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Editorial 20 RPGs Every Game Designer Should Play @ Gamasutra

Crooked Bee

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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.
 

Hobo Elf

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Tales of has got to be the worst jRPG series out there. Why would anyone include that in any list? Or NIS games for that matter. It's obvious that the article writers knowledge on jRPGs is on the shallow side and so probably should've left them out entirely.
 

Crooked Bee

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Tales of has got to be the worst jRPG series out there. Why would anyone include that in any list? Or NIS games for that matter. It's obvious that the article writers knowledge on jRPGs is on the shallow side and so probably should've left them out entirely.

To reflect how influential / popular it is, I'd guess. SMT is really good, but also fairly niche, while this list focuses mostly on the more popular series that "everyone should know about" (tm). In the same way, one could argue the writer's knowledge of WRPGs is on the shallow side, too, since the article fails to include many of the more interesting WRPGs.

Still, its analysis of Wizardry and some other series is fairly interesting, so I do believe it's worth a look.
 

Hobo Elf

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Tales of has got to be the worst jRPG series out there. Why would anyone include that in any list? Or NIS games for that matter. It's obvious that the article writers knowledge on jRPGs is on the shallow side and so probably should've left them out entirely.

To reflect how influential / popular it is, I'd guess. SMT is really good, but also fairly niche, while this list focuses mostly on the more popular series that "everyone should know about" (tm). In the same way, one could argue the writer's knowledge of WRPGs is on the shallow side, too, since the article fails to include many of the more interesting WRPGs.

Still, its analysis of Wizardry and some other series is fairly interesting, so I do believe it's worth a look.

I question the influence of Tales of and NIS games. I'll give you popularity for Tales of, but NIS games are rather niche. Disgaea had some measure of success and popularity but afaik its popularity has been declining steadily with each title.
 

MRY

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First, was this written as a response to the article by felipepepe, or is it just a crazy coincidence?

Second, this list is madness. To begin with, the title is a lie. In almost every instance, the author identifies a series, not a specific game. In one instance, the "series" is not even a series (i.e., "Square's 16-bit RPGs"). So in fact we're talking about somewhere between 100 and 150 "essential" games. I am skeptical that the author has played all the games on his own list; indeed, in some instances (like Fire Emblem) he seems to throw up his hands at the task of even being bothered to go on Wikipedia to figure out how many games the series comprises ("[t]here have been many"). He is incapable in some instances of identifying reasonably well-known titles clearly inspired by the items on his list. For example, he struggles to name games inspired by Earthbound, even though just this year there were two ("Citizens of Earth" and "Lisa"). [EDIT: This criticism is inapt, since it turns out the list was written in 2009.] His "Addendum" contains PS:T, which he waves his hand at ("There are people who consider this the finest CRPG ever made. While my heart belongs to Nethack, it is a damn fine game.") without any analysis at all. There seemed to be other major omissions, such as Darklands, Phantasy Star, possibly Mana (surely I missed it).

Basically, the list is, "Here are a bunch of successful game series. I may have overlooked other succesful game series. Also, here are some facts about them that I found from the sources listed at the end." I don't disagree with the idea that you can learn something even by just surveying the field, but then you should describe it as a survey (not an analysis of "essential" games) to avoid over-credentialing yourself and leading impressionable youngsters on a fool's errand of playing a bunch of commercial hits. To some extent a designer needs to do a survey just to get a sense for what mechanics coincide with his or her passions, interests, and capabilities. But after that, in depth study of a few excellent games probably makes a lot more sense than treating every successful franchise as essential to your course of study.
 
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Crooked Bee

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MRY I certainly agree the list is focused on successful game series first and foremost, however his analysis of e.g. Wizardry shows he does know what he's talking about at least when it comes to some of the games (see also my reply to Hobo Elf below). Obviously, this may not apply to all the series he surveys, and the list definitely is inflated as you have noted. Still, I wouldn't call Goldbox or Nethack particularly successful in this day and age, so maybe it's more about his lack of JRPG knowledge as Hobo Elf said.

Also, obviously one could list a lot of omissions on the list, but at the end of the day this is just that, one person's personal "essential RPG" list.

