Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A More Compelling RPG: More Thoughts on Might & Magic 1. And X-Com.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 9, 2010

My post Monday was about how the old-and-creaky Might & Magic 1 somehow being more compelling (and, let’s face it, more fun) to me to play after three hours in than Bioware’s recent heir apparent to the Baldur’s Gate legacy, Dragon Age. The discussion around the post was, in my opinion, far more interesting than the post itself. It kept me thinking about why the older game worked for me on a level that Bioware’s title did not. While I grew up on games of that era, I refuse to simply chalk it up as just an artifact of its familiarity.

So here are a few more of my thoughts. This is going to be some weird and fuzzy thinking-out-loud stuff; probably not as fun as Monday’s post. But I wanted to talk about exception-driven gameplay. And X-Com.

The Exceptions Make the Rules- And Make the Fun!

In the early stages of Might & Magic 1, you are barely getting the hang of the basics of the game (assuming you RTFM – a necessity!) when the game starts lobbing surprises at you. It plays with the rules of the game. The rules are still consistent enough to be considered “rules,” but it’s the exceptions that surprise and delight. And they are everywhere.

Walls are walls. Except when they are secret doors. As you are figuring out the best ways to use magic against similar groups of enemies, you hit one of the mercifully-infrequent-and-small anti-magic areas where you must rely on other techniques. The guys in the front of the group face the brunt of the fighting. Until you get into a situation where the bad guys mix it up in the middle of your party.

Then there are trap-door squares that drop you to another level where you have to hunt your way out. There is an “arena” room where you may choose to fight in a gladiatorial death-match to the cheers of an audience. At certain dead ends you are told “Don’t Turn Around,” a warning that, if unheeded, result in a monster attack. Stuff like that. It keeps you hopping, and challenged.

Maybe this all goes away later in the game, and they just packed the early areas with the most interesting stuff. But I don’t think so. But for now, for me, it feels that every time I push a little further forward, ranging a little further from my ‘safe spot’ at the Inn in Scorpigal, I am finding something new and different. That’s what the thrill of exploration is all about.

By contrast, many modern games have much more complex and interesting rulesets, but then so much of the game fits neatly and consistently within that system. They make the experience of opening the door, killing the monsters, and grabbing loot a lot more interesting (well, even that is arguable), and especially the talking-to-people-in-villages part. But it’s too streamlined – not jaggy enough. Notable exceptions and surprises are much more rare.  The almost random, nonsensical stuff of the older games (and this includes the approach to dice-and-paper gaming back in the day) were goofy, but exciting.

Naturally, the problem as a game developer is that it’s a lot easier to work with the system than to keep creating exceptions to it. But exception-driven gameplay is just as important as a good story in making an RPG compelling.

The Metagame – The X-Com Connection

Like many PC gamers of the early-to-mid 90s, I fell in love with X-Com: UFO Defense (AKA UFO: Enemy Unknown across the pond).  However, there are many games since then that have tried – and failed – to capture my attention the way X-Com did.

You know what would have ruined X-Com for me (or at least weakened its appeal considerably)? If it had a branching storyline with fixed battles (even if I could have chosen to skip some or take them in a a different order).  Or if it had a fixed “window” of funding and resource gain throughout the game to make sure things never got too easy or too hard – so that I was always facing an “appropriate” challenge for whatever stage of the game I was in. And if it had fixed team members that couldn’t perma-die.

Gee, sounds a lot like a few modern RPGs, doesn’t it?

The thing that made X-Com so awesome for me was the meta-game. The individual battles across the globe weren’t just obstacles in my path to the shiny door at the end of the level. They were all interconnected via a higher-level strategy game where every ammunition magazine counted (at least to a small degree). Resource management was important. Your discoveries – and progression through the game – hinged upon achieving goals in the mission, but the goals were player-directed, not pre-determined on a mission-by-mission basis. Did you capture a live alien this time? Cool, have your researchers learn more about the enemy, and future battles will go better. You may even open up a whole new level of warfare (psychic)! Do a poor job defending that terror site in Buenos Aires? Or skip it altogether? Fine. But watch your funding from South America dry up. Are you getting too successful in your battles? Expect the aliens prepare a counter-attack. Hopefully you didn’t send all of your squaddies out on missions so there’s nobody left to defend your installation and scientists.

