Gamer’s Life: “From the Archives”

(all articles written by T. Rob Brown, aka Chokra Broodslayer)

Gamer’s Life
Originally published June 1, 2004, in The Scatter.

Evolution of the modern Medieval-fantasy game

By T. Rob Brown
(aka Chokra Broodslayer)

Hardcore medieval fantasy gamers are waiting for “the next big thing” and it’s hard to say what that will be, but I have a pretty good idea what’s going to be top of my list in the future.

From the first medieval fantasy-style game “Adventure” on the Atari 2600 console system in the ‘80s, computer graphics and gaming concepts have come a long way. Back then, we were satisfied with giant pixel blocks that were difficult to tell what they were. Since then, a great number of titles have made a major impact on fantasy electronic gaming and brought it into the present.

Arcade’s first graphic-intensive fantasy game I remember was “Dragon’s Lair” with Dirk the Daring trying to save the princess. Although it was highly cliché, yet humorous, it was also innovative.

The classic “Gauntlet” was one of the first multiplayer medieval fantasy games. This game became one of the most-quotable games of its time. “Red Wizard needs food badly” and “Blue Warrior is about to die” are just a couple of the quotes my friends and I adlib into other games that we play.

For the home system, the first popular graphical role-playing game (RPG) was “Bard’s Tale.” This game was a blast. It was one of the first RPGs where you took control of a party of adventurers (not unlike the movie “Lord of the Rings” with its fellowship).

But players, who were used to pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), created by Gary Gygax of TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), wanted more from their electronic games than just to play them. They wanted to be game masters or world builders because for some of us the fun of playing a medieval fantasy game is to create our own world and be its master.

Some time after that, more than 20 SSI (Strategic Simulations Inc.) games licensed by TSR started to head that direction. The games went through a system of revisions to keep up with the evolution of the pen-and-paper game.

These games started on the old CGA and EGA graphics systems on the PC and later attained VGA quality. Before SSI could release a game with a world builder or game master controls, Electronic Arts beat them to the punch with “Adventure Construction Set.”

ACS, as we also called it, was revolutionary. It was only a CGA game and very limited in the number of possible colors but it offered what no game had done before – it gave the owner the power to create their own computer games with a toolset. You could create your own creatures, alter graphics, create terrain, maps and transitions to other areas. ACS allowed you to create medieval fantasy, sci-fi and modern spy-type adventures.

A few years after ACS was released, SSI brought us “Unlimited Adventures” in its D&D-licensed series. This was the first medieval game with a toolset in the VGA graphics standard. Although it was an improvement, it offered similar functions to ACS and both were turn-based. Later, SSI brought out the first version of “Neverwinter Nights” using that same system as an online game available to America Online users for a monthly fee.

Meanwhile, Lord British was hard at work on the Ultima series. Zork, Wizardry and Might & Magic were some of the other highly-popular series for those who didn’t play D&D but still liked medieval fantasy.

After SSI lost the D&D license, it was sold to Interplay, who created a couple OK games before releasing the Baldur’s Gate phenomenon, created by subsidiary (and now defunct) Black Isle Studios. Contracting with BioWare, an at-that-time little-known game-engine design company, they created the Infinity Engine for Baldur’s Gate and birth was given to the modern generation of D&D computer games. The Infinity Engine brought us higher resolution graphics, better storylines, quality voice actors, real-time role-playing and a series of products that won numerous gaming awards. Games based off that engine include: Baldur’s Gate series, Icewind Dale series and “Planescape: Torment.” During this period, TSR was sold to Wizards of the Coast, which was later bought by Hasbro.

Around the same time Interplay was beefing up its D&D franchise line of games, Blizzard Entertainment emerged and brought out fantasy gaming titles like “Warcraft” and later “Diablo.” The later “Warcraft II” included a toolset to create your own maps but was set up mostly for strategy wargamers and not for role-players. “Diablo” lacked a toolset, but furthered the company’s growing reputation. Later, they would release additional Diablo and Warcraft titles, including the yet-to-be-released massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) “World of Warcraft.”

Around that time period, the MMORPG became a massive hit starting with the text-based MUDs (multi-user domains), followed by “Miridian 59,” “Ultima Online” and a slew of first-generation MMORPGs. Later, it would be Ultima, Everquest and Asheron’s Call going head-to-head-to-head for control of the MMORPG market. As it turns out, the market grew big enough to handle a greater number of games and now we have more MMORPGS than we know what to do with.

