21 July, 2012
Hooray Steam sales! It gives me a convenient excuse to buy a game I’ve had my eye on for a while: Legend of Grimrock. My Storybricks co-conspirator Stéphane Bura had gotten the game near when it launched, and I made up my mind to take a look at the game when I got a chance. The Steam sale was that chance.
I’m a big fan of older RPGs, especially the ones based on grid movement. So, this last weekend I played through the entire game. Twice. So, yeah, I enjoyed it.
Let’s take a look at some of the interesting design lessons we can take from this?
New mixes just fine with old
Legend of Grimrock is very obviously a game of the old mold. While playing, I was reminded of a list of puzzles from old RPG games I helped to compile. It still used the grid-based movement, which is viewed as outdated and old-fashioned. It also had things like limited ammo for ranged weapons and the requirement to find food and keep your characters from starving. But, the game had some modern touches, such as very nicely done 3D environments, dynamic lighting, etc. I felt the game combined the two aspects of old and new in a way that stayed true to both without much compromise. That was refreshing, and made it especially fun to play as it looked like a modern game but played like the older games I enjoyed.
It’s also interesting to see how the difficulty setting affected things. On my first playthrough, the initial combats were tough but not too brutal. There were some tough fights, but I mostly reloaded due to my own stupidity rather than getting into a tough fight. Bumping up the difficulty, however, made the start much more difficult. I was reloading a lot as I got into some combats. However, even though there were some tough fights later, I noticed the fights generally getting easier as I went along in my second playthrough. If this was due to more optimized characters, more knowledge, or just the equipment curve, I’m not sure. But, it does go with that old-school feeling of mastering a game after a brutal beginning.
I thought it was also interesting how they offered different options to capture some of the older feel. You could choose to forgo the build-in automapping if you wanted to create your own maps by hand. (I was almost tempted to do this, because I had written a program to create maps in PyGame a little while ago, as I mentioned in that Might & Magic article I linked above.. But, the death of my laptop mean that I’d have to run the application on my desktop and swapping between the game window and mapping program. So, I opted for the lazy version. :)
On the nature of role-playing
As I also mentioned in that post on Might & Magic, I often use the names of my cats as party members. Yeah, it’s a bit crazy, but who here isn’t? :) One interesting consequence is that I tend to “role play” a bit with the characters. Not quite in the “speak in different voices and have party conflicts” way, but more in defining their personalities. When picking up food, I initially had one character named after a particularly selfish cat hold all the food. I had written a small story about him grabbing all the food first, which helped remind me which character was holding the food. (In real life, he’ll often nab treats quick and growl at other cats you get too close to his treats.) While this isn’t exactly the same as tabletop role-playing, it was interesting to notice myself doing that.
Generated vs. hand-crafted
It was really interesting playing a game that had what was obviously hand-crafted content. Everything was pretty much the same on my second play-through (although I was playing on a harder difficulty) with very small variations. But, the variety in equipment seemed very small compared to what I’m used to. Grimrock has only six types of weapons, and only 4-6 variations of each type. Add in a few non-magical “miscellaneous” weapons and you have a total of only 30 or so weapons. To an MMO designer, that sound like barely enough to test the newbie area with! :) But, the weapons all feel special when you get them, especially since you start with nothing. The upgrades come at a reasonable pace, and you notice each upgrade when it comes.
The levels are also set and crafted by hand. The map, secrets, and puzzles are the same in the second playthrough. This means the designer had a lot more fine control over things like pacing, upgrades, encounters, etc.
I couldn’t help but compare Grimrock to The Fae’s Wyrd, where everything was randomly generated. Equipment felt a lot more disposable, levels didn’t always make sense, but the game was also intended to be played through multiple times. In the two months I worked on it, the game was still fun to play through for me. But, I could see how I was starting to “go through the motions” in Grimrock, especially through some of the mazes.
I think this is particularly interesting to consider, especially as the trend is toward more procedurally generated stuff. We saw a bit of this with MMOs, where the hand-crafted terrain of earlier games became generated automatically by tools, then edited by designers. People complained that the generated terrain felt more generic and less meaningful, mostly because it was easier to create more of it. I completely agree that the level design of The Fae’s Wyrd is a lot less satisfying than other games, mostly because the level design has no meaning behind it other than to prevent the player from walking directly from the start to the exit of the level. In Grimrock, the level design is much more meaningful, as it sets the tone and pace for the player. Puzzles can have hints placed strategically before the puzzles without there being conflicts.
A small team
The core development team of the game was 4 people. The game itself wasn’t one of those “developed over five years in spare time” deals, either. Pretty impressive for such a small group. Almost makes you think indie development is viable! :)
Overall, I really enjoyed the game. According to stories posted online, the next step is to release a map editor for the game for people to create their own content. Sounds like a fascinating addition to the game. I look forward to it. :)
What do you think? Have you played the game? Did you love it? What do you think about hand-crafted vs. generated content? Can generated content have meaning, or will it never be able to replace well-crafted content in games?