The Top Ten Greatest Innovations in CRPGs

Matt Barton's picture

When you got 300 shortswords.No copper breastplate left behind.This week, I'm looking at what I consider the ten best innovations in CRPGs. That means, I'm looking at games that introduced new gameplay elements or at least adapted existing concepts, forging something that has become (or should have become) important, influential, or at least pretty damn awesome. Keep in mind that the game as a whole might be weak or even a flop; that isn't relevant here. What is relevant is which games introduced which concepts and when. So, let's get started with #10:

10. The mule in Dungeon Siege. Year: 2002. Concept: A pack animal to help carry your lootz. I don't remember much about the original Dungeon Siege game, but I will never forget that crusty pack animal. I'm pretty sure the thinking behind the mule was simply utilitarian; "Hey, that'd be handy to have around." But in one stroke the designers made a game ten times more memorable and self-parodying. And how many times did a battle hinge on the kicking of your mule? Mules literally kick ass. Wait, is that possible? Now I'm so spoiled that I always want a pack of them in assorted colors--what, I'm supposed to just leave that solid gold Elminster statue behind?

9. The automap in Bard's Tale III. Year: 1988. Concept: Why have players bother with graph paper when the computer could map the dungeons for them? I doubt any gamers under the age of 30 remember when games like Wizardry included graph paper in the box. That wasn't put there as a collectible. Indeed, some people actually enjoyed making their own maps and nerd-raged on the new systems, but to hell with it. Those of us with directile dysfunction are forever grateful. Might and Magic 2 also had automapping the same year, but apparently BT3 beat it by a couple of months, and it had Becky Burger Heineman.

8. The procedural generation in Beneath Apple Manor. Year: 1978. Concept: Instead of having fixed maps, why not let the computer generate one algorithmically, randomly placing all the treasures, secret doors, and traps? That way, every run through would be unique. Now bear in mind that this concept wasn't new; mainframe games had been doing it for years. But as far as I know, this 1978 game from Software Factory is, if not the first, clearly one of the earliest to do so on a home computer. The same thing shows up in Rogue and Diablo and plenty of other games.

7. The turn-based, tactical combat in Tunnels of Doom. Year: 1982. Concept: Combine strategic wargaming with fantasy role-playing. A lot of people think Wizard's Crown (1985) or Pool of Radiance (1988) were the first to offer turn-based tactical combat, but they don't know about this little gem for the TI-99/4A. No wonder; most people probably think a TI-99/4A is a graphing calculator. Granted, the combat here is much simpler and less interesting than those later games, but credit where it's due. I did a Matt Chat on this game back in April 2010.

For every monster, turn, turn, turn.For every monster, turn, turn, turn.6. The real-time gameplay in The Dungeons of Daggorath. Year: 1982. Concept: Unleash the beasts. Another game that most people missed, at least those who weren't stuck with a Tandy Color Computer (the CoCo) instead of an Apple or Commodore and had to wait for Dungeon Master. It's not much to look at, just wireframe 3D dungeons, but you do have monsters wandering around on their own--you can turn up your sound to figure out how close they are. Phil Landmeier is who you have to thank for that--and the awesome beating heart that makes this game about a million times more intense. If you haven't seen it, I wrote a review of it in 2006 and followed up with a Matt Chat in Feb. 2010.

5. The user-generated modules in Eamon. Year: 1980. Concept: Let users make their own adventures. While most of us are happy just getting to play a role-playing game, others aren't satisfied unless they're the ones creating the adventures (i.e., the dungeon masters). Back in 1980, that meant either sticking to the pen and paper version or learning how to program--at least until Don Brown came along. Don's system allowed users to create their own modules, and he gave them the tools and manuals to do it. There are still people today playing with this system. And the best part--it was free! Of course, later on you could choose from The Bard's Tale Construction Set, Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures, and...geez, does everybody have one?

