RPG of the Decade - Developers' Choice
Information - posted by DarkUnderlord on Fri 16 April 2010, 06:02:24
As we make our way through 2010, what better thing is there to do than to take a look back at the last ten years, browse over the RPGs released during that time and talk about them? Of those RPGs, which were the most notable? Which were the ones that set the scene for the decade and which of those should be forgotten?
No really, does anyone have any better ideas because we're all out of them.
For our purposes, we'll officially declare 1st January 2000 as the opening of this decade. Technical fags will be correct in arguing the decade doesn't actually begin until 2001 but fuck them, fuck you and we'll do whatever the fuck we like, thaSpnk you very much.
Plus it lets us include a few games that would have otherwise just slipped by... and given those games' impact on the last ten years, we couldn't really have allowed that to happen.
The first thing we need to do of course, is to take a look at the RPGs that were released in the 2000's. So without further ado, here is a reasonably comprehensive list of the PC role-playing games released during that time. Some quite notable and others less so (and don't bitch about wrong release dates - they varied for different regions; also, the list is expansion-free):
- 2000-02-29 - Might & Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer
- 2000-06-22 - Deus Ex
- 2000-06-29 - Diablo 2
- 2000-06-30 - Icewind Dale
- 2000-09-24 - Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
- 2000-09-27 - Wizards & Warriors
- 2000-10-16 - Nethack: Falcon's Eye
- 2000-10-26 - Summoner
- 2001-03-15 - Gothic
- 2001-03-23 - Avernum 2
- 2001-06-27 - Anachronox
- 2001-08-21 - Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
- 2001-09-27 - Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor
- 2001-11-05 - Wizardry 8
- 2001-11-12 - Geneforge
- 2001-12-04 - Gorasul: The Legacy of the Dragon
- 2002-04-05 - Dungeon Siege
- 2002-05-01 - Morrowind
- 2002-06-18 - Neverwinter Nights
- 2002-08-02 - Divine Divinity
- 2002-08-19 - Prince of Qin
- 2002-08-26 - Icewind Dale 2
- 2002-09-19 - Avernum 3
- 2002-11-15 - Prelude to Darkness
- 2002-12-22 - I of the Dragon
- 2003-03-07 - Mistmare
- 2003-03-29 - Might & Magic IX
- 2003-06-28 - Arx Fatalis
- 2003-08-13 - Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader
- 2003-09-16 - Temple of Elemental Evil
- 2003-10-08 - Paradise Cracked
- 2003-10-15 - Geneforge 2
- 2003-10-28 - Gothic 2
- 2003-11-07 - Silent Storm
- 2003-11-19 - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
- 2003-12-01 - Devil Whiskey
- 2003-12-02 - Deus Ex: Invisible War
- 2004-01-25 - Omega Syndrome
- 2004-02-27 - Sacred
- 2004-03-03 - Knights of the Temple: Infernal Crusade
- 2004-04-27 - Dawn of Magic
- 2004-04-28 - Beyond Divinity
- 2004-10-15 - Space Hack
- 2004-11-16 - Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
- 2004-11-18 - Seal of Evil
- 2005-02-15 - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords
- 2005-12-05 - Hammer & Sickle
- 2005-12-05 - Mourning's Wrath
- 2005-04-12 - Kult: Heretic Kingdoms
- 2005-04-12 - Jade Empire
- 2005-05-05 - Dungeon Lords
- 2005-05-18 - Fate
- 2005-05-27 - Restricted Area
- 2005-05-30 - Geneforge 3
- 2005-08-02 - Metalheart: Replicants Rampage
- 2005-08-16 - Dungeon Siege II
- 2005-11-24 - Knights of the Temple 2
- 2006-19-01 - Aveyond
- 2006-02-11 - Day Watch
- 2006-03-02 - Avernum 4
- 2006-03-17 - Fable: The Lost Chapters
- 2006-03-20 - Oblivion
- 2006-04-07 - GODS: Lands of Infinity
- 2006-06-26 - Titan Quest
- 2006-06-26 - Night Watch
- 2006-07-12 - The Fall: Last Days of Gaia
- 2006-09-26 - Mage Knight: Apocalypse
- 2006-10-17 - Brigade E5
- 2006-11-20 - Gothic 3
- 2006-12-08 - Neverwinter Nights 2
- 2007-02-05 - Geneforge 4
- 2007-03-09 - Silverfall
- 2007-04-06 - Loki: Heores of Mythology
- 2007-05-09 - Two Worlds
- 2007-05-21 - Nethergate: Resurrection
- 2007-09-05 - Depths of Peril
- 2007-09-28 - Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer
- 2001-10-01 - The Chosen: Well of Souls
- 2007-10-30 - The Witcher
- 2007-11-19 - Eschalon: Book I
- 2007-11-20 - Mass Effect
- 2007-12-27 - Aveyond 2
- 2008-02-17 - Avernum 5
- 2008-07-30 - The Spirit Engine 2
- 2008-10-02 - Sacred 2: Fallen Angel
- 2008-10-28 - Fallout 3
- 2008-11-03 - Kivi's Underworld
- 2008-11-18 - Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir
- 2009-02-20 - Geneforge 5
- 2009-02-24 - Drakensang: The Dark Eye
- 2009-05-05 - 7.62
- 2009-07-24 - Divinity II: Ego Draconis
- 2009-08-09 - Knights of the Chalice
- 2009-10-02 - Risen
- 2009-11-03 - Dragon Age
- 2009-10-27 - Torchlight
- 2009-10-30 - A Farewell to Dragons
Attack of the A-RPG
A quick look at the first five games released and you'd know why we wanted to include the year 2000. It was the year of Diablo 2. Awarded a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, 2000 for being "the fastest selling computer game ever sold, with more than 1 million units sold in the first two weeks of availability".
