Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What is a CRPG?

As I mentioned before, I've been working off of Wikipedia's chronology of computer role-playing games, going in order of publication date (regardless of the specific version I play). There are plenty of games on this list to keep me occupied for years even if I never get bogged down in an impossible game like Rogue again.

The list is notable for what it excludes, though. First, of course, it excludes console RPGs instead of PC RPGs. I hate to ignore them, as some of them are quite good, but there's a limit to how much I'm willing to invest in the project, and I can't see hunting down old consoles and cartridges. Second, it excludes online multi-player CRPGs, which I assure you I will never never touch. Look at the name of my blog. Assuming that I mean it literally--and I assure you I do--what do you suppose will happen to my life if I pick up World of Warcraft? End of discussion. (In any event, most of the older ones are offline and hence unplayable.)

But aside from platforms, what else is missing from Wikipedia's list? Essentially, anything that isn't a CRPG. But what, exactly, distinguishes a CRPG from other types of games? For instance, consider the following games (some of which you may not be familiar with). Are they CRPGs or not?

  • Zork
  • Heroes of Might and Magic
  • Diablo
  • King's Quest
  • Myst

According to Wikipedia's list, only one of these classics is a CRPG. Zork is an "interactive fiction" game, which we used to call "text adventure." The Heroes of Might and Magic games are turn-based strategy games. The King's Quest series are "adventure games," as is Myst. The only CRPG on the list is Diablo, which Wikipedia classifies as an "action RPG" but still includes on the master list.

This is a little too bad, because there were a number of games that I was looking forward to playing that I won't play if I stick to my original plan. Text adventures like Zork are among them, as is the Heroes series--I've never played them before and I was hoping they'd flesh out the Might and Magic world a little more. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and that means either using Wikipedia's definitions or creating my own convoluted list with various justifications for leaving things on or off.

Alas, you will not see this screen shot again on this blog.

The distinction between different video game genres is important to me because I am, notably, a "CRPG addict," not a first-person shooter addict or a simulation game addict. Frankly, games in other genres bore me. When my wife was addicted to Myst and The Seventh Guest, I yawned. I clapped when some magazine (can't find it now) referred to Myst as a "pseudo-interactive screen saver." Often when I find myself bored by a CRPG it's because it strays too close to another genre's territory. To what specific elements, then, am I addicted?

In another article, Wikipedia tries to define CRPGs and comes up with the following core elements:

  • Character development, whether based on experience points or use of skills
  • Freedom of movement throughout the game world, allowing you to go navigate around at your pleasure, going backwards and revisiting locations if desired
  • Quests, including one "main quest," the completion of which wins the game
  • A usually high-fantasy theme
  • At least a partial focus on combat

Using this list--which on the surface seems sensible--we can see why some games are excluded. Interactive fiction or text adventure games like Zork have quests and freedom of movement, but no real combat. (There was a troll and a thief in Zork, but battles like those are few and far between and owe themselves entirely to luck.) Strategy games like the Heroes series have only very limited character development, quests and freedom of movement. Adventure games tend to lack character development.

The theme or setting of the game does not seem to me to in any way characterize a CRPG. Yes, most are set in Tokienesque fantasy worlds, but plenty are set in post-apocalyptic landscape or science-fiction settings, and I don't see any reason why you couldn't develop a good CRPG in a realistic modern setting. The theme is important, of course, and I'm not a huge fan of genre blending (witness my summary of Ultima II), but I don't see this as an inextricable element of a CRPG.

