As someone who loves classic 2D role-playing video games, I‘m sure you‘ve dreamed about bringing your own RPG stories to life. But learning complex game programming is a major roadblock. That‘s where free game creation tools like RPG Maker come in!
In this beginner‘s guide, I‘ll walk you through the top free and open source RPG Makers, plus other 2D game engines capable of creating old school RPGs without coding. I‘ve been using these tools for years to craft my own indie 2D RPGs, so I‘m excited to share everything I‘ve learned to help you make that dream a reality too!
A Quick History of RPG Maker
First, let‘s do a quick rundown on the history of RPG Maker software to understand how it has evolved over the past 30 years empowering indie developers like us.
RPG Maker was first launched as "RPG Tsukūru Dante 98" in 1992 by the Japanese company Enterbrain. This allowed developers to build roleplaying games for the PC-98 Japanese computer system. An English version called "RPG Maker 95" was later released in North America in 1995.
Over the next 25+ years, Enterbrain continuously improved and expanded the RPG Maker engine, releasing new versions as both Windows and console games advanced. Some highlights include:
- RPG Maker 2000 (2000) – First version for Windows. Added front-view battle system.
- RPG Maker 2003 (2002) – Improved tilesets and character generator.
- RPG Maker XP (2004) – New tools for side-view battles.
- RPG Maker VX (2007) – Animation system upgrades.
- RPG Maker VX Ace (2011) – Support for multiple tilesets and resolutions.
- RPG Maker MZ (2020) – Latest version with more plugins and features.
Below you can see a timeline showing the evolution of RPG Maker over the past 30 years:
With each new iteration, RPG Maker has added incremental improvements while keeping the core easy-to-use "game creation without programming" philosophy intact.
Now with 30 years of history, there are a ton of free resources and tutorials available for any RPG Maker version you choose. And you can publish and sell any games you make commercially.
But what are some of the free RPG Maker options available?
RPG Paper Maker – One of the Best Free RPG Makers
If you‘re looking for a completely free and open source RPG making tool, RPG Paper Maker is one of the best options available today.
RPG Paper Maker provides a configurable engine allowing you to build 2D and 3D RPG worlds without coding knowledge. Some key capabilities include:
- Easy drag and drop editor for constructing 3D worlds and 2D sprite battles
- Day/night cycles, weather effects, 3D lighting
- Animate 3D models and add shadows
- Customize characters, inventory, quests, skill trees, etc.
- Multiplayer support and achievements
- Export for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS
RPG Paper Maker streamlines the creation process so you can focus on plotting out fun RPG systems, stories, and worlds.
While not as fully featured as paid RPG Makers, RPG Paper Maker is more than enough for hobbyist developers to build their dream 2D RPGs without cost. The open source community also continues expanding its capabilities with new plugins and updates.
Limited Free Trials of RPG Maker
Over the years, the company behind RPG Maker has also released various free trial versions of their software for new users to try out.
For example, RPG Maker VX Ace Lite is a free demo version of VX Ace with limited export capabilities. And RPG Maker MV has a free player specifically for running games on certain platforms.
While not full game creation tools, these free RPG Makers can allow you to get a feel for the different engines and playtest games made with them. Helpful for testing the waters before deciding to purchase any commercial packages.
Evaluating Other Free 2D Game Engines
Beyond dedicated RPG Making tools, dozens of free general purpose game engines exist that can also be used to handcraft 2D RPG adventures. Here are some top options with their key details:
|Game Engine||Description||Coding Required?|
|Godot||Open source engine for 2D, 3D, and VR games. Uses Python-like GDScript.||Yes|
|Unity||Popular free game engine with 2D support. Uses C#.||Yes|
|GameMaker Studio||Drag-and-drop game builder focused on beginners.||Minimal|
|Defold||Free 2D multiplatform game engine. Lua-based.||Yes|
|GDevelop||Visually program games without coding.||No|
|Construct 3||Powerful web-based 2D game creator.||Minimal|
|Cocos Creator||Open source engine for 2D and 3D games. Uses TypeScript.||Yes|
As you can see, both code-free and coding-required options are available. Engines like GameMaker Studio, GDevelop, and Construct 3 allow you to create games without writing any code using their visual editors.
But fully customizable 2D RPGs will generally require some programming knowledge, even in a beginner-friendly engine like GameMaker or Godot.
Overall, while these general purpose game engines offer greater flexibility than tailored RPG Makers, they also involve a steeper learning curve.
