Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Is the “Old School Goodness” Now Poison?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 23, 2010


… the vast majority was utterly flummoxed by the game. As one of them put it, “I’d say for gamers of our generation, an RPG like Ultima IV is boring and pretty much unplayable.” After removing the arrow from my chest, I asked them to explain why.

I’ve been chewing on this and many similar articles / discussions / thoughts for the last few weeks. Rock Paper Shotgun published a piece several weeks ago asking similarly hard questions about the disappearance of the once uber-popular genre, the combat flight sim. Time was that Flight Sims shared thrones with RPGs and Adventure Games over the land of PC gaming.Things have changed a lot since then. It’s bothersome. I feel the same arrow in the chest, as not only do I remember loving the game when it first came out (playing a friend’s copy), but I actually didn’t finish it until many years later … when it was my first major “retrogaming” experience. And I loved it then, too.

He tries to get to the heart of the matter. There’s a lot to be said about it. There’s a lot I could say about it. Ashamed as I am to admit it, going back and playing some of these older titles has been a little rough for me sometimes. I wrote “The Seven Stages of Retro-Gaming” based on personal experience, and I think I’ve been reprogrammed by modern gameplay quite a bit. Once upon a time, pulling out a pad of graph paper to map a dungeon by hand seemed Part of the Fun. Digging into the manual – ditto.

To modern audiences, this all feels like work. And actually, yeah, it was.  Ditto for many other kinds of games back then – flight sims, strategy / war games, etc. All the best-known and best-loved for the PC platform after the consoles became king of the hill for action / arcade-style games.

So what gives? Were we all stupid back then? We didn’t mind being abused? Maybe. But there was definitely something else. And there’s a reason why these games are still so beloved by us old-schoolers.

While it was largely an accident borne of technological limitations, I think  that these games demanded a level of investment on the part of the players. You couldn’t just “jump into” the Wizardry dungeon for a quick 15-minute session. You would get lost. You would die. While an experienced player could maybe make a quick foray without adequate preparation, to actually have a prayer of medium-term success you needed to commit to the game.  You needed to invest a chunk of yourself into it. You needed to take action outside the pressing of buttons on the keyboard. You needed to grok the manual. You needed to map. You needed to take notes. You needed to plan.

But here’s the thing – I keep calling it an “investment” for a reason. As players, we got out of it what we put into it.  Our investment into these games made them “real” in some small ways. We willed them into an existence beyond the monitor and floppy drive when we committed to studying up on flight maneuvers and what all those switches, dials, and gauges in the cockpit meant and how to use them. We gave them life when we drew out our maps on graph paper, and wrote up notes and connections of clues by hand like a real-life mystery. And we didn’t have an Internet full of spoilers to do all the work for us, either.

And that made the games all more satisfying for us.  Shooting down an enemy MiG using systems that were extremely close to and just as complex as their real-world analogs was infinitely more satisfying that chomping them down like Doritos in an arcade game. And recovering the Codex felt like it had been dearly earned.

It’s not just that today’s games lead you by the nose, or are too easy. And you don’t finish an 80-hour RPG without a major feeling of satisfaction at having invested some serious time into its conclusion.  But they don’t require that up-front commitment. They are about the immediate gratification, not the delayed, gradual payoff.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Either way. But I think that this perspective might help explain the phenomenon that The Brainy Gamer and Rock Paper Shotgun and many others are reporting.

So the question is, I guess, is can we somehow get the best of both worlds?

I think we have, sometimes, in MMOs. The “shared hallucination” of fellow gamers and implicit social aspects encourage a great deal of side-band participation and effort into the game that goes beyond the basic game mechanics. We’re seeing it now in games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, but that may go back to the games “demanding” that level of investment just to be able to play them competently.

I guess the key point here is “encourage” rather than “demand.”  The old-school games demanded that level of investment, commitment, participation, whatever you want to call it. In many newer games, everything is so straightforward there’s not much more you could do with them if you wanted to. Where’s the happy medium?

And since this post is long enough already, I’m going to leave it at that, and maybe revisit it later. Maybe leave it as an exercise to the reader (if you don’t think I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely). How could modern games, emphasizing ease-of-use and streamlined play, also offer and encourage a great deal more commitment?

Have fun.

Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Tom said,

    I think there’s some kind of distinction to be made between gaming as a hobby and as a simple diversion, especially on the PC side. Like the distinction between golf and miniature golf. Golf takes time and effort to become good at it and the payoff of that effort is part of the fun for those who enjoy it. On the other side are many people (like me) who just want to be able to decide on a Saturday afternoon to go knock some balls in some holes and expect to have a good time. I imagine golfers would be as cranky as us old-school gamers if no one ever built and maintained golf courses and just came out with more and more miniature golf theme parks.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    @Tom: Nicely put.

