How Dungeons & Dragons Gave Birth to the Modern Video Game Industry

Of Dice and Men

Video games are an enormous, multibillion-dollar industry, growing like Super Mario on mushrooms. But the business can trace its roots to a simpler time, when a humble game played with pen, paper and a set of funny-looking dice ruled the rec and dorm rooms of geeks, nerds, dreamers and math majors. That game was Dungeons & Dragons.

Writer David Ewalt, a self-described “writer, gamer, geek,” first suspected the deep influence of Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D, as its devotees call it) on contemporary video games when he began writing about the game industry for Forbes Magazine. He talked to the leading minds of the trade and asked them, “What made you want to create video games for a living?”

“Over and over again,” according to Ewalt, “these guys said, ‘Well, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid’… Almost every single time. It was a really universal experience.”

Ewalt took a deep dive into the subject, and the result is his thorough and entertaining new book on the grandfather of role-playing games, with a peerless title: “Of Dice And Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It.”

According to Ewalt, D&D “invented some concepts that are now everywhere in the game world. Things like having a character that you stay with, and that gets more powerful over time, and that levels up and gains new abilities. Games didn’t do that before Dungeons & Dragons.”

Today’s multi-player games draw their inspiration from D&D’s social nature.

With D&D, “it’s really more like collaborative storytelling. It’s very creative. The people at the table are working together to tell a story and to explain how they’re heroes in the story,” Ewalt said.

“A lot of the very first video games were direct simulations, where people were trying to create a computer program to do what D&D does,” Ewalt said. “[Game developers] were copying it and trying to make it faster by saying, ‘Oh, the computer can do the dice rolling for me.’ … Over time, video games became bigger and more complex and more interesting. And role playing games kind of disappeared.”

Yet, like an ancient, rune-covered scroll, D&D is being dusted off, and it may cast its spell on a new generation of enthusiasts. A game associated with Renaissance fairs may be experiencing a renaissance of its own, as Ewalt sees the first generation of D&D-ers grown-up and pining for the games of yore.

He described the average former player’s feelings for the game as, “Man, I missed that. It was really great to sit down with my friends and play that game. I want to do it again.’”

Just as D&D paved the way for contemporary video games, so too have video games allowed D&D to gain acceptance.

“Video games are now everywhere. Even my grandparents are playing something on their phone,” said Ewalt.

“The idea of Dungeons & Dragons and this idea of a tabletop or role playing game is not as strange as it used to be, so it’s an easier leap to say, ‘You know what, I am going to try [D&D].’ And when people try it,” said Ewalt, “they inevitably say, ‘Wow, that was a lot of fun.’”

Those new to the world of Dungeons & Dragons needn’t fear it.

“It’s real easy to learn,” Ewalt said. “The game can get very complex, but it doesn’t have to be. … It doesn’t take years of practice and memorizing all the rules.”

And the game may have its benefits, as well. “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau played D&D as a youth and, Ewalt said “[Favreau specifically has credited D&D as the tool that taught him how to tell a story. There’s tons of people like that.”

They include Joss Whedon and Stephen Colbert, not to mention video game legends like John Carmack, the co-founder of id Software.

“The game was hugely influential,” Ewalt said. “It taught a lot of us how to tell a story. A lot of people grew up and became novelists, became filmmakers, became writers for TV and movies, and they look back and say, ‘Yeah, that’s where I learned how fun it was to tell stories.’”



Where are the Xbox One role-playing games?

Xbox One has a mammoth 23 games confirmed for release on day one in November, more than many expected – but there’s a distinct lack of role-playing games available to play.

It’s the one genre lacking from the launch lineup, which includes a number of shooters, action games, casual games, driving games and even a fighting game.

The Fable series – Microsoft’s RPG franchise – is heading in a different direction on Xbox One with the multiplayer-focused Fable Legends, and developer Lionhead has confirmed it has no intention of making a fully-fledged Fable 4.

So, what’s the deal? Has Microsoft lost faith in the RPG genre?

“RPGs for me personally, that’s the genre I grew up playing, starting with the old Ultima series,” Microsoft Studios boss Phil Spencer told Eurogamer at Gamescom.

“Those are games that are in my heart. When we launched 360 we invested in Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon with Sakaguchi-san. Those were really important games from us.

“RPG games take a long time. You want to make sure those games are great. Lionhead’s taking Fable in an interesting direction and we’ve been playing that game for a while. That’s a ton of fun.

