Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 15, 2010

So if you will indulge me a bit more on this bit of naval-gazing, I’m going to continue to cover a fairly a fairly subjective discussion about how my opinions of gaming and game design were shaped (or warped and twisted) by various CRPGs (and a couple non-CRPGs) over the decades. It’s a good thing my parents didn’t know what kind of damage was being done to me back in the 1980’s!

The Infocom Games: Okay, these were also not RPGs, but the most famous text adventure games outside of Colossal Cave Adventure. The Zork series, Starcross, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Suspendedyou can play many of them here. But here is an interesting point… I only finished Zork I. Well, okay, “won” not “finished.” I died many times in all of the games, and eventually after being stumped and eaten by grues so many times one of those deaths or failures ended up being my last, and I was finished.  There were a couple of things these games impressed upon me. Once again, as in Colossal Cave and Apshai, I was impressed by the power of written, descriptive text to make a world come alive, and to make it seem like anything was possible. Text isn’t used much in games anymore, and I’ve personally noticed that sometimes I love to read the text in games, and other times I grow very impatient with it. I’m not sure what accounts for the difference.

I also learned how frustrated I could get with the illusory freedom of text parsers.

But a bigger lesson I learned from these games (slowly, after much banging-of-my-head in frustration) that is quite applicable to RPG and other game  design was how quickly apparent lack-of-progress saps my will to continue playing a game. This is perhaps why I like RPGs so much – if you get stymied, you can often go back to a dangerous place and do a bit of grinding for cash and experience. If nothing else, gives you something to do which provides you with SOME progress while you chew on ways to overcome your latest challenge. But an extra level and a few more healing potions and fireball scrolls acquired from some grinding may often be exactly what you need to overcome your latest challenge. So there’s less of a feeling of being up against a brick wall.

Ultima III: Exodus – Wow.  Just… wow. I’m not sure where to begin on this one. I had dreams about this game even after I finished it.  Talking about it is kinda like talking about one’s first kiss. It’s weird speaking about a game with this kind of seriousness, but I lived in this world part-time for many, many weeks. Origin later took on the motto, “We create worlds,” and it certainly seemed applicable.

I hadn’t played the previous games (still haven’t, for longer than about fifteen minutes, anyway), so this was my first exposure to Ultima beyond seeing really cool ads in magazines. While I enjoyed some previous CRPGs because they were “like playing D&D on the computer,” Ultima III was awesome for its own sake.

Still, time has a way of dimming memories, so it’s hard for me to be certain on all the ways Ultima III spoiled me. But here is a little bit of a laundry list:

#1 – Exploration on a massive scale is Good. You had towns to explore. You had overland travel. You had sea travel. You could experiment with moongates. You had dungeons to delve.  And then there was Ambrosia. The game kept unfolding and showing you Yet More. It was Big. And there was stuff there…

#2 – Exceptions are the Rule – Fighting your umpteenth orc or finding chests of Yet More Gold is okay for making up the meat of a game, but the real fun comes from discovering something new and exceptional that violates the same-ol’ same-ol’ that you’ve become accustomed to. Like a city that only appears when both moons are in their new phase. Or seeing a giant two-tile sea serpent (silver snake) just sitting there, blocking an entrance to an island. Or taking your ship INTO one of those annoying ship-eating whirlpools. Or… uh, being attacked by floor tiles. A nice, steady flow of surprises, secrets, exceptions, strangeness, and the occasional game-changer is what keeps a game exciting. What’s more – as the player starts discovering some of these things, his mental image of the game-world is that it is chock full of  ’em – more than there really are. The player’s imagination will begin to fill in gaps and holes and make the world come alive far beyond the talents of any team of game developers.

#3 – Keep the world Mysterious. Probably one of my strongest memories of the game was when I first discovered the Silver Serpent in the middle of the ocean. At that point, I had no explanation, no understanding that it was one of the end-game challenges. As the game unfolded, I eventually learned its purpose and how to get past it… but for weeks of playing, it was simply one of many unknown mysteries which enriched the world for me. The moongates were another mystery, though they were easier to tease out.  Little things like this really helped make the game come alive and feel “epic” in a way the older RPGs did not.

