Far from being maligned, the RPG Maker series should be held as a custodian of internet-based creative works.
My first RPG Maker project was a Dragon Ball Z game. It is probably more than fair to say my first five RPG Maker projects were Dragon Ball Z games, really. I was convinced that the statistical nature of the series’ “power levels” could translate to a turn-based RPG like those I enjoyedi. Trying to make that happen without any knowledge of game development in any form was my introduction to RPG Maker.
RPG Maker 1995, to be exact. Released only in Japan, the program was cracked and translated by the notorious Russian hacker “Don Miguel” and it, and its equally illicit successor, RPG Maker 2000, spread quickly through the community of English-speaking RPG enthusiasts. A simple tool at its core, the ASCII-developed software allowed users access to a tiled map editor and a bare-bones Dragon Quest-esque battle system. Through the uploading of images, or use of the engine’s preloaded graphics, maps could be created. Events, from NPCs to stores, could be then added through rudimentary menusii. RPG Maker 2003, and its successor RPG Maker XP, would be translated and cracked by “RPG Advocate”, at least until RMXP’s official English release in 2005.
By the year 2000, the use of RPG Maker by fans crossed over very nicely with emulation and other forms of game preservation, such as the cataloguing of sprite sheets. The ease of importing graphics into RPG Makeriii encouraged those without graphical nous of their own to repurpose graphics from their favourite titles. Final Fantasy VI, Lunar, Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star, Suikoden and many more titles were used as source material for hundreds, if not thousands, of abortive RPG titles.
Often hilariously over-ambitious, conceived with no real planning and then haphazardly worked on without any technical aptitude, RPG Maker projects served as a creative outlet for individuals in as equal a way as writing or drawing. Creators would play with their favoured mechanics, be it tweaking character growth levels, creating elaborate maps, styling dialogue or planning battles. And then as quickly as they began, projects would be dropped. “Demos” would be released, and regardless of reception, never followed up on, as energy spent and having already received the attention and adulation (or derision) from releasing a work, incomplete though it may be, creators would disappear. Awful? Wasteful? No. Instead, art for the sake of art! The outpouring of creativity should have been celebrated for what was put into it, not what could or could not be mined from it by others.
I won’t pretend there was no flaws or downsides to this nascent RPG Maker experience. The trampling over intellectual property rights, considered harmless enough when it came to grabbing tiles of Narsche in Final Fantasy VI, also extended towards completely original graphics created privately by talented spriters exclusively for their own projects, or shared with only the expectation of gratitude and accreditation in mind. There were also those whose self-confidence, or lack thereof, spilled over into arrogance, especially when challenged by those who held no respect or understanding for a “game development tool” that had little interest in teaching any coding languageiv.
Those who also could not, or would not, understand there was no viable way to profit from ripped sprites and game music would also be dutifully ridiculed. Popular trends, including, yes, a spate of Dragon Ball creations in the late 90s, would be met with a mixture of ennui and hostilityv. There was also the crushing reality that, well, a lot of these games weren’t very good.
But for the most part, people created pseudo-sequels to games, demos based on TV shows and “sprite remakes” of favourite titles not because of a accusatory idea that they lazily trying to become “legitimized” game developers without the hard workvi but because they had passion for these properties, a creative urge and access to tools that allowed them to quickly and succinctly sculpt works. Even outside the world of fan games based on existing properties, worlds and games and experiences were created, yes, often through licensed materials, removed from their original context; an often jarring mish-mash of styles, sounds and coloursvii.
Outside of the “art in games” aspect, creators had fun contorting the tropes of their inspirations to fit the mechanics of a not-very-malleable game engine. Working within the confines of RPG Makers tile-based event system also allowed for creative solutions to be implemented in order to get around what often appeared to be hard-coded limitations. These days we find it easy to find and consume games that allow us to delve into smaller, personal experiences but these bite-sized insights into peoples lives, especially the lives of teenagers and other youth, have always been around, without the same polish or sense of style, for years thanks to engines like RPG Maker.
Whether purely biographical or represented through the filter of gaming mechanics and analogy, RPG Maker always held an amazingly low barrier of entry. In part because the feelings of “justification” regarding the piracy of the program itself, meant that the entry cost was essentially zero dollars before 2005viii.
The modern, post-2005, post-official localization, phenomenon of completed RPG Maker games potentially being commercially viable in some small sense is an almost entirely unintended aberration. Of course, ASCII, and later Enterbrain, had always made provisions in their licensing language for such things (generally speaking, all included materials in RPG Maker are free to use in your commercial RPG Maker release) but the modern viability of the engine is the result of so many independent gaming trends, including the evolution of sprite-based graphics from programming necessity to nostalgia-mining crutch and eventually to legitimized visual style. Individuals today complaining about “RPG Maker games clogging up Steam” are the same as those who maligned hobbyists from playing with the tools back in the 1990s.
Modern “cringe culture” on the internet has a historical root that runs right through the middle of the history of RPG Maker. The demands of a detached, bitter audience for people enjoying themselves creatively to maintain a completely artificial and fundamentally unenjoyable propriety under the guise of advice, vitriol-laden though it may be. The attitude is the same as the person who yells at fanfiction writers to “be original”, at fan artists to “draw their own stuff”. It is entirely possible, of course, to learn more versatile programming languagesix or for those RPG Maker users to create and use wholly original characters and resources but for many, the goal was never to use RPG Maker as a platform for industry success or resume building. Creativity, even creativity through transformative works, was the goal and the tools provided allow for that.
I realise I am giving short thrift to RPG Makers versatility and use as a tool for commercial products. Especially in the modern era, its viability as a game creation tool is greater than it has ever been. Titles like LISA and To the Moon have been warmly received by many players. The official English language releases of all Windows-based entries in the series since 2005 has allowed those dedicated enough to create “completed” works over many years and even publish them. But the core of RPG Maker isn’t in its greatest works, any more than the foundation of literacy lies in its greatest novels. The beauty of work and creativity is just that; the work and creativity in what we do. And if 99% of what was sculpted is considered to have no practical value as game or art, then what of it? A hundred thousand sketchbooks of gaming creativity, of tile-set doodles, collages, scrapbooks and time capsules exist.