Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design – More on Simplifying

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 14, 2011

I played through the first couple of levels of the first Eye of the Beholder game the other day (“research”).  I’d only really played the second game in the series to completion, so it was fun to revisit the original (well, original AD&D-branded imitation of Dungeon Master, at least).  Going through a couple of levels, I was struck by the simplicity of the game.  Even compared to other RPGs of the era.

Strip out any economy. Gathering gold – typically a staple of D&D-based RPGs – is outta there.

Strip out NPC interaction outside of combat. Or any idea of “quests” (which hadn’t quite gelled as a regular feature  of RPGs at the time anyway).

Story is paper-thin, without much more plotline or background than your run-of-the-mill roguelike.

The gameplay is really just three things:

#1 – Solving a maze. With lots of puzzle-like obstacles blocking your way, involving things like keys or other objects to be found, lever / pressure plate puzzles, teleporters, spin-tiles, figuring out solutions based on cryptic hints or riddles, illusionary walls, and so forth. Basically enhanced versions of the same fare we’d seen since Wizardry 1.

#2 – Real-time combat. With challenge being more in managing the real-time aspect than any kind of tactics.

#3 – Exploration – generally to get the clues / items you need to solve the maze (#1), or to make sure you got every piece of needed gear or food (or experience point) needed for #2.

It’s easy to see how those simple mechanics can get exhausted after a single game, let alone a series. And to a degree, they were. Yet going back and playing after a long hiatus from this style of game was fairly refreshing, and also compelling. Particularly when they mix the three activities above together, and let you build on those individual skills. Use those traps and doors to your advantage in mid-battle!

Though people who claim Diablo isn’t an RPG might be on thin ice defending the label for this game. Although EOB was based on the original dice-and-paper role-playing game rule system, it seems to me that  Diablo incorporated more traditional RPG elements.  (As an update – I don’t have a problem calling either one an RPG, though they both illustrate some of the breadth of the description).

Compared to this, many modern games (including my own) feel like a mess of subsystems. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s interesting to look at this game through the lens of a couple more decades of RPGs. Just like playing a game like Desktop Dungeons today, it’s interesting to see what can be done if you strip out some of the additional trappings of the genre and focus on really maxing out a few elements.

Simple and clean works. I should take my own advise. Someday.

I wonder what someone could do today with a similar focus, but two decades of more advanced technology? Could we get more three-dimensional puzzles? No doubt we could get more interesting combat. As I recall, Dungeon Master – the inspiration for Eye of the Beholder – had more interesting combat.  Or at least spellcasting. Maybe with a decade and a half of hiatus, what was old may be new again, and some fresh ideas injected into a classic design.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I remember playing Eye of the Beholder back in the day as well, and I remember thoroughly enjoying it.

    Simplified RPG systems were kind of par for the course in video games of the time, and I even remember playing PnP D&D with a couple of groups that didn’t really involve any roleplaying. Real kick in the dungeon door, fight, and loot type games.

    In contrast, my normal PnP group that I played with for 15 years was all about roleplaying, and could play 14 hours with only 1 fight occurring. We all loved it, and found the normal dungeon delving quite boring.

    It is interesting that you bring up what some people believe constitutes an RPG and what doesn’t, using Diablo as an example. I see a lot of people that believe the “mess of subsystems” or HP, skills, experience points, etc. are the necessary defining aspect. We see similar systems cropping up again and again in all kinds of different video game genres these days.

    For example, in NBA2K11, you perform different drills over and over again to improve certain skills and aspects of your character. You start out by building your character with a set amount of points to put into different skills. There are dozens of different upgrades to earn and put points in. Is NBA2K11 an RPG? Playing drills (fights) over and over again to earn points (XP) to upgrade stats and skills to get better and focus your character toward a certain court position (class) certainly sounds like it.

    I would argue that the definition of RPG, however, is in the name. ROLEPLAYING game. In short, any game, stats or not, that allows you to assume a role and play it how you wish, making frequent and important decisions that affect the story and your character, and come out different by the end, is an RPG. Imagine a game like Alpha Protocol or Mass Effect or even Dragon Age, with all the skills and XP and loot and magic stripped out – they would still be RPGs.

