RPG Maker: How a Niche Game Creator Created a Vibrant Developer Community
Game building kits have been around for almost as long as personal computers. Broderbund’s The Arcade Machine allowed Apple II owners to create simple shoot’em ups in 1982, and Garry Kitchen’s GameMaker allowed Commodore 64 fans to create arcade experiences in a number of genres.
Over the decades, these titles have followed one another, but few platforms have stood the test of time like RPG Maker. Japanese developer Enterbrain released the first game, RPG Tsukūru Dante 98, in 1992, but it was simply a continuation of other products created by developer ASCII. For over a quarter of a century, RPG Maker has been used to create hundreds of thousands of games and has built a dedicated fan community, most recently with MZ RPG Creator. Let’s explore how it happened.
The history of computer role-playing games in Japan was sparked by a hugely influential Western import: Wizardry, the 1981 dungeon crawl created by a pair of CalTech students. Taking the basic rules of Dungeons & Dragons and transplanting them into a rudimentary first-person view, it was a huge hit in the United States and even bigger overseas. ASCII was the company responsible for translating the games for its MSX computer, and by the early 1990s it was also developing spin-offs specifically for the Japanese market.
The native developers were deeply inspired by the game. Yuji Hori’s Dragon Quest, for example, takes the first-person battle view straight from Wizardry but merges a top-down terrain screen to make exploration more accessible, shot at all also popular Ultima. The entire genre can trace its DNA back to these original games, and it wasn’t long before a slew of fakes began to hit the market. The core programming for most of these games was fairly straightforward, with much of the appeal coming from the storytelling.
RPG Maker allowed potential designers to tell these stories, hooking them into the core exploration and combat frameworks that have propelled other games in the genre. The games quickly built up a community of creators who began releasing projects to a grateful audience. And people in the western world started to get a little jealous.
It’s a well-known problem that translating RPGs for foreign audiences is a lot of work. Enterbrain had no plans to port RPG Maker to Western markets, believing the user base to be too small and too specialized to justify the expense. But otaku had already started playing games created with the tool, and they wanted to get their hands on it themselves. It only took one fan to make this happen.
In 2000, a Russian student named “Don Miguel” released Don Miguel’s Sample Game, a short adventure made with RPG Maker 2000. But the game was in English, because he had taken the time to translate the whole platform. . Soon after, Don Miguel uploaded his translations of RPG Maker 2000 and RPG Maker 1995 to the Internet, making them available for the first time to the English-speaking public.
For a generation that had grown up on Super NES classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, getting their hands on RPG Maker was a way to finally create the games they had dreamed of all their lives. Don Miguel’s wobbly translations, filled with broken English, spread like wildfire over the following years. There were few other game creation kits on the market at the time, so RPG Maker has become the software of choice for a generation of creatives.
Eventually Enterbrain took note, and while he didn’t intend to locate the software himself, he certainly didn’t want people to do so without his permission. Don Miguel’s site was taken down, but at that point RPG Maker was in the wild. Enterbrain contracted with the US company Protexis to publish a legitimate version of the program in English, but few people wanted to pay for software that they had previously been able to get for free.
American gamers had already built a network of coders, translators, and others to delve into Enterbrain’s code, and this community of fans felt a sense of ownership of their work. With no way to sell the games, they were all labors of love.
On sites like RPG Maker Database, RPG Maker Web, and dozens of others, people have posted their current games, exchanged tips for changing game systems, and mods to add new features. Information about the Japanese releases of Enterbrain was circulated with enthusiasm, although it still took them some time to get here.
It didn’t take long for this fan community to start gaining attention. Danny Ledonne’s controversial 2005 game, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! put the players in the shoes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they shot their high school mates in Colorado. Designed as a critique of the media’s response to the teenager’s actions, it quickly drew the wrath of Columbine survivors and the press, while others appreciated Ledonne’s desire to push the boundaries of what was acceptable for games.
Enterbrain began working with other companies to officially license new versions of the software in the West, and with each new release new features were added. Sometimes popular features have even been dropped, much to the chagrin of fans of the franchise. Still, the user base has grown. Because it didn’t require any coding knowledge, RPG Maker was a perfect entry point into the development of people from diverse backgrounds.
Recommended by our editors
The release of RPG Maker VX Ace in 2012 saw the franchise arrive on Steam for the first time. Valve’s huge market was a boon for independent developers, and RPG Maker, which could bundle games into stand-alone executables, found a home there.
Previously, the developers of RPG Maker released their games as freeware. But now they could charge for their creations, and better yet, charge before they were done with Steam Early Access. Because the vast majority of RPG Maker titles were created by amateurs with no real experience, this quickly created a glut of games that were quickly phased out.
What was once a niche group of passionate creatives have been exposed to the gaming world as a whole, and it hasn’t turned out well. One user of the RPGMaker subreddit likened it to “Eternal September,” when AOL started offering Usenet access in 1993 and unleashed a torrent of newbies into an online culture established for decades.
Thankfully, that swell has eased, and while there are still a few not-ready-for-prime-time RPG Maker games uploading to Steam every week, it’s not overwhelming. People have also used the software to create unusual genres, like games designed to help teach math or historical events.
Top of the stack
Getting into RPG Maker games can be a daunting task; there are plenty of them out there, and sifting through the trash for treasures is more than most people have time for. Here are a handful of must-see games from franchise history.
The Amber Throne– Ambition is a common component of many RPG Maker projects, but few games manage to achieve it. With gorgeous hand-painted illustrations and an epic storyline, The Amber Throne could be the most professional game ever made with the software. A personalized combat system where the monsters adopt different positions in reaction to the player and an incredible soundtrack complete the set.
Yume nikki– One of the most beloved RPG Maker games of all time, this Japanese dream adventure stars a trapped youngster as she travels through a series of surreal and disturbing landscapes created by her subconscious. Without any combat or stats, Yume Nikki was early proof of the platform’s potential when it was released in 2004. Because the game had no dialogue, it was adopted by Western gamers as well.
Hylics—Another game that uses a unique visual style, all of the characters in Hylics were sculpted in clay by creator Mason Lindroth. Set in a strange post-human world, the player must fight Gibby, the Moon King, to save his world. The dialogues are interspersed with procedurally generated verbiage and the soundtrack is made up of twisted and warped guitars. The whole is obtuse but strangely convincing.
Ara fell—Another traditional JRPG, Ara Fell won rave reviews in 2016 when it was released. With detailed anime-style art, it’s a deliberate throwback to the 16-bit era. Exploration is a big draw here, with a massive open world closed off by enemies of varying strengths, as well as excellent character writing that makes interacting a pleasure. In 2020, a new version of the game was created using the Unity engine.
Get our best stories!
Register for What’s up now to get our best stories delivered to your inbox every morning.