If I were coming up with my own list of elements that make up a CRPG--the things I'm truly addicted to--the only ones I'd retain wholesale are "character development" and "freedom of movement." The rest I would rework and add to as follows:

  • Character identification. You don't just develop a character in a CRPG, you build the character from the ground up, including its race, sex, and--most importantly--name. Granted some CRPGs give you limited or no option in these areas, but almost all give some of them, and I can't think of one (I'm sure I'll encounter one eventually) that doesn't let you name the character. In a CRPG, you're not playing as Gordon Freeman or Solid Snake, you're playing as you--your alter-ego, your avatar, within a fantastic setting.
  • Weapons, armor, and items to buy, find, and equip. This method of "character development" is as meaningful as experience points and leveling. 
Find a cooler weapon. I dare you.
  • Combat at least partly based on probabilities rather than action. Whether your sword connects with the orc's head, and how much damage it does, isn't dependent on your aim or how fast you press the button--it's dependent upon your underlying attributes (strength, dexterity), the attributes of the weapon you're wielding, modifiers for any spells in effect, and so on. There are of course different types of combat in CRPGs, some turn-based and some real-time. In the real-time games, like Diablo or Oblivion, you have to have at least some dexterity with the mouse to make attacks and to evade or block your opponents' attacks, but the underlying statistics exert influence over the result.
  • Game progression through combat and dialog, as opposed to solving puzzles (some CRPGs have puzzles, but they're usually light).
  • Interaction with NPCs. This is admittedly light or non-existent in some early CRPGs, but the promise is there, and the evolution of meaningful dialog is fairly swift. By Ultima IV--coming up--you had conversations by actually typing the keywords you wanted to say.

A CRPG would let me talk to her!
  • Random encounters. In action games and shooters, you almost always encounter the exact same foes in the exact same locations. In CRPGs there are some set encounters, but almost all of them randomize at least some of the enemies you face. You never know when you'll round a corner and meet a party of orcs.
  • Choice of actions, and changes in the game world based on your actions. This is perhaps the most important element of a CRPG to me. I want the game world to feel my presence. Early games didn't do a great job in this area, but there was always something. In Ultima II you could steal food and kill guards or not. What you did changed how you were treated in that town for that session, at least. As games progress through the years, your choices and their consequent reverberations on the game world get more complex, to include "good" and "evil" choices and game outcomes dependent on them. An addict like me loves walking through the streets of the Imperial City and being hailed as the champion of the arena, or getting chased by guards for miles for stealing a sword at the local weapon shop.

Different games, of course, offer different experiences in each of these areas, and in later posts I'm going to talk extensively about what makes a "good" leveling policy, a good equipment system, good dialog, and so forth. But these, at least, are the basic elements that have made me an addict.

Note: after writing the above, I found this excellent post on the same subject. The author, Matt Barton, agrees with me on many of the above points and also includes a few more, including a magic system (I agree that almost all CPRGs have them, but there are a few sci-fi and historical ones that don't) and a "medical system" (essentially, hit points and ways to regain hit points). Read his "key contentions" section: this is what i want to discuss coming up.


  1. - It's good to stay away from things like Zork. Grues, you know.

    - Regarding the high-fantasy themes, that would mean that things like Wasteland would be excluded. Fantasy seems to be the archetypical genre in which RPGs take place (so much the pity), but it doesn't have to be.

  2. Right, I agree. That was on Wikipedia's list. I think you could put a CRPG in any setting. Has there ever been a CRPG set during, say, World War II? I don't see why not.

    1. That needs to be a thing. XD

    2. I think a good World War II RPG would require more mental work to create and play, assuming you already know how the big story ended. I think for it to be immersive, the player's character development has to tie in with a gradual discovery of the story and the world by the player (and the designer before him), which is hard when a similar story is already known.

      There are these CRPGs which are based on narratives already published in other media - movies, books... Maybe that's comparable to basing a setting, story and gameplay on a historical era, and the challenges in designing and playing are similar.

    3. Silent Storm is an RPG set in WW2 - with a bit of leeway when it comes to some of the tech. Like C&C Red Alert it engages in a bit of alt-history pulp fiction technology, but a lot of it is straight.

      Freedom Force vs the 3rd Reich is another - though plays it even more in the vein of superhero spy-fi.

    4. I much prefer plots that deal with limited space and consequences--like Pool of Radiance's quest to save a single city. The fate of the world doesn't have to be in the balance. It would be entirely possible to tell a great story with twists and turns and a surprise ending against the backdrop of WWII if you made it small enough.

