Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 4

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 21, 2010

Okay, it’s time to wrap up this series on the lessons in RPG design that I learned from CRPGs over the years. Four parts is plenty. I’m gonna have to skip a lot more games in this part, but the truth of the matter is that as the era gets later, I’m having trouble identifying games that I found personally very influential. It’s not that they were all identical – far from it – but it does feel like they retreated to safer territory along trails blazed by their predecessors.

That, or they just haven’t been validated by time yet, and so I am just not fairly giving them their due. Either way – here’s the last group of CRPGs (so far) to warp my brain. If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, you can click on these links to see  part 1, part 2, and part 3.

The Elder Scrolls Series: From these games I learned both the joy and limitations of procedural content generation. The bizarre thing for me is the realization that while the games have unquestionably advanced and improved in every measurable way, they’ve also become a little less compelling for me to explore with each iteration. I’m still trying to figure out the lesson to be learned there. Though I did learn what it really takes to be a bloodthirsty assassin.

Diablo (& Diablo 2): These games taught me three lessons:

  1. Crack really is available in digital form,
  2. Persistent characters in a multiplayer environment is actually pretty cool,
  3. Dungeon-delving with friends online is extremely fun and cool, but…
  4. … any stranger you game with online is 98% likely to be a total douchebag, or a total idiot.

Suikoden and Final Fantasy VII: These games were my first and second foray into the console  jRPG arena, respectively, and I was a jaded Professional Game Developer™ by this time. As a hardcore western game fan, I had been more than just skeptical about these goofy-looking, “cute” Japanese imports. When I finally played these games for myself, I learned that while they violated nearly everything I expected a CRPG to be, they were still a compelling style of RPG.

But I also figured out something even more important. It was pretty easy to tell (back then) that these games had Ultima III in their family tree. But they were as different from the early Ultima games as… well, the contemporary western cRPGs. You had several western cRPGs representing different evolutionary branches, and then these jRPGs going off in a totally different direction… how many unexplored potential variations could we have? These games gave me a glimpse of just how broad this little genre could really be.

EverQuest – The reason I have avoided World of Warcraft like the plague. From this I learned that even the most banal, context-free, repetitive gameplay can be like CRACK when you can experience it with friends, and get cool persistent toys that you can show ’em off in a shared world.

Baldur’s Gate II (and the whole rest of the “Infinity Engine” series) – This game (and its relatives) very nearly toppled Ultima VII from its throne in my mind. One day I’ll have to play both games back-to-back in a real face-off.  I don’t know if it really taught me anything new, but it really did validate many of the lessons of Ultima VII to me – a big, fairly open world.  TONS and TONS of things to do (though the world wasn’t nearly as interactive). Quests on every streetcorner. Story pretty much everywhere.  These are Good Things.

Fallout 1 & 2:  As a latecomer to these games, the lesson I learned was a hard one about the nature of the mainstream games business rather than game design. You see, I assumed that the critical and commercial success of Fallout would lead to more games of its kind, as publishers attempted to follow its success. More hardcore RPGs, more turn-based RPGs, more non-fantasy settings, more open-ended world design with pretty notable consequences for your meaningful decisions, all that awesome stuff.

I was wrong. Publishers don’t generally follow just any success. They seek to follow – and overtake – the biggest dogs of the field. I don’t know Fallout’s sales numbers, but I am pretty sure they were in a whole different league than Diablo. Guess which game ended up representing the “evolution” of the genre in the minds of the guys in the suits?

Note – since becoming an indie, I have become much more business-oriented. I understand the suits, and in theory might even agree with their decision – for them. But as an indie, I say, “Why get into a massive, expensive battle royale over the biggest slice of the pie when there are these smaller but still substantial slices that almost nobody is calling dibs on?”

Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption – From this game, I learned that a well-realized, flavorful setting, atmosphere,  and a reasonably intriguing plot (plus a groundbreaking – if buggy – multiplayer system) can cover (masquerade?) a multitude of flaws.  And boy, this game had flaws.  Didn’t matter. I had a blast playing it anyway.

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines – Ditto on what I said for VtM: Redemption. This one also taught me the value of a really kick-butt ending (one of the several was – *spoiler warning* – Teh Awesome ). If the player sticks through to the very end of the game, the ending is what sticks with him  and leaves the lasting impression. Make it a great one, devs!

