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Indie RPGs developers call back to mechanics and tropes from the genre's birth

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Recently the indie community has seen a rise in role-playing games, titles published through pub funds and funded through Kickstarter popularity. These developers are creating games that are unique to their personal experiences and interests, but all pull from the same era: the boom of Japanese role-playing games from the 80s and 90s.

Muteki Corp.'s recently-published title Dragon Fantasy Book 1 is styled like a classic 8-bit Japanese role-playing game, down to the dialogue boxes and tiny sprites marching in place. Creator Adam Rippon notes that the game is the first in what will be a series of games paying tribute to the RPG styles of each console era.

"The goal was to have the first game be very 8-bit, Nintendo-style hard and very brutal, and it's been a pretty succesful," he told Polygon. "A few reviewers are like, 'Meh it's like an old game,' and I consider that a success because that was eactly what I was going for.

"You know, Sony and Nintendo were originally working together to make this Super Nintendo Playstation console, or something," he added, alluding to the failed collaboration of 1998 on the SNES CD-Rom. "I'm building Dragon Fantasy Book 2 for that magcal unicorn, if it had come out in the 90s. I'm taking all the best things about all the Super Nintendo RPGS and mashing them all into one game."

"You don't stray too far or you start throwing away hard lessons people have learned over the years."

"There's always lots of borrowing in a sense," James Petruzzi, founder of Chasm developer Discord Games added. "Gaming is an evolutionary art form, you have to look and see what other people have done and then take those pieces and see if you can improve upon them, and that's what everybody does. You have to be aware of the whole of it — when creating your own game, you don't stray too far or you start throwing away hard lessons people have learned over the years."

Petruzzi began playing RPGs with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, spending long hours playing Final Fantasy 3. But it was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on PSOne that hit him the hardest, a game that would later have a heavy influence on Chasm. Chasm, a 2D platformer/action role-playing game mesh and the company's third game, found funding success through Kickstarter last month.

Radiant Entertainment's Stonehearth, another title funded through Kickstarter, also weaves RPG elements into its city-building sim framework. According to Radiant's Tom Cannon, common elements of the genre, including leveling up citizens and customizing gear, were used to help set up the game world and give players the framework of a story to work with.

"As a city-building game, there's an overall theme of progression — of getting bigger and stronger, and making the city your own by choosing what to build and what not to build," Cannon explained. "RPGs have really strong systems for expressing both progression and customization, through things like leveling, player classes, and specializations. It was a pretty natural fit.

"Also, by mixing in focused RPG-like story elements we can set the stage for why the player is in the world and what they're supposed to do in the game," he added.

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Mobile RPG Kingturn Underworld was inspired by turned-based tactics phone game Ancient Empires, according to developer Niels Baumann. He then pulled elements from the classic Dungeons and Dragons RPGs: character classes with unique skillsets, an emphasis on character stats and the idea that players' choices would affect the larger game world.

"[Ancient Empires] was a neatly done turn-based strategy game, and maybe the best title of its genre available for mobile phones at this time," he said. "But it was crashing now and then, and I didn't find the AI to be too exciting. To make a long story short and to give insight into how charmingly naive some indie developers tick: I just thought I can do that better."

NostalgiCo, the indie studio behind action role-playing Cryamore, built their game's mechanics around progression systems and exploration — elements borrowed from RPGs like Chrono Trigger and early The Legend of Zelda games.

"The whole progression of abilities to further augment gameplay and uncovering new places to explore and things to collect is something I definitely love, and that's one of the things we implemented in Cryamore via the abilities, which were akin to items in games like Zelda," said NostalgiCo's Alan Wansom.

"I was well acquainted with the Marios and the Sonics, but there's only two ways to go there: either left or right.""

"The seemingly expansive worlds [of early RPGs] were a big hit on me," added creative director Robert Porter. "I was well acquainted with the Marios and the Sonics, but there's only two ways to go there: either left or right."

A common thread connecting the developers Polygon spoke to was an interest in the Japanese role-playing games of the 80s and 90s. But as the new century dawned these games began to lack a defining flavor for some gamers. Elements were tweaked in ways that didn't work, and some that had been reused without change began to grow stale and unappealing. The lack of innovation was a problem, but preserving the classic formula was also important; it was a very unique and delicate issue.

"I didn't play another Final Fantasy game after Final Fantasy 8," Petruzzi said. "Somewhere along the way, I started playing PC games, and fell out of the whole thing. Final Fantasy kept doing the same thing over and over and I lost interest in the characters and worlds. I don't know really why that is, or if it was me personally."

"Personally, beyond the nostalgia factor, I feel that era of RPGs was more imaginative," said Cryamore's Porter. "Everything as a whole was more imaginative because of the restrictions of hardware and technology. Developers then had to work harder to create a world to get soaked into. And even though we're in the modern era now, I think creating Cryamore is a callback to the whole style that era unknowingly created for itself."

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Many of these elements have already migrated into other games, with crafting, leveling and methods of story development seeping into everything from action-adventure titles to first-person shooters.

