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Vol. 2, Issue 5 
December 8, 1999 
 

Certain RPG purists don't understand that RPGs on computers have little relation beyond underlying mechanics to RPGs that are played with pencil and paper, and they argue that computer RPGs have to allow you to "role-play a character." This, frankly, is immaterial. True role-playing requires intelligent, adaptable feedback to the player's decisions that right now can only be provided by a human game master. Having a conversation tree like in Fallout that has different options depending on whether you are "good" or "bad" does not constitute role-playing. If anything, games like Fallout that try to simulate the tabletop role-playing experience just bore casual players with too much only-subtly-different and often buggy conversation trees, distracting them from the core gameplay of exploring and fighting and building up their characters' powers.

The reason that I feel U9 is such an important example for RPGs is a simple one: in real-time 3D, the Zelda 64 gameplay paradigm they have borrowed works far better than the archaic "hit points/numerical attributes/turn-based combat" gameplay of older, less technologically advanced titles. This may hard to swallow for certain hardcore computer RPG players, and there's good reason beyond just the AD&D license for why the practically retro design of Baldur's Gate has done well. However, even BG struggles with its basically realtime nature, and its combats usually feel out of the player's control in a way that older RPGs never did. What is the practical difference between a 16 and a 17 dex? You can see it when you watch each to-hit roll, but in a furious real-time battle, it just doesn't matter. The more that RPG engines move into the technological future, the less applicable these old-school RPG designs are going to be. In 3D, you can't get away with having only two in a stack of twenty crates openable. They all have to open/be smashable or they all have to be indestructible, otherwise the world will seem arbitrary and inconsistent. U9 at its heart takes many steps in that direction. It is merely the poor implementation of their basic ideas, which keeps U9 from being the best RPG ever.

New RPGs cannot hope to implement the same tired old designs on top of modern engines. It would be feasible to use a real-time 3D engine to implement a completely turn-based old-school RPG, and some developers will no doubt attempt this, but this really is a waste of advanced technology and doesn't really bring the general design of computer games forward in any way. Ultima IX is a faltering step towards the future of RPGs, and as much as I can barely endure playing it, I can’t help but get excited about games in the future that will follow in its footsteps.

 

- Richard “Beaker” Wyckoff is a game designer, not a level designer, damnit!

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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it or we'll sick our lawyers on you. Muhahahahahahahah. ph3ar our [email protected] l3gal sk1lz y0.