The Dungeons & Dragons Effect «
The venerable pen-and-paper role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons ranks high (along with The Lord of the Rings) among the parents of video games. Its role in fostering the computer and console RPGs we enjoy today is beyond dispute; without D&D, RPGs as we know them would be quite different. Its footprints litter legendary RPG series such as Ultima and Wizardry.
D&D is now in its 4th edition, though the most recent version of the game hasn’t appeared in video game form yet. Thirty-six years after its first publication, what influence does the product of the late Gary Gygax’s and Dave Arneson’s imaginations still have on video games?
Consider Ultima, Wizardry, Might & Magic, and The Bard’s Tale. These great RPG series of yesteryear — especially the earlier games in these series — are basically stripped-down D&D campaigns in pixelated coats. It’s easy to explain why, notes one of the industry’s legendary RPG designers.
“Back when CRPGs were just getting started, I don’t know a developer who didn’t play D&D,” says Brenda Brathwaite, a lead designer for the Wizardry series. “Its influence is obvious.”
But as the genre grew into one of the most popular varieties of PC games, D&D’s influence in the industry shifted. “Ten years in, though, we were influencing each other and were likewise influenced tremendously by the potential that technology afforded us,” Brathwaite says.
It’s interesting that Brathwaite’s Wizardry was the spark that ignited Japan’s development of RPGs. “Wizardry provided the direct influence for the JRPGs, and that is something we are still proud of,” Brathwaite says. That influence is still seen today in many games, from Final Fantasy to Etrian Odyssey.
While D&D had a profound role in the Japanese RPG via Wizardry, the game’s influence wasn’t as prevalent in Europe, says Tomasz Gop, senior producer at CD Projekt Red, the developer of The Witcher.
“I [can] mainly speak about Poland. Warhammer was first here, and it’s still the most popular one. We still don’t have D&D 4th Edition translated, so I have to say that other pen-and-paper RPGs have greater influence on Polish game devs,” Gop says. “Because of the differences between Warhammer and D&D — Warhammer is, well… darker — our designers probably drew more inspiration from the former.”
Tony Evans is the lead designer of the last significant D&D-based title, Obsidian Entertainment’s Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion Storm of Zehir. Now a designer at BioWare, Evans carries the love for D&D and these older games into the products he makes today. He still enjoys D&D — a fellow BioWare colleague runs a 4th edition campaign that Evans plays in.
“Almost all of the old-school RPGs I played when I was a child were heavily influenced by, if not based upon, Dungeons & Dragons — Ultima, Might & Magic, Wizardry, and the SSI Gold Box series, just to name a few dozen. I loved the heck out of these games, and in fact, I still replay some of them to this day,” Evans says. “They were one of the major reasons I wanted to be a game designer, and in particular a designer of RPGs.
“These early games still influence me, even as I am shifting my focus to games that appeal to a wider audience.”
In some ways, the 4th edition of D&D mirrors the development of RPGs. Today’s games are stepping away from their traditional roots, and Wizards of the Coast did the same with the D&D’s 4th edition. “D&D of today seems influenced by MMOs and video games,” Brathwaite says. “Interestingly enough, the role of influenced and influence has shifted.”
Evans points out that today’s video game RPGs are moving away from D&D because of changing tastes and structural differences. “Back when gaming was more of a closet hobby, developers made games primarily based on what they loved to play. So RPGs of that time were turn-based and tactical, just like D&D,” Evans says. “Fast forward 20 years… D&D is still turn-based and tactical, but almost all modern RPGs are moving farther away from these roots.”
Evans says the changes are happening because of two reasons: “It’s what the majority of gamers want,” noting that RPG players make up a small fraction of the market for video games — World of Warcraft not withstanding. “And while some players (myself included) see ‘RPG’ as a badge of honor, many other gamers seem to think RPG is a dirty word. This is, of course, contradictory, since more and more games have been subtly including RPG elements, such as how you upgrade your weapons in Ratchet & Clank and God of War. However, these games take care to not brand themselves as RPGs, in order to avoid alienating non-RPG gamers. In order for the RPG market to survive and prosper, this perception needs to shift.” He notes this as the reason for such things as the disappearance of the inventory system in Mass Effect 2 and Alpha Protocol’s Dialogue Stance System.
The difficulty inherent in creating games that provide dozens of hours of story and gameplay is another reason for the design shift. “RPGs typically have so many variables and moving parts that it is very difficult — if not impossible — to grant all of them the time and resources they need to be adequately polished,” Evans says. “And blending all those disparate elements into one cohesive game is especially tricky. BioWare and Obsidian are among the only studios that still try to do this and manage to stay in business. If you’ll indulge me, let’s have a moment of silence for the great, departed RPG developers: SSI, Origin, New World Computing, Black Isle, and Sir-Tech, just to name a handful….”
D&D’s Video Game Future
Developers are moving away from the mechanics still rooted in Gygax’s and Arneson’s first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. But the ideas of D&D — the aspects of the game that have inspired players since 1974 — will likely continue to influence video games.
“What does all this mean for D&D? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d say we’ll likely see games that focus more on the overarching settings and themes of D&D rather than the specifics of its gameplay mechanics,” Evans says. “And developers like me will likely continue to peruse the D&D sourcebooks for inspiration and ideas, even if they aren’t directly making D&D games.”
It’s difficult to have a role if designers aren’t even playing your game. “As you can probably imagine, it hasn’t affected our development. We simply haven’t had the chance to really check out 4th Edition.” Gop says. And that’s a telling point: Eastern Europe is a hotbed for PC RPG development these days — and if they can’t even play D&D in their native tongue, how can designers draw from it?
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