Editorial: The RPG, Past, Present, Future
Role Playing Games(RPG for short) have been around in many forms over the past few decades. From a video game standpoint the RPG was started in the form of games like Dragon Warrior(Now Dragon Quest), The Ultima series and Final Fantasy. From the 1980s until the late 1990s the RPG was a successful yet niche genre in video game world.
Within this time period RPGs were still finding their formula and in the Japanese market, it was Dragon Warrior who was leading the charge. Dragon Warrior originally started with 1 on 1 battles with 1 character the player controlled vs one monster, this was expanded in Dragon Warrior II where the now standard “Party” system was introduced where random battles occur and the player gives orders to characters against groups of enemies. It wasn’t until the time of Dragon Warrior III and the original Final Fantasy did the basic outline of Japanese or JRPGs was established. Dragon Warrior still contained only one story character while final fantasy contained the 4 Warriors of Light. It isn’t until Final Fantasy II and Dragon Warrior 4 where the heroes you control obtain their own names/stories within the overall plot.
Across the world in the United States the Ultima series had been monopolizing the western RPG format of a more western story(Different from the more Japanese/anime style of JRPGs) and more action based gameplay. Ultima started in 1980 and by the time the first Dragon Warrior emerged, it was already on its 5th installment. The western Ultima series and eastern Dragon Warrior/Final Fantasy series have two very different forms of play, that until recently were kept very separate of each other.
As the years went by the RPG genre of both sides became more refined with better gameplay, graphics, sound, and most of all, in the story. In the JRPG world(Not coined JRPGs at this time) the head of the refinement came in 1994s Final Fantasy VI(Known as Final Fantasy III in the U.S). It was at this point where signature story and characters became a new standard/a necessity in the RPG world. Debated by many fans, the next installment is maybe the best of the series, with a friction between whether or not Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy VII is the better. No matter between the differences of which is better or not, it cannot be contested that Final Fantasy VII changed RPGs, especially JRPGs forever.
Final Fantasy VII became the new gold standard in RPGs, with its(at the time) impressive 3D world & character models, signature score, and unforgettable story & characters. The VIIth installment of the Final Fantasy series cemented its developers, Square Soft(Now Square Enix) as one of, if not the premiere JRPG maker. However not only did it immortalize its developer, but it also brought RPGs into the mainstream. No longer would RPGs be a niche part of the gaming world, but it will now be an important part of the industry. I am proud to say that it was Final Fantasy VII that made me into what now is called a “Hardcore” gamer.
While the East was perfecting the single player RPG, the west was embarking on what would be a multi billion dollar idea. With the Internet still in its trial stage with the world, the Ultima series, as well of others would become first Online enabled games, but more importantly, would establish the MMORPG(Massively Multiplayer Online RPG) genre. The first few of these would be Meridan 59, The Realm Online, Neverwinter Nights, but more importantly, Ultima Online. While the first three started the genre, by allowing hundreds of people to play together online, it would be Ultima who would take the steps to bring thousands of people to play together.
At this point in time western RPGs would take to the shadows for the most part with the JRPGs, being lead by the Final Fantasy series would rule the genre. However the burgeoning MMO market would not be affected by this, and in 1999, perhaps the most crucial game for the MMO genre was released, EverQuest. Everquest is the first fully 3D MMO and is the basic template for which all MMOs are based on. This redesigned not only RPGs, but the online space as well. A number of controversies that plague EverQuest still remain to this day with current MMOs, such as addiction, anti social behavior to name a few, but these problems/alleged problems do not stop the genre from succeeding.
With the Final Fantasy series and EverQuest bringing the RPG to a more 3D look/feel, it only makes sense that the series that mainstreamed the genre, would again change it. Released in 2001 for the Playstation 2, Final Fantasy X would forever change for RPGs look and feel. With the power of(at the time), next gen technology, Final Fantasy X brought realistic facial features and emotion to the characters. With fully 3D worlds easily created at this point the RPG scene started to explode with many new RPGs hitting the fray. This new explosion in the genre started to flood, and to some extent, lessen the RPG genre as a whole as with most of these games, they weren’t that good. While The JRPGs still flourished and dominated they ranged the entire spectrum from horrible titles, to decent ones like the .hack series, to the amazing, Final Fantasy and Disgaea series(Even if both these series faltered at one point or another).
The JRPGs were king for most of the 1990s and early 2000s but the PC world, and the newly formed Xbox were aiming to challenge this dominance. The MMO genre was still flourishing, but this world was mostly dominated by the western RPG. A few honorable attempts were made by the east such as Final Fantasy XI, but MMOs are dominated by the west. It seemed that the western RPG came back in the 2003-2004 years with the Xbox’s Fable and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Blizzard’s monster, World of Warcraft. These along with the continued success of two of the few western PC RPGs, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls helped bring western RPGs back into the gaming media. The Elder Scrolls IV:Oblivion and Final Fantasy XII would both reinvent the genre in their own ways. Final Fantasy XII would bring a more action focused gameplay while still staying true to its turn based roots, and Oblivion bringing an absolute action based gameplay to the genre.
Now with Fable II, Fallout 3, and a few JRPGs on the way in 2008, the RPG genre is still going strong, but where is it going?
The RPG genre is still being refined, changed and evolving. There are very few future RPG projects to discuss outside of Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Versus XIII as well as a number of future version of other existing series.
The RPG is taking cues from genres such as action/adventure games, shooters and others to reinvent itself. From the few things the industry knows, it is obvious that the RPG will continue to become more and more action based until the point that outside of a lengthy engaging story, it will be hard to tell an RPG apart from an action/adventure game. That is where I think the RPG is going. There will always be a place for the turn based roots of the genre, but where the RPG is headed is a merger between the action/adventure and RPG genre. Games like Fallout 3, and the ill fated Hellgate: London show that RPGs and shooters can also meld together.
The days of the pure RPG are coming to an end, and in the coming years and beyond, we will continue to see the RPG meld with most, if not every other genre to create new gaming experiences. Instead of a genre, the RPG will become a standard part of games just as having a controller is a standard parts of games now, it will come in different forms, but all will resemble the classic, and unforgettable, RPG genre.