“RPGs specifically, we showed The Witcher 3 at E3, but I know what you’re asking. You’re asking about the more traditional RPG. I know you will see those games come to our platform. There’s just nothing to announce right now.”

Some have wondered whether the Xbox One will be home to as many Japanese role-playing games as the Xbox 360 was. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy 15 is due out on next-gen consoles, but Microsoft’s Xbox sales struggle in Japan is well documented, and the Xbox One will not launch there until 2014.

Amid concern about Xbox in Japan, Spencer reiterated Microsoft’s commitment to the Japanese market and said JRPGs will launch on Xbox One eventually.

“Specifically about the Japanese market – and I’ll be at Tokyo Game Show in a month – the Japanese development community remains incredibly important to us, and we’re continuing to invest there,” Spencer said.

“We’re having great conversations with people. We’re not announcing anything, but I can say both RPGs and specifically the Japanese developers are really important to our ecosystem.

“I know Dead Rising 3 isn’t an RPG and is being developed in Vancouver, Canada, but I’ll just say the relationship with the publishers and developers in Japan is something we’ll continue to invest in as important.”

“You’re asking about the more traditional RPG. I know you will see those games come to our platform. There’s just nothing to announce right now.”

Microsoft Studios boss Phil Spencer

Mistwalker’s 2007 JRPG Lost Odyssey was published by Microsoft

Microsoft’s Xbox One launch lineup is large – at least compared to previous console launches – but some have questioned whether it lacks a killer app in the vein of Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox.

Spencer said gamers will decide what Xbox One’s killer app is, using history to guide his prediction.

“Even Halo – and I was there at the original Xbox – we didn’t know [the Xbox’s killer app] was Halo,” Spencer said. “And for those who remember how Halo performed at the E3 prior to the launch, I’ll be honest, there were some issues with how Halo played.

“You never know what the hits are going to be. We build things, we put our passion and creativity into the products, and then you put forward something, and the consumers decide what are the killer apps. The gamers will decide what the killer app is.”

Spencer continued: “We’ve got a breadth of content I’m proud of: Killer Instinct; we announced Zoo Tycoon, which is a completely different genre of game; Project Spark, which is a creativity application tool/game, which I think will bring a ton of people in; Forza; Call of Duty; Battlefield; Dead Rising; Ryse.

“In the end the gamers will decide what the killer app was. There’s enough content there that everybody will pick their thing that will work. I know from a quality level – and I’m playing all the games now at home – the teams understand what the platform is capable of. We’ve got people making use of Kinect, like Kinect Sports Rivals. We’ve got some tried and true shooters and fighting games. The quality across so many genres is something we haven’t seen at launch before.”

“For those who remember how Halo performed at the E3 prior to the launch, I’ll be honest, there were some issues with how Halo played.”

Spencer, who has Xbox One’s game release schedule outlined up to Christmas 2014, said part of his job is to ensure that with Xbox One Microsoft makes a commitment to gamers that there will be a steady flow of eye-catching games.

He again pointed to the past to highlight his point, saying key Xbox 360 games Gears of War, Crackdown and Halo Wars all released after the console’s launch.

“If you look at what happened on Xbox 360, Gears of War wasn’t a launch game,” he said. “It came a little bit later. We had investments like Crackdown, Alan Wake, which came later. Then we iterated on Halo. Halo Wars. Fable was there all along. We had this collection of things people could believe in and were tried and true franchises. Some of those were first on the original Xbox. Then we had things like Minecraft later in the cycle, which came from PC. That’s sold over eight million units now, pushing nine.

“That is to me the commitment you make as a platform holder to the gamer: we’re going to continue to invest in new content. Gamers want great new games. They want to know they can play their favourites and they want to know they’re going to get surprised by the new unexpected things that will come out. That is our commitment to them.”



Forget saving the world: In Time and Eternity, you have to save your marriage (preview)

Time and Eternity

The big day is finally here. You’re ready to profess your love to your soon-to-be spouse in front of friends and family. But before you can seal the deal, a mysterious band of assassins barges through the church and tries to murder you. Meanwhile, your red-headed fiancé Toki transforms into a knife-wielding blonde woman who fights them off with ease.

At least you weren’t left at the altar, right?

Time and Eternity is one of three PlayStation 3-exclusive Japanese role-playing games that Nippon Ichi Software (better known in the States as NIS America) revealed at its annual press event this week in San Francisco. A new entry in the Disgaea series and another game called The Guided Fate Paradox looked okay, but it was Time and Eternity’s unusual wedding theme and the beautiful, hand-drawn animation that caught my eye. It’s a joint venture between NIS America and developer Namco Bandai, and it’s coming out this summer.

