Veteran developers launch Kickstarter for ‘Old School RPG’, but what does that mean anyway?

The fact that game industry veterans Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry, D&D) and Tom Hall (Doom, Anachronox) have set out to fund development of an old-school RPG through Kickstarter should surprise exactly nobody. Their company is called Loot Drop, after all, and they have an abiding passion for the genre.

“We both love making old-school RPGs and playing them,” says Brathwaite. “For us this was the super heyday of making games.”

In the promotional video on the Kickstarter page, they demur on the question of what precisely they see as the fundamental ideological differences between contemporary RPGs such as Skyrim, Torchlight II, Dark Souls and nostalgic forebears such as Richard Garriott’s Ultima series. “Today’s RPGs are epic, they’re wonderful,” says Brathwaite. “But somehow they’re also a little less… old-school RPG-ish.”

There’s a link to a survey from the Kickstarter page asking fans what features they feel ought to be mandatory in an old-school RPG. Without a clear idea of what constitutes a game of this sort, it’s hard to know exactly what separates this idea from any other RPG on the shelf.

Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry, D&D) and Tom Hall (Doom, Anachronox)

The primary distinguishing traits of many old-school RPGs were nothing more than creative workarounds for the nascent technology available at the time – text input, turn-based simulations, etc. The Kickstarter page assures us that the game will have the graphical fidelity players expect from contemporary games, but that doesn’t get us much closer to a working definition. Nor does the list of games Hall and Brathwaite hail as their personal favourite RPGs, which includes stylistically diverse titles ranging from Chrono Trigger to Diablo to The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past – all markedly different games.

Hall and Brathwaite poke light-hearted fun at games that have long cutscenes punctuated with occasional perfunctory QTEs, but this seems like more a criticism of modern action games such as Uncharted than anything else. In a mildly uncomfortable juxtaposition, Naughty Dog’s former lead designer Richard Lemarchand offers an enthusiastic plug for Old School RPG in the endorsement round-up farther down the Kickstarter page.

Brathwaite praises the tactile delights of Ultima’s cloth map and the days when you could open a game box as if it were its own kind of loot-filled treasure chest. It’s true that the majority of today’s games have ditched paper manuals, and you ought to consider yourself lucky if the case contains a download code for a unique in-game weapon. But modern collector’s editions have made a fine art of precisely the sort of keepsakes whose extinction Brathwaite and Hall appear to mourn. The box for the Skyrim collector’s edition, for example, contains an actual dragon. Well, an actual plastic dragon, but still. Some of these collectible goodies make Ultima’s cloth map look pedestrian by comparison. Game developers’ workspaces are crammed with examples of such delightful trinkets.

Though details on gameplay mechanics are scarce, Old School RPG’s story set-up has been announced, and it promises an intriguing blend of both sci-fi and heroic-fantasy elements. James Connelly is a contractor for an ominous-sounding corporation called Shaker that sends people through time and between worlds, letting them inhabit any form they desire, in order to carry out the company’s objectives. The story begins when Connelly gets stranded in a medieval world called Antera after Shaker goes radio silent despite its previous assurance that contact would be made in two weeks’ time.

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