      I mean, if there could be no great WWII plots because we know how the war ends, there wouldn't be any great WWII movies, and clearly that isn't true. That I know Germany was defeated doesn't mean I know if they saved Private Ryan.

    5. Norway would be a good setting for that sort of thing.

      A) People aren't that familiar with the details of the German occupation of Norway.

      B) You're not fighting against the entire Wehrmacht.

      C) Success would involve alleviating the impacts of the occupation (possibly ending it early?) and in the grand scheme of things probably wouldn't have a drastic effect on the war - though it would put a dent in Germany's access to iron.

    6. D) When charging into battle, you could have the NPCs cry out, "Norway belongs to the Nords!"

    7. While Norway would be cool, I'd prefer Holland for obvious reasons. ;)

    8. The closest things to older cRPGs in the alternate-history World War vein, are things like Castle Wolfenstein, Wasteland, Fallout, Commandos, and Command and Conquer. The problem being that the focus in a lot of those tends to be (somewhat understandably) more on battlefield tactics and reconnaissance, lending the games their more-RTS bent, despite their stories.

      This is not to say that a Baldur's Gate or Zork-esque cRPG would be inconceivable--just that with a setting more familiar to the audience, there's more work you have to do to be surprising, in aspects like exploration and story development. Moreover, high fantasy stories tend to feature strong central heroes based out of legend, embarking on perilous quests, often alone. War stories tend to focus more on a world-spanning event, or political intrigue, or the events of a particular skirmish, which can be epic in their own right, but tend to jump a bit more schizophrenically around, and be a lot more brief. The best thing I could think of, for a cRPG WWII format, would be something like a spy or saboteur story, inflated to be larger than life. Possibly with some superweapon like the atom bomb, involved, for a sense of stakes. Metal Gear-ish stuff.

  3. Beyond Zork had rpg elements which, I think, more or less fulfills the requirements in your list. Just as much as Sierra's Quest for Glory does, anyway.
    Both adventure/RPG hybrids in my book. :-)

  4. Funny you mention Barton. I was about to recommend to you his book, "Dungeons & Desktops". A fun read.

    There have definitely been pen and paper WWII RPGs. And a bit of googling reveals this:

  5. I think you nailed it again with the first criteria, "build a character from the ground up". It just so happens that many settings for this are fantasy as opposed to something else. Still it leaves somethings in a grey area. For example, I have a so called political simulation game,"Crisis in the Kremlin" where you play the successor to Konstantin Cherenko.You only create a name and join one of three factions. There is no other character building. You can play as a reformer, anarchist, hard line Stalinist. You get to response to crises in a number of ways, including making no decision, play with budgets and make May Day speeches. You also get letters from mom asking for the ministers to make more sausage than cabbage. Maybe its not a CRPG, but it has it's moments and it was fun to "try" and stay in power for over thirty years!

  6. Good example, JJ. Not that we're going to change the name any time soon, but "RPG" is probably a bit of a misnomer. After all, you role-play in any computer game--simulation games like the one you describe are a perfect exhibit--and yet in no game do you role-play as much as in the the most basic pen-and-paper RPGs.

    I guess what makes a game a CRPG is that it contains elements derived from pen-and-paper RPGs, and the "character sheet" is probably the most important of these. No matter how strong the role-playing aspects of a game, it doesn't "feel" like a CRPG to me unless you have attributes and an inventory. This isn't to discount the enjoyment players must get out of "Crisis in the Kremlin"; I'm not suggesting that CRPGs are better than any other games. I just happen to like them more.

  7. Just wanted to add that Planescape: Torment was without a doubt a CRPG, yet you could not name your character for reasons that were at the core of the story.

  8. 1 game you guy's have not mentioned is mount & blade and mount & blade warband , both are CRPG's that are not exactly set in a fantasy world , they are rather set in a medieval era and are truely open world , guess you could put them down as sandbox games but all the elements that make a CRPG there and its not a fantasy setting

  9. @Mark
    I disagree, I think Mount & Blade is a fantasy theme. While it is true that it lacks elements like magic and elves, it is still definitly not Earth!

