Tuesday, April 11, 2006

How Diablo Killed the RPG

How Diablo Killed the RPG


About fifteen years ago adventure games were king. The many variety of quests available from Lucasarts and Sierra, among many others, ruled the day. Their detailed stories, animated characters and environments were rich and involving. Adventure games mixed character, and narrative that has rarely been matched by any other genre, as well as a level of character design and originality that drew in audiences and brought them to satisfying conclusions.

Here, now, the stage is set for the largest commercial success of its time, Myst, a record breaking game. Myst is compelling, it has beautiful dreamy styles that are comforting and are accompanied by ambient music that draws players in. Few games were made with so few resources, and so small a team, and more importantly, were of such a remarkable commercial success.

Forays into the adventure game genre began to mimic Myst, along with its divergences that separated it from traditional games. The slow disappearance of the genre followed shortly after. Without the sub par work of startup companies, and the mimicking work they provided, the popularity seemed to dwindle even more. Ultimately the market appeared, falsely, to be unable to support the genre any longer.

In a final step, even the largest and most successful producers of adventure games simply ceased producing them, canceling one at a time, until no more were being made on any level. A few still get made, one every few years, some even okay, but Myst destroyed the adventure game.

Like adventures, RPG games are loaded with difficulties. Branching endings take time to write and program, branching and significant dialog takes real artistic and literary investment and involvement. Creating open ended, yet functional, systems is consuming work that requires background, experience, or licenses. The more options you give the player, the more difficult to make the game, in its entirety.

However, despite these realities, the genre flourished. Companies like Black Isle lead the way with groundbreaking games that pushed the boundaries. Hundreds of companies followed, cloning the successful products. They failed, like they always do, but they drive the market share. At this point, along comes Diablo, a new approach that involved less effort in every conceivable point in development. While maintaining superficial similarities, Diablo offered simplified mechanics, a linear and branchless story with no decision-making or player freedom, as well as simplified dialog.

After that there is only the matter of drawing lines with a crayon. Steady decrease in RPG releases over the years, large numbers of Diablo clones at first, and then a slow following decline when they don’t sell at all due to poor quality and direct relation to a genre so tied to a single game that comparison is inescapable. When the time comes, almost nothing is left but the rare releases over time, entire years passing without so much as a single entry into the genre.

That, folks, is how Diablo killed the RPG.
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