A weird relationship

You control Toki and Towa, the two “dual souls” of the bride. They are traveling back in time with the former groom (whose soul is now inside a pet dragon named Drake) to unravel the mystery of the wedding crashers.

“Normal RPGs have grand and epic themes, but I wanted to do something different, something unexpected,” said Namco Bandai producer Kei Hirono, via a translator, to GamesBeat. “Marriage is one of the biggest events that everybody — maybe not everybody [laughs] — that most people have. … [Time and Eternity] kind of just happened. It wasn’t planned or anything. My marriage and wedding happened around the same time [as development].”

Time and Eternity: Toki and Drake in battle

The developers incorporate much of the story and personality between Toki/Towa and Drake into the gameplay. Toki/Towa will transform into either of the souls when she levels up from combat. While each side of her has a basic set of attacks, it also has its own powers. Later in the game, you’ll have more control over which soul you want to use. Drake just acts as an autonomous sidekick, attacking enemies on his own.

Battles in Time and Eternity happen in real time, resembling more of a fighting game than a traditional JRPG because of how fast you need to react. From the 20 minutes I played, a key part of the decision-making involved how far or how close Toki/Towa was to the enemy. Pushing up on the left analog stick causes her to rush toward the foe until she’s right in its face while pushing back down returns her to the original position.

The controls are simple: Ranged and melee commands share the same button (with your powers mapped to the others), L1 is your block (and if timed right, a counter), R2 pulls up a menu of items you can use, and rolling the left analog stick left or right makes Toki/Towa dodge in those directions. Unlike some fighting games, however, you can’t cancel a move once you’ve triggered it — the animation has to play out, making timing all the more important. The enemies I saw usually had an obvious tell to let you know what they’re about to do.

An interactive anime

Time and Eternity is a peculiar juxtaposition of 2D hand-drawn animation (with no polygons, textures, or cel-shading) and 3D levels. It’s jarring at first as the backgrounds look somewhat lackluster compared to the detailed characters that populate the world. But after a few minutes, you grow used to it and realize that the distinctive styles actually complement each other rather well.

“It was really challenging because for anything that’s polygon-based or 3D-based, there are a lot of resources that we can use,” said Hirono. “There’s a lot of middleware, and a lot of places are already doing it — it’s easier to make something like that. But since here everything is hand-drawn, we actually had to make the game around the animation rather than making the animation around the system itself.”

Jumping into Time and Eternity kind of felt like I was in the middle of an anime movie or TV series. Though I couldn’t hear any sounds at the event due to loud music playing and a lot of people talking, a NIS America representative told me that most dialogue scenes feature voice actors. The plot was fun and lighthearted from what I could glimpse of the subtitles: Drake seemed to act as a comic relief role with his short temper and exaggerated gestures, characters questioned whether Towa knew about Toki’s marriage (they’ve “talked” about it before), and I fought two wannabe assassins named Linus and Lucy.

For Hirono, the tone was a welcome change of pace from his work on Dark Souls, a JRPG known for its grim atmosphere and punishing gameplay.

“So just like how it is with your life itself, you want to have variation,” he said. “For me, I think it was a good balance to be able to work on something dark and serious like Dark Souls and then at the same time, [Time and Eternity] is more casual and happier. [It’s] a good balance.”

Time and Eternity

This screen is a good example of how the 2D animation meshes with the 3D levels.

Time and Eternity

Time and Eternity

Time and Eternity



PS Vita REVIEW: Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland

Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland

Worthy for play on the go.

I’ve always appreciated what the Atelier roleplaying series strives to do, even if I haven’t always been thrilled with the ways in which it’s done it. Though the dialogue and voice work have never been terribly effective, many of these games’ characters still beg to be remembered, and few more than one Totooria Helmold, the star of Atelier Totori Plus. Earnest and open-hearted to a fault, her deeply personal motivation is the glue that, along with an intensive crafting element, holds this laid-back RPG together. And thanks to the Vita’s beautiful screen, the world around her looks better here than ever before.

Atelier Totori Plus is a Vita port of Atelier Totori that doesn’t disappoint in the least. It brings all the content of the original to gamers on the go, along with a few bonuses to sweeten the pot. Among other things: all the DLC characters from the PS3 incarnation, and more excitingly, a new post-game dungeon that Atelier Rorona fans will no doubt recognize. None of theses extras are game-changers mind you, but they do add an appreciated splash of extra variety whether you’re a new or returning player.

Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland


Totori’s technically simple, artistically intricate graphics really come to life on the Vita, as its sharp display brings out all the loving details in the characters’ designs. If you somehow failed to recognize how well-conceived Totori’s artwork is on the PS3, it’ll certainly come out and smack you in the eyeballs this time around. If you’re looking for it, you might spot an extra second of loading here, or a drop in framerate there, but none of it impacts gameplay. In fact, it inexplicably runs better than the PS3 version of Totori’s sequel, Atelier Meruru.

Still, this is a port, which naturally means it’s inherited the faults of its original. Totori’s flaws are few in number, but deep in severity, with the voice acting on the male side of the cast being the worst offense. Gino’s nasally delivery constantly grates, and the ever-whiny Peter proves to be just as rage-inducing on a small Vita screen as he is on a big one. The voice actor playing Totori’s widower father acquits himself reasonably well, but only to the extent that the clumsily wrought script allows him to. While the female performances are stronger on the whole, they aren’t enough to save the day. Given that Totori relies even more heavily upon dialogue than your average RPG, this sub-standard level of craft will be a sizable problem for many.

Of course, just as a port brings its big brother’s baggage along with it, so too does it bring the good stuff. Despite the writing and acting issues, I still find Totori and her quest to discover the true fate of her missing mother to be a suitable, if unlikely motivation to push through. Unlike Meruru and Ayesha after her, Totori has genuine bonds, either by blood or by history, with the people around her. This lends her interactions with them significance, especially where her family and her presumably deceased mother are concerned. Even amidst the airy, care-free atmosphere, there’s a heartfelt tale here about a young girl who refuses to accept the loss of her parent, and challenges herself to discover the truth. As someone who’s been slaying dragons and confronting world-ending evils since Dragon Warrior, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland

Fishcraft? I don’t know what that is.

Having reviewed the PS3 version of Totori last year, coming back to it after moving on to Meruru and Ayesha really drove home why it’s my favorite of the PS3 Atelier games. Of all the main characters, Totori’s tale mattered most to me, and the cast surrounding her finds a comfortable sweet spot between light-hearted fun and believability. In terms of gameplay, Totori packs all of the franchise-signature crafting depth, and marries it to a well-tuned, free-form quest structure that’s rife with resource management. You can check my original review for all the sordid details, but in short, it’s less restrictive than Meruru’s system, but more open and challenging than the spoon-fed quest track that Ayesha runs you through. Striking such a balance in a system with so many moving parts is really quite commendable, especially given that neither of its successors could truly manage it.

The Verdict

Atelier Totori was a very good RPG to begin with, but its stylish, technically modest graphics, and focus on bite-sized quests make it an ideal candidate for handheld gaming. Everything that made the original what it is, for better or worse, is here on the Vita – including the near-constant interruptions by poorly executed dialogue which still bar it from greatness. But its additional content and small-screen visual presence make Atelier Totori Plus the definitive version, and an easy recommendation for franchise fans and RPG buffs in general.




Why Do People Care About JRPGs?

Why do people like Japanese role-playing games? What is a Japanese role-playing game? Why the hell do I write a column about them every week?

Welcome to the Random Encounters Explainer. Consider this a primer on JRPGs, your introduction to the genre and a piece designed to answer many of your burning questions. Whether you’re an expert on all things Atelier or you don’t know the difference between Final Fight and Final Fantasy, allow me to help you develop more appreciation for an under-appreciated genre.

Let’s do this.

So what is the deal with JRPGs? Why should I care about them?

Well, they’re awesome. More than any other genre of video game, JRPGs are adept at playing with your emotions and crafting the illusion that you’re fighting your way through grand adventures. They tend to focus on narrative and exploration. Sometimes they tell wide, sweeping stories about angry gods and evil empires. Other times they keep things simple and adventurous. And sometimes they let you hang out in high school.

In general, the experience you can get out of a JRPG is drastically different from the experience you can get out of any other genre of video game. Although you sometimes have to be patient with them.

Hold up. What’s a JRPG?

You know, this is a surprisingly tricky question. By its strictest definition, a JRPG is just a role-playing game made in Japan: a Japanese role-playing game. But there are also a ton of Western games designed to look, feel, and play like Eastern RPGs: games like AnachronoxCharles Barkley’s Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, and the latest Penny Arcade.

In many ways, the genre has evolved to become something more than just “a role-playing game made in Japan.”

Then what makes a JRPG a JRPG?

