The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part I: The Early Years (1980-1983)

The CRPG is the spine of the electronic gaming industry–and it’s not hard to see why. You just can’t have more fun with a computer or a console than when you’re engrossed in a well-crafted CRPG. But where did the CRPG come from? From what deep, dank dungeon did they crawl? How has the genre evolved into the amazing games we enjoy today? —Matt BartonThe History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part I: The Early Years (1980-1983) (Arrmchair Arcade)

I tried posting a few comments on Barton’s weblog, but I got an SQL error.

Good work. I can understand his desire to focus on one particular genre, so I wouldn’t expect him to mention every single computer game that features a heroic quest or that involves fantasy combat, but I think it would also be worth looking at “Wumpus” (1972), mainframe “Zork” (also known as “Dungeon,” several informal releases, as early as June 1977) that would later be split into three parts and released as “Zork I,” “Zork II,” and “Zork III,” and Scott Adams’s “Adventureland” (1978).

The designers of Zork explicitly credited both Adventure and D&D, and wrote an academic article about the possibility of expanding Zork to make it more like the role-playing games we know now. It’s likely that their article was read by just the kind of person who would actually go on and do such a thing. See “Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game.”

Zork itself has nearly reached the practical limit of size imposed by MDL and the PDP-10’s address space. Thus the game is unlikely to expand (much?) further. However, the substrate of the game (the data types, parser, and basic verbs) is sufficiently independent that it would not be too difficult to use it as the basis for a CFS language.

There are several ways in which future computerized fantasy simulation games could evolve. The most obvious is just to write new puzzles in the same substrate as the old games. Some of the additions to Zork were exactly this, in that they required little or no expansion of the simulation universe. A sufficiently imaginative person or persons could probably do this indefinitely.

Another similar direction would be to change the milieu of the game. Zork, Adventure, and Haunt (the CFS games known to the authors) all flow back to D&D and the literary tradition of fantasy exemplified by J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and Fritz Leiber. There are, however, other milieus; science fiction is one that comes to mind quickly, but there are undoubtedly others.

A slightly different approach to the future would be to expand the simulation universe portrayed in the game. For example, in Zork the concept of “wearing something” is absent: with it there could be magic rings, helmets, boots, etc. Additionally, the player’s body itself might be added. For example, a player could be wounded in his sword arm, reducing his fighting effectiveness, or in his leg, reducing his ability to travel.

The preceding are essentially trivial expansions to the game. A more interesting one might be the introduction of magic spells. To give some idea of the kinds of problems new concepts introduce to the game, consider this brief summary of problems that would have to be faced: If magic exists, how do players learn spells? How are they invoked? Do they come in different strengths? If so, how does a player qualify for a stronger version of a spell than he has? What will spells be used for (are they like the magic words in Adventure, for example)? How does a player retain his magic abilities over several sessions of a game?

As can be seen, what at first seems to be a fairly straightforward addition to a game that already has magical elements raises many questions. One of the lessons learned from Zork, in fact, is one that should be well known to all in the computing field: “There is no such thing as a small change!”

A still more ambitious direction for future CFS games is that of multiple-player games. The simplest possible such game introduces major problems, even ignoring the mechanism used to accomplish communication or sharing. For example, there are impressive problems related to the various aspects of simultaneity and synchronization. How do players communicate with each other? How do they coordinate actions, such as attacking some enemy in concert?