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.
I 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.
So 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.
I’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.
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