#4 – Giving XP to the one character who landed the death-blow SUCKS. ‘Nuff said.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar – This one had everything the Ultima III had, and more. And better. And exceeded. It was a far more satisfying experience that Ultima III. But my mind had already been blown by its predecessor, so my expectations were already high, and I guess I was somewhat inoculated against  the full brunt of its awesomeness.  But besides reinforcing my experiences with the third game, Ultima IV taught me that conversations with NPCs could be an interesting part of an RPG; that progressing through the game by maxing out virtues could be almost as fun as kicking butt; and that a non-combat conclusion could be just as satisfying as offing a Foozle.

Not every CRPG I played in this time made quite an impression on me. I remember playing a couple more (like Gateway to Apshai, one of the many early action-RPGs that game reviewers and designers alike tend to forget existed prior to Diablo) that were fun and entertaining, but I don’t really think they made any kind of lasting impression on me.

And after this, I left the Commodore 64 behind. In Part 3 will continue with my training in the School of Hard Dungeons with the early 90s, and three more Ultima games that shaped how I view all RPGs now, and the appearance of “Real” Dungeons & Dragons on the PC…

The Rest of this Article Series:

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 1

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 3

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 4


Filed Under: General - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • Lilith said,

    You never forget your first…

    …Ultima game. Ultima VII: The Serpent Isle was mine and what a mind warper that was. Still influences me to this day, so I know how you feel!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – while far from my first, Ultima VII: The Black Gate remains my favorite CRPG of all time. Just barely.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Ultima VII: Serpent Isle was my “mysterious awesome adventure”. I had read about and seen the other Ultima’s, so I didn’t get that feeling of unknown thrill until I got to a game I hadn’t known existed.

    The measure of a game that blows you away and sucks you in is that you play the entire night and only realize it when you feel the dawn’s light upon you.

  • Aelfric said,

    Ultima III was also my first of the series, and I love it to this day, despite how punishingly hard getting some of those marks can be. I also, of course, liked Ultima IV, but I guess I am a luddite in the sense that forced, overarching stories leave me cold for the most part. I didn’t want to be the avatar, I wanted to be whoever I wanted to be, to be tautological about it. I loved the class choices in Ultima III (even though most of them boiled down to “warrior with a little bit of magic”). I don’t begrudge anyone their story-heavy RPGs, I just prefer the uber-old-school approach, I guess. If I want to play through wizardry with a party composed entirely of Clerics, that’s what I’ll do, dad-gummit. Anyway, love this retrospective series, and it’s eerie how similar our formative experiences were (even though you have a couple of years on me–no offense!).

  • Badger said,

    I still remember the song matt and I made up about Ultima III, “The Bradle bunch”

  • Theo said,

    I think Bard’s Tale I was my first followed by Centauri Alliance but it was really Wasteland and Pool of Radiance (all on C64) that blew my mind and corrupted me forever. I’m almost ashamed to say that I’ve never played an Ultima game though I’ve really meant to. Played Ultima IX for 1 dungeon I think and that sucked.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, I never ended up playing U9 either – The most charitable comment I’ve heard about was something like, “Well, it wasn’t as bad as people say.”

  • WCG said,

    Ultima IV, Wasteland, Pool of Radiance (all the SSI Gold Box games, really) – those are why I got hooked on RPGs.

  • Stu said,

    It was Ultima III for me as well. Its hard to put the awesome in words. I had a notebook that listed every character in the game and everything they said, every word response. maps you name it. Ultima III, Questron II, Wasteland, Pool of Radiance, Rogue. My 5 corner stones.

  • J J said,

    My experience with Ultima III is the same as Aelfric’s. He sums it up very well “I didn’t want to be the avatar, I wanted to be whoever I wanted to be”. Summer of 1984, all summer long. I had no aching desire to finish U3, but to play it and get the most out of it. The music (Atari 8bit) was fantastic, the exploration very rewarding, the battles fun every time. Besides Ultima III, Dungeon Master on the Amiga is another truly beyond epic RPG in my 33+ years of gaming.

  • Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part IV said,

    […] you haven’t read the previous installments yet, you can click on these links to see  part 1, part 2, and part […]

  • Quick Preview: Inaria said,

    […] me, this is a good thing. On the nostalgic side, Ultima III was the CRPG that “blew my mind” and made me fall in love with the genre. While fairly simple by today’s standards, it felt […]