Also, I wondered about its relation to felipepepe's article myself, given that it was felipe's retweet which brought my attention to this article.

I question the influence of Tales of and NIS games. I'll give you popularity for Tales of, but NIS games are rather niche. Disgaea had some measure of success and popularity but afaik its popularity has been declining steadily with each title.

Yeah, but the list also has e.g. Nethack or Goldbox, which are niche too. I wonder if the author merely attempted to strike some sort of balance between popularity and his own taste, and while I think his analysis is fairly good when it comes to the series he knows something about first hand, he may have bitten more than he could chew.
 

Crooked Bee

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Well, I found it interesting enough :P Gamasutra seems to have it featured now though, perhaps as a response to felipepepe's post, so better late than never.

Also this produced an interesting post from MRY as well as a discussion with Hobo Elf, so overall, mission accomplished.
 

MRY

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MRY I certainly agree the list is focused on successful game series first and foremost, however his analysis of e.g. Wizardry shows he does know what he's talking about at least when it comes to some of the games (see also my reply to Hobo Elf below). Obviously, this may not apply to all series he surveys, and the list definitely is inflated as you have noted. Still, I wouldn't call Goldbox or Nethack particularly successful in this day and age, so maybe it's more about his lack of JRPG knowledge as Hobo Elf noted.
To begin with, I'm cantakerous and have a particular grumpiness for lists, no doubt because I am addicted to them. So I'm perhaps being unfair. But I dunno, I think you're overstating things. For example, take Ultima. As I've said elsewhere, I don't much like Ultima. But I have a deep respect for many of its innovations and design achievements. Here is the time spent on one of those, the virtue system: "Ultima IV brings NPC relations to the true heart of the game in its virtue system." And here is what he has to say about the degree of interaction permitted in Ultima VII: "Ultima VII may have the most engaging RPG world ever devised." Both of these are listed as "story" features. No mention whatsoever is made of the gypsy-question character-building process in Ultima IV. Or take the Gold Box games. He goes on for many paragraphs, but makes barely any mention of the combat, which was the heart of the games and probably their best feature.

All of this goes to show that if you try to cover too much, you tend to obscure the most valuable things. If you insist that someone should be familiar with every war in history, and then try to cover them all at the same level of depth, you're going to wind up with a couple decent nuggets about more obscure things, but you're going to lose out on the rich texture of more important conflicts. I mean, it's certainly better that people know about the Boer War than not know about it, but if a consequence of studying the Boer War is that they miss out on Napoleon's Moscow campaign, it's probably a net loss.

Infinitron Good spotting on the date. :)
 
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Crooked Bee

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MRY Yeah, his analysis of Ultima isn't as detailed as his analysis of Wizardry - I guess he's more of a Wizardry guy? - however, I'd say it's also fairly competent. It mentions Ultima's innovation in bringing the meaningful overworld into CRPGs (a highly important point imho), as well as NPCs, "bossless" design, and the virtues. The things you mention are more in-depth, but also less likely to be mentioned by someone who isn't a fan of the series.

I also disagree that this list amounts to being familiar with every war in history; it obviously only attempts to describe those series, titles, and features that this particular author has either first hand experience with or deems important and/or succesful enough. I also don't think you'd disagree that these are the series that every game designer needs to be familiar with.
 

felipepepe

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Of course it was in my honor. What, you guys can't time travel?

Seriously now, I think it was re-posted because the author, John Harris, has just announced that his monthly roguelike column @Play will be returning, after 4 years of inactivity. He was also compiling a roguelike encyclopedia, but I think that went nowhere. You can totally edit the newspost to be about that and use the article as "proof of his work" Bee. :3

Pokemon are on the list
Pokémon is one of the best-selling franchise of all time, and it's a turn-based RPG with 6 party members. Marketed for kids. Think about that next time anyone says that TB RPGs are hard and unmarketable.
 

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If you look at modern AAA western RPGs, Ultima VII and PST are clearly the most influential games.

Todd Howard keeps trying to make a first person Ultima VII with no depth and Bioware keeps trying to make PST with cardboard characters.
 

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