Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 24, 2012
I’m going to make a confession. This is a big one, coming from a designer of an “old-school style” CRPG, and from a guy who’s constantly harping on the joys of old-school gaming.
I don’t know what the hell “old-school” means.
Sure, I was there playing these old classics when they were new, and I still play some of them today (Hey, I just re-played Ultima III a few months ago!) I remember clearly when The Bard’s Tale was the hot new thing. I was reading “behind the scenes” articles in magazines and books when the big players of the era seemed like they’d be pumping out RPGs until the end of time … and are now long shuttered. I’ve chatted with some of these guys at length at GDC (back when it was called CGDC, even). But that doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking about.
And sure, I’ve got my own little pet ideas, but they apparently conflict with other people’s ideas, so apparently I don’t really understand what it means. That, or old-school is in the eye of the beholder.
For example… turn-based vs. real-time (or “action”). Action-based, “real-time” RPGs have been with us for a very, very long time. I like to refer back to Gateway to Apshai, published in 1983 (yeah, over a decade before Diablo), which was pure action-arcade-RPG. You had the trappings of an RPG, gathering loot and gaining levels as you used the joystick to do action-based battle against pixellated bad-guys. We can also go back to Ultima III or Telengard, two of the earliest CRPGs I ever played. These were “real-time turn-based” if that makes any sense. You had time limits to choose your actions. Worse, the only “pause” command was getting into some input loop where the games were asking for additional details or confirmation of your action.
So really, as far as I’m concerned, and as much as I like to refer to “turn-based” games as “old school”, the truth of the matter is that both have been with us about as long as we’ve had commercial CRPGs. There’s absolutely nothing inherently new or improved or better about action-based gaming. And there were absolutely no technical limitations preventing RPGs from being real-time / action based back in the day, Mr. Findley. (Hopefully he’s repented of that attitude now that they’re working on Wasteland 2). There were lots of action-RPGs back then.
I guess I’m echoing Rowan Kaiser here, which was not my intention. But the variety runs the gamut. Perspective? We had top-down, first-person, iso, side-scrolling, hybrids, and variations like crazy. Even many games that changed perspective when combat started. Complexity? You’ve got dirt-simple titles from back in the day that makes the most “dumbed-down” modern offerings seem like piloting the space shuttle by comparison. And then you have some pretty awesomely over-the-top tactical stuff, like SSI’s Wizard’s Crown. And humongously detailed systems with tons of dynamic-generated content and gazillions of factions, like Daggerfall. And everything in-between. Old-school games had you exploring a single, open-ended dungeon. Or an open-ended world. Or led you along a very constrained path, level-by-level.
We can’t even agree about a time-period for “old-school.” Maybe it’s my age, but I still have a tough time thinking of any game published in a year that begins with a “2” as “old-school.” It’s like… for me, you take the history of commercial computer games, which for me begins around 1979, and mark it at the halfway point between then and now – which would be about 1996 – and set that as the “old-school” demarcation. Yeah, I’ll give it a little bit of extra slosh, but I have a tough time thinking of a game like Oblivion as old-school. Friggin’ kids. Plus, as I’m a retro-gamer who is still playing older games for the first time (I just recently finished Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords), I have a tough time thinking of some of these games as being all that old.
When I talk old-school, I tend to talk about the classic games that I personally played, which included some classics as well as some stinkers. Back then, I didn’t worry about whether Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse was a “real” RPG or not. Hardly anybody worried about that until the “boom” of RPGs hit its peak in the early 90s and then started contracting. Sure, you occasionally had an article explaining the difference between the two popular genres, RPGs vs. Adventure Games. How quaint that seems now. Really – it was all good. Except when it was bad. When did we start worrying so hard about what box we fit these games into, anyway? And how did that happen?
So you wanna know what “old-school” means? Maybe it means all the amazing variety of game styles that used to be sold but are no longer “in vogue” amongst mainstream publishers. Instead, they’ve narrowed their scope down to just a tiny handful of crowd-pleasing styles that they keep trying to perfect. But as the whole “mainstream publishing” thing is also losing relevance (at least for PC development), I don’t even understand how important that really is anymore.
I’m still going to refer to some of the things I do as “old-school,” but like the word “indie,” it’s really just a poor shorthand to potential players to reset expectations. But old is the new new. Or something like that.
But really, I still don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
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