"Look at Tomb Raider," said Rippon. "The way the story develops in that game and other modern games is really not all that dissimilar from JRPGs. It's focused on the characters and story. Crafting in games like The Last of Us basically lifts from the alchemy part of the Dragon Quest series. People say it's innovative and unique, but it's not, it's a tweak on an old concept."

Both Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger were frequently cited as inspiration. Why are these two games considered worth such frequent emulation?

"Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger, from a story-driven standpoint, set the bar pretty high for every other game to follow that wanted a story attached to it."

"Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger, from a story-driven standpoint, set the bar pretty high for every other game to follow that wanted a story attached to it," said Porter. "In Chrono Trigger, there was so much to do in it, so many branching endings and how time affected different eras, it was just really fantastic at the time. Then when you also attach what came with that game, the music, the character designs, the atmosphere, and [the time travel subgenre], it's a jewel. Final Fantasy 6 was basically an opera in your Super Nintendo, with an opera scene — like one big broadway spectacle you're playing. Big ideas in a little box.

"Final Fantasy 6 to me was one hell of a package," added Wansom. "The characters were interesting, the setting of the world was somewhat different with a mixture of the whole magic and technology, and I think the story definitely moved a lot of people."

There's a proven market for these kind of classic-style RPGs, with games like Dragon Fantasy Book 1 being published and highlighted by Sony, and in-development titles Cryamore, Stonehearth and Chasm running successful Kickstarter campaigns.

"I think if you take a look at indie titles like [Zeboyd Games] Breath of Death VII or Cthulhu Saves The World, you'll see that there is still a market for old school RPGs," said Jacob Barge, creator of Gamer Fatigue's Love's Triumph. "I think that is because there are people who grew up with these kinds of game and say, 'They don't make 'em like they used to,' and people who are new to these older RPGs that go, 'Wow, this is why these games were great, I never knew.'

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"Games like [Breath of Death and Cthulu Saves] are fantastic examples of what old school RPGs can still do, and they only scratched the surface," he added. "As time goes on, the quality of those games will improve. Those games capture a fun combat system, great music, great dialogue with a fantastic story that I think anyone can enjoy because of its humor. Did those games need high-tech graphics to accomplish their goals? Absolutely not."

Baumann, along with Steve Gibbon, creator of Tales of the Drunken Paladin, believe that while the market is there, it's still a niche one. Not many players are willing to or have the time to sink two dozen hours into an game, or in the case of Ni no Kuni a good 40.

"People don't want to mash through a bunch of text and dialogue in a game," he said "The patience of the player is proportional to the kind of game they're playing. If it's an RPG, there are certain expectations that you will spend time talking and interactng with things, whereas in a fighter or shooter people start talking and you might zone out."

As we stand on the cusp of the next console generation and blockbuster AAA titles are now sharing the stage with tiny-staffed indies, what continues to draw these smaller developers to make classic-style RPGs?

"[Classic RPGs] are just great games, and there are still a lot of people that want to play them," said Cannon. "I think the indie developers themselves want to play theses kinds of games, and if the AAA studios won't do it, then it's up to us."

"Suddenly indie developers have the chance to get the same market exposure as the big players."

The sentiment among these developers in that current games can learn from the freedom older RPGs gave players to explore and figure out mechanics on their own. Older RPGs also had more complex systems when it came to navigation or equipment upgrades.

"Players are smart, and they really do enjoy tinkering around with complicated systems," Cannon said. "The trend has been to simplify traditional RPG mechanics by limiting choice. Put in fewer moving parts so the player has a clearer path of progression and won't accidentally make sub-optimal choices. For me, a lot of the fun in an RPG is playing around with different builds and seeing what happens."

"I believe that passion for compelling gameplay is one of the most driving factors behind indie game development, and RPGs have certainly much to offer in this regard," said Baumann, adding that Apple and Google have "changed the rules" in regards to launching independent games. "Suddenly indie developers have the chance to get the same market exposure as the big players."

Gibbon says that if he had "a billion dollars and a full team of developers," he wouldn't have made an RPG like Drunken Paladin. Likely, he said, he would make the AAA blockbuster game he would have the cash for.

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"Asking why people do things, you're also kind of asking the psychology of it," he said. "Some people either value nostalgia and appreciate it, and some capitalize on the nostalgia of other people. Looking back, the late 90s on the PlayStation were really the big thing — I feel like the best of those games may have been coming out. I do want to find a way to reproduce it, to access the same level of joy I experienced playing them for the first time."

"All I wanted to do from day one was make an RPG," Rippon said. "I was told repeatedly that I couldn't , that Americans don't like to buy RPGs. I was also told Americans don't like to buy Metroidvania style games, but we see how that is. But you know what, the world could use another Opera scene.

"The ones who have been doing video games for a real long time are doing RPGs now because we've always wanted to," he added. "No one would let us do this in the mainstream industry, and that sucks. So we're doing it on our own."