Sales numbers are a hard thing to ignore so Diablo 2 and its predecessor saw a surge in what are now termed Action RPGs. The list is littered with not only them, but their sequels. Their likes spawned Dungeon Siege, the interactive screen-saver, followed a few short years later by Dungeon Siege 2. It inspired Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale 2, Sacred and Sacred 2, Fate and its follow-up Torchlight... all among many others we haven't even bothered to mention.
The rest of the list is affected, almost plagued, by Diablo's success. Suddenly combat needed to be "Hack 'n Slash", click-y, action-y and if it wasn't, your game wasn't going to survive the cut-throat "RPG" market and attract the "casual player". Deep RPG elements were sacrificed in exchange for phat l00t drops, epic boss monsters, "stream-lining" and "accessability". But most importantly, combat. Lots and lots of combat.
For better or for worse, Diablo affected everything.
Now compare that to the (some-what non-RPG) game near the start of the list, Deus Ex. A game critically acclaimed for its role-playing elements, which quickly turned to shit a mere 3 years later when the RPG elements were cut-back and "universal ammo" was introduced in its sequel. Carving back the RPG elements wasn't necessarily the smartest move... but it still sold. In this case it's hard to argue that Diablo is responsible, but it's clear there was a trend towards the reduction of RPG elements in favour of combat.
Gothic Europeans. More than just weird hairdos and dark clothing.
The 2000's also saw the rise of the Gothic series. Created by Pluto 13 GmbH (but perhaps known to you as Piranha Bytes), the games typically allow you to do a bunch of stuff like grilling food, strumming a musical instrument and (apparently) even pissing. Because as we know here at the Codex, true role-playing is all about being able to piss.
All of this occured in a living world where people have schedules and their own jobs to do, a mechanic that was seen in other games such as Arcanum and even Oblivion. True to the picture of developers who try and survive by adding a little bit more RPG to their A-RPG's, Piranha Bytes ran into trouble and split from their publisher JoWood Productions. In the process they lost the rights to Gothic (Gothic 4 is now being developed by someone else) and so made Risen instead. Unfortunately, urinating NPCs had to be removed from Risen due to censorship constraints (or so the story goes).
Along a similar story, Polish developers CD Projekt released The Witcher. While they may have been drinking a little too much kool-aid and hyped it a little bit more than it perhaps deserved, The Witcher was a pretty cool RPG. Albeit some-what linear with choices that didn't seem to account for much other than what colour jumper the guy standing next to you was wearing.
Their similarity with Piranha Bytes, of course, is that they ran into financial trouble and almost died. What's scary is that they were even running the sequel treadmill with The Witcher 2 and a console spin-off and rumours of a third non-Witcher RPG (Ahhh.. That must've been the problem). Perhaps realising they bit off more than they could chew, they've narrowed their focus now and are just working on the one sequel.
On a different note, these developers are part of an interesting and emerging pattern. Typically, the games in most genres are made by Westerners American-based studios (avoiding some obvious exceptions). When it comes to RPGs though, it's the foreigners that seem to make the most.
While big Western American studios stick mostly to action games, European developers such as Piranha Bytes (Gothic), CD Projekt (The Witcher), Larian Studios (Divine Divinty), Arkane Studios (Arx Fatalis) and even Ascaron Entertainment (Sacred - who by the way, also ran into financial problems and died), seem to be making the RPGs. That's not to say there are no Western American studios making RPGs - in fact the biggest studios are still the Westerners Americans - but it does seem to be a growing trend of English speakers having to look overseas to get their RPG fix while everyone else makes Grand Theft Auto console infested popamole bullshit xbawks trash.
Used popamole in a sentence. Achievement unlocked.
Another interesting pattern - and as already noted - is that like Gothics 1 thru 3, they all like making sequels. That doesn't stop Piranha Bytes from being one of the more notable RPG developers of the decade though, even if they have mostly stuck to the same schtick and have been caught in the sequel round-about.
The Rise and Fall of Troika Games
Now one of those American studios making RPGs - and a developer who went out of their way to avoid the sequel round-about - was Troika Games. Founded on April 1, 1998 they died about January 30, 2005. Proving once and for all that when it comes to RPGs, if you stick to making sequels, you'll stand a better chance of survival. Maybe.
