Interview With Felipe Pepe, Creator of the CRPG Book

Interviewing the man who literally wrote the book on CRPGs

Interview With Felipe Pepe, Creator of the CRPG Book
Source: Bitmap Books.

In the world of RPG commentary, there are few names that can speak with as much authority as Felipe Pepe. In 2018, he released the first edition of The CRPG Book Project, an enormous undertaking that has become somewhat of a de facto official history of the CRPG genre. The work is an impressive feat and an essential reference volume for any CRPG fan. This month, Felipe has released the Expanded Edition of The CRPG Book through Bitmap Books. SUPERJUMP spoke to Felipe about the history of the project, his thoughts on the RPG genre, and the next edition of the book.

Source: Author.

SJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do, where are you from, and how did you become involved in videogames?

FP: I am a Brazilian, living in Tokyo and working in marketing, totally unrelated to games. I always enjoyed games and computers - it was forbidden to import them due to laws from Brazil’s military dictatorship era, but I got to play with them very early when my father smuggled in an Amiga 500. I loved to watch the animations of Battle Chess.

SJ: What was the first game that truly captured your attention? Was it an RPG?

FP: It was Fallout 1. I had already played other RPGs like Chrono Trigger, but the way Fallout 1 offered multiple playstyles and choices had an impact on me. Other games I would play with my brother, this one we each had our saves, as we played in entirely different ways and then discussed the things we found.

Fallout (Interplay, 1997). Source: Bitmap Books.

SJ: What is it about CRPGs, as opposed to other genres, that captures your attention/focus specifically?

FP: It’s how each person can have a different experience, shaped by their choices, actions, and interests. Even if the game has a linear story, like in Wizardry or most JRPGs, there are variations like party composition, equipment, combat tactics, how much they explore, etc.

A game like Baldur’s Gate II can be played in countless different ways - from the person who is seriously role-playing their character and trying to romance Jaheira to the min-maxer doing a solo Berserker/Mage run and using mods to make combat more challenging.

SJ: The term "RPG" is somewhat of an ambiguous term - how have you come to define an RPG, and in the context of this project, a CRPG?

FP: I believe it’s impossible to have a universal definition of “RPG”, as that will greatly depend on context. An American fan of Mass Effect, a Japanese who grew up playing Ys, and a German coming from tabletop RPGs will all have different perspectives on the genre.

In fact, the very concept of “CRPG” has lost meaning since I began this project. What is a “Computer RPG” when you have Baldur’s Gate III on consoles and Final Fantasy XV on PCs? It’s mostly a historical term now, to talk about their origins and influences. So what I did was select the games that contribute to this larger legacy.

For example, I think it’s perfectly valid to say Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Crusader Kings or King’s Bounty are RPG hybrids, but they are tangential to the overall history of the genre. Meanwhile, FPS/RPG and RTS/RPG hybrids left a huge mark in the genre, leading to games like Deus Ex and Baldur’s Gate, respectively.

Ys (Nihon Falcom, 1987). Source: Bitmap Books.

SJ: The original CRPG Book project began in 2014 after an RPG Codex user poll - had you been considering something like this prior to then?

FP: No, I was already writing articles about RPGs at Gamasutra, but had never considered making a book before.

SJ: The first digital release came in 2018, followed by a print release in 2019, and it's a chunky book - that must have been a lot of work to compile.

FP: Yes, thousands of hours. I was working as a freelancer when the project began, on days when I didn’t have any job lined up I would just work full-time on the book. The original plan was to just select 100 RPGs and finish everything in a few months, but it just spiraled out of control.

SJ: What were your criteria for including a CRPG in the book? Did you have to cull many games from the original list?

FP: The poll that started everything only had 72 games, so I actually began the book by adding some that were left out but were historically important or very popular, like Diablo and Skyrim. It quickly exploded in number, as simply adding all Ultima, Wizardry and Might & Magic titles already means almost 30 games.

Dungeon Master (FTL Games, 1987). Source: Bitmap Books.
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SJ: While researching and compiling this book, did you discover any RPGs you hadn't played yet that you absolutely had to add to the list?

FP: Many of them, such as Tunnels of Doom, a 1982 title far ahead of its time but stuck on a dead platform. Or Mordor: Depths of Dejenol, a highly complex game that is a spiritual sequel to a 1977 RPG the developer played as a kid on PLATO mainframes.

SJ: What are your personal stand-out games from the original edition of The CRPG Book? Essential RPGs?

