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Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on Might and Magic

Discussion in 'News & Content Feedback' started by Infinitron, Dec 10, 2021.

  1. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    RPG Wokedex Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Tags: Jon Van Caneghem; Might and Magic I: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum; Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World; Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra; Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen; Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen; New World Computing; The Digital Antiquarian

    The Digital Antiquarian originally deemed New World Computing's Might and Magic series not important enough to be covered in his ongoing chronicle of the computer roleplaying genre. However, earlier this year he announced his intention to write about Might and Magic after all, in order to set the stage for a piece about its highly successfully spinoff series Heroes of Might and Magic. The resulting article was published today. The story of Might and Magic begins with Jon van Caneghem, a wealthy underachiever from Hollywood described by the Antiquarian as "last of the living-room gaming entrepreneurs", who decided to develop his own RPG after becoming addicted to Wizardry and Ultima in the early 1980s. The five games his studio would produce over the next decade would never be considered as groundbreaking, but managed to distinguish themselves with their playability, generous amount of content, colorfulness and sheer fun.

    Despite Scorpia’s rapture over it, this first Might & Magic game was, like all of the ones that would follow it, disarmingly easy to underestimate. It wore the influence of Wizardry and its successors, The Bard’s Tale among them, prominently on its sleeve: it too was an exercise in turn-based, grid-based exploration, which you navigated from a first-person point of view despite controlling a party of up to six characters. (The oddity of this has led to its sub-genre’s modern nickname of “blobber,” for the way it “blobs” all of your characters together into one octopus-like mass of sword-wielding arms and spell-casting hands.) Its technology verged on the primitive even in 1987, the year which saw the introduction of real-time gameplay to the CRPG genre in Dungeon Master. Nor was it any paradigm of balanced design: the early stages, when your newly created party consisted of naked, penniless club-wielders, proved so difficult that Van Caneghem grudgingly added a slightly — slightly, mind you — more hardy pre-made starting party to later releases. Even once your characters made it to level three or so and were no longer as weak as infants, the difficulty level remained more jagged than curved; monsters could suddenly appear on some levels that were an order of magnitude more powerful than anything else you’d met there, killing you before you knew what had hit you. This was an especial problem given that you could only save your game from one of the nine adventurer’s inns scattered around the sprawling world, a result more of technical limitations than designer intent. Meanwhile the story was mostly nonexistent, and silly where it did exist, culminating in the revelation that the entire world of Varn you’d been exploring was really a giant artificial biosphere created by space aliens; “Varn” turned out to be an acronym for “Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle.”

    If you could get past all that, however, it was a surprisingly rich game. Caneghem has noted that, though he became a pretty good programmer in the course of making Might and Magic, he was always a game designer first, a game programmer second: “I wasn’t a programmer who knew a neat graphics routine and then turned it into a game. I think most people at the time, except for a few, came from that end of it.” As one of the few who didn’t, Van Caneghem took a more holistic approach. Here we have to return to this idea of generosity that the CRPG Addict broached for us at the beginning of this article. Primitive though it was, Might and Magic was still crammed to bursting with stuff, enough to fill a couple of hundred hours if you let it: 250 different items to collect, 94 different spells to cast, 200 different monsters to fight, 55 individual 16-square-by-16-square areas to map. It boasted not only dungeons and towns, but a whole grid-based outside world to explore. The lumpy amalgamation was riddled with cheap exploits as well, of course, but discovering them was half the fun. One should never dismiss the appeal of building a group of adventurers from a bunch of babes in the woods who fall over dead if a goblin looks at them sideways to a six-person blob of terror that can annihilate a thousand of the little buggers at the stroke of a key.

    For all its manifest derivativeness in the broad strokes, Might and Magic wasn’t without a smattering of genuinely new ideas, at least one of which became quietly influential on the future course of its genre. As you explored its maps, you often met people who gave you quests: tasks to accomplish apart from revealing more territory and collecting more experience points. These could range from such practical affairs as delivering a letter to another town to more, shall we say, whimsical endeavors, such as climbing every tree in a given area. Completing these side-quests provided rewards in the form of additional experience points and riches. More importantly, it added an additional impetus to your wanderings, a new dimension of play that was different from methodically lawn-mowering through a sometimes numbing procession of dungeons and monsters. In time, sub-quests like these would become an essential component of many or most CRPGs.