Troika were created on lofty goals of "Design, Art, Code" that ultimately resulted in them biting off more than they could chew in the design department, doing some quite reasonable art on it but being brought down by some unfortunate code. Their flagship title Arcanum, one of the most notable RPGs of the decade, symbolised the hope of things to come. Filled with interesting quests and multiple choices for repeat play-throughs, it was a great start for the fledgling company.
However Troika's second entry in the list, The Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE), failed to live up to the lofty RPG ambitions of Arcanum. It did however, deliver some of the damn best turn-based D&D combat ever seen in a computer game (and in most cases, still seen).
Their third entry was to be their last. Bloodlines saw them drop the classic isometric view and put their RPG skills to task in Valve's first-person Source engine. Here they created an interesting mix of FPS and RPG in a game that unfortunately developed a reputation for being a bit buggy.
"Choice and consequence" has become our catch-cry here at the Codex and Troika developed a reputation for delivering some of the best. There are still things in Arcanum that I am yet to do, - precluded by my various choices in the game - and other consequences I am yet to experience. While ToEE was perhaps a mistake in the "don't make your computer game follow a D&D module too closely" department, it still had a few interesting options. Ok, so maybe not... but have I mentioned how awesome the combat is?
And of course Bloodlines with its many Vampire clans to choose from does quite well... Until it gets to the ending where Troika obviously ran out of time and money to achieve their high aims and stuck you with a fairly linear end-game that runs you through the combat mill.
Still, Troika will be remembered as having tried. And failed. And that right there is the problem with RPGs. Those developers that try, seem to fail an awful lot.
And where would we be speaking about failure if we didn't mention Interplay? Interplay died some-time in 2004. I don't know how they're "officially" still alive, but they are. Perhaps a sign that having a successful back catalogue with a range of games is the only way for computer developers to stay afloat? Speaking of which, Interplay have been involved with some of the most defining RPG series of all time.
... of all time!!
The original Fallout's, the Baldur's Gate series... Nope, turns out that's pretty much it. They are however two of the most well-regarded series of the RPG genre (and I'm talking about real RPGs here, not those pesky A-RPGs or jRPGs). Even the critically acclaimed Planescape: Torment was developed by the folks at Interplay (and for the record, that's a game that's still in my to-play list. So bite me).
The 2000's saw them over-use the Baldur's Gate "Infinity" game engine a little bit too much though, taking it well passed its prime with Icewind Dale. However they showed that making sequels and recycling game engines is the way to RPG success. At least until they were bought out by a Frenchman.
After bastardising Fallout into every non-RPG spin-off imaginable and failing miserably, they now can't take much credit for the only Fallout RPG released this decade... and of course, we all know that the success of Baldur's Gate is really because of BioWare Entertainment anyway (re-wording that sentence to avoid "Baldur's Gate's success" was fun).
The Unstoppable Juggernaut that is BioWare Corporation
Baldur's Gate, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Jade Empire. If we ignore Jade Empire, it's an impressive list. More to the point, it is 6 separate RPG licenses all released by the one developer within the span of a single decade.
At the beginning of that decade, BioWare were almost a minnow, relying on their publishing relationship with Interplay. By the end of it, they'd sold out to that other juggernaut, Electronic Arts (is "challenge everything" in-grained in your mind yet?). With a plethora of RPG titles under their belts and the audacity now to not just plan sequels as their games are successful but to declare trilogies right off the bat, there's no doubt that BioWare are one of - if not the - most successful RPG developers of all time.
... of all time!!
They're even giving a helping hand to partners-in-crime Obsidian Entertainment, by allowing them to develop the sequels to their products. Perhaps the interesting note is that the key American Developers of the 2000's - BioWare, Obsidian and Troika - all have such a strong connection to Interplay. While BioWare relied on Interplay as a publisher in its early years, the key developers that make up each of the other companies all fled from Interplay's sinking ship.
Quite why it is that the production of American RPGs all seem to be centered from this core group is anyone's guess. Most likely it's down to the difficulty of getting funding and putting an RPG together that only established players with reasonable reputations have any chance at it.
Some of the notable people from this group who have influenced the RPGs of this decade include Troika's Tim Cain, Jason Anderson and Leonard Boyarsky, Obsidian's Feargus Urquhart, Chris Avellone and Josh Sawyer (Taht's Josh Sawyer Lead Designer of the cancelled Torn, the cancelled Fallout 3 'Van Buren' project, the cancelled Aliens RPG and if his reputation holds, the soon to be cancelled Fallout: New Vegas). David Gaider and Mike Laidlaw are the two most likely names you might know from BioWare.
Troika tried and ultimately failed at making "real" RPGs. Low profits and lack of funding being their final downfall. Obsidian seem to be making a better shot at remaining as a private company but are so far relying on the good grace of their friends. With a bit of luck, their upcoming Alpha Protocol might be something worth waiting for. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether BioWare's "selling out" to EA will reduce the (some would argue) already some-what scarce RPG elements in their games any further.