4. The morality of Ultima IV. Year: 1985. Concept: Turn mindless hack'n slashers into paragons of virtue. I've talked to folks who are slightly freaked out by Richard Garriott (Lord British). Maybe he would've founded a cult if he hadn't a games company to keep him busy. His earlier games had been amazingly successful, but by 1985 he was no longer striving so much for technological superiority as spiritual enlightenment. In the words of Jack Black, he didn't just want to blow your mind--he wanted to blow your soul. Thus we get Quest of the Avatar, a game that made us all into Good People. It did so by punishing you for doing the stuff that got you ahead in other CRPGs, such as stealing. This karmic concept shows up in countless later games. Sure, there's no one around to see you steal those coins from the offering plate...But Lord British is watching you...

Nomad, vagabond, call me what you will!Nomad, vagabond, call me what you will!3. The bard in Bard's Tale: Title of the Unknown Vol. 1.. Year: 1985. Concept: What kind of party can you have without music? Warrior, healer, rogue, wizard; we all know the routine. But what about entertainment? I mean, can you really picture an epic battle with a dragon without a minstrel somewhere strumming a lute? It might seem like a silly concept, at least until you consider the battles of history that were won or lost depending on how well the little drummer boy could keep tempo. Oh, I give up. Bards are just cool, accept that and let's move on. I'll mention in passing that Skara Brae is also an epic innovation; it was the first town in a CRPG that really felt like a town and not just a menu. I did a Matt Chat on this game in which I donned a cap and performed the theme myself. Yeah, I'm that kind of nerd.

2. The party in Wizardry. Year: 1981. Concept: Why have one character when you can have six? CRPGs evolved out of the tabletop role-playing games of the 70s, which were social in nature. You wouldn't have much fun sitting alone at the kitchen table rolling a D20, now would you? However, how did you translate that experience into a single player game for a computer? Most games just put you in charge of one jack-of-all-trades like character, but Wizardry let you lovingly create an entire party of six adventurers, including a samurai and a ninja. You could even create a lord named British if you were truly vile and pernicious. I covered Wizardry back in episode 29.

Yeah, I know, a guy this white ought to be wearin' sunblock.Yeah, I know, a guy this white should wear sunblock.1. The graphic modes in Ultima. Year: 1981. Concept: Game world. Ultima is an important game for many reasons; but what probably proved most influential was the tile-based graphics of the overland map and the 3D wireframe graphics of the dungeons, which Garriott had created a year earlier for Akalabeth: World of Doom. The tile-based graphics would become a staple of JRPGs, whereas the mode switching in the dungeons made the world seem, well, more like a world and less like a map. This wasn't just a dungeon game; this was four freaking continents. This setup would be endlessly copied and refined in later games, as it should be. When Garriott combined the 3D, first-person view of Akalabeth with the top-down, tile-based graphics of Ultima, the whole was greater than the parts. Ultima players let us crawl out of the dungeon and see the sunshine.

Comments

JimmmyP (not verified)
Decent list...but how you

Decent list...but how you left out "The open world of Arena" is beyond me.
TES' Arean was the first true open world where a player could do whatever he/she wanted and go wherever they wanted without having to attain the "correct" level.

clok1966
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maybe
JimmmyP wrote:

Decent list...but how you left out "The open world of Arena" is beyond me.
TES' Arean was the first true open world where a player could do whatever he/she wanted and go wherever they wanted without having to attain the "correct" level.

Jimmy i agree you a world that huge needs some mention but I think part of it is Number 8 kinda fits it a tiny bit.. the world isnt hand crafted and is totally generated except for the specific quest areas and such. Daggerfall while loved by its followers was not a HUGE hit, succesfull and quite alot of mods (and still some today). the pure randomness of it had some detractors. SO I agree but can see where it would fit in with number 8 (vbut on a much grander scale).

Bill Loguidice
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Firsts

I commented on auto-mapping back in a posting last year: "However, the Phantasie games had a fog of war type of map system where as you entered a tile, it stayed revealed. You really only needed a map for the overworld, and only then to help you remember where certain towns, dungeons and other artifacts were, but it certainly wasn't essential. In the dungeons themselves, the dungeon slowly revealed itself as you moved from square to square, and each dungeon was only the size of a single screen, so eventually you would reveal the whole map. So, really, it all depends on the definition of "auto-map"."