FP: I think anyone interested in the history of the genre should try a few classics. From the 80s - Wizardry I, Ultima IV, Dungeon Master, Wasteland, and Starflight. From the 90s - Ultima Underworld 1, Ultima VII, Darklands, Daggerfall and Fallout 1. From the 2000s - Deus Ex, Diablo II, Baldur’s Gate II, Gothic 1, and Mass Effect 1.

Darklands. Source: Author.

SJ: What about hidden gems?

FP: Really depends on your background, but I would like to highlight some beloved first-person RPGs from the '90s, such as Lands of Lore, Eye of the Beholder, Anvil of Dawn, Stone Prophet, and Might and Magic VI. These were some of the most popular RPGs of the 90s and they still hold up, but people barely mention them nowadays.

Anvil of Dawn. Source: Author.

SJ: Any particularly unique CRPGs?

FP: One that I love to mention is ZanZarah: The Hidden Portal, a game that mixes Pokémon with Quake deathmatches. And Star Saga: One, a mix of tabletop RPG and CRPG that came with 700 pages of rules, character sheets, and campaign texts, with the software handling all calculations and working as GM.

ZanZarah: The Hidden Portal (Funatics Development, 2002). Source: Bitmap Books.

SJ: You've had some notable contributors from the CRPG community on the project - Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, the late Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green, and the late Shamus Young - how was it engaging with them? Did many people reach out to you to be part of the expanded edition?

FP: Everyone was extremely kind and supportive of the project, I think the non-profit nature of the project really helped in this sense. People like Tim Cain, Scorpia, and Chris Avellone were among the very first contributors, and they were fundamental in giving an aura of credibility to the book during its early days. The expanded edition brought in a lot of new contributors for beloved games like Disco Elysium and Nier: Automata, but very few people ever played obscure games like Tunnels of Doom or Quarterstaff, so I had to do those myself.

SJ: When did you decide to make a physical release, and how did the publishing deal with Bitmap Books come about?

FP: The moment the project began I was already planning a physical release, but as a print-on-demand book on Amazon. However, a good quality color book of this size would cost almost 100 US dollars, so I reached out to a few publishers and Bitmap Books was by far the best choice. And they were kind enough to agree with my unusual requests, such as keeping the PDF freely available for download.

SJ: What was the main motivation for the Expanded Edition? As I understand, you wanted to give a greater focus to things like Flash games and games from non-Western markets.

FP: If you look at the numbers, far more people in the 2000s played Flash-based RPGs like Sword and Sandals or browser RPGs like AdventureQuest than played classic CRPGs like Gothic II. We tend to overlook these games as “casual online games”, but that’s a falsification of history - an after-the-fact bias towards “prestige games”. The truth is that far more people played NeoPets than Halo 1, and there are more people playing Roblox now than playing all recent AAA releases combined.

The first edition of the book fell into the trap of only featuring the “canon” of CRPG history - the classic lineage of Wizardry, Ultima, Dungeon Master, Diablo, Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, etc. The second edition adds very important or popular games that for one reason or another aren’t part of this canon, such as non-Western games, MUDs, BBS “door” games, Flash RPGs, RPG Maker titles, etc.

Card Hunter (Blue Manchu, 2013). Source: Bitmap Books.

I noticed there’s a vicious cycle where we assume that our world is already fully documented, so if we never hear about something, it’s probably not important. I hope the expanded edition breaks this cycle by showing the reader just how much there is out there that they never heard about before. And I’m still constantly finding new things.

SJ: In my own research of MMORPGs, I've found reliable and comprehensive sources difficult to find - especially for non-Western and/or non-English releases. What is your methodology for sourcing?

FP: Indeed, it’s absurd how there’s barely any writing in English about Eastern MMOs, especially since they are far bigger than Western MMOs. But the money people are aware of them, I found a lot of good information in English on industry reports. All the rest came from local gaming magazines, news websites, academic papers, and blogs. You will have to get out of Google and into Baidu, Naver, and Weibo for those.

SJ: You've previously noted on Twitter/X that there is a treasure trove of undiscovered games in markets around the globe (like China and your native Brazil) that tend to be ignored by the gaming press and gamers alike. What are your recommendations for exploring these markets?

FP: Be open-minded, curious, and understand that the world is very, very big. Not everyone uses the Internet the same way - a game might have no videos on YouTube, no one talking about it on Twitter and no articles on Wikipedia but be a colossal hit on BiliBili, Kakao, or VK.

