Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: The Forgettable Fight

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 10, 2013

Maybe it was the link to the Richard Garriott quote last week, or the Matt Chat interviews with Guido Henkel, or… more likely… my current coding and rebalancing of Frayed Knights combat, but I’ve been thinking about combat in RPGs a bit more lately, and how it has changed between the old classics and modern games.

And then something snapped.

u7introI really need to go back and re-play Ultima 7 to completion. Many people – including me – cite it as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. I’m not sure how much the rose-tinted glasses figure into this. But part of me wants to answer this question:

Is Ultima 7 such an awesome RPG in spite of the fact that the combat system sucks, or because the combat sucks?

Maybe some people might argue the combat system doesn’t suck, but I’ve never heard anyone really defend it. I remember getting to the point where it was somewhat manageable, but for the most part it was a hideous real-time brawl with little control over what was going on. I have faint recollections of a couple of fights, but none of them were memorable. The best that could be said is that due to the real-time nature, they were over with pretty quickly.

That’s actually pretty core to the question. Because combat sucked and over so quickly, it wasn’t central to the game.  It wasn’t part of the “main gameplay loop” as it is in most games. It didn’t dominate the gameplay. It was more often an obstacle (and sometimes one to be avoided) – one of many. In effect, the game played much more like an adventure game with stats. It was more about exploration and problem-solving than fighting.

bugSo of course, Origin gave us this gigantic world full of stuff to explore and solve. It was an interesting counterpart to its contemporary competitor Wizardry 7, which also seemed to have a pretty huge world – and lots of fighting.

The modern trend in RPGs – especially mainstream – seems to be on focusing on combat as the primary gameplay activity. Hey, I’m just as guilty with my own designs. The assumption is that if the combat sucks, nothing else matters.  Yet we have a pretty compelling counter-argument in Ultima 7 that this isn’t necessarily true.

I have played a lot of RPGs lately where it feels like all the other things that can be done in an RPG are merely brief interludes between fights. At the extreme, you have the Diablo-style games which are about very little more than killing and looting.

driftmoon2I’ve been playing a few little indie RPGs lately off-and-on – revisiting The Real Texas, Driftmoon, and some others – and maybe that’s where some of this stuff has entered my thought process. I could argue that both games do combat far better than Ultima 7 did. Both use real-time systems. But both seem to have a far greater emphasis on exploration and problem-solving that most modern RPGs. The Real Texas maybe takes this to an extreme – for me, there’s a lot of wandering around interacting with stuff trying to figure out what I should do next.

I definitely love a good, deep, challenging combat system. If I played an RPG where every combat was as interesting an encounter as a battle in XCom (either the new or the old, I’m not fussed), I’d be really happy. But that would also require, in my mind, that fights should be fewer and further between, with lots of really interesting, fun things to do in-between those epic encounters.

Has combat been over-emphasized in RPGs? If so, it’s hardly a new problem. But perhaps what’s needed to push the boundaries even further is not an emphasis on making the fights more interesting and tactical with lots of ever-more spectacular weapons and armor to turn the tide of battle in your favor, but rather breaking outside of the comfort zone on everything else. After all, the success and reverence given Ultima 7 is based almost entirely upon everything else.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 15 Comments to Read



  • Eldiran said,

    Yeah, Ultima VII definitely had a terrible combat system. It’s really more of a combat button than a combat system :P

    And yet, even though I love tactically deep games, Ultima VII is one of my favorite games ever.

    I think another good example is Baldur’s Gate II. This may be a heretical opinion, but I don’t feel the combat in that game is very good. It’s imbalanced, overly complex, filled with gotcha attacks and instant-death scenarios, and is heavily luck based. Save-scumming is mandatory. And yet Baldur’s Gate II is one of the most acclaimed RPGs of all time.

    I’d argue these games would still be improved by a better combat system. Although I agree that when combat is an in-depth affair, fights should be less frequent. (Which, happily, leads to a more believable game world as well!)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    BG2 runs a close second in my book to favorite RPG of all time. And yeah. I loved the system because I was such a big D&D player, but a game like BG2 really showed just how many holes were in the system. But it was the game that came the closest to recapturing the magic of Ultima 7 for me. It wasn’t as interactive, but it had a very huge, rich world full of story and stuff. They did an amazing job.

    I do remember the dragon fights in BG2 though – man. They started out feeling epic, and by the end of the game I was, like, “Oh, crap, not another tedious dragon fight!”