    Firstly, I’d like to say that Ultima IV was my first cRPG. I’d played Sierra adventure games and the like before that, with various simpler action-y games as well.

    I’ve never actually completed it, but love it all the same. It is a very special game in many ways, not blessed with decent audio/visuals, but it had a message. It had it’s own belief system and mechanics of how to achieve Avatarhood.

    It challenges you to better yourself, rather than to best an opponent, which is rare in gaming.

    Secondly, on the subject of combat flight sims, I’ve always been on more of the “arcade” style than the more serious sim. I’d guess that the market for “proper” sims is lower and therefore the bigger publishers are uninterested.

    The only combat flight sim I’ve enjoyed since “A-10 Tank Killer” is “Wings of Prey”. But I do enjoy dogfights mostly.

  • McTeddy said,

    This is one topic I think about on a regular basis.

    As a console gamer, I didn’t grow up with the commitment that many of you talk about. I never drew maps and I rarely took notes. The depth of my investment was learning the new game and writing down passwords.

    But as I got older, I started playing older games. I started reading chapters of world history so that I could learn the traditions of people around the game. I started handwriting a spell book, and a journal in order to keep track of things. I learned how good it felt to do these things myself rather than automatically.

    When I was at school they basically taught us that the intent of games is no longer attachment… it’s addiction. Your goal as a developer is to make the game as hard to put down as possible, because once they put it down they may never come back. Achievements, Storytelling, character growth all revolve around telling the player to play just a little while longer.

    The problem with doing anything that stops the immediate satisfaction is that people will stop, realize the game wasn’t that good, and move on. Modern gamers are addicted to progress and the publishers will do everything they can to prevent recovery.

    That said, “Etrian Odyssey 2” for the DS had a unique stance on it. They had an optional “Old school” Mode that turned off automapping and journaling. While everything still played as simply as a modern RPG it was an attempt at something new… err old.

    Part of me has also been thinking about making additional material available outside the game. Say you go to my website and can download some of the writings of the games great political leader. Maybe you can find the journals of a fallen explorer including partial maps of the dungeons. Just optional information that will allow you to enjoy what the game has to offer from outside the screen

    You won’t be required to use any of this additional materials, but I wonder if something like that could possibly add a little life outside the screen and help people realize there is more to games than whats on screen and clearly pointed out in neon lights and loud klaxon alarms.

  • Rolf Andreassen said,

    I would suggest that some modern strategy games still have that possibility of investment. I am currently involved in a multiplayer campaign of Crusader Kings, by Paradox Interactive. Now CK is an old game, from 2003 I think, and honestly it’s rather buggy and in need of polish. (Happily there’s a sequel in the works.) And the combat mechanics boil down to having the larger army. Nonetheless people are willing to commit to a full year of playing this game every Saturday; and I think it’s because we also write AARs, short stories of what we did in every session. (There are some more at my blog.) Clearly this is a lot of work, writing 500-2000 words (I once hit 3000 words for a particularly important session) of fiction or description every week. And yet that’s what keeps me coming back; not the game mechanics, but imposing my own story on those game mechanics. My character Arkadios is not a collection of stats, Martial-Diplomacy-Intrigue-Stewardship, he’s a man with a story; he’s the instigator of the Antiochene Intrigue, the victim of tragedy in the Death of Ioannes, the architect of the Komnenos Restoration. The game takes on a life of its own when you tell a story about why your characters are doing as they do.

  • Brian \'Psychochild\' Green said,

    I think you hit upon the main issue, Jay: the up-front investment required. Reading the manual, creating a party, finding your own way without a tutorial, all this requires a lot more effort initially. Even Mincraft, which is fairly complex when you get into it, is pretty simple on the surface: it’s kind of fun to punch at things to destroy them, and just wander around the world. (If you haven’t done something by the time night falls, you might be in for some troubles, of course.)

    Reading the Brainy Gamer article, I think that’s the main issue here. The students didn’t have any guidance because they didn’t read the manual. They didn’t have the upfront investment. I suspect part of the problem is that they didn’t care to make that investment for “some old game”.

    I think the lack of investment also explains why they don’t find the gameplay as compelling; if you invest into something, you have a tendency to stick with it more. Basically, you don’t want to admit the hours spent reading the manual and planning things out were wasted, so you stick with it more. Not to say that Ultima IV isn’t fun, but without that investment and with flashier games to compare it to, the perception is that it’s not as fun as other games could be. I think the real payoff is in how it gets you to think about the real nature of good and evil and how a “virtuous” person fits in the world. And, it makes you consider how much harder it is to really be a virtuous person compared to the easy road of doing whatever you want. The utter lack of a final boss really drives these points home for me.

