Popular Game Genres: Role-Playing Games

Popular Game Genres: Role-Playing Games

Role-playing games are the oldest, most involved and time-consuming game genre.  According to the ESA Report of 2016 the role-playing games (RPGs) were the third highest selling video game genres of that year taking 12.9% of the gaming market worldwide.

Origin of Role-Playing Games

Dragon Age Inquisition was released in 2014 to huge critical acclaim as a role-playing game (RPG). Source: microsoft.com

Dragon Age Inquisition was released in 2014 to huge critical acclaim. Source: microsoft.com

Known as a genre of popular video game, a role-playing game (RPG) is where the player controls a fictional character (or characters) who undertake a question set in an imaginary world. Early RPGs video games shared three basic features. Character or statistics could be improved over the course of the game, a menu-based combat system, and a storyline with central quests. Most early RPGs were based on fantasy worlds such as J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Many elements used in these early video games were taken directly from traditional pen and paper RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons was released in 1974 by the company Tactical Studies Rules created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Many conventions invented for Dungeons & Dragons are still used today, including character classes, races, experience, abilities, hit points, levelling up, and turn based combat. Shortly afterwards the first role-playing game (RPG) started appearing.

Early computer games were designed not for home computers, but rather large mainframes which would be typically found only in universities. In 1980 the game Rogue was developed by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman for Unix-based mainframe. Rogue was a 2D dungeon crawler where players must seek the Amulet of Yendor while overcoming enemies and obstacles. Items such as weapons, potions, scrolls, and armour can be collected along the way to assist the player. This role-playing game (RPG) featured a text interface and random level generation which made every replay different. Rogue when first developed was also freely distributed.

First Published Game

Akalabeth: World of Doom released in 1980 for the Apple II, is considered as the first published RPG computer game. Developed by high school student Richard Garriott for fun, the game used elements of the pen and paper version and brought them to the computer platform. The player receives quests from a character known as Lord British who asks the player to kill a succession of ten increasingly difficult monsters. Gameplay takes place mostly in underground dungeons, but there was also a simple above ground map and text descriptions of the areas. The game used many concepts which would become standard in many RPG game series, such as using first person gameplay in dungeons, requiring food to survive, and hotkeys for commends. Akalabeth: World of Doom was the predecessor of the highly successful Ultima series which ultimately started Garriott’s career.

Pool of Radiance was praised for it’s gameplay when it was released in 1988. Source: crpgbook.wordpress.com

Pool of Radiance was praised for it’s gameplay when it was released in 1988. Source: crpgbook.wordpress.com

A Golden Era

Despite the influence of Dungeon & Dragons, no official games existed until owner Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) made the licence available in the mid-eighties. Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI) won the bid and released Wizard’s Crown in 1986 as the first official Dungeon & Dragon game. Wizard’s Crown offered a choice of classes including fighter, thief, ranger, priest, and sorcerer, all with their own distinct set of skills.

SSI also developed a new series using Advanced Dungeon & Dragons rules and Wizard’s Crown combat system as a basis. This improved game engine became known as the “Gold Box Engine” named after the gold coloured boxes in which most of the games were sold. The engine had two main game play modes. Gameplay took place in a screen that displayed text interactions, images of characters or events, a map, and current statuses. In combat mode the screen changed to a top down mode, allowing the party members to move, attack, or cast spells. About a dozen games in the series were released between 1988 and 1993.

Japanese RPGs

Early Japanese role-playing games were influenced by visual novel adventure games, which interestingly were developed by emerging gaming companies such as Enix, Koei, and Square. Japan’s earliest credited RPG is Koei’s Underground Exploration released in 1982. Shortly afterwards Pony Canyon’s Spy Daisakusen. Spy Daisakusen was based on the Mission: Impossible franchise, it replaced traditional fantasy settings with modern espionage.

Final Fantasy VIII, the series combined elements of fantasy and science fiction. Source: neoseeker.com

Final Fantasy VIII, the series combined elements of fantasy and science fiction. Source: neoseeker.com

JRPGs were also more willing to experiment within the genre and feature storylines moving away from fantasy worlds either altogether or combining them with another genre. The Final Fantasy series was first released in 1986 and became the largest Eastern RPG game franchise, with 14 main entries released since then. The Final Fantasy series successfully blends elements of both fantasy and science fiction. Other exaptational influence JRPGs titles include the Pokemon, Dragon Quest, and Monster Hunter series.

RPG Subgenres

The RPG genre has been broadened to include the following subgenres:

Action: These types of RPGs feature real-time battles, requiring quick reflexes. Players must defeat enemies using their quick reflexes rather than depending on high character attributes. Examples of action-based RPGs include the Diablo series.

First-Person Party-Based: In these RPGs players are in control of a party of characters who move together as one in a first-person perspective. This style of gameplay was developed due to the technological limitations in the 1980s. Because the player moves the entire party as a single unit or a “blob” these types of games are also referred to by the slang word “blobbers”. The Might and Magic series and Eye of the Beholder are examples of “blobbers”.

Strategy: Strategy or tactical RPGs work in similar ways to traditional tabletop gaming. Battles are usually turn based, players carefully manoeuvre their units across a map, and resources are limited. Examples of strategy RPGs include The Fire Emblem series and Final Fantasy Tactics.

Open World: Open world RPGs allow players to freely roam and explore their game environments. The massive amount of characters, side quests, and storyline create an immersive and engaging experience. Examples of open world RPGs include The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4.

MMORPG: Massive multiplayer online RPGs involve hundreds of players.  Players exist in a shared world and either work either together or against each other. World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic are examples of these.

The Witcher 3 won numerous game of the year awards when it was released in 2015. Source: polygon.com

The Witcher 3 won numerous game of the year awards when it was released in 2015. Source: polygon.com

Modern Games

There has been a resurgence of RPGs in the last decade. BioWare Developed Dragon Age: Inquisition and the game is published by Electronic. The game received massive critical acclaim on release in 2014, with critics praising the storyline, voice acting, detailed environments, engaging combat, soundtrack, and characters.

South Park: The Stick of Truth was released in 2014. Developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Ubisoft, the game is based on the popular animated comedy South Park. Using turn-based combat, classes, and character levelling, South Park: The Stick of Truth satires the RPG genre in a clever manner.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt developed and published by CD Projekt was released in 2015. Played in an open world with a third person perspective, platers control protagonist Geralt of Rivia who a monster hunter known as a witcher. It received numerous Game of the Year awards and has been considered as one of the greatest video games of all time.

Interest RPGs are only expected to grow because sites such as KickStarter and IndieGoGo along with easier access to gaming engines is encouraging players to develop their own games, meaning we are unlikely to see a shortage of RPGs anytime soon.

Jen North

Jen North

Jen has been playing video games since early childhood on PC, PS4 and mobile. Her favorite game genres are RPGs, strategy, and horror. Some loved titles include The Last of Us and Telltale's The Walking Dead.


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