    This is what we connoisseurs would call "Low Fantasy" versus "High Fantasy"

  10. I never played "Mount & Blade," it'll probably be years before I get back to that era. I remember Gamespot called it "the poor man's Oblivion," which was probably unfair to the game.

  11. I like this as a basis, but I think that the 'make your own hero' thing is a bit false: I've played several CRPGs where you had no control over your name due to the need to match the voice acting. Hybrid Heaven for the N64 comes to mind, as it requires you to change characters at least once. I'm sure that there are at least a few others that have done the same thing.

  12. There are a handful of games that break these rules, sure. I'd say it needs to have 5 out of the 7 points to really be considered a CRPG at all, though.

  13. I've always thought of computer RPGs as a subtype of adventure games. In fact, in the early days of home computing they weren't even considered separate genres in magazine reviews and advertising. There was just a broad label "adventure games", and under it lied both Zork and Wizardry side by side, even though the games had very different content. I think that all RPGs (proper ones anyway) are adventure games, but not all adventure games are RPGs.

    This is the reason for my main disagreement with you: I think a "proper" RPG definitely should have puzzles in it, because adventure games have puzzles. My picture of the ideal CRPG is the Quest for Glory series (which others have called "adventure-RPG hybrids" - a designation that makes no sense to me), and I yearn for a modern day game with the same approach.

    1. QfG series was amazing...

  14. Anon, that's an interesting view, but I don't think it holds up to history. I would never begrudge you for PREFERRING puzzles in a CRPG--I think they're a nice touch, but not such a core element that I made them part of my GIMLET--but they don't really appear in anyone else's definition.

  15. A couple of jrpgs (or jcrpgs) (Japanese Computer Roleplaying Games) that were ported to the PC (I'm thinking specifically of Final Fantasy 7 and 8 - I see no reason to use the roman numerals), lacked several key elements you describe here. On the other hand, I'd argue that they are in many ways a genre unto themselves. You generally do not control the plot except in minor ways, your key job is simply making sure that you succeed in combat.

    I'm pleased to see FF7 on your list, as I do count it as a crpg, just not a wcrpg (western computer roleplaying game). But there is a large genre difference between the two.

  16. Do not throw away chance to play HoMM as they are one of the greatest games EVER made. Period.

  17. I'll second that HoMM is a fantastic series, especially if you love Civ - I've played them both obsessively and repeatedly at times. Still, it *is* more strategy than RPG - maybe save it for when you need a "vacation" from RPGs?

    1. I mostly want to play them because they tie in with the plotline of MMVI and MMVII. I took a detour for Pirates! and the world didn't end, so I can take a detour for HoMM, too.

  18. there were a number of games that I was looking forward to playing that I won't play if I stick to my original plan. Text adventures like Zork are among them

    Definitely there are RPG-ish elements to eg. managing hunger, thirst and spells cast in eg. Infocom's Planetfall or Enchanter trilogy. Zork itself also does have nondeterministic combat in a place or two, though we understand that overall the kind of gameplay these offer doesn't meet enough of your criteria, which is fine -- and leaves the field open for a "text adventure addict" blog 8)

    I'm interested in seeing what happens when you get to BBS door games with singleplayer campaigning such as Legend of the Red Dragon or Operation Overkill 2 (and hm, the spreadsheet doesn't look promising: let me testify that these games don't lose much wrenched from their BBS context.)

  19. For a modern-time RPG, isn't Grand Theft Auto IV a good example? Quests (main and side), stats building, weapons and items (well, vehicles of all sorts), massive exploration, problem solving, some combat focus, etc. It seems to meet all of your criteria. Come to think of it, other games in the same vein, like Saints Row-III have the same properties.