  • Eldiran said,

    Oh yeah, definitely. Dragon fighting felt very heroic until it eventually devolved into setting traps all around the dragon, buffing Minsc into a god, and then just hiding in the corner while Minsc and the dragon slugged it out :P

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I have thought for years that RPGs focus too much on combat. Perhaps my love for Quest for Glory, Ultima, Baldur’s Gate and Fallout colours this view quite a lot.

    I remember having high hopes for Oblivion to capture that U7 magic, but the endless dreary combat just ended up making me bored and frustrated. The combat was getting in the way of the good parts, rather than being an interesting part of the game (see also, Fallout 3 and New Vegas).

    Eldiran made a brilliant point though, less frequent fights can be made far more significant. Age of Decadence looks to move in that direction, with fighting in general being mostly optional if you create a certain type of character (or alternatively, make a fighter and have more fights!).

    In another recent example, one reason for choosing turn-based combat for the new Torment game was that the fights would be fewer and more significant. They want to drastically reduce the amount of “trash mobs”, and focus on things that suit the systems and narrative.

    There does seem to be a lot of success with the likes of Mass Effect and Fallout 3 going for the shooter demographic, and perhaps that heavy combat approach is just something that a large proportion of gamers want. Remove or reduce the combat to a significant degree and you may also lose that market.

  • Infinitron said,

    Not sure how you can say that the Baldur’s Gate series isn’t combat-centric.

  • Maklak said,

    I think combat is often just an overrated filler. And yeah, that goes for Frayed Knights too, but you explained it fairly well that if there wasn’t so much of it, the game would be far shorter.

    I generally dislike the concepts of experience per kill, balance, progressing zones with level-adequate challenge levels and other DnD stuff.

    I liked combats in Fallout 1. They were quick. Fallout 2 had too many and Fallout Tactics was way too tedious.

    I don’t like having to solve all my character’s problems with violence and killing hundreds if not thousands enemies spawning in waves and always going forward in a narrow canyon is something of an immersion breaker.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I don’t think we were saying Baldur’s Gate wasn’t combat-centric, just that the combat system was not great.

    I wasn’t really saying that Frayed Knights had too much combat (but, well, okay… yeah, I guess it did… :) ), but I was certainly very focused on the combat system for that one, operating under the belief that good combat was critical to making it a good RPG. I’m still refining and improving it right now (with all-new ground-up code), but I definitely want to make sure there’s more going on than just fighting. I think I did pretty well in the first game in that respect.

    The funny thing about XP per kill is that waaaaay back in the old 1E and pre-1E days, it was *intended* (more-or-less, according to Gygax) as a more secondary way of obtaining experience. The main form of XP – particularly at low levels – was for loot. This was an early version of “quest XP” – with a rudimentary form of built-in balance. That’s why so much loot in those early modules was hidden, disguised, locked away in trapped areas, etc. If you killed the dragon and took its loot, you got XP for both. But if you fooled the dragon and took it’s loot, you’d still get mondo XP.

    But a lot of people disliked the idea of getting XP for loot, not recognizing what it was really for. So they ignored that rule. And then old 1E D&D had a reputation for being very combat-centric and *SLOOOOW* to level. Getting to 2nd or 3rd level on combat alone (especially since the game was so deadly) was an arduous process.

  • Void said,

    Don’t forget Arcanum – second great RPG game with horrible combat. I can’t believe that it was released after the Fallout.

  • Anon said,

    The *big* problem with Arcanum wasn’t the combat but that it was filled with bugs…

    For combat-centric RPGs take a good look at console RPGs, especially those of the SNES-era like Chrono Trigger, which is still *highly* acclaimed.
    I’m following a playthrough series of it on YT at the moment and there are way too many random encounters to make the game appealing to me.
    While the game has a very nice presentation with great tile & character graphics, soundtrack and the usual standard super-deformed JRPG design (matter of taste) the respawning of tedious(!) enemies and the flashy combat effects are somewhat dizzying. I’m often fast forwarding the “action parts” to get a good grasp of the story and the more interesting (to me) elements.
    No wonder those games last for 80+ hrs – even with their relatively small, barely interactive worlds.
    I’d rather play through Skyrim again than enter the wacky world of random JRPG encounters!

    As far as U7 goes I’m sharing the same opinion with Jay: It’s my favorite RPG but not because of the combat, which I remember as not very good, either.
    It is a combat system of “good intentions” (semi-intelligent party members weren’t really common at the time) but missed its target by quite a margin. Back then it was usually either complete control over all party members. Can’t go wrong with that, can’t you?

