RPGs Come Back Strong

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No, this isn't going to be an editorial about having to walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways and how you kids don't appreciate anything, as my grandfather used to always say, again and again.

But I did notice that there seems to be a change in the industry. And unlike the downward spiral of the GiNDex, this one is actually pretty cool.

We normally try to mix up reviews from different genera's, but over the last few weeks the reviewers have been churning out a plethora of reviews of new games in a specific category. The category: the once vilified role-playing game.

RPGs are not new. Back in college we used to stay up for hours on end trying to solve Eye of the Beholder, the hands down best RPG of its time, even if the sequels that came later totally sucked. But RPGs have always been a niche market to the overall industry in the way that pen-and-paper role-players sort of meld into the shadows of society.

Good RPGs are entirely viable and sell a lot of copies, but as of yet have not acquired the title of "most popular." Some light was shed onto RPGs a few years ago when BioWare and then-publisher Interplay released Baldur's Gate. The title soared in sales and eventually reached the then almost unheard of mark of one million copies sold, a feat that is seldom repeated by any PC game, and hardly ever by RPGs.

But this week we finished our reviews of two titles that could break the old records. The first is Neverwinter Nights, another BioWare title that is being published by Infogrames. The other is Bethesda Softworks' Morrowind.

And before I hear from throngs of old-Ken supporters about how Final Fantasy is the best RPG of all time and has been around for years, know that I don't consider that series a true RPG. Saying that playing Final Fantasy is like role-playing is like saying that watching a movie about mountain climbing is the same as doing it. I guess technically it's a role-playing game, but its obviously a watered down one.

Anyway, back to my story. The power of Neverwinter Nights lies in, among other things, the ability for players to take on the role of dungeon master, the person who controls the game. Having a human DM makes unlimited adventures possible. And not just the kind where someone is creating modules for people to play. You can now create modules to run people though, or be able to play a game actually run by another human. Players will love that feature once enough DMs get used to the interface and the community begins to thrive.

The thought that something big might be happening around the Morrowind title, easily the most advanced RPG ever created, occurred quite by accident for me while on a recent mini-vacation to an amusement park. Packing quickly, I reached into my closet of cool giveaway t-shirts and randomly picked one to wear. It happened to be one with the Morrowind logo on the back and the Bethesda logo on the front.

The funny thing is that I kept getting stopped by people asking if I worked for Bethesda. When I told them I was a journalist – for a brief second I thought about telling them I was Pete Hines, PR god for the company just to see what they would say – they wanted to make sure I gave the game a good review. My wife was getting a little annoyed that strangers kept coming up to us and wanted to tell me how cool their characters were. But at least it made our time in lines pass more quickly, though she would probably argue more slowly.

Anyway, it was evident to me that a lot of people were playing Morrowind, which is no surprise considering it's the only real RPG for the Xbox and one of the best on the PC right now. But I rarely experience that much passion for a game, especially when it is being expressed unsolicited to me from complete strangers. Unless Bethesda was having a company picnic or something in the same park, it seems we might have a genuine phenomena on our hands.

As a further experience in that direction, its interesting to see that Warcraft III has just sold over a million copies. Warcraft III is a real-time strategy game to be sure, but there are RPG elements in the game this time around and it's interesting to see that Blizzard felt the need to add them. Looks like they helped.

When Baldur's Gate came out and became popular, industry pundits like myself said that it would be the vanguard title for a slew of popular RPGs, and that RPGs could very well become the hot new genre. However, we for the most part were wrong. GiN's own reader surveys returned RPGs as a favorite genre in only about 12 percent of the people, and that number has held pretty steady for years.

Now however, perhaps the situation is different. We are seeing several companies try their hand at role-playing games, and the genre constantly expanding. It may not become popular overnight like shooters did after the release of the original Castle Wolfenstein, but the increase has certainly begun.

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