When it comes to RPG sequels, there's nothing quite like sticking to the same one for two whole decades. I am of course talking about the Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda's stalwart entry in the RPG category.
During the 2000's, Bethesda even managed to release the same game twice, down-grading it in the process. Then taking that down-graded game, adding guns and releasing it again. We are of course talking about Morrowind, which was pretty, had lots to do and was full of interesting underwater areas compared to its successor Oblivion. Oblivion had shitty looking people, fugly graphics and no interesting underwater areas, along with axes which had become blunt. Followed at last by Fallout 3, which finally has fixed people issues but still suffers from the same fatal RPG flaw that affects all of Bethesda's titles: You get to role-play everything at once.
I mentioned earlier that "choice and consequence" is a catch-cry here on the Codex. Well, choice and consequence is not an ingredient in a Bethesda game. In your typical Bethesda game, you get to role-play everyone. You get to make every choice, typically without any consequences.
And by God does that make their games hugely successful.
Fallout 3 was a big step away from this formula for Bethesda. And by big step I mean there are at least a handful of choices with multiple consequences. Though its core system still suffers from the same "you're likely to end up with every skill anyway" mind-set, NPCs that are just too important to die and level-scaling, in any regard, they're trying and I can't fault them for that. If only they could just make it look like they weren't trying so hard (Vampires? Really?).
But going back to their success... Fallout 3 with its consolised interface, sold millions. Oblivion and Morrowind before it also sold millions. Where then does that leave the modern RPG? The game where making choices actually results in missing out on things? The game where you don't get to use the best axe because you're focussing on guns instead? While RPG becomes a modern marketing phrase to slap on titles in the hopes of selling additional units and some companies are making real efforts, the truth is, the core mechanics of the most successful RPGs released by the main-stream developers are becoming less and less RPG like.
Where then should those who want RPGs with some real choice and consequence turn?
Jeff Vogel - Long Live the Indie
In ten years, Jeff Vogel - the man behind Spiderweb Games [sic]- has released an impressive eleven games... or the same game eleven different times if you want to be a hater. Through the 2000's Jeff released Avernum 2-6, Geneforge 2-5, Nethergate: Resurrection and Blades of Avernum.
If there's anyone who owes his success to the "just make a sequel" methodology, it is Jeff Vogel. While the professional studios fail left and right, Jeff has somehow or another managed to chip out a tiny niche market for himself. And pretty much only himself. He's nestled into it now and is well and truly quite snug.
Updating little if anything of his games over the past decade, Jeff has simply added story and new locations to explore. He's changed some bits and pieces as he goes of course but the core technology has almost always remained consistently the same. The graphics too. In any other genre this would be a death knell but when it comes to RPGs, it seems the shittier the graphics, the more chances there are of having more interesting role-playing elements.
This is perhaps best demonstrated by Knights of the Chalice, a game which has become a Codex favourite. Its implementation of the D&D based Open Game License 3.5 is one of the best and results in combat encounters that simply don't occur in main-stream titles. Much like the independent Mount & Blade, it's an indie game that got its core combat mechanic right.
Now if we could only work on some of those choices and consequences...
Putting the Decade to Rest
So what was this decade all about? CD Projekt best proved how hard it is to survive in the RPG industry, managing to release their acclaimed title The Witcher and just barely avoid going bankrupt afterwards. This is a company founded in 1994 who survived quite well as a publisher until they attempted to make an RPG.
Deus Ex showed that first person shooters don't have to just involve shooting... then blew it in the sequel.
Diablo 2 saw the rise and rise of the A-RPG clone.
Wizardry 8 came out, half a decade after its predecessor... only to then have Sir-Tech go out of business.Troika died, Interplay died, Ascaron died, Piranha Bytes ran into trouble...
The pattern is pretty clear: Don't make RPGs if you want to survive as a computer game company.
It's pretty obvious that we who like RPGs are a rare few and the market simply can't seem to sustain AAA RPG titles from a number of developers. In short, we're going to be stuck with consolised popamole xbwaks shit-trash for a long time to come.
Because it sells.
Instead, we will be reliant on those few who try to go above and beyond. Those willing to take the risk, put their company's financial future on the line and try and make a decent RPG. And to that end, there were some decent RPGs released amongst all the crap this decade.
Which leads us to the question... of these RPGs, which will be the most remembered? Which is the RPG that will stand the test of time and be hailed for years to come?
... or if you're more cynical, which one sucked the least?
But who cares what we think? So we asked some of the better known names in the gaming world to nominate their "RPG of the Decade". When they turned us down, we went for these guys instead.
Developers' Choice - RPG of the Decade
Thomas Riegsecker (Eschalon Book I & II)
Picking out one game that represents the best RPG of the past decade is a nearly impossible task, but if I had to say which game I spent the most time with it would be Neverwinter Nights. I skipped the initial release in 2002 and instead bought the Platinum Edition (with the expansion packs) a couple years later, then spent 4 solid months glued to the computer to finish the game three times with different characters. However, the game that I probably have the fondest memories for (and thus my vote for RPG of the Decade) has to be Elder Scrolls III: Morrorwind. A huge, open, explorable game world with thousands of items, secrets, monsters, NPCs and quests…now that was a role-playing experience worth missing work for.