    Jon Van Caneghem took advantage of his first game’s success to set up a proper office for New World in Van Nuys, California, and hire a staff made up of people much like himself. “A lot of our employees had met at game conventions, and all of our roots were in gaming,” he says. “At 5:30, the office would shut down and the gaming would start. Everyone was always there until all hours of the night, playing games.” He noted in a contemporary magazine profile that he wished above all to keep the New World offices “loose, friendly, and creative.”

    He and his fellow travelers shipped Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World in December of 1988. Although clearly of the same technological lineage as its predecessor, it was a big step forward in terms of the details. Not only did it offer an even vaster profusion of stuff, spread over 60 different discrete areas this time, but it came with some significant quality-of-life improvements, including a reasonably usable auto-map if you chose to invest in the Cartography skill for at least one of your characters. Another subtle but welcome improvement came in your ability to set a “disposition” for your party, from “inconspicuous” to “thrill-seeker”; this allowed you to set the frequency of random monster encounters to your own liking, depending on whether you were just trying to get someplace or were actively grinding for experience points. But the most obvious improvement of all was the revamped graphics, courtesy of the full-time artists Van Caneghem had now hired; a version for the Commodore Amiga, the audiovisual wundermachine of the era, looked particularly good. The story was as daft as the last one, taking place on another world… err, alien biosphere called Cron instead of Varn. (The stories of Might and Magic do rather tend to satirize themselves…) But, just like last time, it really didn’t matter at all in a game that was all about the joy of exploration and exploitation.

    The improved audiovisuals of Might and Magic II highlighted another aspect of the series that had perhaps been obscured by the primitiveness of the first game. In keeping with Van Caneghem’s sunny, optimistic personality — writer and designer Neal Halford, who came to work with him at New World during this era, calls him “terminally mellow” — the environs of Might and Magic would always be bright, colorful, fun places to inhabit. The series would never embrace the “dark, gritty” aesthetics that so much of the games industry came to revel in as the 1990s wore on.

    Jon Van Caneghem the businessman seemed to live a charmed life not out of keeping with his vaguely fairy-taleish visual aesthetic. For instance, he dropped Activision in favor of becoming an affiliated label of Brøderbund in 1989, just before the former company — by this point officially known as Mediagenic — imploded, defaulting on their payments to their entire network of affiliated labels and destroying many of them thereby. He even escaped relatively unscathed from a well-intentioned but financially ill-advised venture into the board-game market, which I’ll cover in more detail in my next article.

    For now, though, suffice to say that it was a big part of the reason that Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra wasn’t released until 1991. Like its predecessors, this latest entry in the series tossed you into another new world and let you have it. Still, while philosophically and even formally identical to the first two games — it remained a turn-based, grid-based blobber — it was a dramatic leap forward in terms of interface and presentation. Designed on and for a 32-bit MS-DOS machine instead of the 8-bit Apple II, it sported 256-color VGA graphics that replaced many of the older games’ numbers with visual cues, a lovely soundtrack composed for the new generation of multi-voice sound cards, and a mouse-driven interface. But its most gratifying improvement of all was more basic: it finally let you save your progress inside dungeons or anywhere else you liked. I would venture to guess that this change alone cut the number of hours the average player could expect to spend finishing the game in half, in spite of the fact that its number of individual areas actually grew slightly, to 64.

    Veterans of the series could and sometimes did complain that the new level of professionalism and polish came at the cost of some of its old ramshackle charm, and Van Caneghem himself has confessed to being worried that people would notice how the new game’s average completion time was more likely to be in the tens than the hundreds of hours. But he needn’t have been: gamers ate it up.
    It's a breezy and optimistic article, much like the games it describes. New World Computing weathered the mid-1990s RPG slump better than most other studios and would eventually return to the core Might and Magic series in the late 1990s. I'm not sure the Antiquarian plans to cover those latter installments, though.
     
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  2. Tyranicon A Memory of Eternity Developer

    Tyranicon
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    That fullpage ad really brings me back. When games used to be this nebulous promise of adventure. No walkthroughs, no FAQs, no streamers. You went into that shit blind and got stuck for hours on some silly old thing.

    :/ Miss that.
     
