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Vol. 2, Issue 5
December 8, 1999
Beaker's Bent:

Yet More on the Future of RPGs

by Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff

This Thanksgiving, I made the mistake of being excited for Ultima IX. Regular readers of this site probably remember that I consider the Ultima series my favorite RPGs ever, and that I got into the industry because of Ultima Underworld. However Ultima VIII had done so much to ruin the series forever for me, and I had heard so many bad things about U9's development and design history, that I didn't really think Origin had any chance of reclaiming the golden years of Ultima. In fact, I was prepared for the worst: an Ultima even worse than Ultima VIII.

Nonetheless, I knew I was going to buy U9. And then the demo came out, and even though it had a truly Trespasser-equivalent framerate coupled with even worse graphics and physics, I was amazed to see that it seemed to have a design that was going to work for a 3D realtime RPG. This design wasn't particularly original: in fact it basically looked like Origin had set out to clone the core gameplay of Zelda 64. Zelda 64's puzzles consist of things like shooting specific targets with specific types of arrows, using your hammer to bash or move blocks, or sometimes even tasks as simple in concept as defeating all the enemies in the room. Zelda 64's basic combat system also turned out to be an incredibly good metaphor for 3D 3rd person games, too - players could press the trigger button to lock on to an enemy, and while in lock on mode, the player's controls were remapped to circle the targeted enemy. Fairly complicated dodging and attacks were finally possible in 3D without a complicated interface.

Clearly, U9's designers were trying to make their game feel like a deeper version of Zelda with the puzzles in the demo which consisted of shooting targets with arrows or igniting torches to open doors. I enjoyed Zelda so much it seemed from the demo like U9 would be guaranteed to be fun - of course, I also thought that the speed, bugginess and general lack of polish of the demo would be corrected before ship. I swear, this is the last time I'll believe that any developers are capable of correcting the most obvious flaws in their products. But anyway, the point of this column is not to list all the many things about Ultima IX, which make it the second worst Ultima after U8. Instead, I'm interested in what the game might signify for the future of RPGs in general.

The most important thing about U9 is that the engine, while certainly greatly flawed, is an attempt at making a true 3D environment for an RPG. As I've gone on about at great lengths in a previous column, today's "revolutionary" RPG, Baldur's Gate, has a laughably non-interactive engine. Players direct their little characters across areas that are essentially giant paintings, with annoying loads between them. The world is sprinkled with what look like piles of items and barrels and crates to dig through, but interaction with these interesting-looking things is limited: ugly highlights appear on almost randomly selected parts of the background, bluntly revealing that the game content is layered on top of a static image.

  Now compare BG to the recent Final Fantasy games. These also take place on top of static backgrounds, yet take advantage of this fact by rendering them from all sorts of interesting angles as adventure games do. FF's environments are also largely non-interactive, with the occasional button to play with or computer console to operate. Neither BG nor FF have much of what I'd call a world simulation at all. Zelda and Ultima IX, on the other hand, are worlds largely filled with items which operate under learnable and relatively consistent rules, rather than being mere immovable window dressing. A burning torch in Zelda can be used to ignite a stick, which can then light other torches. In Ultima, the douse spell can put out fires, clearing a path through dangerous areas. Rocks can be picked up and hurled at enemies in Zelda, or piled into stacks to help reach high ledges in Ultima.

Creating an interactive world is just one way to go about making an RPG, but I happen to think it is the most important direction for RPGs to go in, and despite the many problems with U9, I really feel it signifies the future of the genre. Origin may be abandoning single player games altogether, and based on their results with Ultima IX, that's probably a very good idea. However, better developers will continue to make single player-focused RPGs, and for these developers, Ultima IX is the most important recent RPG to study, for reasons I'll explore now.

There are certainly other good games from the last year which are related to the RPG genre. One of these is System Shock 2, but as a first person, combat-focused game, I would argue that Shock really represents a sophisticated kind of shooter rather than an RPG. Likewise, the Final Fantasy series are coming to increasingly favor their story development and cut scenes over their basic RPG elements. With each new release, Square seems to be giving the player less ability to customize their characters, which I feel is a very important element in anything RPG-like. Finally, Baldur's Gate, for all the hype, turns out to be less flexible than the great party-based RPGs of the past, saddled with non player-created party members and an annoying combat engine that manages to be neither a good real time system nor a good phased system.

None of these games really represent anything new for RPGs. The Final Fantasy series has been going for years, just adding better presentation and depth to the basic formula of highly plotted adventure/RPG, and Baldur's Gate is basically a throwback to what RPGs were like in the early 90s. What is the basic concept of an RPG on the computer, anyway? To me, they are all about continually exploring new and amazing places while increasing your characters' ability to survive the ever-increasing hardships they will face. Computer RPGs need to have character growth in terms of the basic game system, and they definitely need to have combat that manages to stay interesting throughout the game, and in my opinion they need to have plot. I think if you take away either the game system character growth or the combat but keep the plot, you have an adventure game, and if you take away the plot but keep the other elements, you have a strategy game. There's nothing wrong with either of these kinds of games, but they aren't RPGs.

  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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