Jeff Vogel (Avernum, Geneforge)
I've been designing RPGs for a living for 15 years, and burnout is a constant threat. That's why the RPGs I remember most are the ones that invigorate me in dry patches, the ones that make me go, "Oh! That's why I'm doing that! I want to make more of these!"
So, for me, the best RPG of the 2000s was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. When it was released, Bioware had been putting out good stuff for years, but this was their first one of their games I played where their patented "Four Self-Contained Sections and Then the Endgame" mechanic really blew me away. I best remember the section on Korriban (yes, I had to look it up), where you are infiltrating a school of dark jedi. There were fifty different ways to get through the place, and I couldn't believe all this detail and cool stuff was crammed into just one small section of the game.
Also, it had HK-47. (For the uninitiated, an evil assassin robot who travels with you and gets all of the funniest lines in the game.)
I've been a huge fan of Bioware games pretty much forever, but this one came out at just the right time for me personally. Any fan of RPGs should track down a copy.
Vic Davis (Solium Infernum, Rogue Expedition)
What can change the nature of an rpg? Well great, I guess that “since the year 2000” cuts out that choice. Although it’s the only RPG that I actually cried a little bit at the end and I’m man enough to admit it. It was like 1 or 2 in the morning and the combination of the music and the end cut scene really made me go “whoah” in a neo sort of way. If I can’t choose that though, I should probably choose Baldur’s Gate II.
But I won’t. I did really love it and I kicked all types of butt dual wielding a katana and some other sword as a fighter (kensei) dual classed magic user who took down liches and dragons with slice and dice buffed ease… I think I even recall being able to do time stop at one point in Throne of Bhaal. But I’m not choosing that so I will say the Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE) which I think had the best ever tactical combat system…best ever. I also liked the fact that you started out low level and I think 6 or 7 was the max you could reach.
I thought the graphics were really well done and there is crispness to them that you don’t get with 3-D. I particularly loved the frogs that you encountered before you got to the temple. They could spit out there tongues and swallow a character up whole. I really liked the hack and slash aspect and didn’t mind that there wasn’t an epic storyline. Each combat was like a mini chess game. ToEE is one of the few rpg’s that I have actually finished so it gets kudos points there. I am a bitter old geek about the fact that we never got a sequel or follow on game to this gem. I blame the kids nowadays and their online 3-D world of warcraft “social” consolitis vapidity….eh you kids get off of my lawn.
Jay Barnson (Frayed Knights, Void War)
Okay - my favorite RPG of the last decade - and rationale:
Neverwinter Nights. "What?" you might ask. "I played through that game, and I don't remember it being anything spectacular. Did you play the same Neverwinter Nights I did?"
"Absolutely not!" I'd reply with a grin. "That's the whole point!"
For more than two-and-a-half decades prior to the release of NWN, computer RPGs have attempted to emulate the thrill and fun and the "ideal" (which means different things to different people) of the tabletop RPG experience. NWN succeeded by literally putting that experience on the desktop. Combining an extremely powerful (and fairly easy-to-use) mod-building toolkit with multiplayer would have been awesome, but the key ingredient was the Dungeon Master interface. Unlike the host of Massively Multiplayer Whack-A-Mole Games out there, this combination allowed players to really enjoy varying levels of computer-enhanced tabletop RPG sessions. Whether solo with one of zillions of premium and fan-based modules, or with friends doing the same, or with a friend running as a dungeon master generating stuff on-the-fly to supplement whatever planned module was loaded, Neverwinter Nights was as much a platform for playing games as a game unto itself. And except for some of the crappier fan-made modules we experimented with, I really can't regret any of the hundreds and hundreds of hours I spent playing, DMing, and making modules for this game.
Brian Mitsoda (Vampire: Bloodlines, DoubleBear's Zombie RPG)
The big difference for me between the last decade and all the other decades I’ve been playing games is that for the last ten years I’ve actually been working on them, and thus, have a bit of a different perspective than other people – mostly that I’m dissecting RPGs and critiquing them rather than enjoying them most of the time. My requirement for a good RPG is one that makes me play it rather than poke around its guts and look at what makes it tick. I’m also quite worried at all times about pissing any number of people in the industry off by coming off as hypercritical of their good intentions, so that’s probably another reason I don’t do a lot of public analysis or griping about RPGs and other games.