    1. Read this too, as it expands on this article:

      Chet has three criteria, of which two must be met for him to consider the game. Here's my interpretation for GTAIV, although I only have cursory knowledge of the game:

      Leveling and Development (none) - What character stats are there in GTA IV? Do those improve as you play based on the player's actions? Those are the types of stats RPGs are expected to have. I'd go one step further and say health point and skill point increases alone are not enough, but that's my personal inclination.

      Inventory (maybe) - Various weapons, check. Ancillary items, I'm not aware of any. So, it's a little light on the equipment, but might be enough to consider.

      Character Based Combat (none) - This ties closely to leveling, but basically means those stats gained from leveling need to factor into the main game mechanic (combat in most cases). In most action games, combat ability is based on the player's skill rather than the character you're controlling. (i.e. variability in damage taken and dealt is related to how well you as the player aimed or dodged rather than on the character's ability to use a baseball bat or leap 10 stories.)

      So while these games do have stories and open worlds, they feature a static character who is powered by the items and equipment found rather than the characters improving at their inherent skills and abilities through practiced use.

    2. Anonymous makes a good point here, though. A lot of modern games include enough RPG elements that they technically meet my criteria. I don't know for sure about GTA, but I just recently sank a lot of time into another Rock Star game--Red Dead Redemption--and while the PRIMARY gameplay elements weren't RPG-ish, the game did cover my three criteria. Thus, as I progress into the 1990s and 2000s, I may have to add more criteria (or just accept that I'm casting a wide net).

    3. San Andreas would probably be a better example than GTA4, since in SA you absolutely do have character stats that you can improve throughout the game (or let atrophy via not using them enough). I'd be hard pressed to come up with a definition of RPG where you'd be able to exclude SA other than just because you want to exclude it.

    4. Board ate my first try, so here we go again.

      I would say that San Andreas would be a better game to look at here than GTA4, because in SA, unlike 4, you absolutely do have skills that improve the more you use them (and which atrophy if you don't). I think it would be hard to come up with a definition of RPG where you would be able to rule out SA as an action RPG other than just because you want to rule it out.

  20. There are two additional criteria that immediately entered my mind:
    - The relationship between "useless" space and important places. Adventures only feature places that matter, i.e. there are riddles to solve. RPG's feature lots of irrelevant places or space that just has to be crossed. And walking the way can be a hazard. This relationship defines the pacing of the games.
    - A game fits more into the RPG category than in any other, i.e. they might be better featured in a different blog. For example, Zork is first and foremost a text adventure. I wonder what genre I would put Starflight into. RPG makes the most sense, unless one defines a "space opera" genre, which makes sense, but which would only consist of a handful of games.

    1. That is an interesting distinction between adventure games and RPGs in the use of space. I agree. There's one screen in Hero's Quest in which there's absolutely nothing to do, and it's quite jarring. I had to keep poking around to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

  21. Some months back, I was thinking about something similar, and for me, I settled on four points, though not all CRPG's include all 4

    Characters to interact with in some sense beyond combat
    Choices and decision making that influence how the game plays
    Exploration of the game area
    Development of characters.

  22. Chester, I agree to most of your characteristics -- especially character identification (that, of course, is why we call it "role-playing", and why virtually no CRPG lover uses those predefined characters). However, I would add at least two more integral criteria that are related to yours, but generalize them in some ways:

    1. Resource management: For me, this is an integral part of making a game a CRPG. Not only do you decide on what to spend your money, you also have to decide what items to take, what to throw away, and when to use that precious healing potion. You have to constantly watch your HP and food to see if it's time to return to civilized areas, taking into account the possibility of random encounters on the way and their difficulty. This careful handling of your character's life and things helps identifying with him, more than in any other game, say adventures.

    Games like Questron II may be fun, but when I play them, I feel like I'm playing a turn-based arcade game; my beloved Rogue, on the other hand, while equally simple, feels much more CRPGish due to the constant micromanagement of items, food, hitpoints, and strategy.

