Over at Gamebanshee, Tyson McCann has a two-page article up on “What An Old RPG Can Teach Today’s Designers. The RPG is World of Xeen, best of the early Might & Magic games.

He begins with going off-road and finding Neat Stuff. This is what I wrote about last year in The Joy Of Discovery, which mourned the loss of exploration in modern games.

Exploration for the fun of it. Just to see what – if anything – is out there in the woods, or the desert, or the mountains. M&M was so good at that. You just knew you’d come across something interesting sooner or later.

In conjunction with this, he details those old skills of Pathfinding and Mountaineering, that allowed your party to enter such places. As he says, there is nothing comparable in today’s games. But then, there isn’t much off-road in those RPGs.

I remember an early Might & Magic that had an island ringed with mountains. In the center was an open space full of gargoyles, much too strong for a low-level team. But with Mountaineering, we could traipse merrily among the peaks, and they couldn’t touch us. We were there, of course, for the Magic Chest with high-level goodies (save before opening!). Wow, I miss little tricks like that.

Tyson also has something to say about difficulty. Those old games didn’t have settings, but then, they didn’t need them. Naturally, the immediate starting area wasn’t too tough (we’re not looking at the earliest games, which were not balanced well).

After that, since you were free to roam pretty much at will, the situation was different. Your party could easily wander into a section full of tough critters that called for quick retreat, if possible. More likely, it would be restore time.

We don’t have this today, because the games are so linear. Progress is always forward, often with no returning to an earlier area. Also, any outdoor sections are limited in size, just enough to make trudging to the dungeon a bit less boring.

Therefore, all encounters are set up to be “just enough to handle”. They have to be that way, because there’s nowhere else to go for experience. It also emphasizes doing many “side jobs” so your character or party will have the necessary strength to win the combats.

Much of this has to do with the current obsession to “tell a story”. Sure, we want a good story. But I think designers have looked too much at novels and movies, and their view of how to “tell a story” is too narrow.

Games are not books or movies (they certainly shouldn’t be movies). They are a unique interactive form, and developers aren’t making good use of that.

What’s wrong with having pieces of the story here and there, instead of being a straight road from here to Foozle? Why not let the player use a little thought it putting things together? Why not make the story an experience, instead of just another boring narrative?

Perhaps then these game worlds could open again, allowing us that “joy of discovery”, that tension of “are we in over our heads here?”, that feeling of enchantment, once more.

What an Old RPG Can Teach Today’s Designers on Gamebanshee