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  3. ropetight Novice

    ropetight
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    Some of the dearest cRPG memories I have are from M&M series - played some of first ones, but really enjoyed and finished 6,7 and 8.
    Finding and visiting master of some skill is still one of the best levelling system implementations ever - you could rise your skill to insane numbers, but only specialists and a masters gave you the real game changers.
    I.E. quarterstaff at master level became shield and weapon in one item (you could deflect pretty much anything), which transformed your feeble mage to badass battlemage.
    But there was only one master on whole land, and to get to him you had to do bunch of quests and travelling on map, so it really felt like you did get something special.

    And using the same spells from HoMM3 in M&M6 was spectacular - you always remember your first first person Armageddon.

    SF background of fantasy settings were all the rage in the those days (Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McAffrey and Shadow of Torturer by Gene Wolfe were excellent), but I don't know how much I care about Xeen.
     
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  4. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
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    DA, like always, do not understands the genre.
    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2021
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  5. gothfox Liturgist

    gothfox
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    DA has legitimately interesting posts and he isn't a bad writer but god almighty is he a soycuck of epic proportions.
     
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  6. Zeriel Arcane

    Zeriel
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    Yeah, that is something that is really missing from games now. The whole blind, "Wow here's this game I've never heard of before, guess I'll try it." Even Steam indies can't manage that because when you click on the game you are presented with a bunch of videos, screenshots, opinions of people, etc.

    I think this is one reason random eurojank games can sort of be guilty pleasures, because games you know a lot less about going in can still manage a bit of a good surprise.
     
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  7. Zeriel Arcane

    Zeriel
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    His focus on HOMM as more interesting than M&M 6-8 is pretty ridiculous too. Like... holy shit. I like HOMM but if you're an RPG fan 6 shouldn't be an afterthought, it was hugely influential.
     
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  8. luj1 You're all shills

    luj1
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    never read a manual in my life
     
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  9. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    RPG Wokedex Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker Pathfinder: Kingmaker
    Eh, really? What did it influence? (serious question)
     
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  10. Rincewind Erudite

    Rincewind
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    I'm always a bit perplexed when I hear people saying something like that. It's not like anybody forces you to watch those videos, read those reviews, check out the FAQ/walkthrough, etc. You can very much still go into a game completely blind, be it a game released this year of 30 years ago. Well, at least that's what I always do; I mostly just skim reviews longer than a few sentences because I want to discover the content for myself. Same with movies, books, or TV series -- never saw the point of reading an in-depth review *before* checking the thing out for myself, it just taints the experience too much. All I need is a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust.

    But then, I'm using the internet like it's 1990. I don't "check" FB, have no Twitter and Instagram accounts or whatever else is the trend these days, and use plugins like Unhook to hide recommendations and comments on YouTube, etc (hate it when it keeps shoving stuff into my face just because I clicked on something once or twice out of curiousity).

    Back to topic, I find the DA guy a bit clueless when it comes to RPGs. I read and liked his book about the Amiga, "The Future Was Here", but then his style started growing increasingly self-important and tedious on his blog, so these days I just skim his articles for info. It's a shame because he researches things quite thoroughly and his posts contain a lot of info (even if tedious to read, and even if he reaches the wrong conclusions more often than not :M). In any case, he seems to be a lot more knowledgeable on adventures and IF than any other genres.
     
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  11. Grauken Arcane Patron

    Grauken
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    Sadly he keeps on writing about RPGs
     
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  12. ValeVelKal Arcane

    ValeVelKal
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    I'm Ridin' with Biden I'm Ridin' with Biden
    He writes about the entirety of the industry, in a professional manner in addition to his other professional activities - and that’s great to have someone with a broad scope. He does not like all the genre equally, and clearly he prefers adventure games to RPG, and RPG to wargames, but I believe HoMM has a more universal appeal than any M&M title.

    Still, he is a great read on all topics, both style and content, but never more imo than when he writes about the cloak-and-dagger part of the industry.
     
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  13. Infinitron I post news Patron

    Infinitron
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    Setting aside the quality of his commentary, the DA writes about RPGs far less frequently than he did back in the early 2010s (when he was writing multiple blog posts about each early Ultima and Wizardry title).
     
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  14. Grauken Arcane Patron

    Grauken
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    The problem isn't whether he likes them or not, it's just clear from what he writes that he doesn't get their fundamental appeal to its fans, which makes him say stuff that's just utterly moronic.
     