To be blunt, I haven’t really enjoyed an RPG made in the last decade as much as I have my favorite games of all time. It feels like, for many games and not just RPGs, the very same concepts and systems we’ve had for years but in hi-def and with less features. Not to say there haven’t been some laughs, but it’s an old joke told with a self-aware delivery. Too often I think the problem stems from people basing every role-playing game on either ancient pen and paper systems or 8-bit interpretations of pen and paper games instead of actually designing systems and gameplay from the ground-up for modern machines. Okay, that’s part of it. There’s also the settings and stories, which for the most part tend to not engage me as both a thirty-something individual and also as a person who got over all their adolescent power fantasies around the time I started caring about the price of health insurance. To clarify, I’m not looking for a game that allows me to roleplay an accounts manager, but I did cease being thirteen an awful long time ago, so I actually grasp concepts beyond good and evil. Then again, looking at the political sphere of the last ten years, perhaps that’s just games reflecting society.
Okay, now for the surprising part – I actually did enjoy some stuff. Lately (and I mean, in the last five years or so) I’ve been more interested in interesting system design than “choice and consequence” – call it buzzword fatigue or the give puppy/kill puppy transparency of a lot of story decisions, but I’m more likely to enjoy a game for its systems and secretly resent its lack of choice or bottomless well-like linearity. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one of them that got everything so perfect as to be worthy of some lameass sports metaphor. Maybe there’s even some debate whether these were “for real” RPGs, but maybe that’s just because the phrase has lost all meaning since many games have incorporated features that originated in RPGs and marketing geniuses decided it was a dandy label to sell a game with lots of dialogue and less than refined controls. Right, now that I’ve written enough to be debunked as a curmudgeon/elitist/liberal/Bokononist/asshole, here’s what I liked in no particular order and why:
Mount and Blade - I loved the initial rush of charging into the enemy army so much I was content to do it over and over and over again, until I think I had destroyed every large army on the map. Building and leading an army, as well as the castle siege parts, was some of the most fun I’ve had in games in years. The world was open, and that was great, but the story seemed to want you to make it up as you went along, and the ability to break from a lord and create your own kingdom would have been fantastic. A bit more reactivity to the player’s accomplishments and a few more unique personalities for the allies and rival lords/ladies and it would be damn near perfect. I don’t think I played any games for longer stretches of time than this one. There were a few other rough edges, but all I can think of right now is horsemen zigzagging about on a muddy plain, cutting down the remnants of the enemy’s army.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – Blow this game off all you want for being Mario, but the game refined an already novel system from the first game and poked fun at a lot of Mario and Nintendo clichés with an actually funny script that more games and especially RPGs could use. The badge system was basically perks that allowed the player to customize their character and allowed for some interesting strategies in combat. Also, the combat managed to be both fun and challenging without ever feeling cheap, the level up system was to the point, and systems like pleasing the audience felt fresh and inspired. The overall art style, companions, and powers were all kinds of charming and the whole internal logic of the world felt like an RPG version of a Fleischer cartoon. Yeah, Mario had to ultimately collect several magical things in several areas to unlock the ultimate showdown with a demon/shadow royalty, but I can think of several other “mature” RPGs that feature that same plot. Bonus: The Bowser sections and the chests that “curse” you are some of the funniest shit in games ever.
Shin Megami Tensei Series - Played most of these to completion including all the optional stuff for people who are both masochist and completionist. Yes, they are grind-tastic, but their variations on their basic combat system are always engaging and generally make for a good challenge, especially in some of the more life or death random encounters like in Digital Devil Saga. Speaking of Digital Devil Saga – I really liked their skill system and loved the fact that you gained experience by devouring your weakened enemies. The Persona series had some charming characters and ways of tying them in with the core mechanic (the tarot system) and while I could have used a few less rails, I think explaining it as the rigid structure of a teenager’s life rather than just lazy design worked in its favor. If the next games fix some of the problems with the fusion systems and mix up the random encounters to make the dungeons less stale over time, they will have addressed some of my biggest complaints. I really have to give a lot of credit to the English translation and VO crew – they go above and beyond and deserve a lot more credit for the American versions than they get.
Well, that’s all I can remember in the time I have allotted for this answer. Apologies to Jason for completely taking the question and running off into another quadrant of the galaxy with it. Thanks for making me reflect on an interesting ten years.
Pierre Begue (Knights of the Chalice)
My favourite CRPG for that period is Temple of Elemental Evil (TOEE). In that period, it's the only CRPG that I have played from the beginning to the end three or four times. TOEE painstakingly recreated the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 ruleset, with attacks of opportunity, reach weapons, metamagic spells, weapon enchantments like holy and axiomatic, 11 character classes, more than 100 arcane spells, more than 100 divine spells, around 20 skills and 80 feats. It has wonderful backdrop graphics and stylish 3D animated models. Depending on the party's alignment, you start the game in one of nine unique locations. Unlike most games of the decade, TOEE features a turn-based combat engine and a fixed top-down viewpoint.
I can remember plenty of great gaming moments in TOEE: giant frogs that pin you down with their tongue and then swallow you whole, an evil cleric who offers to surrender - only to lure the party into an ambush, a fire temple filled with fireball-throwing salamanders, the water temple's Juggernaut (a huge lobster-like creature with very high Armor Class), and the confrontation with the High Priest of the Greater Temple together with his shock troops and evil demigod Iuz.
