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20 RPGs Every Game Designer Should Play @ Gamasutra

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20 RPGs Every Game Designer Should Play @ Gamasutra

Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Wed 18 February 2015, 23:05:09

Tags: Baldur's Gate; Dragon Quest; Final Fantasy; Gold Box; Might and Magic; Nethack; Pokemon; Quest for Glory; The Elder Scrolls; Ultima; Wizardry

UPDATE: The article in question is from 2009. I blame felipepepe and my short attention span! Still, I found it pretty interesting. Plus, turns out John Harris has just announced that his monthly roguelike column @Play will be returning, after 4 years of inactivity.

Felipepepe's new home away from home, Gamasutra, has a really long article by one John Harris, entitled "Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs" (that every game designer should play). Read it here. It goes through the more famous RPG series, both Western and Japanese, starting with Wizardry, which, being a Wizardry gal, is the main thing that got me interested.

On that note, have a quote on Wizardry's exploration:

The grid-based layout of the dungeon and atomic, space-by-space nature of the party's movement combine to make rendering relatively easy to implement; this is how Wizardry was able to present a 3D world to players a decade before Wolfenstein 3D. It was much copied, to the extent that it shows up in some far-flung products: the original Phantasy Star uses a much more attractive implementation for its 3D dungeons; retro action games like Fester's Quest and Golgo 13 also implement their own takes.

The 3D effect makes mapping essential. The grid layout both makes mapping easier, by conforming it to a grid, and harder, by making it easier to trick the player using map gimmicks to fool him into mapping incorrectly. (Mapping tricks are explicitly mentioned on the OD&D books as a useful tool for the DM, so blame them.) One such type of trick, a particularly mean one, is the teleporter, which invisibly sends the player to another spot in the maze, sometimes one that looks similar, but not identical, to the previous one.

Another cruel gimmick is the spinner, which randomly flips the player's facing direction to a random direction upon entering. If the player didn't notice that his facing has changed, a spinner can easily mess up an entire map. Wizardry even has dark areas that provide no vision of the corridor ahead, requiring that the player deduce where the walls are solely though the "Ouch!" messages that appear when the party collides with one. These tricks make coming up with an accurate map one of the biggest challenges of the game, and as a result it's rather satisfying to finish out an entire level.

Of all the games listed here, none is as inseparable from the act of mapping as Wizardry. An automapping feature would arguably ruin the game, because it'd reveal information, such as having been teleported or spun around, that players are supposed to deduce for themselves. Many players now would view that as being screwed with and abandon the game, but it's important to remember that being screwed with, and overcoming it, is one of the great joys of classic Dungeons & Dragons. ​

While I completely agree with grid-based exploration being one of Wizardry's fortes, I cannot subscribe to the view (implicit in this article as I read it) that it was just a limited kind of design leading to something like Wolfenstein 3D. I think Rampant Coyote summed it up fairly well recently, but the gist of it is, grid-based exploration has an entirely different set of strengths, and a different feel, compared to the free-form one. Which is why I still prefer Wizardry I to VII to Wizardry 8, up to this day. Breaking down the map into tiles lets you do the kind of things - dubbed "map gimmicks" in this article - that no natural, free movement progression through a level can afford to do.

Even though there are many scripted encounters, or "specials," a key difference between Wizardry and the D&D sessions it seeks to emulate is the absence of a flexible DM to allow the players to try things that aren't offered in the basic ruleset. There is no jumping up on tables, swinging from ropes, prodding with 10-foot poles, knocking on walls, or listening at doors or using them to block pursuers. Monsters don't exist until they have been triggered, and once a fight begins it takes place entirely in that square of dungeon map, and cannot sprawl out into the dungeon.

It is important to note that, in the 25-plus years since Wizardry was released, no CRPG has satisfactorily addressed this limitation, that of system inflexibilty. The lack of verisimilitude remains the most grievous difference between them and pen-and-paper games. ​

This much, though, I can fully agree with, and I wonder how CRPGs might address that, if at all.

Aside from Wizardry, this 22-page (!) Gamasutra article addresses Ultima, Wasteland, Gold Box, Quest for Glory, Might and Magic, Nethack, The Elder Scrolls, Baldur's Gate, and WoW, as well as such famous JRPG series as Dragon Quest, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Pokemon, Mystery Dungeon, and even (gasp!) the Tales Of series.

This is, in other words, a fairly comprehensive list, which doesn't include any of the really obscure or more unorthodox titles, but does its best to do justice to the more popular ones.

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