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  15. ValeVelKal Arcane

    ValeVelKal
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    I'm Ridin' with Biden I'm Ridin' with Biden
    I actually think he does, at least for this M&M article.
     
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  16. Fowyr Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

    Fowyr
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    That's why he cites CRPG Addict without batting an eyelid:
    and then talks mostly about first game.
    Newsflash, M&M1 stats ususally were less than 20 even in the end of game. It was pretty low-level as well. M&M2 used byte for its stats (<255), but even exploiting circus and dungeon stat exchanges you had 200 stats maximum. Also, it was, I repeat again, an exploit. "Normal" maximum was only 100.
    As I already wrote, sneering at hand-written maps without understanding that M&M1 effectively used them for some neat puzzles, or that M&M2 sometimes made your real position on the auto-map unavailable clearly indicates that he never played these games.
    It's not always bad per se, he talks mostly about people who made M&M, but it leads to these stupid and hilarious errors and misunderstandings when he tries to talk about things that he doesn't know. See, for example, his Dark Sun or Goldbox articles
     
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2021
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  17. Morpheus Kitami Arbiter

    Morpheus Kitami
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    That's because he developed a few IF games. This shows, because he's about the only person to talk about those on the period of 1987-92. I don't think he shows the same care towards regular adventures though, mostly just hitting the stuff you would expect someone to cover. Although he doesn't hit every text adventure out of the park, since I understand his coverage of the Star Trek text adventures are...questionable at best.
     
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  18. KeighnMcDeath RPG Codex Boomer

    KeighnMcDeath
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    There is a way to permantly raise them but to do that repeatedly to reset the way is tedious. I tried on the c64 and lordy after about 10 rounds of that I said ok let's go to MMII. Sadly, the c64 game loads like a mothermucking slug caught in a cosmic tractor beam of SLOW!

    I also don't recall how long temp raises last fountains etc (1 day, 1 map, 1 combat, don't rest??). Maybe I am misremembering.
     
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  19. KeighnMcDeath RPG Codex Boomer

    KeighnMcDeath
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    Just so people know I actually mapped & played:

    Show Spoiler

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    Yeah, I photocopied the sheets on a larger paper and then made several copies for MM1-2 (never finished 2 sadly). Since the game provided these I figured why the hell not use them instead of graphing paper. I did the same with Wizardry.
     
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  20. ValeVelKal Arcane

    ValeVelKal
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    I'm Ridin' with Biden I'm Ridin' with Biden
    Once but you can reset them for a second increase
     
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  21. ValeVelKal Arcane

    ValeVelKal
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    I'm Ridin' with Biden I'm Ridin' with Biden
    In this part the cRPG addict is talking about the licence as a whole, and the comment is absolutely true.

    When he comes back to the adjective “generous” specifically for M&M he does not mention stats because while more generous in this regard than competitors it is nothing crazy yet in MM1.

    i don’t see any sneer at manual mapping - maybe I missed it. The DA just mentions auto mapping as part of a QoL effort along with encounter frequency. Today we would call that “casualisation of the first MM1”.

    He does not need to mention all the tricks MM2 did with the map. Someone talking about Lands of Lore super clean auto mapping would not be expected to mention the couple times the map is removed from you either.

    edit : found the “necessary evil” reference. Well, I am sure most RPG players of the era (or today obviously) prefered no-map over auto map. It was for sure a technical necessity, though of course good designers made the best out of it. I daresay that most of the MM2 audience was very happy with the auto map feature : the game was big enough not to need extra hours mapping. In the early 90s I played games with and without automapping, and I certainly prefered auto mapping ; of course some games went out of their way to make mapping painful.
     
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  22. Tyranicon A Memory of Eternity Developer

    Tyranicon
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    Back then, you used to be stuck on something challenging. Now, you get a gamebreaking bug leaving the tutorial.
     
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  23. KeighnMcDeath RPG Codex Boomer

    KeighnMcDeath
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    It should be noted that why these later games had some automapping or eagle eye maps:
    MM2+
    Bard's Tale 3
    Gold Box series
    many others

    They don't have all the tools necessary that players might want customized in their own maps or notes. Elder Scrolls and even stonekeep had a few nifty things you could do (as clunky as it was).

    Didn't the codex cover mapping/Logs in all its various forms of glory for RPGs?
     
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  24. Rincewind Erudite

    Rincewind
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    Eh. For me, manual mapping or go home.
     
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