Of course, the first Phantasie game was 1985, so that was three years ahead of the example in Matt's blog post. That goes back to the question of what exactly is meant by an "auto-map", though.

(Otherwise, no other comments from me. Great job on the list.)

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Matt Barton
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Automaps
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I commented on auto-mapping back in a posting last year: "However, the Phantasie games had a fog of war type of map system where as you entered a tile, it stayed revealed. You really only needed a map for the overworld, and only then to help you remember where certain towns, dungeons and other artifacts were, but it certainly wasn't essential. In the dungeons themselves, the dungeon slowly revealed itself as you moved from square to square, and each dungeon was only the size of a single screen, so eventually you would reveal the whole map. So, really, it all depends on the definition of "auto-map"."

Of course, the first Phantasie game was 1985, so that was three years ahead of the example in Matt's blog post. That goes back to the question of what exactly is meant by an "auto-map", though.

(Otherwise, no other comments from me. Great job on the list.)

Yeah, I really struggled with that definition myself. My brain boggles trying to get at why the Phantasie system isn't an automap, though it just doesn't seem like it should be considered one. Maybe to be considered an automap you need a special screen that shows the player's location, not just the default view. There has to be some differentiation between the normal view and the map view...Is that true for Phantasie?

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Bill Loguidice
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I agree
Matt Barton wrote:

Yeah, I really struggled with that definition myself. My brain boggles trying to get at why the Phantasie system isn't an automap, though it just doesn't seem like it should be considered one. Maybe to be considered an automap you need a special screen that shows the player's location, not just the default view. There has to be some differentiation between the normal view and the map view...Is that true for Phantasie?

That's a good distinction. No, it does not, which is good enough for me to say it was not first, just good interface design.

Mentioning Phantasie has given me the jones the play Star Command, Winston Douglas Wood's only other game outside of the Phantasie series and one I have yet to play (I have a boxed Atari ST version of it). It came out at the same time as Pool of Radiance... Maybe in September.

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clok1966
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Star Command, actually a

Star Command, actually a pretty deep game for the time. Not many games let you NOT FIGHT (capt picard would be proud) every alien you met, you could actually talk and let them go from time to time. I dont remeber it well but I do remeber liking it alot and playing it alot. I remeber cash being hard to get so you had to grind alot. Lots of nubers and very littel graphics.. Like early Wizardry. I do remeber the scope of the game seemed huge to me. I had forgot about that game... so many with the STAR something in name I had to look it up. i think i had it on amiga.. you would think with Phantasie and this game he would have had more.. but it appears thats all he did..

fun little way back moment :) thanks!

Bill Loguidice
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WWWDWD
clok1966 wrote:

Star Command, actually a pretty deep game for the time. Not many games let you NOT FIGHT (capt picard would be proud) every alien you met, you could actually talk and let them go from time to time. I dont remeber it well but I do remeber liking it alot and playing it alot. I remeber cash being hard to get so you had to grind alot. Lots of nubers and very littel graphics.. Like early Wizardry. I do remeber the scope of the game seemed huge to me. I had forgot about that game... so many with the STAR something in name I had to look it up. i think i had it on amiga.. you would think with Phantasie and this game he would have had more.. but it appears thats all he did..

fun little way back moment :) thanks!

It seems like Winston Douglas Wood was solely an Apple II programmer with the Phantasie series. Others handled the other ports. It looks like Wood did Star Command in a high level BASIC variant named Omikron Basic in conjunction with Eric Leivenauer, and they were involved with all versions because of that, so perhaps he was bumping up against the limits of his coding capabilities at that point. One thing is for sure, he's my favorite CRPG designer. Certainly not original in any way, shape or form, but his implementation of D&D-style pen and paper gameplay on the computer was just right to me.

