Mainframe Computers

The role-playing video game genre began in the mid-1970s, as an offshoot of early university mainframe text-based rpgs on pdp-10 and Unix-based computers, such as Dungeon, pedit5 and dnd. In 1980, a very popular dungeon crawler, Rogue was released. Featuring ascii graphics where the setting, monsters and items were represented by letters and a deep system of gameplay, it inspired a whole genre of similar clones on mainframe and home computers called “roguelikes“.

RPG History Mainframe Computer

Personal computers

One of the earliest role-playing video game on a microcomputer was Dungeon n Dragons, written by Peter Trefonas and published by cload (1980). This early game, published for a trs-80 Model 1, was just 16k long and included a limited word parser command line, character generation, a store to purchase equipment, combat, traps to solve, and a dungeon to explore. Other contemporaneous crpgs (Computer Role Playing Games) were Temple of Apshai, Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure and Akalabeth: World of Doom, the precursor to Ultima. Some early microcomputer rpgs (such as Telengard (1982) or Sword of Fargoal) were based on their mainframe counterparts, while others (such as Ultima or Wizardry, the most successful of the early crpgs) were loose adaptations of d&d. They also included both first-person displays and overhead views, sometimes in the same game (Akalabeth, for example, used both perspectives). Most of the key features of rpgs were developed in this early period, prior to the release of Ultima III: Exodus, one of the prime influences on both computer and console RPG development. For example, Wizardry featured menu-driven combat, Tunnels of Doom featured tactical combat on a special “combat screen”, and Dungeons of Daggorath featured real-time combat which took place on the main dungeon map.

RPG History Dungeons of Daggorath

Starting in 1984 with Questron and 50 Mission Crush, ssi produced many series of crpgs. Their 1985 game Phantasie is notable for introducing automapping and in-game scrolls providing hints and background information. They also released Pool of Radiance in 1988, the first of several “Gold Box” crpgs based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. These games featured a first-person display for movement, combined with an overhead tactical display for combat. One common feature of rpgs from this era, which Matt Barton calls the “Golden Age” of computer rpgs, is the use of numbered “paragraphs” printed in the manual or adjunct booklets, containing the game’s lengthier texts; the player could be directed to read a certain paragraph, instead of being shown the text on screen. The ultimate exemplar of this approach was Sir-Tech‘s Star Saga trilogy (of which only two games were released); the first game contained 888 “textlets” (usually much longer than a single paragraph) spread across 13 booklets, while the second contained 50,000 paragraphs spread across 14 booklets. Most of the games from this era were turn-based, although Dungeon Master and its imitators had real-time combat. Other classic titles from this era include The Bard’s Tale (1985), Wasteland (1988), the start of the Might and Magic (1986-2014) series and the continuing Ultima (1981-1999) series.

RPG History the Bard's tale 1985

Later, in the middle to late 1990s, isometric, sprite-based rpgs became commonplace, with video game publishers Interplay Entertainment and Blizzard North playing a lead role with such titles as the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and the action-rpg Diablo series, as well as the dialogue-heavy Planescape: Torment and cult classics Fallout and Fallout 2. This era also saw a move toward 3d game engines with such games as Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven and The Elder Scrolls: Arena. TSR, dissatisfied with SSI’s later products, such as Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager and Menzoberranzan, transferred the ad&d license to several different developers, and eventually gave it to BioWare, who used it in Baldur’s Gate (1998) and several later games. By the 2000s, 3d engines had become dominant.

RPG History Baldurs Gate 1