Have you ever thought about making your own games? I bet you have, even if it was only briefly when you were twelve years old and didn’t know any better about how much work was involved in producing them.
Over the years, there have been a number of solutions for aspiring game designers to put together at the very least convincing prototypes of the things they want to share with the world, and in many cases fully-realised projects, assembled without any need to delve into the complexities of programming a computer from the ground up.
One such solution that has remained enduringly popular over the years is the RPG Maker series, initially developed by ASCII and subsequently handed over to Enterbrain, a subsidiary of Kadokawa Corporation, for the more recent installments.
So what, exactly, has made this series such a firm fixture in the amateur development landscape for so many years now? Arm your chipsets, ready your battlers and cue up your BGM; we’re going in.
RPG Maker’s history actually extends all the way back to the late 1980s and early ’90s, when ASCII released a number of titles for the popular Japanese computer platforms of the time: NEC’s PC-8801 and 9801, and Microsoft’s MSX2. Early installments included Dungeon Manjirou, which allowed for the production of Wizardry-style first-peson dungeon crawlers, and the two Dante titles, which afforded its users the opportunity to create their own top-down RPGs that bore a passing resemblance to Falcom’s popular — and similarly enduring — Ys series, which we covered in detail last month.
It was 1992’s RPG Tsukūru Dante 98 that, to many people, marked the birth of the modern RPG Maker series, however, the 98 of the title referring not to the year of release but instead to its home platform of the PC-9801. Tsukūru, incidentally, is a portmanteau made up of the Japanese word for “create” (tsukuru) and the Japanese transcription of the English loan word “tool”, which became tsūru. Thus, the title of the first “real” installment in the series proper can be roughly translated as RPG Creation Tool Dante 98, which has quite reasonably been simplified to just RPG Maker in Western territories.
RPG Tsukūru Dante 98 set in place many of the basic formulas and techniques that RPG Maker still uses today: tile-based maps; simplified, programming-free game creation; built-in assets to get aspiring creators started straight away; and an enthusiastic userbase. It was subsequently followed up by a port to the Super Famicom in 1995, and an official sequel for PC-9801 in 1996 before the Japanese gaming sector finally decided to get in step with the West, and the next installment in the series made the jump to Microsoft Windows-based PCs.
RPG Tsukūru 95, as this new version was called, will look immediately familiar to anyone who has used any installment in the series since. Integrating all the aspects of RPG development into a single application, RPG Tsukūru 95 allowed for the quick and easy creation of tile-based maps and the population thereof with “events”, which could be anything from an NPC wandering around to a complicated series of conditions and switches that would determine the player’s progress through a quest. It created games that ran at a resolution of 640×480 — actually a higher resolution than some of the subsequent releases in the series — and allowed you to import MIDI and WAV files for use as sound and music, making it easy to customise your game to your liking. You could also easily replace the graphics to truly make your creation your own, though the included resources enabled even the most cack-handed of artists to get started right away.
RPG Tsukūru 95 was the first installment in the series to receive a strictly unofficial English release, but one of its follow-ups, known simply as RPG Maker (RPG Tsukūru 3 in Japan, since it was the third version of the application to be released on consoles after two Japan-only Super Famicom incarnations) would finally come to the West officially, on the PS1 of all platforms. This version of RPG Maker was surprisingly fully-featured in its own right when compared to its PC-based siblings, though it limited its appeal somewhat by requiring a monstrous amount of memory card space — which was very much at a premium in the PS1 era — and only allowing other owners of the PS1 RPG Maker to play games you had created. Given that the PS1 was unable to either boot from a memory card or burn its own bootable discs, this is an unsurprising limitation, of course, but nonetheless it meant one of the core appeal elements of the PC-based versions — the fact you could distribute your creations as self-contained packages that did not require RPG Maker to run — was missing, and thus this version faded into relative obscurity over time.
RPG Maker 2000, meanwhile, was another matter; despite it not receiving an official English release until relatively recently, it would nonetheless become a true global phenomenon thanks to the sterling work of a Russian programmer who called himself Don Miguel and decided that English-speaking PC-owning RPG enthusiasts had just as much right to make their own games as Japanese people did.
RPG Maker 2000 ran in a lower resolution than RPG Tsukūru 95, giving its games a distinctly more console-style vibe to them as well as potentially allowing them to run on a wider range of hardware. It still allowed for the importing of MIDI and WAV files as well as custom graphics, and introduced a higher framerate than its predecessor along with weather effects, parallax backgrounds and considerably higher upper limits on pretty much everything you might want to include in your game. While it lacked the dedicated means of fully customising the engine that would come in later installments, it was nonetheless an enormously flexible tool that remains popular with creators even to this day.