Game master clients are a rather new introduction to online gaming. The first game to be released with a game master client was “Vampire: The Masquerade” but that game didn’t do so well. But long before that game was released, developer BioWare had been in production for more than five years on the second generation of “Neverwinter Nights.”
The new version of the old America Online game was now published by Atari (We’ve come full circle, eh?), based on the newer Aurora Engine created by BioWare. “Neverwinter Nights” offers a complete toolset and game master client. The toolset is extremely powerful and is highly customizable allowing home developers to even modify the very rules of the game with NWScript, a variant of the popular C++ computer programming language.

There have been two expansions for “Neverwinter Nights” and the upcoming “The Witcher,” an action-RPG developed by Poland-based CDProjekt, which will be powered by the Aurora Engine. It is slated to possibly release later this year.

Although that game seems promising, it’s not the one I’m waiting for. Ever since Neverwinter Nights was released, there have been rumors of Neverwinter Nights II. It’s doubtful this will happen due to the impending sale of BioWare to Microsoft. Since Atari is the exclusive publisher of D&D computer games and Microsoft publishes its own titles, it’s highly unlikely BioWare will do any additional D&D or Star Wars licensed games (like its Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) – a different company is creating the sequel).

KotOR used an updated version of the Aurora Engine. BioWare, though, instead of working on Neverwinter Nights II, has announced in May they are working on a game titled “Dragon Age” that is their own intellectual property and will have a brand new engine. Since the release of “Neverwinter Nights” in June 2002, there have been many advances in graphics hardware and software technology.

According to an article on , with the headline “ ‘Dragon Age’ = NWN2.” The article continues to say, “BioWare has not officially said ‘Dragon Age’ is the sequel but put it as more of a ‘spiritual successor’ to ‘Baldur’s Gate,’ ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ and NWN.” Yes, it’s reported to have a toolset. Rather it will have game master client or not is still being debated. Although BioWare has been giving interviews to online gaming forums and has shown a demo of this new title, which might not be released until as late as 2007, it’s hard to get too many or too accurate of details about it.

What we’re looking at is a medieval-based fantasy game that has upped the polygon count from Neverwinter Night’s 3,000 polygons per character model in the game up to a 2 million polygon count for similar models. That is a huge leap forward in graphics technology for a role-playing game. The polygon count increase means higher detail and more-realistic graphics.

They’ve hired a professional linguist with a doctorate to create all new languages for the game – so no cheesy fake languages – these fake languages should have a real feel to them.

BioWare officials reported they no longer wished to continue working with licensed products because the licensors caused the game creation process to take too long with repeated checks for plotlines and approvals and all the typical things that happen when you’re working with someone else’s intellectual property. By creating their own world with its own rules, they decide which key characters live and die without having to get approval from Wizards of the Coast or Lucasfilm Ltd.

They are drawing from all the same lore most games use to create their elves, dwarves, humans and other races, as well as some all-new races. In addition, they created all new game rules mechanics since they will no longer be using the d20 system owned by Wizards of the Coast. Their new system might even make it to a pen-and-paper role-playing game. “Dragon Age” will be a party-system game where you will control 4-6 characters.

“The camera flows over a desert-like area where a huge battle is taking place with literally hundreds of characters fighting,” the article reads. “Fire effects, arrows flying, and all that you would imagine in a full-scale war were taking place. It’s the kind of scene that would literally lock up NWN if even attempted.”

The reviewer reported he was “wowed” by the graphics and if the screenshots are any indication, I can fully understand why. Reportedly, it will not use a tile-based environmental graphics system like most games – some new type of system is being used to improve quality. Allegedly, the game will have a Z-axis for the graphics, allowing for cloaks, mountable horses, levitating characters and many other features that have been lacking in “Neverwinter Nights.”

It looks as if what “Dragon Age” will truly be is the culmination of all the desires, suggestions and requests from players in the BioWare community through the past couple years of playing “Neverwinter Nights” and “Knights of the Old Republic.” BioWare is tooling the community’s want list with their own past experiences to make what very well could be the pinnacle fantasy-based role-playing game, yet.

If history repeats itself, BioWare’s initial “Neverwinter Nights” screenshots, which looked awesome at the time, just didn’t do the game justice compared to what it actually looked like when it was released. If that’s the case, we’re in for a real gem of a game here.

Hasta la vista.

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