Chris Taylor (Fallout, Project V13)
I’ll be honest. I haven’t played that many CRPGs this last decade. Started some, and finished very, very few. Call it burn-out, call it ennui, but for whatever reason, the ‘90s were a much more appealing decade to me for CRPGs. Still, one game stands out for the sole reason is that I actually enjoyed double-clicking on the game icon and playing for half an hour or four hours straight: Torchlight. It has simple mechanics, feather-weight story, limited character interaction -- but all that doesn’t matter, since it is hella-fun. Graphics fit the game perfectly. I grumbled about the interface at times, especially trying to target an enemy from a distance and instead running into battle mindlessly, but I didn’t care. I was having too much of a good time splattering my foes, looting their stuff and sending my dog back to down with a full backpack. Torchlight awoke that little 10 year old in me that fell in love with CRPGs to begin with.
Annie Carlson (NWN2: Storm of Zehir, DoubleBear's Zombie RPG)
Oh man, favorite RPG of the last decade. That's a difficult question for anyone to answer, especially an RPG developer. If we mention we like a certain game, people will hiss that our new game will be a copy of that (or that we must suck because we like it) - and if we fail to mention that we like (or dislike) any major RPG release, people will take issue with its absence. It's also kind of sad that I find it far easier to write about the games that I didn't like than the ones that I love, partially because of the critical nature of the internet: if I put anything out there, the howling savages that populate it will quickly rip it to shreds, like piranhas skeletonizing a cow. But certain games have a quality that endures that rigorous bashing that any game released in the Internet Era automatically receives, and I think that my favorites fall into that category.
It's also difficult to ask an RPG developer with canceled titles that "favorite RPG" question. I think I would have said "Project New Jersey" if it had lived. It was GOOD. I'm still bummed about it getting canceled. Any dev who's been in the industry long enough, who's worked at more than one company DEFINITELY - they'll have canceled games to their name, and one of those will be the One That Got Away, and it will be like a sweetheart that died young. Any memory of it will still make us jaded bastards well up with at least a tear or two. Anyhow. Moving on!
One sad element of the past decade is how much of it I spent either entirely broke or with a terrible, tired old computer. In the early part of the 2000's, I was a broke college student, and I played the hell out of Diablo 2 and Fallout 2 (because I could afford them, and they ran on my machine, and were really fun). Then I graduated college in 2003, and was a broke GameStop worker, and hence played a lot more console titles because they were cheaper and I could get them (and that "employees can check out and play our used game selection" was true, and a lot more fun before people whined about it. Only way I could get my hands on some titles, and whew, it saved me from buying some stinkers.) Then I became a game developer! ...and I was still broke, but a little less so. But I digress - that's my parade of excuses there.
I know I'm going to get people rolling their eyes at me for this, but I'm going to split my favorite RPG into two categories: PC and console. Any further distinctions of "what is or isn't an RPG" can be left at the door, because I find that argument as tiring as the "are games art" one. Yes, it's an RPG, and yes, they're art, let's leave that dead horse alone.
CONSOLE: If people give me crap about loving the hell out of Persona 4, and accuse me of being some kind of "console JRPG whore" (or some such), they can frankly shove it, because this game is fucking GOOD. Although it is admittedly a dungeon crawl at its core, its premise is interesting, it's not yet another fantasy/sci-fi setting, its combat systems are tightly designed and its characters actually act like real human beings. I don't think Atlus gets enough credit for their translations and VO, and this game is a fantastic example of how hard they work at it, and what a huge difference it makes. When one certain character - if you played it you'll know the one - was in trouble and possibly dying, I was genuinely upset about it. (Don't even judge me for that, man, you don't even KNOW)
PC: I know I'm going to get /eyerolls for saying "I really liked Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines" because I work with Brian Mitsoda, but no, seriously: I really didn't care about the setting at all before playing it (and before that, it just brought up a really uncomfortable situation where I was at a dance at college and some creepy guy invited me to play Sabbat in his Vampire LARP, saying that I "looked like I could be a really good Brujah." So yeah, that was my prior exposure to it, and no, I'm not making that up). When I started the game, however, I was instantly hooked, and all the things that made the setting interesting were brought to the forefront of the game. And although the sewers (which Brian swears up and down he had nothing to do with) sucked ass, it was a really satisfying game to play through. Great VO, great writing, neat settings, and I could make people vomit blood. And it's the first time in ages a game has honestly made me jump in my chair and shriek curses (instead of my regular old yelling at enemies). If you play through the Ocean House hotel and that thumping sound in the dryer doesn't make your heart start thudding in your chest, I don't even know what to say that doesn't involve accusations and the CapsLock key. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU would probably be a start.
