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Not your Daddy’s D&D: RPGs hit the mainstream

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Bumper Jack

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The Witcher 2 - Atari

Once upon a time, the
formula for making a hit console game was simple: Throw in an appealing central
character, give him a task, toss some dangerous-looking things at him, make him
jump a lot, hand him a gun, and you were well on your way to the big time.

The thing you absolutely didn't do was make a geeky, nuts and bolts role-playing game filled with inventory screens, branching dialogue trees and drawn-out battles against -- gulp -- dragons.

But that was then. These days, role-playing games have broken out of the garage and are taking up residence right next to the lucrative shooters and action games that seem to
nab twice as many headlines.

Two new RPGS arrive this week in The Witcher 2 (sequel to a critically-acclaimed but relatively unknown PC outing from 2007) and a PC port of last year's Xbox 360 hit Fable
III
, and two of the most anticipated games of the next twelve months are massive, top-pedigree examples of the genre's best. Bioware's Mass Effect 3 and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls: Skyrim come on the heels of colossally successful predecessors: Mass Effect 2 sold over 2 million copies in just its first week, and 2006's Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was one of the Xbox 360's early smashes. Just a few months back, Bioware's swords and sorcery shtick Dragon Age 2 stormed shelves and, like the original, has sold exceedingly well.

All of a sudden, the geeks are calling the shots. But it hasn't always been this way.

[Slideshow: Best Role Playing Games of the Past 5 Years]

While RPGs have been on the consoles for ages, they really came of age on the PC. In their
1990's heyday, most PC role-playing games were wedded, either explicitly or
covertly, to the traditions established by pen-and-paper games like Dungeons
and Dragons, relying on stats and random dice rolls rather than player skills.
With a few exceptions, they were fantasy-themed, in the tried-and-true (or
perhaps tired-and-true) Tolkien tradition.

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Fable 3 - Microsoft

As marriages go, it was happy and productive, birthing a slew of epics like Baldur's Gate II, a
four-disc (five, if you count its expansion) epic which sold two million copies back in the days when that was considered nearly impossible. But it was doomed to eventual divorce as its consumers grew from teens and students into busy thirty somethings without the time for a 200+ hour video game, nor the willingness to keep a gaming PC handy. Gamers demanded entertainment that challenged their skills rather than their die-rolling luck, the orcs-and-goblins bit got tedious, and for a decade or more turn-based video games have been uncool enough to scare off almost everyone. (Everyone except the Japanese, who retain an insatiable appetite for the style.)

In short, the Western RPG had to change or die -- and it wasn't the only genre in that position.

Take the first-person shooter, today by far the most enduringly popular of all action games, and reliably responsible for locking down several slots on the annual bestseller
charts. Years ago, shooters were the domain of super-competitive PC gamers who
played blisteringly fast games like Quake II, wielding mouse-and-keyboard to
shocking effect. and the pros were so good as to be godlike.

But one by one developers found they could make their shooters work just as
well modern consoles, thanks to the twin-analog-stick controllers that became
standard issue in the late 90s. And Halo -- originally a PC/Mac development,
before anyone had heard of the Xbox -- was the first to really make it stick.
Once PC shooters were all anyone wanted to play, but now they're an
afterthought.

So too went RPGs, but here the trailblazers were Bioware and Bethesda - the
same pair of developers responsible for Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim. And they did
it with two epic, best-selling Xbox games: Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls:
Morrowind, in 2002, and the following year's Star Wars: Knights of the Old
Republic, from Bioware.

Although Morrowind actually came to the PC before the Xbox - and arguably was a better game  on the PC, too - the Xbox version would end up being the most influential. Controlling much like Halo before it, Morrowind was an up-close-and-personal game that still carried much of the trappings of the earlier games in its series. Despite that, it was a huge success, to the surprise of some early critics who dismissed it as a niche game.

Then came Knights of the Old Republic -- but like the D&D-based epics of Bioware's past, and unlike Morrowind, Knights was turn-based. Its underlying combat system was a
distant offshoot of Dungeons and Dragons, too, but it did such a good job hiding
its roots, some players probably never realized they were playing a role-playing game. Mix that with the minds behind some of gaming's very best stories -- and slap the biggest name in all of sci-fi on it -- and you have a recipe for a best-seller.

Which is how it proved. In its day, Old Republic was the fastest-selling game on the original Xbox, giving a new generation of gamers an accessible gateway to the
conventions of role-playing games. Its success didn't go unnoticed, and many
traditionally PC-centric development houses began looking much more favorably
on console platforms.

So while D&D-branded computer games live on, notably in the massively-multiplayer
D&D Online and the upcoming action-oriented download Daggerdale, they're a
different breed than their story-driven, number-heavy ancestors - spin-offs,
not attempts to recreate the pen-and-paper experience on your PC. Or console.
Often the less a console role-playing game shares with the computer games that
spawned the genre, the better it sells.

You can see this reflected in the progress of the Mass Effect series, which was simplified
significantly between its first and second installments in ways that riled some
old-school gamers. Statements from Bioware indicate the third game will be
cleaner still. And Morrowind followup Skyrim, too, has cannily trimmed its
complex character stats system, going from eight core attributes to a trio of
easily understandable scores.

Will this simplification make them more successful than their predecessors? You'd have to
be nuts to bet against them. Skyrim is easily one of the year's most anticipated games, and Mass Effect 3 was too, until delays pushed it into 2012. Once reserved for the most Coke-bottle-bespectacled of gamers, the role-playing game now ranks as one of the console world's most popular. They might not be your daddy's D&D, but chances are he'll wind up playing them anyway.

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