The Father of RPGs
Well, having read the August 1999 issue UK published video game magazine EDGE, I found some intriguing info on the history of Japanese RPGs that I figured would be worth passing on. It isn't something you would find easily while flicking through the magazine in a bookshop.
It's worth pointing out though, that EDGE is closely related to the US magazine Next Generation. The two magazines often share articles and so what is written here may have already appeared in Next Generation a few issues ago (which I believe to be the case), or could appear in the near future if it did not.
Anyway, the article is about Henk Rogers, the man responsible for bringing Tetris to Nintendo, and now safeguarding the intellectual properties involved in the classic falling block puzzle game. This is extremely significant in itself. For example, without the success of the Nintendo Gameboy (driven by Tetris), there may be no Pocket Monsters now, or handheld version of Zelda. Or, well, I'm not typing this to talk about Tetris, but about RPGs. Changing subject can often provide interesting information though, and towards the end of a 7 page feature, the subject switches to RPGs...
From EDGE issue 74, pages 74-75.
Yokohama, Japan, 1980
Another suit throwing dirt on the coffin of gaming? While Rogers is clearly a businessman first, it would be very wrong to think that was the complete picture. He initially cut his way through the corporate Japanese industry as the very antithesis - a gamer and enthusiast. In Japan he is known as the father of roleplaying games. Miyamoto's Zelda might even be said to owe a debt to this gaijin.
In 1980, Rogers created a computerised version of Dungeons & Dragons called Black Onyx on a home computer called the 9801. Spurning derisory offers from game publishers, he decided to market his game himself.
"When Christmas came my distributor ordered 600 copies. I'd already burned that in 'Conan'-type advertising." he says. Black Onyx's woes prefigured the Tetris saga, still years away. "Nobody understood what the hell they were trying to sell. Come February we were looking at the end of the world."
Did the Japanese have any history of roleplaying games at all?
HR: Zero. D&D in the US came out of civil war miniatures and guys at GenCon doing simulations with lots of troops. When Gygax put Tolkien into that world, it was an innovation.
Sorry, we seem to be digging back into the history books again.
HR: That's okay. It was tough. I didn't speak Japanese, so I got an interpreter. I physically went to every game magazine in Japan and showed them the title. I put in all the editor's names and explained how to play. By March the magazines were all going nuts. By April we were getting 10,000 orders a month. Big time!
That's pretty amazing.
HR: I guess I am the father of roleplaying in Japan.
Think of the royalties...
Have you spoken to Miyamoto about that and Zelda ?
HR: Well, he's a good friend. But no, we don't specifically talk about RPGs. We talk about games in general and the philosophy behind them. The problem is, if you say somthing game specific, then there is the problem of, 'Oh, you got that idea from me', or vice versa. He's a very simple guy - his reward for Mario is that he doesn't have to wear neckties.
Blue Planet Software, San Francisco, 1999
Rogers stresses that Blue Planet is more than just a Tetris company. He believes that videogames aren't delievering what the average person wants. They're violent, the learning curve is too steep, and they're made for gamers. Blue Planet will deliver "games for the rest of us," Rogers promises, and it's suggested to him that that should become the trademark.
He talks of a still-secret figure-skating game targeted at 11-year-old girls. A novel concept, it's not going to interest Edge readers, but it could well sell millions.
Back to the 1980s for a moment. The first couple of Black Onyx products did very well for Rogers. Yet, soon after, he began to run into problems as rival games started to appear. "I'm a purist. My form of roleplaying is that you, the player, get transported into another world. You are experiencing that world," he says.
Rival products took a different tack, in which players assumed the role of characters. "Most of the other RPGs in Japan had Japanese anime characters transformed into the computer world. Everyone plays with the same character. That's the opposite of what I'm trying to achieve," explains Rogers. "There's no firstperson responsibility for what the character does in their games."
Responsibility is key. In Black Onyx, violent players who attacked weaker, fleeing monsters were cursed with bad karma. Not the most sophisticated pilosophy, true, but a different branch to today's legions of Doom-alikes.
And at that point the subject shifts away from RPGs, not to return. Although if you have access to the article, I would suggest reading it through to the end, for the opinions expressed about responsibilty are valid and interesting and no less tied to RPGs as they are to video games as a whole.