    I like Tom’s example of minature golf above. A fitting comparison, I think.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    The requirement for investment is probably a good way to look at it, but I don’t necessarily think that requirement is a good one.

    Like many others here, I started PC gaming back before there were hard-drives, when you had to load the OS from a start-up disc each time you turned the computer on. Games did require a lot more “investment” back then, but I don’t think this was by some design – it was merely dictated by the technology available. When you had only kilobytes to devote to a game, you couldn’t very well spend some of that memory on just teaching people how to play it.

    Many of these old games suffered additionally from just poor game design. It’s not really their fault, as without them, we wouldn’t have been able to develop good design eventually, but it’s true. Punishing ignorance with rampant death, or penalizing unfamiliarity of character statistics by forcing the start of a new game, failure to give good feedback, etc.

    I don’t miss those days, even if I miss a few of the games. When I was younger, I had time to “waste” to spend mapping dungeons on graph paper, or making notes on the locations of food so I could maybe eventually survive a trip all the way to my goal. But I’m an adult now, and my gaming time is at a premium. I want to be able to have fun and make progress in the single hour I may get to game today.

    And some food for thought, I believe games should be whole and complete as just themselves. We don’t expect movie goers to read a pamphlet explaining the world of the movie before they watch it. We’ve reached a stage where we can afford to have in-game tutorials, and explanations and that’s a good thing.

    Also, we haven’t given up those neat “elaborations” or “fleshing out” of the game world that used to be packaged with games in pamphlet or map form. Those pamphlets and maps are now in the games themselves. Audio recordings that do nothing but expand the world, or notes and books that can be read in-game, etc. Think of the newspapers in Red Dead Redemption, where you can read the whole thing – even the ads. Or the radio DJs and commercials in the GTA games, or the TV shows in GTA4. Or the notes and audiotapes in the Fallout series of games old and new.

    I get just as invested in new games as I did in old games. Brian says that “you stick with it more” because “you don’t want to admit those hours spent reading the manual and planning things out were wasted”. I would say that was true in the past, but it part of the investment came from the fact that I was kid. I didn’t have the money to go out and get another game. I had to find fun in the one I had. Also, there weren’t as many games competing for attention as there are now. As an adult, now I can afford to put a game aside if I’m not having fun or getting immediate satisfaction from it and go buy another one – or download any of thousands of free games from the internet.

    Many old games artificially lengthened the game by making the player spend hours on fights, or experiencing every dull moment, or simply being so hard as to necessitate frequent restarts or continues. And as many people have said “they never finished the game”. That’s not good. If we think of games as an interactive medium, or an experience, or a way to tell a story the player is involved in, why would we not want players to experience the whole thing or never see the payoff?

    I’ll wrap up by talking about Tom’s golf comparison above. I don’t think the comparison of real golf to miniature golf is quite right. Nothing is missing from modern games – you just have a really good caddy with you now, ready to suggest the right club, explain the rules, or give advice to ensure you can finish the course if you stick with it.

    I guess it depends on what you want most out of a game – fun or challenge. Some people may find challenge fun, but not everyone likes to work for their fun.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    I propose you a comparison with traditional board games.

    With chess, you need to learn a lot of rules before you can even start playing, let alone playing well enough to enjoy it. But you can become a champion in a few years.

    With Go, you can begin having fun in minutes, but you need decades to truly master the game.

    Both games have their fans. There is room for both in this world.

    Maybe we should learn to look outside videogames for lessons. 🙂

  • Powercow said,

    For me, the preparation and difficulty added to the immersion of the game. In a lot of old school games, because death was such a big penalty and so likely to occur, I was VERY careful about approaching situations. Imagine that the game is an RPG, and you are approaching an unknown location.
    In a more difficult old school game I would probably research it well. Talk to npcs, read the manual about the critters they told me were in there, and gear up for specific problems. When I finally approach it, I know this is the lair of the deadly Baazelbulls, but I have flame retardant pants and a sprig of lilac so I’m going to be ok. I have invested time and effort, and as a payoff I both win and I’m immersed in where I am. In a newer rpg, I’d probably say “huh, some kind of tower/cave” and run in there and beat things until I got low on life. Then I would teleport back to town, grab more healing potions and come back until everything is dead and I have treasure. I’m in some kind of hole with fire monsters in it.

    That said, I like a lot of the conveniences in modern gaming. Sometimes it’s just so easy it’s hard to get immersed.

