What is a Role-Playing Game (RPG)?

Michael Anissimov

Role-playing games (RPGs) are tabletop, computer, or console games where the player assumes the role of one or more characters, often in a fantasy or science fiction setting. Often, especially in console games, the player controls several characters which make up a party. Typical character occupations include mage, cleric, barbarian, swordsman, archer, etc. Today, role-playing games are a huge genre of video and computer games, over $1 billion USD (US Dollars) in annual revenue worldwide. The latest movement in role-playing games has been towards massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, which has over 11 million subscribers (making up about 62% of the market), and Maplestory, which has a similar number.

Detailed role-playing games may require a high-end graphics card.
Detailed role-playing games may require a high-end graphics card.

The origin of the role-playing game lies in the early 1970s with player-created tabletop RPGs. The first commercially available role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, was created by Gary Gygax in 1974, and has since been played by about 20 million people and sold over $1 billion USD (US Dollars) worth of books and equipment. Starting off as a niche market, tabletop role-playing games acquired a cult following. In the 1980s, a moral panic linking Dungeons and Dragons to Satanism and suicide emerged, a belief that is a source of much humor among Dungeons and Dragons players to this day.

Role-playing games can be played on a computer or on a console.
Role-playing games can be played on a computer or on a console.

Starting around 1980 with the release of Ultima for the PC, role-playing games began to be developed for electronic media. In the long run, these would prove to be the most popular of role-playing games, outselling tabletop RPGs by a factor of 100 to 1. Computer role-playing games developed a cult following throughout the 1980s. In 1987, the seminal console role-playing game, Final Fantasy, was released in Japan by Squaresoft, followed by a 1990 release in the United States. Final Fantasy would go on to be the most popular role-playing franchise ever, selling over 85 million units worldwide. Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, released in 1994 and 1997 respectively, are often cited as the best role-playing games ever made.

Final Fantasy VII introduced RPGs to the mainstream in 1997, truly bringing the genre into its own and making it an established part of mass media. Many extremely popular RPGs would be made throughout the late 90s and the 00s, with the release of World of Warcraft in 2004 being another major milestone, propelling RPGs to an even higher status of popularity. World of Warcraft broke outside of the male teenager and young adult market, as the game is widely played by middle-aged adults, teenage girls and women. Such games provide a context for social interaction and cooperation, in contrast to more simplistic games that focus only on direct competition. The future for role-playing games seems extremely promising, with hundreds of titles being released every year on computer and console systems with ever-increasing graphics and processing capabilities.

Many role-playing games are set in fantasy worlds full of dragons and magic.
Many role-playing games are set in fantasy worlds full of dragons and magic.

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Discussion Comments


Not to argue the point, but I do not remember any "real" RPG computer games in the early 1980's, except perhaps Atari's "Adventure" that was very simple but comes the closest to anything I know.

In the late 1980's I noted some dungeon delving games, but again nothing that hurt sales. It wasn't until 1990's and then sadly, 1996 where tabletop games went out of business by the computer games and the collectible card games.

I made my living with play by mail rpg, so I know when I began to hurt; it was the 1990's.

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