This greater context and interrelation – which the player helped define – for every battle was what made the game for me. It was all about the meta-game. RPG fans talk about “choices and consequences” as a holy grail of RPGs, but it’s not just about the big things, or about whether you choose to act like a douchebag or a saint when a villager asks for your help. All the little things add up.  Including the opportunities or problems you didn’t know you missed.

I get some of that from many older RPGs. Obviously, the accumulation of loot and experience points do this in most RPGs. Many older RPGs had much more of a resource-management aspect to them than they do now, as resting outside of an inn was risky business, and you were often burning through other resources (torches, lockpicks, food, potions, magic gems,  etc.) that would need to be replenished. Might & Magic games included a money-sink of leveling up that made acquisition of wealth even more critical, and the (annoying) concept of age. Then there were conditions like disease or blindness that could only be healed by higher-level spells or a trip to the nearest temple (and a donation of gold). Discovering new spells and, of course, new magic items. And always, always the matter of how far your hit points and spells would last you between resting periods.

Even just exploring and revealing more of the map on an otherwise uneventful foray could feel like progress. Especially when, as above, there were so many interesting things to explore and discover. It wasn’t just a series of obstacles between point A and point B.

Maybe for many players this all feels like busy, boring make-work, and all they’d rather do is go straight to the “best parts” – fighting, looting, and seducing NPCs. They’d rather just play the soldier, executing orders dictated from above with perfection and style, than be part officer participating in the planning and logistics.  But for me, that extra layer of context and control makes the rest of it all the sweeter. And it is the absence that makes “grinding” feel nearly pointless.

It seems that in a lot of RPGs today, that whole meta-game layer has been replaced with, rather than supplemented by story. A strong, compelling story is a virtue, and I’ll be the first to admit (as I have many times before) that traditional storytelling runs counter to the goals of interactive game-playing. But I don’t feel an either / or situation is strictly necessary.

I have praised on the Persona games plenty already, but I think this was why they worked out so well for me. In addition to having an intriguing (and freaky) story, the “meta-game” aspects of relationships, fusing new personas, pushing deeper into levels, fatigue, jobs, and the opportunity costs of all those activities added a layer of play that transformed otherwise pedestrian jRPG game mechanics into classic games.

Please Ration the Exposition

In Might & Magic 1, the entire plot of the game is hidden, to be pieced together via clues and quests. The only reason I know more about it at this point has been because of spoilers. And one cryptic clue (thus far). There’s lots of stuff in the game, but the exposition is doled out slowly (too slowly?) over the course of the game.

A modern trend in RPGs (not just by Bioware) is to drop exposition in HUGE CHUNKS. You feel compelled to talk to an NPC until you exhaust their meticulously scripted options, or until you die of boredom, out of fear that the opportunity to pump them for clues or optional quests will go away forever (when the bad guys destroy everything behind you, or whatever). And since you are in a town or castle full of these talkative folks with deep backstories (that’s a good thing, right?), you spend a whole lot of time trying to digest exposition in massive info-dumps.

I don’t know the solution to this one, sadly. I love multifaceted storylines and deep characters as much as the next RPG fan. Once I have a reason to take an interest in an NPC I have a tendency to probe them mercilessly for personal questions that have nothing to do with the story. Now you can argue that the exposition overload is self-inflicted, I’d counter by saying it is a learned response.

Brain-Dump Overload

It’s probably hypocritical of me to complain about that last point in a post that’s going on as long as this one. So I guess I’m about done.

I’m not a guy who believes that newer and flashier is better, or that older is somehow better, either. I’ve said many times that I feel that what is sometimes termed the “evolution” of the CRPG genre was really just a push along a presumptive path to bigger and bigger audiences, and as a result has lost some really great ideas of the past that would still be valuable today.  This was a problem even back in the heyday of the genre, when every new RPG released tried to mimic its most successful competitor.

My hope is that RPG developers – indie and mainstream – will take the time to look back and feel free to borrow from the things that worked in the past, as well as try new ideas today. Because as I understand evolution, it only comes about through a diversity of competing traits. Lets see more of that!