  • Much ado about old games « No Time To Play said,

    […] writing, essentially, “well duh, old games suck” to Jay Barnson of Rampant Games fame defending them fiercely (unsurprisingly, given his recent declaration of love for retrogaming), with The Escapist going for […]

  • Tesh said,

    It seems to me that immersion is a choice that is dominantly in the player’s court. Yes, games can try to be more worldy, less gamey, but in the end, demanding investment of gamers isn’t likely to create immersion unless the player wants to play along.

    Syl has a relevant article up thisaway, wherein I note in the comments that far too many old school “hardcore” gamers *want* to be punished and have grueling games. I’ll pass on the masochism, despite being a gamer since Pong days. In my book, that’s not good game design, and it never was. It’s just all that we had, once upon a time.

  • Gus said,

    Great article! I will keep ‘Investment’ in mind when modding.

    I was 12 when I bought the original Wizardry on my Apple IIc, and I still remember the name of many of its spells. I also remember I didn’t own too many games, and when I bought one it cost me much pocket money; that’s Investment. So I dedicated hundreds of hours to this fascinating toy – my first RPG.

    But absolutely, I agree with the slow build up of notes I kept for Ultima IV. I adored these games, and while many features are outdated now, I agree games require the player to commit more to the game in order to extract greater enjoyment, or returns on their investment. 🙂

  • WCG said,

    Lots of good comments here. I’m glad you mentioned Dwarf Fortress, because that’s a game that takes a huge commitment from the player, right from the start. It’s certainly fun, but it takes effort. And I really doubt if all Dwarf Fortress fans are old folks like me.

    There are other games like that, too. Aurora makes DF seem like checkers. It REALLY has a learning curve. So does Europa Universalis. UnReal World takes effort to understand. And you mentioned Minecraft, which, yes, isn’t too hard to begin, but is filled with players who put a lot of effort into it. There is still a place for games like this, RPGs, too.

    However, we can’t just copy those great old RPGs. They really weren’t perfect, you know. Graph-paper maps were fun back then, but they were also a necessity. They’d be just an annoyance now. I absolutely loved the combat in the SSI “Gold Box” games, but there was too much of it, and not enough exploration and discovery. Knights of the Chalice has that same problem. Well, combat is cheap, and a larger, more complicated world is not.

    You CAN make a complicated RPG, an RPG that takes effort, but you have to move forward, not back, to be successful. You can’t just eliminate the automap and expect it to be anything but an annoyance to game-players. I think you have to look at Dwarf Fortress, at Minecraft, at all of these new, inventive games for inspiration.

    Personally, I’d like to see an RPG that wasn’t all combat. I want exploration and discovery, I want construction or crafting or terraforming – some kind of creative outlet – and I want to interact realistically with NPCs. I want my actions to have a real effect on the world and to see the NPCs as real people affected by my efforts. Basically, I want to create my own story through my character(s) actions.

    I’d like to see far more skills, useful skills, that would fit together in complicated ways, so that every play was different. I’d like to see a huge world, like Daggerfall, or perhaps a world generated as you explore, like Minecraft. I want a world that keeps me coming back, to see what I might discover next.

    I want a game that takes real effort, but not because that makes the game longer or more difficult. I simply want the effort put into the game to be reflected into the enjoyment I get out of it. Ideally, you could jump into the game with pre-generated characters and just mess around. But with more effort, you should have even more fun, creating your OWN story, and pretty much your OWN game – and even your OWN world (or your part of it).

    This would require a complicated world, and a huge world. But the graphics don’t have to be cutting edge. I can’t quite handle ASCII graphics, myself, but look at Minecraft, for example. Those are lovely worlds, but hardly state of the art. And you don’t have to create the whole world by hand. Again, look at Minecraft. Look at Daggerfall.

    I really think mainstream developers took an unfortunate turn away from Daggerfall, years ago. There was a great idea there. They just didn’t go far enough. Creating a physical world isn’t enough. It needs realistic NPCs, too. In fact, that might be the most important part.

    A complicated world – with complicated NPCs and all sorts of skills – is going to take a lot of effort to really master, but it could be based on relatively simple algorithms. The complication would be based on how they interact. Well, that’s not so different from the real world. People are all very similar, but we still end up with complications. Homes are basically the same, built for the same reasons, but they’re still quite different.

    In Dwarf Fortress, losing is fun. You might need to encourage that kind of thinking in an RPG like this, too. Some situations would get out of hand, and you’d “lose.” But that would just encourage you to try again in a new world.

    Oops! Sorry about the length of this. I think I need to write my own blog post about these things, instead of replying at such length here!

  • Old-School RPGs Revisited – Blog Recommendation said,

    […] I think this is also a great companion piece / counter to the articles from a couple of weeks ago about how Ultima IV is “unplayable” by modern gamers. […]