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bagelobo (not verified)
I'm bored so, Top 10 Worst

I'm bored so, Top 10 Worst "Innovations" in CRPGs:

(No idea what the first games were to use these, so I'll just list popular examples)

10) Preorder bonus content: Dragon Age 2
Typically consists of lazy, unbalanced content, content that doesn't fit with the game's setting, or content that was probably going to be included to begin with and removed.

9) In-game advertisements: Dragon Age - Origins
Why is the NPC asking for my credit card number?

8) Invisible walls: Dragon Age - Origins
Exploration is overrated anyway.

7) Quest-giver icons: World of Warcraft
Kids these days can't be bothered to read text or pay attention to dialog.

6) Quest arrows: Elder Scrolls IV - Oblivion
Kids these days can't be bothered to read text or pay attention to dialog.

5) Respawning monsters: Every MMO ever made
What was the point of killing monsters again? Oh yeah, random loot.

4) Random loot (or other random content): Diablo
Nothing screams immersion like piles of gold exploding out of skeletons.

3) Ambiguous dialog options: Mass Effect
Why did my character just punch the NPC for no reason? Picking dialog options shouldn't be a guessing game. Then again, kids these days can't be bothered to read text or pay attention to dialog.

2) DLCs: Fallout 3
Why make new games when you can just make a bunch of mediocre mini add-ons?

1) Automatic difficulty scaling: Morrowind
What was the point of character levels again?

Shawn Delahunty
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Thank you for some belly-laughs

HaHa! Those are GREAT! Although you nearly owed me a new keyboard for #4:

4) Random loot (or other random content): Diablo
Nothing screams immersion like piles of gold exploding out of skeletons.

Everything smells like Pepsi now, and my eyes are fizzing a little bit.

Cheers!

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clok1966
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agree- mostly
bagelobo wrote:

I'm bored so, Top 10 Worst "Innovations" in CRPGs:

(No idea what the first games were to use these, so I'll just list popular examples)

i agree but my galss is half full thing is awalsy in gear when ti come to gameing... its half empty everywhere else :)
Im not commenting on all (as ..I already rant enouhg here :)

9:All i can say is 100% agree. to top it off that content makes the game better (storage!!!!) it should have been included in the game (the first DLC pack wardens peak/keep?) Several games have this DLC already on the disc when they ship!!!! if that isnt a money grab nothing is.

7: well as an OLD school rpg player i am for and against this.. Towns with hundreds of people and 10 give me quests.. i get sick of talking to each one (especailly bad when they say the same thing). But in a town with 15 people, i sure can spend the time. GUess it depends on the game.. In WOW when it was new it was good, 30 noobs in a area crowded on a guy it was nice to see how he was instead of inspectiong all those noobs.

5: well that is a problem with multipul quests (and players) in the same area in MMO, there are only a couple solutions, game area for each user (but the Multiplayer goes out the window then) or respawnign monsters. the lesser of the two evils I belive.. agree with you, but not sure how they would solve it any other way.

4: hey a skelly used to be human he still has the worst trait, he is greedy.. of course that brings up, where does he keep it!

2: Fallout 3 ... well yes.. as I love the game the extra contant was a bonus.. a poor one as they where so small (and I did mention some of this content was on many shipping fallout discs!) But Fallout :vegas- the last one is worht the $10... but yes most the others where not.. We have always had DLC, but it was called expansion packs, and while most sold for less than the original, most where almost as large as the orginial. We are to blame for this. put out a 10 minute adventeru for $10 (1/4 the price of the 60 hour game) and we buy it, who is to blame here? the people who put the micro crap out or the people who encourage it by buying it?

1: again good and bad, I like a game to alwasy be a challange so I dont mind it.. but the level up system in that game worked of the skills you leveled fastest. so if i snuck areound a bunch of stuff, jumped around like a monkey whenever i traveled and swam alot.. i was leveling.. to bad my defence and weapons skill still sucked.. and the monsters ate me alive! I had a character that was level 10 but couldnt beat a plastic sack into submission.

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