Also, I have to add that playing Bloodlines was kind of a unique experience for me, because I played it in 2006, and I could go to work and tell Mitsoda that it was really weird to have a character with his voice hitting on me (i.e. Romero), or Justin Cherry that his art was super awesome, or yell (in mostly jest) at Brock Heinz for making the fucking werewolf so fucking smart. I even got to work with Margaret Tang (the voice director), and hear stories about recording the game and her playing Imalia and Kiki. So my RPG experiences as a developer are... unique. And I can't claim the "interesting" privilege that Mitsoda has of seeing dirty DeviantArt pictures of characters he's created. I don't even know how much that would mess with my brain, and I'm kind of afraid of the possibility.
Michal Madej (The Witcher, Ubisoft Shanghai's RPG)
Published in 2000, Deus Ex was a forecast for the whole decade, the most influential title and an omen of incoming changes. Even excellent games that tried to stick to "the old-ways", like the remarkable Arcanum, simply went extinct. There were, however, titles that learned the lesson - with Vampire: Bloodlines being probably the most brilliant RPG design of decade, which strongly influenced The Witcher as well. Eventually, Mass Effect 2, a direct descendant of the aforementioned titles opened a new decade with a perfected design of the next generation of RPG experience.
Vault Dweller (Age of Decadence, Codex Ubersturmfuhrer)
Arcanum was definitely the best RPG of the decade (and coincidentally the best RPG ever made, period), beating the competition by a large margin. It was Troika's game of passion, a game that truly redefined RPGs by showing just how much is possible, if developers focus on gameplay instead of graphics for a change. Unfortunately, this innovative approach didn't really work out for Troika, but taught a valuable lesson to other developers, which is why a 9 year old game is still the best RPG of the decade.
Like any other great and ambitious game, it had its share of flaws and was by no means perfect, but overall the game delivered a lot more than any other RPG ever did:
- unique steampunk setting with an interesting magic vs technology angle
- huge, well developed, open world with over 60 locations
- detailed skill-based character system: 8 stats, 16 skills, 80 spells, and 56 technological degrees to choose from.
- superb and unsurpassed crafting system
- non-linear, rich and complex story that doesn't revolve around you being a chosen one, even though the game let's you play this angle if you want to
- massive dialogue trees loaded with checks and reflecting more options and choices that you thought was humanly possible.
- plenty of alternative ways, multiple quest solutions, and various consequences
- Gamespot: "Also, if by chance you're not paying close attention to what's being said, you'll find that completing some of the quests in the game will prove very difficult."
It doesn't get any better than that, does it?
Soren Johnson (Civilization 4, Strategy Station)
My best RPG memory of the decade came from Bioware's Neverwinter Nights. The game may not have the best combat system (for that, I would have chosen KOTOR) or advancement path (Etrian Odyssey) or storyline/world (Baldur's Gate II), but it did deliver on something for which I and three of my boyhood friends had been waiting for years - a chance to actually relive our bedroom D&D experiences together, online. For example, one of our favorite old D&D modules was the gothic, vampiric Ravenloft, and a fan had recreated it with the game's mod engine, literally giving us a chance to relive it. Jumping from module to module was rarely a smooth, balanced experienced, but the Neverwinter Nights reminded me that the best experiences are usually not about what you are play but with whom you are playing.
Tim Cain (Fallout, Carbine Studios MMO)
There were so many good RPG’s released in the last decade that it is hard to choose the “RPG of the Decade”. I am embarrassed to say that I haven’t played some of them, and I only want to nominate a game that I have played. And that list is still large: Baldur’s Gate 2, Icewind Dale 2, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age (Bioware is on a roll in my list, you can see), Fable, Deus Ex, Fallout 3, Geneforge. So I am going with a game that captured my imagination and that I played for many many hours, and that I think about when designing my own games. And that game is…
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
There are so many things about this game that I loved. It was an open sandbox world, where I was free to go where I wanted and act how I wanted, and I had to live with the consequences of my actions. I became a vampire (and got cured later), I joined every guild and reached leadership status in them (and I loved the Dark Brotherhood the most), I did every Daedric shrine quest, and I explored most of the continent. In fact, I ignored the main storyline for most of my playing of this game, and I had more fun with the guild storylines and with trying to get every house in the game. The huge combination of skills, stats, spells and items, and the detailed character customization at the beginning of the game, really made me feel that I could play roleplay anyone I wanted. The game is not without its flaws (the auto-leveling of monsters springs to mind), but overall, this game was everything I wanted in an RPG: open-ended, re-playable, good-looking and downright fun.
However, an honorable mention must go to Blorp Zingwag: Elf Detective. With a name like that, you know it has to be good.
HOW COULD YOU TIM YOU DIRTY MANWHORE. Blorp Zingwag is not an RPG!
The Codex of course gives a special thanks to those developers who were able to respond.
Codex RPG of the Decade Competition
RPGs are all about choice. So, what's your RPG of the decade and why? Nominate your RPG of the decade. Write a short (or long) paragraph about why it's your pick and send it in to us or post it in the thread attached to this article. We'll publish the entries and a highly advanced computer algorithm will randomly pick three winners who we'll send a free game from GOG (of the winner's choosing).
Entries close 30th April 2010.