An interesting question is whether younger players are fundamentally different than older ones, or whether it's more the case that RPG developers are aiming for wider audiences. I tend to focus more on the latter, but I'm forced to admit the former as a possibility as well. As games mature, we're likely to see more and more generation gaps, with players of bygone eras preferring old-school games that younger players find intolerable for various reasons.
And let's face it. There are aspects of older RPGs that were flawed, inconvenient, or just plain hard to take. And I'm not even talking about the really old computer RPGs like Bard's Tale or Ultima, which even this curmudgeon can't handle. With so many longstanding franchises getting updates this year - Diablo, Elder Scrolls, and the aforementioned Neverwinter, to name a few - it seems like a good time to reflect on some of the ways RPGs have improved in recent years. Consider this a companion piece to last week's cranky post on how RPGs are being dumbed down. Yes, this blog is fair and balanced.
Here, in Internet-mandated list format, are five old-school design features that deserve (perma)death.
|In the days before Carpal Tunnel Syndrome had first been diagnosed, we enjoyed rerolling our DnD characters for hours.|
Sometimes players need to be saved from themselves. I know how idiotic it is to sit in front of a character generation screen rerolling for the perfect ability scores and yet I... just... can't... stop. The next roll could give me the 18/00 Strength I've been looking for!
Dungeons & Dragons games, including the Infinity Engine games and Temple of Elemental Evil, included this option. I suppose it was borne out of good intentions, on the assumption that without it, players would restart the game until they got the scores they wanted. Recent games have a better solution - use a point-buy or point-bonus system, or simply start the PC off with set ability scores and let the player raise them as the character levels up.
2. Demeaning first-level quests
|You want me to fetch a book from a haystack? Seriously? Do you know who my dad is?|
Older RPGs often had in-character tutorials, which meant giving PCs low-pressure quests so that players could get a feel for how things work. These days, RPGs increasingly use popup dialogs and the like to instruct the player - leaving the PC to more heroic work.
It's a good thing, too. The thing about first-level quests is that they happen at the start of the game, when the tone is set and first impressions are made. Not a good time to be giving the PC busywork.
3. Inventory Tetris
|I'm out of inventory space... on the first level!|
The original Diablo and Neverwinter Nights had spacial inventory management, which was a source of much consternation for players. Diablo even had an ever-increasing pile of gold taking up space in your inventory. Hilariously, there was a bug that made it impossible to buy the best armor in the game because the gold required to buy it took up so much space that there wasn't enough room for the armor itself.
Having said all that, I actually like spacial inventories - I think they're more realistic, and far easier to scan because the objects are different sizes. My solution to the inventory conundrum: Give the player sub-inventories (loot bags) to carry all the small stuff in unlimited quantities. And second, but just as important: Don't hand out so much shit.
4. Obligatory puzzles
|If your idea of a good time is cracking open a GRE study guide, then this quest is for you.|
Right about now I'm feeling the icy stare of my fellow curmudgeons-in-arms. Don't get me wrong: A well-designed puzzle at the right time is a treat. The problem is that you don't know if a puzzle is well-designed until you finish it. I've spent so many hours working through bad puzzles (and worse, puzzles that were bugged!) that I've lost faith.
The other issue is that there aren't many scenarios that lend themselves to puzzles. Back when puzzles were obligatory in RPGs, they often felt, well, obligatory.
|Icewind Dale had lots of backtracking, but at least you got to watch your characters (represented by little circles) as they crossed the map. A little muzak would have been nice.|
If you've ever played Icewind Dale, you'll recognize the above screen as the Vale of Shadows. This was a fun area to traverse the first time through. Unfortunately, after the yetis had been cleared out, you had to wait as your characters made the loooong trek back to the area transition on the left side of the screen. And, I'm sure you'll remember, that was after making the loooong trek back through several levels of the tomb you had just cleared.
More recent RPGs generally do a decent job of addressing the issue of backtracking. Neverwinter Nights introduced the portal stone, which was an effective (if inelegant) solution. The Elder Scrolls games have fast travel. But the best solution of all is just better level design. Simply put, if a player has to follow a long, linear path to a destination, that player shouldn't have to follow the same path back. Trudging around with millions of gold pieces in your pocket is tiring.