A brief history of RPGs on Xbox - how Microsoft's console modernised role playing games

Role-playing games are a true staple of the gaming landscape – from epic fantasy tales to violent shooters, so many games out there embody aspects of this industry stalwart. Even big games such as Destiny 2 owe a lot to the humble RPG, its addictive levelling and loot progression systems all come from RPG beginnings.

While the genre’s beginnings were on PCs with text-based adventures, it was the shift to consoles that made them as popular as they are today, and in particular the original Xbox is what brought them mainstream acclaim in the West by putting them in the hands of millions of gamers.

Some are more iconic and influential than others, however. From the original Xbox to the modern-day – these are the RPGS that have made the genre what it is today and whose influences will still be felt for years to come.

1. The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

DEV Bethesda | RELEASE November 2002

Morrowind is the one that started it all for Xbox owners and the inspiration for many open-world RPGs over the years. Elder Scrolls had appeared on PC before, but not quite like this – the third entry opening up its world to let you explore it more freely and focusing less on its main story. You could choose your race, class and other stats to customise your character more deeply before setting out on the island of Vvardenfell and exploring the forests of giant mushrooms that felt far removed from other more traditional European-inspired fantasy settings. Morrowind is so influential that The Elder Scrolls Online has even revisited the area in its latest expansion, albeit a souped-up version, to appeal to the numerous fans of the original.

2. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Rupublic

DEV BioWare | RELEASE September 2003

Arguably one of BioWare’s most famous RPGs and one of its most historically significant, paving the way for the Mass Effect series years later. Knights of the Old Republic is also one of the best-loved Star Wars games ever made, letting you create your own Jedi and following a story set 4,000 years before any of the films. Thanks to its setting the studio was given a lot of creative freedom to create more unique characters that became memorable parts of the extended Star Wars universe. Unfortunately it’s not officially confirmed as canon anymore, but that won’t stop fans seeing it as such. It also became one of the fastest-selling games ever on the original Xbox, confirming that the RPG genre was going to feel very much at home on consoles.

3. Fable

DEV Lionhead Studios | RELEASE September 2004

This cheeky fantasy world from the UK was full of quests to take part in and, er, farting. As well as its childish sense of humour Fable pioneered a great good vs evil system that saw your moral choices within the story affect your appearance. So, choose to kill someone and your body would be become tainted by your misdeeds, giving you a deathly pallor and some impressive demonic horns. You also aged at several different points in the game, following your hero from a kid all the way to adulthood. The world was also full of opportunities to woo villagers and even start a property empire by buying houses to then rent out to townsfolk and earn even more gold. It was incredibly ambitious for its time, though didn’t quite live up its grand expectations – something it kept trying to rectify in later series additions.

4. Jade Empire

DEV BioWare | RELEASE April 2005

A western take on a Chinese-inspired world full of martial arts and two fighting styles that played out much like Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade system. Jade Empire was action-based, but while the combat was simple the systems behind it were intriguing. You could choose to make decisions that followed the way of the open palm (aka being good) or the closed fist (evil) that would affect the story as you went. The game also felt rather short, but the characters, world and choices made it worth replaying just to see what would happen if you chose differently. All these aspects feel old-hat now, but Jade Empire helped solidify them as mainstays of the genre even to this day. Hopefully we’ll see a return to this world at some point.

5. Lost Odyssey

DEV Mistwalker | RELEASE February 2008

One of the few Japanese RPGs to call an Xbox console its home, but also a classic example of this sub-genre. It follows Kaim and a band of immortals trying to ease tensions between several nations at war. With turn-based battles and a heavy reliance on amnesiac characters Lost Odyssey is a classic JRPG, but one that is done incredibly well. It also has the original creator of the Final Fantasy series behind it – Hironobu Sakaguchi – who had left Square Enix to start his own studio called Mistwalker after the failure of the Final Fantasy movie. It’s most notable for the short stories of Kaim’s past hidden throughout it – these were simple text pieces which used sound and movement to invoke a surprising amount of emotional depth.