    2. World simulation: Again looking at games like Questron, its world does not feel plausible or alive in the least -- it's just a big overland tile grid with random combat and some indistinguishable cities and dungeons with no soul or character. For me, a CRPG has to an (albeit simplistic) simulation of some fantastic world. It need not feel real, but it needs to feel alive -- monsters and npcs have at least some character, the settlements and dungeons all have something that sets them apart. Even Rogue feels alive with the different monster personalities, and games like Ultima IV do a great job at it.

    In essence, the game must give me enough so that I can imagine the player's surrounding. Again, this is -- to me -- an essential part of identification with those poor guys and gals in your party that I lead into the rottenest, bug-infestedest dungeons.

    (And BTW, that's also a reason why I like those old EGA or even text style CRPGs much better than modern stuff -- my imagination is always more beautiful, horrible and detailed than those 3D effects :)

    1. Your first additional element is sort-of what I was getting at with "weapons, armor, and items" in the post. I made this part of my three core RPG criteria later. Your way of saying it is better, as it includes attributes as resources.

      As for #2, while I agree that this makes for a better experience in an RPG, I wouldn't call it a necessary criteria. Games simply didn't become advanced enough to feature dynamic worlds until late in their development. I agree with your comments about Questron, but I can't seriously argue that it's not an RPG.

  23. Hmm... I think "simulation" is misleading in that it suggest realism. I rather mean the world to be a playground with enough interactions and depth so that you may experiment and play around with it, discovering unique strategies and tactics. Another link to the pen & paper inspiration.

    Then again, that may be rather something that I like in *good* CRPGs than a defining criterium of the genre.

  24. Hey there, I just wanted to thank you for the well written breakdown on the definition of a cRPG. I was looking for a better description of the subgenre than wikipedia could offer, so I've linked here from my game's devblog. Thanks!

  25. Really dig the article!

    As of the past 2 years I've been enjoying CRPG as well as PC remakes on my iPad3. Avernum, Avadon, Dungeon of Chaos, and few others are my go to when it comes to CRPG as well as turn based strategy. Growing up I've always had game consoles but not a PC gaming rig so I like totally missed out. But thanks now to companies like Spiderweb Software, A Sharp (KoDP) and many others by I get a second chance to play what I missed out on.

  26. Me and a couple other old guys in the community define CRPGs as a genre with two distinct generations - it started off as computer adaptations of pen-and-paper RPG games, became a genre with games like the early Ultima series (when a game could start off as a CRPG instead of being an adaptation of an existing p&p), reached its second generation with Interplay classics. There were different takes on the CRPG formula like VTM: Bloodlines, a true CRPG which failed to become the harbinger of the third generation (3rd person/first person CRPG), and the genre, failing to modernize itself, went into decline until the recent CRPG revival movement - Wasteland 2, PoE, Torment: Numenera, Tyranny and the new Bard's Tale game.

    In contrast, there are computer RPG games in general which adhere to a wider definition of a role-playing game (character progression, story-driven, NPC interaction, etc.). E.g. Fallout 1&2 are CRPG games, while Fallout 3, New Vegas and 4 definitely are not. Non-CRPG role-playing games choose to forsake the emulated pen-and-paper gameplay to make more use of the capabilities modern PCs offer. Some choose to keep some gameplay elements (like that dumbed down Dragon Age Origins game allowing you to pause combat to give you a feel of RTwP gameplay, but definitely not a CRPG game).

    Diablo kind of kicked off this trend - no more dice, true real-time combat, as a result - a more combat-oriented and fast-paced game. While not the first, it was the most popular early ARPG game.

    JRPGs, at least the classics, are closely related to the CRPG genre.

    Deus Ex is a completely different beast. It strayed from the CRPG formula to the FPS side, but instead of dumbing down the RPG elements, it added depth and did it so well, many consider it one of the best games ever released.

    There's an ongoing debate about The Banner Saga games; whether they could be considered an offshoot of the CRPG genre or not.

    1. I welcome all opinions, but I've never heard anyone else restrict the use of "CRPG" to a fairly literal implementation of pen-and-paper mechanics. To me, saying that Dragon Age: Origins is "definitely not a CRPG" is a little crazy.


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