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 20 Comments to Read

  • Adamantyr said,

    Very good points… the exception-based design I found particularly correct.

    With my vintage CRPG design, I have even more system limitations than a modern CRPG does. So the one thing I don’t want to do is throw every possible event/interaction at the player in the first quarter of the game.

    And yeah, exceptions are COOL, because they throw the player off his sense of comfort and reliance in the system as he understands it. He starts wondering what else could happen, what’s actually possible. I think what early CRPG’s could do was make you THINK the system and the game was much deeper than it actually was.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Excellent stuff.

    I don’t know if it was necessarily exception-based design in the old games as much as a simple set of rules that could be applied broadly. For instance, a sword does damage and doors and chests take damage, hence, you can bash open doors and chests. More modern games tend to have lots of really specialized rules with narrow focus – you can pick locks – but not this one, because it needs a certain key to open, otherwise you’ll jump ahead in the story and we can’t have that, God forbid. So doors can SOMETIMES be picked open, or you can get a bomb to blow open a certain door, but the bomb won’t work on other doors at all. Don’t even think about using that mini-gun, either.

    I think the better term than exception-based design is emergent gameplay, which results from designing rules loosely enough that such a thing can occur.

    I keep coming back to Arcanum because that is what I am playing right now, but it is truly remarkable for letting you just get completely off the rails and do what-ever you want. If a door is locked, someone has the key, or you can pick the lock, or blow the door apart with explosives (be they dynamite, grenades, or magical fireballs), or you can open the door with a magic spell.

    You can tell the NPC who greets you when the game starts, who is supposed to be your first party member, to shove off, and the game won’t force him on you. Instead, it litters enough subtle clues in the game world that you can pick up the threads of the main quest without that NPC telling them to you like he would normally do.

    The game doesn’t care if you exploit the hell out of it. The design seems to say, “Hey, if you’re clever enough to figure out how to get that uber-artifact at level 3 or steal thousands of gold before you’ve left the first village hamlet, then you deserve it. Good for you!”.

    I think it boils down to FUN. Most modern RPGs are more concerned with creating an epic cinematic masterpiece with you in the starring role, than they are in just creating an environment and world for you to have fun in. RPGs should ideally be like a theme park or a carnival. Structured, with boundaries and some rules, but otherwise, knock yourself out doing whatever you like until you’re vomiting up corn dogs and cotton candy.

  • Binh Nguyen said,

    Thanks for the food for thought. I look forward to buying your game!

  • Andy_Panthro said,


    I do get the feeling many developers (or publishers?) are wary of letting people off the rails too much, in case you get too many complaints about it being too difficult or lacking in clear direction.

    Certainly Baldur’s Gate and Fallout both get criticised for this by those younger gamers who have only played them more recently.

    There is the problem that gamers get into a certain expectant mindset, where the conventions of the genre mean any deviation is met with confusion.

    Also, on the subject of massive exposition dumping, many RPGs have done this in the past too, it just feels different when you’re watching a film of it compared to reading the book…

    By which I mean that games like Baldur’s Gate had loads of text to read, which can be done rather quickly, but that same text if spoken (with appropriate dramatic pauses and so forth) would take far more time to watch/listen to.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I think the main issue boils down to RPGs hold your hand a lot more now. This can be a good thing if you aren’t an RPG master, but it can be frustrating if you think part of the fun of these games is figuring out the rules of the game.

    On the bright side, there’s less chance for a total party wipe a few steps out of the starting area where you’re totally screwed. Then again, less risk means less excitement.

    I think this is also why the “exceptions” are rarer now, they’re rolled into the system automatically. As LateWhiteRabbit says, the game allows you to unlock some doors but not others based on scripted rules that fit within the system. With less limitations on the hardware, it’s easier to include the exceptions into the game.

    There’s also a more explicit story being told, rather than letting you tell your own story in a loose framework. Older games had some backstory in the manual and you might have a few plot-related locations or fights. Now, everything is explicit in the game. Easier for people to follow the story, but it makes it feel more out of your control.

