For the last few days, we’ve been faithfully covering the Power-Up Digital Games Conference, highlighting some of the best talks each day, on topics from designing empathy in games to growing a business, from the future of VR to the past and present of gaming charities. That coverage will end later today, with highlights from the remaining talks in the afternoon.
This article, however, is dedicated to perhaps the most high-powered session at this edition of the PDGC: the “Legends of RPG” panel, with a collection of legendary developers of digital (western) role-playing games coming together talk about their first exposure to RPGs, the titles they worked on, and what the future holds for the genre.
The six panelists were as follows:
- Greg Zeschuk, one of the three doctors that originally founded Bioware (hence the “Bio” in Bioware).
- Gregory MacMartin, CEO of IDGi (Interdimensional Games), a long-time veteran of the gaming industry whose first credit was the DOOM clone “Radix: Beyond the Void” and who designed Relic’s “Homeworld” (see his AMA here)
- Neal Hallford of Swords and Circuitry Studios, a game designer known for his work on the hit RPGs Betrayal at Krondor, Dungeon Siege, and Champions of Norrath (blog/website here)
- Rebecca “Burger” Heineman, CEO of Old Skuul, a veteran game-designer/programmer best known for her work on Bard’s Tale 3 and Dragon Wars (Gamasutra interview here)
- Richie Bisso of Hyperkinetic Studios, whose credits include AAA titles like Spiderman 2: The Game and indie works alike. (Recently ran a successful kickstarter for Epic Tavern)
- Jason Fader, Game Director at Night Dive Studios, best known for his work on Fallout: New Vegas
First Exposure to RPGs
For Greg Zeschuk and Rebecca Heineman, their first exposure to RPGs – and really, what got them interested in making RPGs in the first place – was Wizardry, one of the first Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing games to be written for computer play.
This isn’t exactly uncommon among classic game designers, given how Wizardry set the foundation for a lot of modern RPGs. In those days, most games were text adventures (like the Zork series, from which the iconic “You were eaten by a grue” line comes from), so Wizardry’s minimal graphics and pictures were very impressive. It even introduced the notion of grinding, or as Heineman puts it, the idea of “Start weak, get strong, kill the evil fill in the blank” that is “every RPG ever.”
Wizardry also introduced the concept of a party one had to manage and level up while grappling with the fear of a character’s (permanent) death. There was a tension there that many early games simply didn’t have.
Greg Zeschuk certainly agreed, as it he played it so much that his game disk (in the days when disk meant a 5.25″ floppies, not a CD, DVD or Blu-ray) broke.
For Neal Hallford, Gregory MacMartin, and Richie Bisso, their first exposure to role playing games was Dungeons and Dragons itself, the classic pencil and paper RPG created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. For them, it was the world-building of the setting they loved, as they read through each and every one of the sourcebooks – when they weren’t reading sci-fi, that was!
Jason Fader’s first RPG was actually Might and Magic 3, which was somewhat amusing since Gregory MacMartin had worked on that game. He mentioned that, unlike the others, he didn’t particularly like to read, though he did use audiobooks, since he drove around quite a bit, and had quite enjoyed the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy audiobook adaptation.
Voice in RPGs
There was a general consensus that voice was restrictive.
Rebecca Heineman observed that she worked in a time before voice work became an unofficial requirement, so she had greater flexibility when it came to production work. When QA wondered why the player could not do something, such as opening a door or going over a wall, or some other action in a certain way, she had the ability to add the recommendation to the game. (open a door, go over a wall) a certain way, she added them into a game. If dialogue needed refinement, it could be done, even if there were only a few days left until a game went gold.
However, such flexibility would be impossible in the current era, not the least of which would be due to the cost of voiceover work. Changing dialogue would mean replacing the audio, which would entail calling in the original voice actor, scheduling a recording session, recording the new line, and then paying for all of the above.
Neal Hallford related his own woes with voice. In his own words, production values were what killed Betrayal at Krondor. While crafting the game, he kept an eye on how much text was being written and eventually came to the realization that the game had more words than the entirety of his source material, Raymond Feist’s Riftwar series. The game itself was sufficiently well-done that it received a novelization at the hands of Feist himself, who turned it into the launchpad for his Riftwar Legacy trilogy.
When the game became a hit, work began on a sequel. However, the powers-that-be of that era wanted the sequel to be a third of the length and full-voiced. It did not take long for Hallford to realize that it would not be possible, as text-based play could not be translated directly to voice-over and play – the cost was very prohibitive. The powers-that-be soon agreed, as they cancelled the sequel development the year after Betrayal became a hit, and the game remained cancelled despite a letter campaign by its fans pleading otherwise.
Jason Fader dissented from the consensus and took the opposite view. He argued that one factor in the success of Fallout: New Vegas was how much voice was used. With over seventy thousand lines of voice over, the game broke the Guinness Book of Records for voiced lines. He concluded by saying that, “No one reads anymore anyway.”
The Dungeon Master AI
After some additional back and forth, the conversation veered toward tabletop gaming and its influence on RPGs. One memorable anecdote related involved squirrels: one particularly unfortunate day, a dungeon master chose to vent his frustrations on a captive audience, his players. The session was particularly grueling and a characterization of “take no prisoners” would likely not be remiss. After surviving the dungeon, the party was returning to town, with those stalwart few who could stand dragging the comatose bodies of their fallen comrades. The dungeon master chose to roll for a random encounter and fumbled, with the result being squirrels. However, the party was so battered that the squirrels made short work of the survivors, tearing out throats with bushy-tailed gusto.
This led into a conversation on how to translate the tabletop adventure into video games. There was agreement that the most entertainment derived from a tabletop adventure involved the interaction between the dungeon master in his role as an active scenario creator, capable of adapting to the whims of the players (or choosing not to do so), and the players as the scenario explorers, searching for their place in the tale.
The debate that ensued was lively. One solution was the use of an AI to take the place of the dungeon master, allowing every detail to be adapted in real-time, only without complication of human who may need to make the occasional retreat to adapt to players who have utterly derailed the scenario intended. It bears mentioning that the idea strongly resembles the Cardinal System used in the Japanese sci-fi/fantasy franchise Sword Art Online, where one powerful AI system controls every function of the game, from game balance, monster spawns, quest development, and even the spontaneous creation of NPC AIs to interact with and grow with players who have derailed the intended scenario. Skepticism was expressed that such an AI would even be possible, but everyone agreed that modern AI was simply not there.
The panel concluded shortly thereafter, with the chat, which had been raucously asking questions and discussing their favorite RPGs among themselves all throughout the session, soon falling silent. In the wake of the session though, I found it interesting that none of panelists had brought up Eastern RPGs in any capacity, given that Greg Zeschuk and others from Bioware, at least, have previously expressed fairly strong opinons on Japanese RPGs in other interviews, even going so far as to claim that even if you put a J in front of RPG, a Final Fantasy title “wouldn’t count as a RPG.”
In fact, I noted that none of these legends attempted to define what a RPG really was (which given the time constraints and the ever-shifting nature of genres, was probably a wise idea), so I won’t attempt to do so either. I’ll simply leave that as a parting thought:
What is an RPG?