified by the market. This market is also the final advantage these early games had, it was far smaller and the average player arguably more savvy than the average player today. There was a risk of failure and bankruptcy, but one stumble was less likely to kill the company or the series in the 1980's when these early problems were being ironed out.

This statue looks very similar to statues in the Gothic series.

By the time of the later Ultima and Wizardry games in the late 1990's, the entire market was far more consolidated and technology more complex to develop for. The third dimension was almost a complete reset for many of these early issues, and each one took to the problem in a different manner. Ultima tried to make the jump to the third dimension and failed miserably. Wizardy stuck to its two dimensional roots and fizzled out. Dragon Quest was the undisputed market king of Japan, and decided to stick with 2D for its PlayStation entry, and waited to go 3D for the much more powerful PlayStation 2, when there were plenty of market examples to draw ideas for both what to avoid and what to shoot for. These European developers had none of this luxury, with their style of games being entirely limited to the 3D era, even extremely early examples such as 1992's Legends of Valour. That small team at Piranha Bytes (as well as other European developers for action RPGs, Larian Studios, and Ascaron Entertainment), had to not only go through the growing pains these earlier series did, but also had to contend with a vastly different marketplace with entrenched publishers having a near total stranglehold on financial investment at the time. The costs of development were vastly higher, and marketing was more important and more expensive then the one or two magazine ads the early developers could rely on to build their brand and company name. The potential audience was far larger than these early, highly influential games could dream of, but games almost always catch the eyes of those who later go on to develop games in the future. The now North American and Japanese styled early games were able to find their footing and hit their stride within five years of their major series' foundation, but it took this European style multiple trials and well over a decade, multiple companies, publisher disputes, bankruptcies and closures, before it produced its near universally acclaimed darling of The Witcher 3, which is really a hybridization with the mainstream North American design philosophy, with the more compact, personal, and newer European style. This still makes The Witcher 3 a game that will cast a long shadow for years, if not decades to come.

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Well researched and thoughtful. Thank you!
I had been playing Ultima since V convinced me to beg my dad for a PC. I'm still disappointed over how bad VIII was.

Thanks for the good read!
Thank you for reading, this one ended up being more verbose than I try to be.
Man, great article!  I must admit, I don't know that I've even heard of the Gothic series, but it sounds intriguing.  I'd never considered the splintering of the "Western RPG" to be a thing.  I was actually explaining to a coworker yesterday the differences between more action-oriented Western RPGs, and more turn-based JRPGs, and how there's some crossover in more recent entries (like the Xenoblade Chronicles games), but that there's still a distinct feel between the 2 branches.  I guess I need to dig deeper to see the differences between NA and European releases as well.

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