Any number of things. One common factor is turn-based combat—that is, combat in which every character stands around and waits for some arbitrary clock to run out before they attack. You’ll usually gather a party. You can usually visit a variety of exotic cities, dungeons, and other locations. You’ll usually participate in some sort of character progression system. Maybe there are airships. World maps. Lots and lots of bosses and monsters and tough challenges. Awesome music. A whimsical sense of humor.

But it’s not those parts that make a JRPG a JRPG; it’s the sum of them all. JRPGs are JRPGs because they’re dream-packed, emotion-triggering, hair-raising adventures that make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.

In other words, JRPGs are JRPGs because they feel like JRPGs. Helpful, right? Really, though, it’s like porn: you know it when you see it.

Sounds boring. Why do people like them?

Lots of reasons! For one, there’s a certain rhythm to turn-based combat that a lot of people enjoy. We might love their stories and characters. Or maybe we just like getting lost for a while in experiences that we can’t get elsewhere.

I find JRPGs intimidating/archaic/obsolete/annoying. Why should I care?

Well… give them another chance! The genre has much more depth and breadth than you might believe if you’ve only limited yourself to games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

Okay… then what should I play?

Have you tried the Paper Mario series? Or Mario & Luigi? Both are hilarious, fast-paced twists on the genre.

If you want something really unique and special, get your hands on Valkyria Chronicles, a strategy role-playing game with an unusual setting, some lovely cel-shaded graphics, and one hell of a combat system.

Want something faster? How about the action-packed Kingdom Hearts series? Or the hack-and-slash Ys games, several of which have been repackaged for Steam and PSP?

What if I’ve never played a JRPG before? What game should I play?

Good question! Let me give you a few options:

Final Fantasy VI – The best game in the most popular RPG series on the planet. It packs one hell of an emotional wallop. Its characters are subtle, interesting, and hilarious. And that music.

Suikoden – A fast-paced, politic-heavy game that places you in the shoes of a rebel out to fight against a nasty, oppressing empire. It’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s part of the charm. And it’ll help you segue into my favorite game of all time, the illustrious masterpieceSuikoden II.

Mother 3 – Charming, easy to get into, and poignant as hell.

Lost Odyssey – Old-school sensibilities in a new-school package. If you can get past the awful voice acting (and a few annoying characters), you might really enjoy this console JRPG. Worth playing if only for the dream sequences, which make up some of the best writing I’ve ever seen.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky – About as awesome an adventure as you can find nowadays. A little too text-heavy for some peoples’ tastes, but I love it to death.

Final Fantasy VII – You might as well see what all the hype is about.

I loved Final Fantasy VII. But I haven’t played a single good JRPG since then. What game should I play?

Check out Radiant Historia, a DS game that is something of a spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger. Or Persona 3, an addictive (albeit way-too-long) dungeon crawling high school simulation. (It’s better than it sounds.)

Or spend some time with the dark, surreal, sometimes-repetitive Nier.

I find JRPGs to be slow and plodding. Is there a JRPG that’s awesome before its third hour?

There are many. Try an old action-JRPG like Soulblazer or Illusion of Gaia. Or a new one, like the bizarrely awesome The World Ends With You.

Okay, seriously, I can’t find a single JRPG story that keeps me engaged. Why are they all so awful?

Because you have no soul. Also, maybe you just haven’t found the right story for you. Check outFinal Fantasy Tactics, a Shakespeare-inspired tactical RPG with a plot that rivals Game of Thrones in betrayal and medieval badassery. Or Xenogears, a sci-fi masterpiece that’s up there with the most ambitious (and strongest) RPGs ever.

If you want a simpler, more romantic tale, check out the aforementioned Trails in the Sky orMother 3. The Suikoden series is also chock full of masterful storytelling.

Why are JRPGs so afraid of innovation?

They’re not.

Are JRPG creators consciously recycling tropes?

In some cases, yes. The Tales series, which is particularly popular in Japan (and has its own loyal fanbase out here), is purposefully designed to be built around stereotypes and fantasies and nostalgia and all that jazz. It has its pros and cons.

But a lot of the time, JRPG developers are very careful to avoid and subvert their own tropes. Hence the new wave of RPGs that try very, very hard to be different. Some work. Others don’t.

Why are the swords so big?

To overcompensate.

Just kidding. Maybe they started out ginormous so you could see them among the 8-bit pixels of old-school sprites, and as characters grew, their swords grew along with them.

Well… thanks. I sure have seen the error of my ways. I love JRPGs now.

You’re welcome.


Source: Kotaku