Final Fantasy XII – I’ve never finished this one. It was tedious. Which is a lesson all of its own. If your game (and story) is too packed with ” filler,” or if you go overboard in the beginning of the game with hand-holding the player, the best production values and biggest budget and most famous name brand won’t save your game from being a tedious, boring mess that alienates players.

Persona 3 (&4): After FF XII, these games restored my faith in the potential for Japanese RPGs to deliver an outstanding and off-beat RPG experience. Like most jRPGs, these games were highly linear along the principle plotline.

Wizardry 8: I was a latecomer to this one, too.  One lesson I took away was that even the best combat systems can become tedious if they are too plentiful, random, and lengthy. Maybe I shoulda learned that in the Gold Box days, but if so, I forgot. Most of the lessons I took away from the game can be found in my final write-up on my Wizardry 8 play-though. The most important lesson I took away from Wizardry 8, I think, is that the old-school RPG approach so often lampooned by modern gaming journalists were still fun in 2001, and were still fun to me several years later. Maybe not as popular with the mainstream crowd, but still fun.

And, ending with some indie games:

Avernum Series: Spiderweb Software’s been carrying the torch since before anybody came up with the term, “indie game developer.” From these, I learned that the indies still got what the mainstream game publishers have lost.

Nethack – From this game, I learned that there are legions of gamers who are way more hard-core than me.

Depths of Peril: While not a ginormous commercial success, Depths of Peril enjoyed significant critical praise (some of it from me), and earned a devoted following (and I’m happy to note that Din’s Curse followed in its predecessor’s footsteps, and may be the better game) . But DoP taught me that there is a hell of a lot more that could be done with the RPG genre if developers have the cajones to experiment, break new ground, and use established and successful past games not as a template for game design, but merely as a foundation to build and expand upon.

Cute Knight (Deluxe): From Cute Knight Deluxe, I learned that I am manly enough to not feel threatened getting in touch with my feminine side if the game is fun enough to warrant it. And judging from the success of this game and the Aveyond series, I learned that there is apparently a big potential market out there for RPGs among people – women and men – who probably wouldn’t know what the term “role-playing game” means. They don’t care about the terminology – all that matters is that these games are FUN.

So there you go. A whole slew of RPGs – most good, some bad, some in-between – which had an influence on me. And others, based on the comments I’ve received on this series of posts. Trivial and silly as it may sound, but most games take significantly more investment on my part than any movie, TV show, book, painting, or music, which gives ’em equal or greater cred in my mind with any of the aforementioned media for corrupting my youth and twisting my head.

For which I’m grateful.


The Rest of this Article Series:

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 1

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 2

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 3

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • modran said,

    A cool wrap-up article, and on my birthday too :p.

    I’m still a newbie board game designer, and even though I try to go farther than just “playing” a game, I’m still unable to extract WHAT exactly I learn from a game or another…

    I should spend some time doing this. Might learn some things from it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, hey, Happy Birthday!

    Some of the “lessons learned” were kinda silly, of course, but even so they weren’t entirely tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes I worry that my opinion of newer games might be too tainted by the lessons I learned from the old-school. But I dunno.

  • Hunt said,

    Oh wow, feel like I’ve played the majority of the games mentioned. I can remember playing in the late 80’s a game called Moria, which I believe may be a derivative of Nethack. Looks the same anyway, have to kill the Balrog (Capital B) at the end. Very addictive when procrastinating what you actually should have been doing.

    Also, IMO the predecessor Everquest, the MUD, or the type I played, a diku MUD. How many countless hours I wasted on those things. Damn the guy beside me for introducing me to those! Haha.

    Funny how back in the day there were games I never finished. Not for lack of trying, would just get stuck and give up. A really old one I remember like that was ‘Alternate Reality’. Think it was around Bard’s Tale I vintage. Loved that game but got stuck. Think it has a bug that wouldn’t allow you to progress, or maybe you needed an add-on or something. Brings back some memories.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, yeah, Moria was the first roguelike (if you don’t count early RPGs that were all kinda roguelike) I ever got into – Moria. About 1991, for me. Spent many hours in those dungeons!