29 January, 2011
There are a certain set of what I like to call “occupational hazards” in being a game developer/designer. The biggest one is that you spend a lot of time playing games. The corollary is that you spend a lot of time analyzing games, too. Having a wide range of experience with different games gives you a lot of reference points for the “rules” of different types of games. Not merely to copy them, but to also know when your “original” idea has even a chance of truly being original. Plus, I like the phrase, “You have to know the rules in order to break them.”
I’ve been playing some Might and Magic: Book 1 (M&M1) lately. So, let me share some of my analysis with you, so I don’t feel like I’ve completely wasted my time playing a truly old-school game.
First, I want to blame The CRPG Addict and the Rampant Coyote for leading me to the dark side here. I highly recommend both blogs, but the CRPG Addict is really great for looking back at older computer RPGs without some graphics snob whining (too much) about simplistic presentation.
What’s interesting is that I’ve noticed that I have gone though some very distinct stages while playing the game. I won’t claim these are universal, but let me give you a bit of insight into my thoughts.
The first feeling is one of anticipation; the hunger that makes the meal look all the more tempting. In the olden days, this was usually accomplished by reading the manual driving home from the store. These days you get it a bit more by reading blogs, like the ones I linked above. I had never played M&M1 or 2, so those posts whet my appetite for it. (I have played many of the other M&M games, a bit of 3 up until the point where every enemy just killed me outright with death rays, a lot of 3-8 with 7 being my favorite, and the first four installments of the Heroes of Might & Magic turn-based strategy games. So, I’m no newbie to the series, let alone RPGs, here.)
I roll up my six characters and come up with a cute naming scheme. This time around, I used the names of my cats, past and present: Kokopelli (Knight), Morpheus (Paladin), Loki (Robber), Macha (Cleric), Tezcatlipoca (Archer), and Susano (Sorcerer). Picking classes appropriate to my cats’ personalities is half the fun. Then we set off!
A distinctly modern phenomenon is that sometimes you’ll feel a bit ashamed while playing older games. M&M1 in particular is a bit funny because your better half and best friend might wander into your room at different times asking, “What’s that beeping noise?” Ah, the joys of old games that used the built-in PC speaker. But, I’m not playing the game for the graphics or sounds, I want gameplay!
One interesting thing about the old-school games is that they don’t hold your hand, at all. For every fight with a few goblins for you to beat up, you’ll might also run into a fight with some caster enemies who paralyze your Cleric before you can get the bless spell off, thus making combat nigh unwinnable. Hell, if you don’t abuse the pre-built characters you don’t even get much in the way of starting gear, so every fight seems like a hard-won epic battle. Wandering off too far to explore gets you killed, and you’ll lose all that gold and xp you built up. So, you learn to scurry back to the inn to save as often as you can, but that gets boring. Part of the fun of these games is exploring and making maps!
So, you gain a few levels, get some new spells, get a bit more confident, and venture further. You still fear the combat screen, but you win a few more combats than you lose.
Bringing order to chaos
I think one of my favorite parts of the old-school RPG is drawing maps. The simplistic grid-based system of the games means that it’s not too tough to draw out the map. In the good old days, we used graph paper. These days, I whipped up a little program in Python using the PyGame libraries. It’s not super-elegant, but it works well enough.
I’ve noticed that mapping proves a good counter-point to the often short and brutal lifespan of your characters. A wrong turn into a dark alley and your waylaid characters need to be reloaded back at the inn. But, your map remains, and you know now that you should avoid that particular dark alley. There’s a sense of persistence that goes beyond the lifetime of your party members.
Then a funny thing happens….
At some point, everything seems to gel. You get some multi-target spells on your Sorcerer. You have some reasonably complete maps with the secret areas sussed out. You know which types of monsters to hit hard and fast. Suddenly, you find yourself surviving fights you’re sure you should have died in. You’re making complete maps with only one party instead of five. You’ve stumbled across some strange and wonderful exceptions, as the Rampant Coyote wrote in his blog post above.
In short, you’ve gained some level of mastery of the game.
Now, you’re not quite “a master”, but you definitely have a feeling of control that you didn’t before. Not to say that it’s all sunshine and roses, because you’ll still get your ass kicked when you try to disrupt the dragon convention or try to head down into a deep dungeon you teleported to from an unknown portal. But, you feel a lot more confident.
The power of contrast
I really don’t want to turn this into a “ZOMG OLD-SKOOL >>>>> *” rant, but I think it’s interesting to take a look at what the design accomplished in such an early game. One lesson here is that the brutal start helps make hitting the “mastery point” all the more apparent. As I’ve written before, risk enhances the fun you can have in a game.
It’s also interesting to contrast the tough beginning of the game with the modern trend of making the game super-easy at the beginning. You can certainly argue (as many designers do) that it’s better to have merely the perception of risk so that players feel more clever avoiding the problems altogether without any real risk of failure. But, there’s a fine line between making apparent risk that’s easy to conquer and making a situation that’s overly easy with no real risk. Balancing that is tough, like many other areas of a game, since different players have different levels of skill overall.
I think this is perhaps the root explanation for why people feel the games are “dumbed down” these days. It’s not that games are necessarily easier, but that there’s less contrast between when you’re a new soul wandering the lands and when you feel that you hit the “mastery” point. If the game has always made you feel that you’re able to conquer any challenge, then the point where you internally recognize that threshold has been crossed. I suspect that it’s not simply the case that the curmudgeons want masochistic pain-grinds, but that getting past that initial difficult part is an important aspect of what they enjoy about games and what makes them feel like a master later on.
What do you think? Are you absolutely turned off by games that are “too hard” at the beginning? Do you like a good challenge to whet your appetite? Or do you have some more nuanced point of view to share?