Post Script

The re­turn of the CRPG is part of a sea change in player ex­pec­ta­tions


Divin­ity: Orig­i­nal Sin is the first tra­di­tional RPG in what is likely to be a sub­stan­tial re­vival for the genre. Next is Waste­land 2, with Pil­lars Of Eter­nity to fol­low after that and in­Xile’s PlaneScape Tor­ment suc­ces­sor, Tor­ment: Tides Of Numen­era, in the months there­after. Ev­ery one of these games, in­clud­ing Divin­ity, was crowd­funded for all or part of its devel­op­ment. The easy nar­ra­tive here is that hard­core fans wanted these games back and Kick­starter gave them the means to pay for them: that crowd­fund­ing is, in essence, a pre­order ser­vice for games that’ll fly with a small au­di­ence but not at­tract the kind of num­bers that war­rant pub­lisher in­vest­ment.

There’s truth to that in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but Divin­ity: Orig­i­nal Sin’s week-one sales sug­gest a dif­fer­ent re­al­ity. It was the most pop­u­lar game on Steam in the week im­me­di­ately after the sum­mer sale. It will have ben­e­fited from the ab­sence of a triple-A com­peti­tor in the early sum­mer drought, but this isn’t the first time that a niche game has oc­cu­pied that po­si­tion for a sub­stan­tial amount of time. DayZ. The For­est. Spin­tires. These games don’t re­quire Kick­starter cam­paigns to be vi­able: they ev­i­dently are al­ready.

There are mul­ti­ple rea­sons why this is the case. Dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion is a big one, as is YouTube. Cult games from the 1990s – RPGs, sim­u­la­tors, ad­ven­ture games – have been fast-tracked into the main­stream thanks to the ease with which for­merly iso­lated fans can be­come ad­vo­cates thanks to a di­ver­si­fy­ing game me­dia. Only a small num­ber of peo­ple may have been fans of Planescape Tor­ment in 1999, but it’s ev­i­dent that a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of them have sub­se­quently be­come blog­gers, YouTu­bers and writ­ers.

The ques­tion this raises is why these games in par­tic­u­lar per­sist in the cul­tural mem­ory of PC play­ers for so long. Tra­di­tional RPGs like Divin­ity of­fer an an­swer, grounded in the ways in which it dif­fers from the types of RPG we’re used to in 2014. It is com­mit­ted to its own con­cept of re­al­ism, which is some­thing that it has in com­mon with both DayZ and Euro Truck Sim­u­la­tor 2. These are all games about hav­ing ‘real’ ex­pe­ri­ences within cer­tain bound­aries; games that prom­ise to let you ex­press your agency to a sub­stan­tial de­gree within an en­vi­ron­ment that feels like it ad­heres to the rules of real life.

When this shift oc­curred orig­i­nally it was be­cause tech­nol­ogy had ad­vanced to the point where dig­i­tal ver­sions of pen-and-pa­per games were pos­si­ble. Table­top gam­ing laid out the prin­ci­ples of liv­ing an­other life within a sim­u­lated world that games would then adopt, and those orig­i­nal RPGs treated non-com­bat and dia­logue-based prob­lem-solv­ing as func­tion­ally equal to fight­ing. But games were al­ways bet­ter at build­ing dig­i­tal sys­tems around com­bat than they were at en­abling the so­cial and im­pro­vi­sa­tional ex­pe­ri­ences that a live gamemas­ter can en­able, and even­tu­ally com­bat be­came the prin­ci­pal fo­cus of the genre. Role­play­ing videogames went back to be­ing videogames: skill-based chal­lenges built around the prin­ci­ples orig­i­nally es­tab­lished in the ar­cade.

The suc­cess of Divin­ity: Orig­i­nal Sin demon­strates that the pop­u­lar­ity of this other way of think­ing about games never re­ally went away. Play­ers are still cap­tured by the idea that they, not a game de­signer, are ca­pa­ble of de­ter­min­ing how they solve a prob­lem, the man­ner in which they en­counter a story, or the amount of free­dom they have to fail.

These ti­tles can teach mod­ern games a lot about how treat­ing the player like they’re in con­trol will pay div­i­dends in terms of en­gage­ment. Feel­ing like an ex­pe­ri­ence was en­tirely your own is a tremen­dous rea­son to ad­vo­cate that ex­pe­ri­ence – and now, when it is so easy to share that feel­ing, it’s not sur­pris­ing that these games are mak­ing tremen­dous head­way into ter­ri­tory pre­vi­ously de­fined by big-bud­get main­stream ti­tles.

Archers have a range of spe­cial ar­rows, mak­ing them more ver­sa­tile than mages. Re­move or dis­able en­emy bow­men

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