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Binary: Computer RPGs

Is it role playing or just 1s and 0s?

by Wes Johnson
July 24, 2001  

Explanation, set-up and the guy with the microphone

What is Binary? A few people have asked. Oddly enough it was by people who didn't enjoy my first column. Everyone else seemed to understand, give me the benefit of doubt or go off on some really interesting tangents. In short, Binary is a column that examines CRPGs in a variety of formats, subjects and styles. If this isn't you cup of tea, that is okay. Read something else.

Some of the harsh commentaries about my last column take me back to an Afghan Whigs concert I went to a few years ago:

  • Guy in crowd: Hey you're an asshole!

  •       Greg Dulli: Did you call me asshole, asshole?

  • Guy in crowd: Yeah!

  •       Greg Dulli: Well, asshole, I'm the guy with the microphone.

    There you go. That might be slightly brasher than my usual tone. But this is my column and the direction and subjects I cover are at my discretion and Binary is not about designing a CRPG. That is already covered here (and quite well I might add). Why would you want two columns that discuss the same things in verbatim?

    I honestly appreciate constructive, thoughtful commentary, criticism and ideas. I encourage that. It is critical to the writing process, a concept many semi-professional writers or pundits do not understand. Doing any sort of creative endeavor requires thick skin, but that is not an invitation for critics to be ill mannered either.

    I was warned that people at might not think computer role playing games are "real" role playing games. It is a compelling debate, on the surface. When you examine it deeply enough it reeks or elitism and short sightedness.

    Argument 1: You are playing by yourself! You need a group to role-play!

    I think the greatest thing about RPGs is the interaction between players and a GM in a group. I have been fortunate enough to play in several five plus year campaigns and the depth of plot and character development were satisfying and enjoyable beyond and CRPG I have ever played.

    That is compelling reason to move from behind the keyboard and go roll dice.

    On the other hand I have played in numerous gaming groups where: I just didnt like my fellow players, hated the system or did not like the GM. I am not a big fan of people wasting my time, thus I tend to part ways quickly. I would rather spend a few hours playing a CRPG than spending time trying to role-play with people I can not stand. I have never ditched an RPG campaign to play a CRPG (thats what a save game function is for!).

    As a married, professional in the IT field I can be really busy or away from home. Thus my chances for gaming are reduced to a discouraging levels sometimes. CRPGs extend role playing to people who might not have the time, opportunity or inclination to play RPGs. Also CRPGs can be played anytime, be it for an hour or two after work or a lazy Sunday afternoon when the wife is out eating dim-sum with her friends. RPGs do not usually offer that sort of opportunity.

    Argument 2: RPGs are superior!

    I would have to ask a person to qualify that. What about the thousands of man hours put into a CRPG, surely even the harshest critics could see the value of that. For licensed CRPGs, such as the multitude of D&D games, you then add all the work that was put into their base RPG design and settings and suddenly people have put a great deal more work into it. RPGs are not superior. Neither are CRPGs. They are still different, but ultimately complement each other.

    Pen and paper games allow a GM to convey their world or campaign to (usually) a small audience. It is an intimate setting, giving you a peek into a world few go. It can be a unique world or a canned setting, but ultimately the game is successful due to the people involved with it. RPGs also allow for a great variety of engines and settings that might be difficult to translate to a computer. That does not even count on there being resources and a broad interest to do such a thing (as much as I would like to see a Rolemaster CRPG, that is just not going to happen...).

    CRPGs allow a publisher to convey a game and setting to a large group of people. It is not often an intimate setting like some RPGs, but can be. For example in Baldur's Gate II, I was playing through it at the same time two of my buddies were. We all played different characters. Everyone used a different party mix. All three of us had satisfying results at the end based on what our individual goals were. This sort of flexibility is tells us where CRPGs are going in the coming years. They are not there yet, but it will happen sooner than later.

    When technology and a supporting market enable CRPGs to be as flexible and individually creative as traditional RPGs, what will the difference be? Maybe playing with you friends, but who says that they will not play CRPGs. This might imply that gaming groups, virtual or otherwise, might become more diversified as social and physical borders become less influential. Many people I know play Everquest, which is little more than a hack and slash RPG with thousands of you closest friends. A few had never even had an interest in role-playing games, computer or otherwise, but enjoy the simple roleplaying and combat of that game. A couple decided to try RPGs since they got tired of the shallowness of massive multi-player games.


    CRPGs are an evolving style of gaming. It would be simple and elitist to dismiss them as inferior. CRPGs are going down a road that RPGs have already traveled down. It would be foolish to think that all the innovative RPGs now "just happened." RPGs have been evolving since the mid-1970's, where as CRPGs started in the mid-1980's. Of course the perception is going to be the RPGs are superior. RPGs had a head start, they are also less reliant on things like processors, bandwidth, graphics, etc. CRPGs require technology that really has advanced and only become widely accessible to people in the last decade. People have had access to books for a very long time

    Ultimately there will be a thinning line between RPGs and CRPGs. Some of that does depend on advanced CRPGs being a marketable idea. The technology is getting tantalizingly close to reality. Even when CRPGs become truly robust and flexible they will not likely supplant RPGs. CRPGs cater to a broader audience, but they could lead people into RPGs where that might not have happened a few years ago. All the bells and whistles aside I think it will be safe to assume that CRPGs might not have the intimacy of an RPG. The anonymity of the Internet has oft proven to be a trump card for good manners and thoughtfulness.

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    What do you think?

    Go to forum!\n"; $file = "$subdir/list2.php?f=$num"; if (readfile($file) == 0) { echo "(0 messages so far)
    "; } ?>

    All Binary columns by Wes Johnson

  • All I want for Christmas December 18, 2001
  • Is it role playing or just 1s and 0s July 24, 2001
  • We Are Spoiled May 16, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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