Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Going Big When You Are Small

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 22, 2012

I’ve had a few discussions with friends over the last couple of weeks about RPG design, revisiting past ideas, etc.  Those inspired yesterday’s post. And today’s post. But what really drove something home was this RPG Codex interview with gaming legend Jon Van Caneghem, creator of the Might & Magic series and founder of New World Computing. It is, in some ways, the answer to yesterday’s call to do more than just imitate the past.

A little background: Might & Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen, and Might & Magic V: Darkside of Xeen were two separate games in the classic RPG series released in 1992 and 1993 respectively. I remember the buzz when Darkside of Xeen was released. In a move never before seen (and not really seen again, unless you include expansion packs & DLC) – you could combine both games into one giant mega-game that allowed you to move between the two worlds, and included additional content not available in either game separately. It even offered an additional ending. Sure, it might have been a little gimmicky, but it was also pretty cool… and it had to be planned out in advance in developing the first game.

In the RPG Codex interview, Van Caneghem says of the feature, “I thought to myself as a player, what would be cool if a new version of this game comes out, so I came up with the crazy combining scheme that would be magical to the consumer. This was a monumental task especially in those days. But I thought it was an amazing idea and we keep working on the concept until we figured out how to do it. Thank you for recognizing that feature, we were very proud of that accomplishment and to this day I don’t think anyone has repeated it.”

Here’s the thing: This was not really a technology-driven feature. This wasn’t “checkbox innovation.” This wasn’t an obligatory feature copied from previous best-selling titles demanded by a marketing department. It probably didn’t deliver the biggest bang for the development buck. And while I call it kinda gimmicky, this wasn’t just some marketing gimmick cooked up to give the magazines something to chat about (though it did do that). But it really was a feature created to delight the player. It was audacious and cool and a nice reward for the fans.

As I said, this wasn’t technology-driven. It didn’t require the latest cutting-edge hardware to become viable. While it consumed more resources (and forethought) in building — planning ahead by a full game is tough to do — this wasn’t an effort that required a vastly larger team and a bloated budget. In short, it was the kind of innovation – uniqueness – that would be within the grasp of any indie team today.

I’m not suggesting indies start developing games with planned interoperability with sequels. It’s been done. I’m saying this is the kind of lateral thinking that indies should embrace. This was a big idea that didn’t require a big budget to build.

Indies can totally do that. Big doesn’t need to be expensive. It just has to be audacious.

Filed Under: Design, Indie Evangelism, Retro - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Andrew Wooldridge said,

    After reading this, I was reminded of this article I read last week about striving beyond just incrementalism: http://joelrunyon.com/two3/an-unexpected-ass-kicking

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, yeah. That was an awesome story.

  • Anon said,

    Van Caneghem is to be applauded for his games. However, he apparantly was clever enough to not aim too high with these two games.

    Other people like Philip Price & Datasoft were a bit too optimistic and perhaps too far ahead of their time in their days. See the Alternate Reality debacle, seven modules with a central hub planned, two realised.

    Perhaps it was the poor decision to do it on the Atari 8-bit platform first (not exactly a well-known CRPG platform at the time) but Price was an Atari lover so it was understandable to some degree.
    The really poor decision on his side was to make the central hub (the city) essentially a very beautiful but hard Bard’s Tale clone without dungeons and try to sell the latter separately.
    This is like selling a Ferrari with a V12 but without seats and wheels and no wonder people stayed away.
    You can’t deny Price innovation, though.

  • Xenovore said,

    @Anon: “Bard’s Tale clone?” Hardly. The game-play was completely different from Bard’s Tale! For one, Alternate Reality was definitely a sandbox RPG, Bard’s Tale was not. Also, the game mechanics were considerably different.

    As for The City, you said it yourself: the intent of the City was to be the foundation for the rest of the game. But to say it was a “poor decision” to design it that way? You can say that in hindsight, but at that time how could anyone know that the series wasn’t going to work out the way Price envisioned?

    I blame Datasoft more than Price for Alternate Reality’s failure to gain traction. E.g. there was absolutely no technical reason not to keep The Dungeon compatible with The City, as originally planned. (Or to release The Dungeon as part of The City, for that matter.) But Datasoft pretty much went out of their way to make The Dungeon stand-alone.

    Ok, so if we’re going to assign any blame to Phillip Price, it’s that he failed to maintain creative control of his IP. Somewhere along the line, Datasoft took over, and the game was effectively doomed.

    So that’s really the key difference here: Van Caneghem maintained control of his IP and went on to create a very successful RPG series. I think if Price had done the same, The Alternate Reality games would have become equally successful. I certainly would have continued playing, had there been more.

  • Audacious Features said,

    […] by Rampant Coyote on September 10, 2012 Last month’s article, “Going Big When You Are Small,” was inspired by the discussion about the ability for Might & Magic 4 & 5 to […]