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The lost art of the CRPG Print E-mail
Written by Jason   
Jul 22, 2007 at 07:03 PM

I don't get as much time for gaming as I once did, but one of my hobbies still entails computer RPGs. I'm not talking about online RPGs such as Everquest or World of Warcraft (although at one time I did spend an inordinate amount of time in each of those worlds), instead I'm referring to the classic computer RPG - or, CRPG - that has virtually disappeared.

As I type this, I've begun the arduous task of loading the best CRPG ever created on my system: Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II (I intend to use the EasyTutu package as well). All totaled, eleven CDs worth of the absolute pinnacle of CRPG gaming, and the first one came out in 1998.

Don't get me wrong, there have been a handful of notable CRPGs over the years, such as The Temple of Elemental Evil, the included campaigns of Neverwinter Nights (version one and two), and of course Planescape:Torment (which was put out by the same guys that did Baldur's Gate, but I digress...) which is arguably the better in terms of story, but the mechanics were rough.

The point here is despite exponential increases in processing power, graphics performance, operating system improvements, and Internet bandwidth, the CRPG genre of gaming has all but withered and died. Once in its heyday CRPGs ruled the gaming landscape, but now that landscape is a wasteland.

A few hack n' slash adventure games have turned up over the years, most notably Diablo (and Diablo Reloaded :P), Icewind Dale, and the Dungeon Siege series. But are they RPGs? No. Any story they told is superficial and tacked on as an afterthought. Calling a character a mage and throwing spells, all the while counting mana points does not make an RPG; a thoughtful story that propels the player to become involved in the world, that makes the player care about the outcome on an emotional level - that is what makes a RPG a role playing game.

So where's the hope? At the moment, it lies with fans of the genre. Baldur's Gate I and II have been pushed farther than anyone could have imagined with quite a few mods published entirely by the fans, despite the unfriendly mod nature of the game. Neverwinter Nights is more than just a game, being an engine more than anything to drive fan based creations, and there have been a few notable modules amongst them; however, few would make the argument they're as polished as a studio built CRPG.

Where did it go wrong? It's hard to say for sure. Maybe it's due to programmers thinking that they're good writers - most aren't. Maybe it's due to over focus on mechanics and graphics - most of these turn into hack n' slashers. Maybe it's just that writing a creative, thoughtful, and compelling storyline that the player actually takes a part in is hard for anyone - most likely.

And maybe, just maybe, it's due to the fans simply not demanding more. Case in point: Bioware has moved to the modular nature of Neverwinter Nights for obvious financial reasons, but due to the nature of the engine, the modules simply aren't as polished as a CRPG largely built from the ground up around the story. But, we as willing lemmings bought it, giving less incentive for dyed-in-the-wool CRPGs to be made.

It may sound as though I'm bashing the NWN franchise, but I'm really not. It's an engine for fan based CRPG content; it's not a studio developed CRPG game like the Baldur's Gate series. In my mind, they're not in the same category, although there's a lot of overlap. What I am bashing is the fact that most people consider them one in the same, which has probably helped lead to the sad state of CRPG gaming these days.

Combine all of this with the popularity of Everquest and World of Warcraft and you have a genre that companies simply don't want to invest money in when reoccurring cash can be made from us lemmings in the form of monthly fees and add on modules. There isn't a huge incentive to put in the development and writing dollars for a game that will get only one payment from a customer and that's it.

It's a bit short sighted of many development companies, however. A solidly written and developed CRPG has a life of it's own for many, many years - just look at the Baldur's Gate fan sites for proof of this. Even Diablo sold copies for years with a storyline about as deep as a Chinese fortune cookie. Right now this large market segment is (mostly) open for grabs for someone to jump in and dominate the genre.

That is, if anyone is left that remembers what a good CRPG actually is, anyway.

Last Updated ( Jul 26, 2007 at 09:28 PM )
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