    Interesting insights, though, especially as I’m polishing up my own retro-inspired RPG. 🙂

  • Leopold said,

    If you have the patience and attention to detail to design your own games, you have already self-selected as having more patience than 99% of people who might play your (or another) game. I don’t disagree w/ you about how much fun it is to tease the backstory out of a game, or ride ahead of the power curve — either through careful thought and planning (X-Com) or through min-maxing a party (the Gold Box games), but what % of the gaming public thinks like that?

    I rather think that for every grognard, there are 50 younger gamers looking for immediate gratification and visual/aural over stimulation. I’m glad you’re out there, championing a thoughtful gaming counter-culture.

    I think one reason for the relative decline in CRPG’s was Third Edition D&D. I remember truly enjoying Icewind Dale as a tactical game (and designing my party exactly the way I wanted), but I found the sequel frustrating. In retrospect, I believe the Third Edition ruleset made it very, very difficult to get ahead of the power curve with your party. It also, unfortunately, invalidated 20 years of experience with 2nd Edition that many older gamers had. That had to have a financial impact on the hobby.

    Did you ever play Darklands? I loved that game (although I admit I got into it after it got patched multiple times) and it really exemplified rule-by-exception, which both made it memorable and also impossible to use as a viable template for a sequel. Ah, well.

  • McTeddy said,

    Regretful, I agree with Leopold that the majority are all about immediate gratification… though it’s not just the young people. If we look at “progress” in society it’s been steadily moving towards work less get more.

    Another thing to consider is the differences in lifestyle. Life is more stressful with the invention of cell phones and unpaid overtime. When somebody has just spent 8 to 12 hours getting slapped around for minimum wage… they don’t want to get slapped around for entertainment. They want to be spoon fed and told nice things.

    Those of us that enjoy thinking and challenging ourselves are fairly rare. Considering we are rare… we aren’t considered a viable target audience for the money-grubbers.

    Thank you, Jay. At least one person still consider’s my minority opinion valuable. 🙂

  • Mark said,

    There is the matter of learning curves. Modern games are expected to communicate not only the rules but also the intended mindset of play. Games are the best way to teach, but game designers are not necessarily the best teachers, and there aren’t customers willing to meet the designer halfway to support a full-size dev team. There’s two other outcomes: either you make games for people who already know how to play similar ones, or you make games that are easy to teach.

    Despite appearances, a lot of older games aren’t necessarily more complex mechanically than new ones! Sure, contemporary ones streamline things a bit better, and the difficulty level is low enough that you can usually get away with ignoring a few bits, but that doesn’t mean that there’s less happening in them. It just introduces its conceits one at a time, which requires that the player be willing to be led around during that time.

    Being led around, however, teaches the player to be in a state of mind wherein they expect the game to give them goals explicitly, and so, naturally, they become confused irritated when the rules change beneath their feet.

    It’s a matter of ensuring that the game transitions smoothly from introduction to exploration and from exploration to mastery. This is a very overlooked element of game design, because when the experts do it, you don’t even notice that they’ve done it at all.

  • MyThoughts. said,

    Good read. My only complaint is the use of term “meta-game.” Those aspects you described of Persona and X-COM were part of the gameplay design. In X-COM, it’s a matter of different layers…the tactical battles and grand strategic layer.

    I see “Meta-gaming” as analyzing and/or exploiting games systems rules such as Munchkining in pen and paper RPGS or optimizing build orders in Starcraft 2 where you’re thinking outside of the game confines of what the opponent or GM is thinking.

  • Adamantyr said,

    One other thought on why exception-based games are rare…

    Yeah, old games had “emergent gameplay” when the game system was loose enough to create situations the designers hadn’t thought of… but more often than not, it was just a bug. Sometimes a really bad one.

    Good testers try and test a lot of permutations of a given set of inputs, and the easiest way to reduce complexity and test time is to make a very small and controllable level of inputs. So a designer coming in and saying “Hey, I want this unexpected thing to happen in this place now.” will get serious push-back from both developers and testers because it’s adding new inputs and factors to an already complex system. (As for “baking” it into the initial design, inevitably, you start cutting features when you run out of time and resources. And what do you think is first to go, core rules or the funky little one-off in scene 3?)