    There were a whole lot of other design errors or simply oversights (like the armada of keys on has to collect), which they in part corrected in Serpent’s Isle (the key ring, for example) or the horrenduous memory manager. I had no significant problems with it but others weren’t so lucky back then.
    Funnily, when I tried to replay U7 with Exult the game crashed at me several times until I gave up (this was years ago, though).

    Back to combat:
    The best combat I had in the Ultima games was in U4 and U5 – the small arenas with your party vs. them and the simple targeting mechanism. It was simple to grasp, you had complete control and the fights were still challenging sometimes.

    Everything that came after that was either worse or not even comparable (U8/U9).

  • arisian said,

    I think one of the things about “old-school” combat systems that people tend to forget was that the fun, interesting, tactical part generally happened outside of combat proper. Yes, the systems were horribly broken and imbalanced; the fun part was figuring out how to exploit the system to build a character who could win anyway. Whether you would win in combat was less about choices made during combat (i.e. tactics), and more about the choices you made before combat (carefully stacking skills, equipment, and buffs, readying spells, positioning your characters correctly, etc.).

    In games like Baldur’s Gate, the “fun” part of combat was character building, which was essentially a puzzle game. In creating combat systems that are fair, balanced, auto-leveled, etc. that puzzle game has mostly gone away (the whole point of a “balanced” system is that there is no such thing as a build that automatically wins, so the “puzzle” can’t be solved).

    Now I’m not suggesting that we go back to creating broken combat systems; I’m just trying to explain part of what made those games fun. It’s hard to imagine having that type of system be fun in the modern era, in part because you can just go look up the solution to the “puzzle” on a wiki, so the challenge is gone. In any case, I think this is another argument that the “fun” part of those older RPGs happened outside of combat proper, which is why the fact that combat wasn’t terribly good didn’t ruin the games.

  • 124c41 said,

    I never finished the first Dragon Age because of the combats. The combat system was ok, though I felt it lacked balance between classes. Problem was: I wanted to experience the story, but the game kept shoving encounters in my way – not very interesting encounters also. Eventually it became so tedious I just stopped playing. Sometimes less is indeed more.

  • Anon said,

    Good points!
    I’m suffering from this I-want-to-know-what-happens-next-but-have-to-fight-stupid-imps-again syndrome, too.

    I also hate it when I have to wander a corridor twice and can’t circumvent a fight – especially if it happens a second time because the enemies respawned!

    Respawning enemies are one thing, but respawning in the *same* spot can only be justified by limited hardware (of older consoles without harddisk). Any PC game that uses this because of sloppy programming or forced grinding get’s uninstalled. I have not time for such stuff anymore.

    Give me new locations (or drastically changed ones) and new fights in those places, surprise me with interesting enemies and/or enemy combinations (doing combo attacks…), test me with better enemy A.I. – but don’t bore me and steal my time by serving me exactly the same!

  • ShadowTiger said,

    I really like the combat in BG 1/2, though Icewind Dale takes it up a notch. If you play on the higher difficulties it can be very brutal and it requires you to use every trick in the book to survive without losses.

    I really liked the style of combat in Betrayal at Krondor. I also liked that you could sneak up on enemies to ambush them, or avoid them entirely.

    Arcanum was pretty fun overall if you play turn based mode, though it was pretty slow.

    I can’t think of some tactical combat that was really exceptional though, that is partially why I am designing a game that should satisfy that craving (mixture of D&D and X-Com.

  • Alex said,

    I actually just finished Ultima 7 for the first time last monday. Such a fun game.

    Coyote, what did you think about having to feed your characters? It kind of annoyed me at first they had to eat what seemed like every few minutes, but I realized that there was a pretty good benefit to it. For example, if I didn’t have any meat stored in any of the party member’s backpacks, I would have to go out hunting, and along the way I would discover new caves to explore, or maybe a little tower that could only be entered by activating a switch with the telekinesis spell. Really added to discovery and exploration which made U7 more fun.

  • Olivoist said,

    IMO combat has an overgrown place in RPGs and I don’t mind cutting the combats down (cheats and so) if they are too long or difficult, so I can focus my play time on the story and the world.
    For example I love to be able to play games like Ultima 5 Lazarus in Easy Mode in order to avoid the waste of time and frustration of the fights. The rest of the game (story, discussions, quests) is still exactly the same and the whole experience even more enjoyable IMO.

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