    Oh, and by more simple Jay, do you mean to say Eye of the Beholder doesn’t have 500 spells? ;P

    To bring it full circle now, you mention games like Eye of Beholder “simplifying” RPG mechanics, but I really believe the trend with are seeing from companies like Bioware or Obsidian is simplifying the genre – and bringing games closer to the core of what RPGs are.

    I would certainly be disappointed to learn that the long nights of PnP gaming my group and I did, where we never drew sword from scabbard, but interviewed townsfolk or organized a legal defense for the party thief, didn’t count as playing an RPG.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I would, too. Some of our favorite PnP sessions never had a scrap of combat.

    FWIW, I consider both Diablo and Eye of the Beholder to be comfortably in the RPG camp. But I know many people feel differently about Diablo. I have more reservations about the Mass Effect series, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, and that’s not a hill I’d be ready to die on.

    I’m not too worried about the term “roleplaying.” For one thing, the games came first, and the name followed later as an inadequate but sufficient term to encompass the growing hobby. Particularly when it comes to computer RPGs, roleplaying is… well, it’s normally something I do with people, not computers. But – as I noted in an article a couple of weeks ago – I’ve since become somewhat illuminated on the possibilities. And not just on the big heavy “DECISIONS WITH CONSEQUENCES!” thing that gets drummed up from time to time.

    Thanks to the CRPG addict and the community here who helped me see what can be done to explore that concept. We all value the same things, I just didn’t call it “roleplaying.”

    And I think the description of the genre expands beyond the term, as well. I played Falcon 4.0 for a long time, and joked about it being a role-playing game. It put you in the role of a fighter pilot (albeit bigger-than-life). It did all kinds of stuff to make the world real. In over ten years, it’s not been equaled in that respect. I *felt* like I was a squadron leader playing that game. I was making tough decisions, which had significant impacts on the evolving campaign in Korea. It was awesome.

    But was it really a role-playing game? Nah.

    I’ve tried in the past to erect some working, defining characteristics for role-playing games, and come up with stuff that works pretty well for me (and manages to encompass games like roguelikes and VERY old-school RPGs), without including games that merely incorporate some RPG-like elements (like NBA 2K11). It works well enough for me, does the job, but I’ve also become aware that it wouldn’t take much to really break those little boundaries I erected.

    So as usual, my questions aren’t meant to suggest, “Gee, all RPGs should be like this old one.” I’d vehemently disagree with that position. But rather, my thinking is:

    #1 – What else could be done by making RPGs that narrowly focused on just a handful of RPG elements – say, for example, economy and conversations? (Recettear actually points out a possible direction for that).

    #2 – And while the particular focus of the DM / EOB games felt pretty exhausted by the early-to-mid 90’s, it might be interesting to revisit the idea now, a decade and a half later, to see if there’s more now that can be done with the concept today.

  • McTeddy said,

    I can’t in good conscience call Mass Effect 2 an RPG. Having multiple paths in a game doesn’t make it an RPG, especially when both paths are the same with different dialog.

    I usually use the definition in RPGs my character’s abilities influence my play-style. Game’s such as ME2 give you a super-soldier who is capable of doing everything without learning skills. I can shoot straight, hack all locks, perform all persuasion techniques… my character’s ability doesn’t influence my actions at all.

    In Alpha Protocol or Dragon Age, I need to rethink my plans because my character never learned many combat skills. I need to think like my character does because he has limitations and skills of his own.

    As for the main topic, I’m not actually sure how I feel about narrowing RPGs actually. I didn’t seriously play EOB or DM until the past few years and while I do enjoy them… I find that they get old fast. They work for a quick fix… but I can’t play it for more than a few days without getting bored.

    I could see it working as a casual game though. I remember some Indy RPGs that were based on the idea of a 15 minute dungeon. This setup worked well because I wasn’t being forced into 20+ hours of repetitive activity.

    I’d love to trek through 1 to 2 hour random dungeons whenever I needed my fill of dungeon crawling.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, the other question is how much you can build on a few simple concepts – going for depth instead of breadth.

    I tend to focus (too much) on the breadth of the experience in an RPG. How many verbs do I have readily available? The problem there is that the experience can become flat, and easily mastered.

    Going for depth – a few simple systems with a whole bunch of permutations and combinations – can be a really satisfying experience on its own. And I think they achieved that, at least with the first two EoB games. But those can end up feeling repetitive pretty quickly.