    The result of this? Modern CRPG’s are designed to do JUST what is needed, and no more. And frankly, look how often THAT is bugged up…

  • cycletronic said,

    Excellent discussion of XCom. That’s a game I refer back to often. It is a mostly perfect game in my opinion, and for me it’s because of all the details they included. Every little stat has meaning. If the guy is a weakling, he doesn’t throw far. I love that you can throw a full ammo clip to another guy so he can reload on the front line. I love that the aliens are essentially tougher than you the whole game, and you end up losing a lot of guys. I love that it’s kinda sad when one of your experienced crew dies from a lucky alien potshot.

    It’s good to see others who appreciate XCom so much. I’m tempted to try my hand at making a XCom-alike, but I know how much work it is and how long it would take. But if you ever finish Ye Frayed Knights, and it sounds interesting…

  • sascha/hdrs said,

    I think you pretty much nailed it with all your points!
    Today most triple-a producers make the mistake to streamline everything. And instead of making the gameplay exciting they worry more about that the lip-sync of their characters looks perfect or that the shadow of the environment looks as realistic as possible etc. While these things are all good and nice it’s becoming a problem when they get more importance than the gameplay.

  • SteelRiverSavior said,

    I agree with your post, but would like to make a point that I haven’t seen made so far.

    I think about modern RPGs a lot (seeing how I play them so much, and am in the process of making my own RPG — Yes, another self-proclaimed ‘game developer’), and I think most of the streamlining of games, especially RPGs, has to do with the way companies allocate resources. They do not want to have content that a player may miss, because it means spending money and time on something that may not even be interacted with or viewed. From a purely corporate perspective, it would be like releasing a product with extras that ‘don’t NEED to be there’. So, I think a lot of companies write games for this mindset, and this is one of the major reasons that there isn’t much exception-based gameplay in games now. Games are written much differently than they were ten years ago. Now, they are made as products, and products have a much clearer, much stricter guideline in terms of design and implementation. This, I think, is why Dragon Age Origins fails where an old game like M&M 1 succeeds. It’s because people who love fictional worlds and exploration don’t make games anymore. To be a large developer, you have to pander to the psychological bottom of society. Game stories are saturday-morning cartoon plots, to a large degree.

    One thing that I think JRPGs do get right is their attention to detail in their games. While many people do not like playing a majorly story-based game, look at a game like Tales of the Abyss (PS2) or Final Fantasy 7, and you will see that it was created by someone who loved the world that they wrote.

  • duerer said,

    Excellent read. Being an active games designer for 15+ years (lethal cynicism, battle scars and all 😉 ), I find your opinion very much agreeable.

    Bending the rules were always the holy grail of game designers, because, of two things:
    1. It is cool to surprise the player (as you have explained in great detail).

    2. It is *much less* work. Create a simple rule, make a mediocre game around it, then add fun stuff by exploiting it. The result can be truly stellar.

    Digging deeper into the topic: you, as a game designer, do not actually *need* to add the fun stuff by yourself – let the players add theirs! Imagine: all the physics-based sandbox game design relies on this very concept (Red Faction: Guerilla, GTA, etc). The net is full of player stories about how they exploited the low-fi physics simulation, and solved missions in astonishing ways… no one cares about Niko Bellic’s rantings about the American Dream… they care about stunt-driving into a supposedly closed territory behind enemy lines and shoot the bastards in the back! The beauty of these games is the flexibility: do what you want, and the game won’t crash on your silly experiments.

    Getting back to retro RPGs: I personally think, that’s what made Ultima (4-7) a legend: these games were more of a reactive world simulation than a fully scripted, dramatic, cinematic story with mild RPG elements and obvious fillers (DA, I’m looking at you!). For example, in Ultima 7, you could solve the majority of the game without a single fight — and no special “pacifist” character creation is needed for that!

    … and I believe, this is the rotten core of the more contemporary RPGs: even if the system allows a vast range of characters to play (Arcanum, Fallout), you have to decide your role *before* playing the thing! The result is utter catastrophe at retail (remember, both of these iconic games were flops!), and it is easy to see why: the player does not know what to expect, creates the wrong character (by mistaking Arcanum to a Diablo-clone, for example), and gets pissed off due to the very hard gameplay. In one sentence: these games are not adaptive. On the other hand: Morrowind or Oblivion are much more so (and surprise: these games are retail success stories).