6. Dragon Age: Origins

DEV BioWare | RELEASE November 2009

After trying the whole space romance thing for a while with both Knights Of The Old Republic and the first Mass Effect, BioWare finally tried out fantasy kisses on Xbox 360 in 2009 and solidified gamers’ needs for convincing companions to smooch. Dragon Age: Origins was a epic tale that saw you fighting against Darkspawn, the highlight, though, was speaking to your companions during your travels to get to know them better and find out what to give them to get a sexy fade to black. BioWare has come a long way since then, it’s not as easy as finding the right item to start a relationship, but this felt like their turning point in figuring out how to make digital relationships more convincing.

7. The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim

DEV Bethesda | RELEASE November 2011

The most famous RPG of them all thanks to its stunning world that was full of hidden places to explore. Skyrim's so iconic that it recently got an HD remaster on Xbox One complete with mods that help you customise your wanderings even further. Yes there is a story to follow about being the Dragonborn, saving the world and shouting at things but mostly this game is about just picking a direction and seeing what’s there, tasting butterflies and random plants along the way. There have been bigger worlds since, but Skyrim felt like the first game that gave you an immense amount of freedom to just go adventuring and hang out in taverns. The dragon-fighting can wait.

8. Borderlands 2

DEV Gearbox Software | RELEASE September 2012

Why is a shooter on this list? Because Borderlands 2 owes more to RPGs and loot than it does to first-person shooters. Set on Pandora, you play as one of four Vault Hunters working together to find treasure, but betrayed by antagonist Handsome Jack. You may fire guns from a first-person perspective, but the story and character level progression are very much RPG staples. This second entry in the series followed on five years later from the first, but improved on everything that came before so is the more well known of the two. It’s also thought to have helped inspire Destiny’s blend of fancy gunplay and RPG loot, though that leans far more heavily on the shooting side of the divide.

9. The Witcher 3

DEV CD Projekt Red | RELEASE May 2015

Considered by many to be the open-world RPG perfected, thanks to its brilliant storytelling and vast world that feels surprisingly realistic for a realm filled with mythical beasts and magic. The Witcher 3 has a twisting tale to follow, but plenty of sidequests to keep you distracted there’s enough game here to keep you occupied for a whole year. Geralt is also a fantastic hero – his personality is strong enough to carry the story, while still being enough of a blank slate for you to give him your own one. Will your Geralt help everyone he meets or shun people and be an asshole? If you’ve got even the slightest interest in the genre then this is the game you need to pick up.

10. Final Fantasy 15

DEV Square Enix | RELEASE November 2016

The latest entry in the biggest RPG series in the world is an interesting beast. Combining both traditional JRPG storytelling and western open-worlds you can see all of Final Fantasy 15's influences coming from the same games in this very list. It has all of the hallmarks of a Final Fantasy game – heroes with amazing hair and intricate outfits, and, of course, plenty of Chocobos. But in a first for the series it also has a western-style open world for a large proportion of the game that’s loosely based on the American countryside. Think gas stations and diners along desert- like highways as you cruise around in your convertible car with your bros.

It definitely has its foibles and was marred by a tumultuous development over the course of nearly 10 years where it went from a spin-off to a main entry and changed from one director to another, but that’s what makes it so historically important to the genre. While taking so long it had to change dramatically to fit the evolving tastes and expectations of gamers as well as upgrade to a whole new generation of consoles. The plot was changed, and certain characters who had been shown were axed years later; they even threw in an anime and a CGI film to flesh out its world. It’s a wonder that it made it out at all and was so well received considering all of the problems along the way.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.

Freelance Writer

Daniella is a freelance consultant, writer, and editor, who was formerly deputy editor at Official Xbox Magazine before its closure. Her words have appeared on the Guardian, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, and GamesRadar, among others. She's a Final Fantasy 14 aficionado.