Playing Roles: The Etymology of RPGs, Part One

"Playing Roles: The Etymology of RPGs" is the title of a new editorial series over at TechRaptor, with the initial installment starting us down the path of getting to the core of what a role-playing game is all about, the differences and nuances between JRPGs and WRPGs, and the early development history in both markets that has led us to where we are today. A handful of paragraphs:

This does, however, go both ways. The Japanese role playing market was directly influenced by Western games based upon tabletop role-playing mechanics. Some of the earliest, successful role-playing video games included Akalabeth: World of Doom by Sir Richard Garriott, and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, by Sir-Tech Software. Both would be dungeon crawlers, turn-based, first person role-playing games which had a party-based paradigm and used modified Dungeons and Dragons rules in their mechanics. Other games came before it, such as Oubliette, Moria and Avatar, but were not commercial successes.

So as you can see, it would not be stretch to argue that the base mechanics found in most role-playing games are, in fact, fluid enough to not be tied down to such labels. Ignoring the stereotypes of battle mechanics, presentation of aesthetics or even character development, role-playing games is much more diverse than the East vs. West label implies.


Both men believed that home consoles would be a good medium to introduce a role-playing game in the vein of Wizardry, especially after the runaway success of the Famicom system in Japan by Nintendo. Horii, however, felt that most role-playing games being made in Japan had too niche of an appeal. (At the time I first made Dragon Quest, computer and video game RPGs were still very much in the realm of hardcore fans and not very accessible to other players,) he stated in an interview in Nintendo Power. (So I decided to create a system that was easy to understand and emotionally involving, and then placed my story within that framework.) The goal was to make role-playing games accessible to wider audiences, as most RPG fans were computer players in Japan.

To compensate for the lack of memory and power on the Famicom, Horii and Nakamura would take specific elements of games such as Wizardry and Ultima and formulate a new gameplay system around it instead of outright copying the tabletop inspired mechanics. Creating accessible menus and a customized level up scheme, Horii's changes to the standards found in RPGs at the time were highly influential for their innovations to the genre. So much so, when a port of Wizardry was released a year later on the Famicom, they borrowed the menu and inventory system found in Dragon Quest to make the game accessible.