    Make no mistake: I do not say that Morrowind is better than Arcanum (personally I think that A is before M for a reason, and not just because of the alphabet 😉 ). I am just being sadly ironic about the state of the RPG market, and hope that the indie scene remedies what the pro industry cannot.

  • Rigor Mortis said,

    People don’t want to get slapped around for entertainment? Have you seen what passes for games on Facebook? Most of the popular selections are like a second job, only you pay for this job/game instead of getting paid. You pay, that is, if you want to progress [sic] at any useful [sic] rate. Hidden object games [sic] offer the same drudgery-as-gameplay from what I’ve seen.

    Slashdot had a recent story on this.

  • Noumenon said,

    This post actually started to get me to understand how you feel (after last post I was like ‘gee, we’re really different, aren’t we?’) The only real twist on the rules I’ve found in Dragon Age is that one where everyone but Morrigan falls asleep and you fight alone. Of course I’m still exploring the rules for myself (stealth + grenades, weapon sets) so that keeps it fresh.

    This, I think, is why Dragon Age Origins fails where an old game like M&M 1 succeeds. It’s because people who love fictional worlds and exploration don’t make games anymore.

    Dragon Age totally feels like “fictional worlds and exploration” to me — codexes and factions everywhere, and if I take don’t head toward the quest icon I’m liable to find a praying priest, a prisoner in a cage, or who knows what. I only have dim memories of Might & Magic but the exploration seemed not that much more satisfying than uncovering dark tiles in Civilization — it lets you be a map completist but not find much that’s cool.

  • Powercow said,

    It seems to me that most games either have very generic additions to your party that can die (this is Fritz. Look at his stats. He is a soldier.) Or meticulously crafted characters that can never be touched. The problem here being that if you kill off too many of the meticulously crafted characters (and how many is the designer willing to make?) you make the game incompletable. Fire Emblem is SORT of an exception, and I did feel like I could kill off enough characters that the game would be impossible if I was negligent. The thing was, even with the minimal character development afforded by a strategy game I was so attached to my characters that I only let one or two die through the entire game.

    I think in a way it comes down to this: letting a player control his own destiny is dangerous. He might ruin your game, and in doing so ruin his own fun. My feeling is that developers, or possibly the people behind them who are more focused on selling the game than making it, are too afraid of this. In our modern age of auto-saves and gamefaqs.com it is safer than ever to let your players go off the rails. They should be taking more risks and giving gamers more power than ever.

  • Picador said,

    I think the discussion her has overlooked a major factor that has changed the way people play games: internet spoilers.

    A game designer today has to design games for a world in which most of his players will have read quite a bit about the game online before playing it, and even those who try to avoid hints and spoilers will probably be exposed to some. So if there’s a simple way to jump ahead in the game — to beat a boss or unlock some uber-weapon, say — many players will have heard about it by the time they encounter that part of the game. Once the player is in that situation, it takes a certain kind of personality to voluntarily take the harder path to victory.

    Accordingly, games are designed more and more to be “balanced”, whereby having access to strategy tips and hints doesn’t make the game into a cakewalk or otherwise break the experience. I also suspect that the “hidden surprises” everyone keeps attributing to older games are probably just as numerous in modern games — the only difference is that now, you read about them online after your first playthrough and make sure to hit them all on your second, whereas in the old days you had to stumble upon them by blind luck, and that made them feel more special.

    Maybe I’m overstating my case. But I think that’s a major factor in how game design has changed, and I think people are being overly critical of modern designers.

  • quinn said,

    This is my first post, but I read your blog for several months now, and like it a lot. This one is a hell of an excellent post, you have the gift of insight 🙂 Keep up the good work.

  • Psychochild's Blog » Order vs. Chaos said,

    […] theme is not unique to MMOs, however. In the past, we saw a lot of single-player games where the the exceptions improved gameplay. In many old games, you played "by the rules" for a lot of the time, but then an exception would be […]