Also, be aware that most video game media covers only a fraction of the industry. FreeFire reached 150 million concurrent players in 2021 but most “gamers” probably never even heard of it. It's a Vietnamese mobile game played mostly in the Global South, and it exists outside of the “prestige” world of Western media. You will have to follow other sources, such as industry analysts or foreign journalists.

Siege of Avalon (Digital Tome, 2000). Source: Bitmap Books.

SJ: How do you overcome language barriers in games that haven't been localised?

FP: It’s how I grew up playing games. I barely spoke English the first time I played Chrono Trigger, and in Brazil, it was common to play pirate copies of Japanese PS1 games. We had magazines that explained to us what the menu options did and gave a summary of the story. Today it’s much easier, all you need to do is find a good walkthrough and auto-translate it. Or use the translation function of your cellphone camera.

SJ: How do you think the CRPG market has evolved/changed since the previous release?

FP: A lot has changed, that initial wave of crowd-funded nostalgia gave way to a more forward-looking scene, that plays more loosely with the genre and takes inspiration from modern tabletop RPGs. But you still have plenty of great RPGs focused on that old-school spirit. It’s an exciting time, I think we never had so many options before.

SJ: What are your thoughts on the divide between AAA design and indie or smaller studio (AA) design? Do you think it's possible for a major studio to create something unique like Disco Elysium?

FP: Each company size brings its own pros and cons. I don’t expect Bethesda to ever do something as bold and risky as Disco Elysium, but I also don’t expect small studios to deliver something on the scale of Starfield. Roguelike fans understand this well, and the depth of games like Caves of Qud is only possible because of their simple graphics, but these simple graphics also scare newcomers away and keep it a niche title.

Aardwolf (1996). Source: Author.

SJ: What are your thoughts on the state of game preservation? Have you read the recent study by the Video Game History Foundation?

FP: The VGHF plays a very important role in not just doing preservation, but also fighting for better paths towards preservation. Their recent study shows just how bad things are. Even a seminal title like Wizardry I has been unavailable since the late 90s. I think companies should lose their copyright over a product kept so long out of print, but we are seeing things move in the opposite direction, with streaming services removing series and films from catalog just to pay fewer taxes. It’s a broken system, that needs to be destroyed.

SJ: Last year I spoke to the creators of Meridian 59, and they said they had open-sourced the game to help preserve it. Do you think open-sourcing could save a lot of CRPGs?

FP: Yes, last year indie RPG Prelude to Darkness released its source code and got a series of patches made by fans to make it run on modern machines. But this kind of thing always depends on someone with a lot of expertise actually doing something with the code and releasing it, it’s not a magical solution.

SJ: Turn-based or real-time with pause? :)

FP: Turn-based, with the exception of 7.62 High Calibre. ;)

7,62 High Calibre (Apeiron, 2007). Source: Bitmap Books.

SJ: Some of the older games in the book are difficult to play for modern gamers - not just from a technical standpoint, but overcoming archaic design practices or style. How do you suggest someone overcome those hurdles?

FP: The first thing is to decide if you actually want to overcome those hurdles. Most people will have a better time just watching a playthrough online or reading articles from people like the CRPG Addict. There’s no shame in that. If you really want to give it a try, I think it’s better to fully embrace what the game is offering - read the manual, get a pencil & paper, and try to understand what the game meant when it came out.

The context for these games is really important. Even more recent games like Fable 1 are better understood when you consider things like the lack of Western RPGs on consoles up to that point and the massive popularity of The Sims a few years prior.

SJ: Are you a purist when it comes to playing classic games? Do you try to play the game in its original resolution/format, without using QoL improvements?

It’s really case by case. I think playing Wizardry I with automaps and save-states is pointless, you’re missing core design elements of the game. But Fallout 1 is objectively better with the Et Tu mod.

Wizardy I (SirTech, 1988). Source: Bitmap Books.

SJ: What's your opinion on remasters? Are you ever concerned that remastering a game can dilute or undermine the original experience?

FP: The original will always be available one way or another, so I think they’re always something positive.

On behalf of SUPERJUMP, I want to extend my thanks to Felipe Pepe for taking the time to speak to us about the latest edition of The CRPG Book. You can pick up the latest edition of The CRPG Book from Bitmap Books, or you can grab the PDF for free from The CRPG Book Project on WordPress.


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