What an Old RPG Can Teach Today's Designers

24 Aug 2008

Though I own most of the new gaming consoles, a good computer, and many recent games, you'd never guess that I've been having a blast playing the 1994 classic Might and Magic: World of Xeen using DOSBox. If you're old enough, you'll remember the golden age of RPG gaming: the aforementioned Might and Magic series, SSI’s Gold Box games, Sir-tech’s Wizardry series, ORIGIN’s Ultima series, Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder series, FTL Games’ Dungeon Master, and an assortment of others.  You might even still have your intricate maps on graph paper tucked away in a place you've long forgotten about, as auto-mapping had not yet been successfully implemented in many of these games.

As I’m going through Might and Magic IV & V for a second time (called World of Xeen when combined), it reminded me back when I first bought Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra, which used the same engine.  In its day it was one of the cutting edge (insert laughter) 256 color graphic games, one of which took advantage of the newer computers and graphic cards of the day.  It also included a brand new 3D-esque world as well as mouse control ala Dungeon Master.  That in itself wasn't new at the time, but it also featured a huge world in which to explore and that was - and is - exciting.

Obviously if I'm playing this there's some value in it, for me at least.  Why, for example, am I playing this a second time instead of the record-shattering GTA IV or the critically acclaimed The Witcher?  It's not just for nostalgia's sake.  In this article I'm going to talk about what made the Might and Magic games one of the classic RPG series in history, and what designers of today can glean from it.

Might and Magic III contained a wonderful element from the very beginning - reward the player for exploration, and reward them well.  This was a game of tiles and though it had roads, paved safer paths, and cities, it had skills for mountaineering that let you travel across mountain tiles.  Pathfinding let you travel through trees.  Swimming allowed you to explore the water.  There were skills that were specifically designed for exploration.  That's a concept that really hasn't been touched since except for maybe the Metroid series.  It worked wonders in that, and also in Might and Magic.

When off the beaten path, players want to find something special.  It's why they go off the path in the first place.  In real life, when you do, you always find something unexpected.  It's natural to seek this out in a game.  It's why in any MMO I try out, I'm the "explorer" type of personality.  I'll go to the ends of the world, by myself, just to see what's there and map out the place.  I want to see unique creatures, visit areas that are too difficult for me, or discover unique vistas you won't find by using the main pathway.

So the first thing that this game had was its excellent use of rewarding players with immediate experience for exploration - for say, burning down an orc encampment.  After that, you revisited town, trained up a couple levels, and were more powerful just for exploration.  No battles, no mess.  Just fun, and a strange feeling that this somehow was the right way to play.  Reward players when they go off the path or do something unexpected.

Secondly, this game had big rewards.  When you completed a quest, your characters received a full ox load of experience, money, and items.  Not just a reward, but big enough rewards that really meant something.  In today's RPGs, a completed quest will typically net you a small amount of experience that’s just enough to feel like you’re making progress toward the next level. Answer me this - why do many people enjoy starting new brand characters in RPGs or MMOs?  There are gameplay changes, sure, but it’s also because of the quick, extensive reward system that’s usually found early in the game. You literally start out at zero with only a couple of skills, but very quickly gain levels and get new skills.

Now, of course this couldn't continue indefinitely or there'd be an overabundance of skills, abilities, or what have you.  But if you make rewards diverse, and have big payoffs, you'll get more satisfaction.  Why has Diablo II held such a strong addiction for so many years?  It was because at any time, you could get rewarded huge.  That's what we need more of.  Big or eventful rewards when accomplishing something.