    The correct answer is of course striking a balance between the two. But that’s a pretty wide target.

  • Xian said,

    I recently played iD’s Orcs & Elves on my kid’s Nintendo DS. It had the same simplistic game elements of the EOB series and it was a lot of fun re-visting a style of game play that I hadn’t experienced in more than a decade.

    Striking the right balance is key. What’s simplifying to one person may be dumbing down to another. I saw that on the Wii – “hardcore” gamers eschewed the platform, but it introduced a lot more casual gamers to the fun of video games that would never have played one otherwise. I think there is room for both. Many times I enjoy to put my mind in neutral and just play something simple, where other times I want something that will challenge me mentally and test my reflexes and reaction time.

    I had an Atari ST in 1987 and got Dungeon Master at release. For the time, it was a huge step forward. Ultima and Wizardry had the first person perspective in their dungeons, but DM was the first to have textured walls and real time combat in that perspective. It introduced a lot of different type of puzzle elements. One of the things I thought was novel at the time was obtaining food. Instead of having to run back to Ye Olde VII-XI in town, you ate what you killed or foraged in DM.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I usually always prefer depth to breadth – possibly because of my limited gaming time as a working adult.

    It’s why I prefer games like Alpha Protocol or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, where the entire game only lasts 5-6 hours, but each has so much depth that the games can be replayed with wildly varying experiences each time. Some of my all time favorite games fall into this category – Dead Rising, Princess Maker 2, etc. In fact, I’m a little startled to realize that on my list of favorite games, very few have playing times much over 6-8 hours. Chrono Trigger comes to mind, but even it is much shorter than the majority of JRPG or western RPGs.

    I guess that’s why I always try and design games that are more procederial. I think Will Wright has the right design philosophy – he doesn’t make games, but toys. Games like the Sims and Sim City are so successful because they don’t have winning conditions. Hell, they don’t even have goals really, only those that you give yourself.

  • Shaf said,

    Two Similar games to Dungeon Master were Bloodwych and Black Crypt. I loved Black Crypt and found it far better than EOB.

  • Calibrator said,

    Simplifying isn’t bad – even for us “core gamers”. It’s like booking an all-inclusive vacation instead of a survival weekend in the woods. Both are fun but there’s a time for both.

    However, CRPGs are IMHO prone for overcomplicating things, as can be assessed without even playing it.
    Just look at the backside of the box (if there still is one…) and be greeted by statistics like these:
    – Map four times as large as [predecessor]!
    – Now with 120 monster types!
    – More than 200 spells!
    – 54 weapons!
    – 16 races!

    As has been said there has to be a balance – and the same applies to the more complicated stuff, even if it’s specifically designed for experienced gamers. In CRPGs it’s the level of world simulation against combat depth against (in the last place) the game mechanics that support the plot.
    There are gamers like myself that like to advance in the story without having to battle or wander around for hours – regardless how detailed combat or the scenery is.
    Variety is what made games like Ultima a success back in the day and I think it still is.
    Clickfests like Diablo always have their place as do the more tactical turn-based strategy-CRPGs but there is a reason why most CRPG players prefers games like Mass Effect or The Witcher…

  • skavenhorde said,

    I actually prefer an overcomplicated game, but I’ll play any type of game as long as it’s fun. My preference is for a game like the Realms of Arkania or Wiz 7 & 8.

    The ROA series was overcomplicated to the extreme and I loved every second of it. From where you had to put on coats if you went into cold climates to your shoes wearing out from wear and tear to the skills and spells. I loved everything about it.

    I also love a good light RPG although they aren’t my preference. Games like Diablo (of course),Ventica or even Borderlands are pretty good at keeping me glued to the computer.

    The thing that disappoints me is when a developer will make a sequel or spiritual sequel and the gameplay is dumbed down immensely. Bioshock is a good example. Fallout 3 also. I liked both of those games well enough I guess, but was very disappointed at what they did with the series.

    I think that Bioshock could have been a little more like SS2 and people would still have loved it, but that is just my opinion which not held with publishers and developers anymore.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    A little bit of consolidation / rebalancing between sequels is fine with me. But I do not want to see the fundamental experience changed.

    The EOB series did get a little stale after a bit, so there’s always the danger of leaving things too simple for too long.