RPG Maker 2000 also introduced the concept of the “RTP” or “Run-Time Package”, a collection of predefined graphics and sounds that could be packaged and distributed separately from the application and games made with it. Creators who chose to rely on these built-in assets could vastly reduce the size of their game package by choosing not to include them when distributing, instead directing people to download the RTP only if they needed it. Given that this was still relatively early days for the Internet and not many people had the luxury of high-speed connections in their homes, this implementation allowed creators to potentially open up their work to much wider audiences, although it also meant the beginning of the most common bugbear the modern audience has with RPG Maker games today: the fact that they look like RPG Maker games. There was an inherent stigma attached to making use of the royalty-free RTP assets, in other words; to some people, you weren’t really doing it “properly” until your game had all-original graphics and sound (and preferably a customised interface, too), and this is an attitude that, regrettably, persists to this day.
RPG Maker 2000 was followed up by RPG Maker 2003, which shook up a few systems along the way as well as tweaking the resolution and graphical formats slightly. Perhaps most notably, RPG Maker 2003 temporarily abandoned the purely turn-based, Dragon Quest-style combat of the earlier installments in favour of a Final Fantasy-style side-view “active time battle” system. Since the implementation of a side-view combat system was one of the most common interface hacks for RPG Maker 2000 games, it made perfect sense for new developers Kadokawa Games to capitalise on this apparent hunger for Final Fantasy-style combat, though later installments would return to the old format, with only the most recent incarnation RPG Maker MV actually allowing a choice between the two perspectives straight out of the box.
RPG Maker 2003 also introduced support for MP3 format music (which was later patched in to RPG Maker 2000), allowing for digital music for the first time in the series. Full music composition was, however, somewhat beyond the scope of the application itself, so it was up to users to provide their own MP3s for use in their games as they saw fit — and taking into account copyright rules if they hoped to distribute their finished projects too, of course!
Along the way, the RPG Maker series saw ports to various platforms — including, rather ambitiously, Nintendo’s Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance handheld platforms — but it was 2004’s RPG Maker XP that would be the next big step forward for the series, particularly as this was the first PC-based installment in the series to actually receive an official English release not long after its Japanese launch.
RPG Maker XP bumped the game resolution back up to 640×480 for a more “high resolution” look in comparison to its immediate predecessors, though its somewhat choppy and peculiar framerate of 40fps remains a point of contention among many of its users. That said, it remains popular even to this day thanks to its immensely customisable nature: from an assets perspective, it’s possible to create sprites of all manner of shapes and sizes thanks to relaxed restrictions on certain graphic formats; from a programming perspective, the most significant addition was the inclusion of RGSS (Ruby Game Scripting System), which allowed advanced users the opportunity to completely crack open the whole engine and make it work in completely different ways.
This added complexity naturally gave RPG Maker XP something more of a learning curve than previous installments, though it’s worth noting that making a straightforward, simple game without even touching RGSS is as easy as it ever was. That said, if ignoring RGSS, RPG Maker XP lacks a number of features that were standard in RPG Maker 2003, though as you might expect, resourceful programmers have effectively patched these functions back in through the use of RGSS scripts, many of which are freely redistributable and usable by anyone.
RPG Maker XP was followed up by RPG Maker VX in 2007 (2008 in the West), which bumped the framerate back up to 60 and tweaked RGSS so that even more flexibility was on offer. VX was then reimagined as VX Ace in 2011 (2012 in the West), which fixed a number of issues users had complained about in VX as well as in more recent years tightly integrating with Valve’s Steam platform for the distribution of games, assets and other resources through its community-led Workshop system.
Despite its growing complexity over the years — particularly since RPG Maker XP introduced and encouraged full-on tinkering under the hood of the engine itself — RPG Maker has never forgotten its roots as a means for people who are creative but not necessarily technically-minded to realise some of their interactive fantasies, be they humble or epic in nature. It’s one of the most powerful but easy to learn game creation packages on the market today, and it’s a fantastic means to learn not only how enjoyably challenging it is to create and balance an fun game, but also to learn a number of important logical, mental disciplines that you need to be familiar with if you ever want to dip your toes into more full-on programming.
I’ll ask again; have you ever thought about making your own games? Well, if so, take the plunge and have a look at RPG Maker, even if you’ve historically been scared away from the prospect of creating your own software by the frightening technical side of things. You might just surprise yourself with what a convincing-looking project you can make with relatively minimal effort — and how much this might inspire you to go on to great things.
And if you’ve downloaded RPG Maker MV or its trial version and aren’t sure where to start? Well, the next few articles this month are for you; we’re going to put together a short, simple but effective game that demonstrates how easy it is to get up and running with RPG Maker, and how soon you can be playing something you made yourself.
In the next article, we’ll take a look at the basics of putting together an RPG Maker MV project: how to get started, how to create maps and how to populate them with events.
Find out more about RPG Maker MV and download the trial version on the official website.
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