What an Old RPG Can Teach Today's Designers

24 Aug 2008

Here's another thing the game had going for it.  You were usually a degree of power more powerful than your average fight, and when you weren't, you knew it.  This led to the occasional battle where you really scraped to survive and make it to the healer after 5 of your 6 party members were dead (R.I.P.).  But for the other fights, you could usually mow them down with good spells. Challenge is a huge concept in an RPG or any game, and finding the right formula is key.  But all too often lately, designers have been keeping the player at just above the challenge level, instead of another degree above.  In games, we really do want our characters to maintain that solid degree of "betterness" above the challengers.  We don't want the game to be too easy, but we want to maintain that control and dominance over the AI and if it gets too close for too long, and we don't make it, for most of us, that's frustrating rather than a reason to continue.  Therefore, keep the challenge moderate for experienced players, challenging for less experienced players, but at most times, doable.  Put level of difficulties in that allow the hardcore competitor to get his/her fill, but keep the default at a moderate challenge for those that keep their characters up to date.  It is ok for characters to become "godly", really.

Might and Magic also had no respawning creatures – one feature that’s always bugged me.  Even in Metroid Prime, one of my all-time favorite games,  it annoyed me to some extent. I put up with it, but I'll say that it wasn't "fun".  It was a necessary design decision to make re-explorable areas become non-static.  I get that.  But if you can help it, make creatures stay dead.  Or, have a system like Fallout or many others where when you're exploring, there's a random chance of an encounter.  Even then, when you become more powerful, you should decrease the chance until it's eventually 0% that you encounter "challenges" for that area.

Moving on, the series had no "leveled" creatures.  These are creatures whose level depended on your own so they could always present a challenge.  Why isn't level scaling a good thing? For one, it makes exploration less fun.  You realize that when you get somewhere, you'll find an acceptable challenge, nothing more.  It decreases the tension that perhaps you'll find instant death, or the exhilaration when you unexpectedly trounce through a new area unscathed.  Secondly, it's unrealistic.  Sure, the world, magic, and everything else is too, but without level scaling you at least know you're going to find areas where the creatures are simply too powerful and be denied entrance for that reason, or find them accommodating and be allowed through.  It fits with our current suspended paradigm.

We also have a meld of sci-fi and fantasy with Might and Magic.  It was one of the weird quirky things about the series, though it was also present in the Wizardry series.  In Might and Magic, though, it was one of those unexpected events that happened later in the game, when you’d finally discover that there was a connection with a superior alien race.  Heck, while playing Might and Magic VI late in the game, you even have access to laser guns!  What's this mean for designers?  To me, it means make your game unique or stand out.  That feature will always be something Might and Magic was known for.  What will that be for your game?  It's one thing to make your game be known for a unique technical or art achievement... like Trespasser was for its physics (and you remember how well that went).  It's another to have your great game be remembered for an actual gameplay or story uniqueness.  Those are usually the fondly remembered games.  Planescape: Torment’s companions and setting, KotOR’s story twist, or even Final Fantasy VII as a whole.  Gameplay and story.  That's where you want your differentiation.

The list wouldn't be complete without mentioning Might and Magic's powerful utility spells.  Late in the game you’re able to learn the cast-once-and-leave Day of Sorcery (Wizard) and Day of Protection (Cleric), which essentially take all of the micromanaging out of casting buffs for your party.  Throughout the game you'd learn bless, walk on water, heroism, light, wizard eye (for seeing extra map areas), etc.  What these two spells did was combine all of the useful buffs you'd always want on your party into one or two spells.  Cast them at the beginning of the day, and just go adventure without needing to cast one at a time.   This is something that I believe would benefit MMOs like World of Warcraft that feature party support roles.  As your character gets more powerful, why not give them less micromanaging and have one spell that does everything they'd typically do anyway in one cast, for more mana?  This was forward thinking for its day and should remain relevant in today's games.

A few other things that the series did great was instant travel mirrors if you knew the location, flight in Might and Magic VI and beyond because of the 3D world, exploration to get character progression (to find the masters and grandmaster teachers),  smaller dungeons (in and out usually), and optional mind puzzles for greater rewards.

In my opinion, these are just many of the aspects we can take from older games and make new and refreshing in the games of today.  Until then, to experience great games of yesteryear on your computer of today, you can visit www.dosbox.com.