Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Older RPGs: Not That Hard To Play After All?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 24, 2012

Hat tip to GameBanshee for linking this article from Joystiq:

“The Surprising Accessibility of Older RPGs”

The author (Rowan Kaiser) isn’t really giving a pass for all older RPGs. Specifically, he’s referring to Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra. This was actually my (brief) introduction to the Might & Magic series, many years ago. I only played it at a friend’s house, and didn’t play too much of it, but he felt he had to show it off. He told me it was the best computer role-playing game he’d ever played. I took his opinion with a grain of salt, and never quite warmed up to the series until recently, in spite of hearing rave reviews.

Kaiser cites the games simple rules, the silly but inviting world, and the cartoony graphics as reasons why the game remains accessible (read: still easy & fun to play) for a modern audience. Is it? Maybe it’s just him. And me. And Charles Clerc. One thing is certain, though – these games still require you (or maybe that’s just me, again) to RTFM. While the gameplay may be relatively simple (and as I recall, it’s simpler than it was in the first two games), there are still a lot of little “gotchas” that can be pretty confusing without the manual.

But overall, I’d tend to agree that the reputation older RPGs had for being complicated are almost entirely interface issues. Once you have figure out what all the keyboard commands are and how they are supposed to be used (big hint: In Might & Magic 1, you want to search after every combat encounter! Important!), the gameplay is actually pretty simple. Modern games generally do a much better job of adding interesting gameplay choices than their older siblings. There are undoubtedly exceptions (Wizard’s Crown comes to mind, which I never played but enjoy hearing about other people playing it).

There’s one more thing Kaiser mentions that is really worth a blog post or two of its own – (oh, hey, here’s one of mine – and he’s got one too) – an “anything goes” philosophy. What this really boils down to is that modern (single-player) RPGs are too concerned with balance, chokepoints, and maintaining what Kaiser calls “thematic consistency.” These aren’t bad things – and if you are working with a licensed product, much of that may be required.  But sometimes I feel like it’s being done deliberately to retard and control progress so the player neither finishes the game too quickly, nor gets frustrated by getting in over his head.

But sometimes, that’s exactly what’s fun. I didn’t exactly make it a speed-run, but a few months ago I blitzed through Ultima III pretty quickly. I depended a bit on online maps ‘n stuff – I’d done it the hard way once, no need to go through that again. And I did some distinctly “non-roleplaying,” gamey kinds of things like leveling up quickly off of the guards in towns (something Ultima IV inhibits by adding consequences).  You know what? It was a lot of fun! I had a blast. And then in Skyrim, when I was first starting out and only level six or so, I took a pot-shot at a wooly mammoth from a long distance away, not realizing they came with giant protectors. When the giant finally spotted me, he killed me with one shot. I can’t remember the last time I was so entertained by getting my butt kicked like that. Occasionally getting in over your head is fun, too.

And thematic consistency? Well, it’s generally a good thing, but it’s often fun to just cut loose on that front, too. But then I come from an era where my friends all had D&D characters with science fiction blasters from Expedition to the Barrier Peaks where the DM had politely ignored or allowed them to bypass the limitation of the weapons not working outside the area.  Intolerably off-genre! But also fun!

And that’s what it all boils down to. Some days I think those old-school designers really did pack a lot of “fun” into their games that modern designers have forgotten all about, lost amidst memories of confusing interfaces and key commands.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Modran said,

    Recently profiting from an indie bundle, I’ve purchased Devil whiskey (http://www.devilwhiskey.com/) and tested it yesterday.
    It’s designed as a CRPG reminiscing of the Bard’s tale if I understand it correctly (Haven’t played it, but read about it on the CRPG addict (http://crpgaddict.blogspot.fr/) blog).
    I admit I skipped the RTFM part (I’ll look into it later)
    The fact that I needed to create a new party wasn’t a problem. The fact that I had to punch half a dozen letters to create a guy and add it to my party was. The fact that I couldn’t do this with a mouse was.
    The fact that I got into a fight in the very town, 10 paces away from the inn was. The fact that each phase was long and required even more key strokes was. The fact that I got my ass handed to me was also a problem.
    In 20 minutes, I had uninstalled the game.
    I may one day decide to try it again. But there are so many games that feel more “accessible” that it’s not a safe bet.
    It’s a shame. It looked interesting…
    So yeah, throwbacks to old designs can make a game “Hard to play” :S .

  • Xenovore said,

    Accessibility is still an issue with modern games, particularly with a lot of console-to-PC ports. I’ve tried several games that looked pretty cool and might have been fun, but the user interfaces were complete garbage, and the games were soon uninstalled.

    I’ve been telling people this for a long while now, and it applies across the board:

    Doesn’t matter how cool your game is if the UI sucks.

  • Cuthalion said,

    This is amusing to me, as I’m currently programming (after researching) a game UI as my senior project. The reading and testing I’ve had to do for it (and watching my professor try to use it!) have really highlighted for me how important the interface is. If our game comes out, and the interface sucks, I’m going to have some sort of convulsions. 😛

  • Cuthalion said,

    …and then there’s other accessibility concerns, like having both auditory and visual cues for those impaired in one or the other (or who just have to turn the sound off) and using enough contrast in value for colorblind players, making font sizes flexible, allowing control remapping, and the list goes on!

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Totally agree with Xenovore, interface/accessibility is key with any game. If you’re fighting the controls you’re going to struggle to engage with the gameplay and narrative.