How Morrowind and KOTOR defined modern RPGs

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

How Morrowind and KOTOR defined modern RPGs

In the early 2000s, two Western role-playing games grabbed the genre and shoved it into new and surprisingly popular directions. Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002) and BioWare's Knights Of The Old Republic (2003) modernized RPGs' technology, expanded the audience, and created the two most popular models for the genre moving forward.

Before these two games were released, the term Computer Role-Playing Game (CRPG) was commonly used to describe the games in this column. Ultima, Wizardry, Fallout, Baldur's Gate, these all came out on computers (at least initially), with DOS/Windows becoming the computer platform of choice as the decade progressed. But Morrowind and KOTOR were designed and released for the Xbox – and they succeeded there. The realm of console RPGs was opened to very different styles of game from the Final Fantasies which had dominated. This successful move opened entirely new modes of money-making, allowing BioWare and Bethesda to become some of the biggest developers in gaming overall.

Technologically, Morrowind and Knights Of The Old Republic both brought big-budget western RPGs up to date with the rest of gaming. Most of the big RPGs of the previous few years – Baldur's Gate and the Infinity Engine games, Fallout 1 & 2, and Diablo 2 – all used an isometric perspective with two-dimensional sprites (Neverwinter Nights added polygons but maintained the isometric view), even as three-dimensional polygons were taking over almost every style of game. Both KOTOR and Morrowind used full polygons, giving RPGs an appearance similar to the very best games available in any genre, an especially impressive feat given Morrowind's open world. They also used significantly more voice acting than most every RPG that had come before. Knights Of The Old Republic in particular was more heavily voiced than most that came before, while Morrowind had ambient talking, barks and conversation starters that technically aligned it with open-world games like Grand Theft Auto III.

Beyond the business and technological importance of the games together, each one altered the nature of the RPG in signficant and far-reaching fashion. BioWare's Infinity Engine games and Neverwinter Nights had slowly developed their model of quest hubs and recruiting chatty party members. Knights Of The Old Republic refined the BioWare model into the form it's taken since in their Dragon Age and Mass Effect games.

How Morrowind and KOTOR defined modern RPGs

There are two crucial differences between KOTOR and the previous BioWare games. First, Knights Of The Old Republic is single-player only. Both Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights had been designed as multiplayer games, so the chatty recruitable characters were intended to be substitutes for real people. By shifting the focus to single-player, and making those recruitable characters plot-critical, KOTOR acknowledged that these embedded, heavily-written characters were one of the most memorable parts of role-playing games.

The second major change that KOTOR made was that BioWare controlled the shape of its universe. The genius stroke of creating the Star Wars "Old Republic" allowed all the power of the Star Wars setting with the freedom to do whatever the designers wanted within that universe. This let them craft a Hero's Journey narrative that shook the entire universe, something largely impossible for BioWare's previous efforts in the Forgotten Realms universe. The combination of universe-shaping main quest combined with mandatory and memorable party members has defined BioWare games ever since.

BioWare also adapted components from the Fallout series that have likewise come to define their place within the subgenre. Fallout's quest hubs and individual towns within a local wilderness were changed from towns to planets in Knights Of The Old Republic, but the concept is similar. Walk into a safe area, load up on quests, then wander around into progressively more dangerous areas clearing those quests out. The straightforward Fallout-style morality also got added to BioWare games. Having each player action judged according to a good/evil scale actually works better in the Star Wars universe than in the morally ambiguous post-apocalyptic world of Fallout.

How Morrowind and KOTOR defined modern RPGs

Morrowind may have been the third game in the Elder Scrolls series, but it was, like KOTOR, a significant departure from its developers' previous games. The first two games in the series, Arena and Daggerfall, used roughly similar models of clear divisions of space between cities and dungeons. There were wilderness areas between dungeons and towns, but they were largely incidental. Fast travel was the only way to play. However, in Morrowind, the world became a single, contiguous region. It was a true open-world game, instead of merely the huge number of mostly-identical towns and infinite random set of dungeons of the previous Elder Scrolls game.

This changed the focus of the Elder Scrolls games from quest chains within semi-identical cities to exploration. In Morrowind, as well the later Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, simply wandering around the world and uncovering new caves, new buildings, new people to interact with. Curiosity becomes the defining player motivator, instead of simply character improvement and narrative progression.

The division between BioWare's characters and Bethesda's exploration, which defines modern discourse surrounding big-budget RPGs, springs from these two games. Morrowind and Knights Of The Old Republic defined the generational change of RPGs in the early 2000s, altering business, tech, and story structure to create the genre as we know it today. They're great games, yes, but they're also critically important games.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.