Publishing Commercial RPGs with RPG Maker
One major advantage of purchasing commercial RPG Maker software is that you have the rights to release and sell games made with them, without any revenue sharing.
For example, the popular indie RPG To the Moon was created using RPG Maker XP. The developer was able to sell the game directly with no profit sharing or royalties required.
However, the RPG Maker EULA prohibits reselling or redistributing the software itself. And any free versions also limit commercial usage of exported games.
So in summary – after purchasing a commercial RPG Maker license, you have full rights to commercialize and monetize your actual games. This gives aspiring developers a clear path to honing their skills and potentially launching a hit indie RPG.
Should You Use RPG Maker or Build Your Own Engine?
As you gain more programming experience, you may eventually hit the limits of what a toolkit like RPG Maker can do. So should you stick with RPG Maker or build your own custom engine from scratch?
Here‘s a quick pro vs con comparison:
RPG Maker Engines
✅ Easy to use with minimal coding
✅ Lots of templates and pre-built assets
✅ Large user community
❌ Limited customization
Custom Game Engine
✅ Complete creative freedom
✅ Customize every aspect
❌ Requires strong coding skills
❌ Much more effort and complexity
For beginners, RPG Maker eliminates much of the low-level complexity so you can focus on game design. But more advanced developers may want the control of their own custom engine.
There‘s no one-size-fits-all answer – it depends on your current skill level and project scope. Starting out, I‘d recommend trying free tools like RPG Paper Maker to get your feet wet before considering a custom engine.
Getting Started: My Recommendations for Beginners
As someone who has spent years tinkering with various engines, let me quickly share my advice for beginners looking to make their first 2D RPG:
1. Start with RPG Maker 2000 or 2003
The older RPG Makers like 2000 and 2003 provide the simplest starting point. Their retro look matches classic 2D RPGs, and you can find tons of free resources online. Don‘t worry about exporting modern platforms yet – just focus on learning the basics.
2. Watch YouTube tutorials on the basics
Spend a weekend watching YouTube tutorials on your chosen RPG Maker version. See how others use the tools so you can mirror their process. Search for things like "RPG Maker 2003 beginner tutorial".
3. Recreate a classic RPG‘s mechanics
Start your learning by recreating the mechanics of a retro RPG you love in simplified form. Don‘t worry about story or art yet. Just map out the core systems. Great way to learn!
4. Share your game on forums for feedback
Once you have a simple prototype, share it on Reddit or RPG Maker forums to get feedback from the community. Use this to improve your skills.
5. Expand your skills into a bigger project
After getting the basics down, you‘ll be ready to plan your own original RPG using all you‘ve learned!
The key is to start small without getting overwhelmed. Lean on the free resources and help from the RPG Maker community. And most importantly – have fun bringing your game ideas to life!
Now let‘s look at some of the standout games created with RPG Maker over the years.
Notable RPG Maker Games
To demonstrate what is possible with the various RPG Maker engines, here are some amazing games that got their start as RPG Maker projects:
To the Moon
This story-driven RPG Maker XP game tugged at the heartstrings of players. With deep characters and an emotional narrative, it showed RPG Maker‘s storytelling potential. To the Moon has sold over 1.3 million copies.
LISA: The Painful
Using RPG Maker 2003, LISA delivered a gritty experience focused on dark themes rarely explored in games. It drove home the ability to use RPG Maker for more than just traditional fantasy.
OneShot leveraged RPG Maker MV‘s capabilities for unique 4th-wall-breaking mechanics and memorable characters. This emotional journey resonated strongly with players.
OFF used RPG Maker 2003 to create a surreal, imaginative world beyond traditional RPG tropes. Its strange storytelling shows the flexibility of the engine.
And dozens more examples exist like these! While known for churning out amateur games, in the right hands RPG Maker can bring incredibly creative and polished experiences to life.
So in summary – I hope this guide has provided a thorough walkthrough of the various free RPG Making tools available today. Options like RPG Paper Maker give you the power to start creating 2D RPGs without any financial investment. And the commercial RPG Makers provide a clear path to honing your skills and eventually publishing unique RPG adventures.
RPGs were my childhood obsession, so it‘s incredibly fulfilling to now have the tools to craft the types of games I love. I hope you soon experience that same joy of bringing your RPG stories to life through whichever free RPG Maker you choose. The world needs more amazing indie RPGs – so get out there and start creating!