Here’s a sobering fact for you oldsters: Most of the people reading this article hadn’t even been born when the RPGs that first established and defined the genre were released. They started gaming in an age full of emulation and easy access to detailed online walkthroughs and guides. It’s fully possible to hunt down these older games today, but even if you avoid remakes reworked with modern sensibilities, the current state of gaming is bound to color your perception of these legacy titles. Plus, you have access to the Internet. You can research what to do if you’re stuck, familiarize yourselves with the intricate details of play mechanics, and generally spoil the heck out of the experience. It’s possible you have the personal ethics to avoid such behavior, but modern RPGs certainly seem to encourage it.
That being said, let’s begin our experiment.
Depending on which platforms you had access to when RPGs were first taking root, odds were fairly good that your initial experience came in the form of the original Dragon Quest (or Warrior, if you prefer), Phantasy Star, or one of the first three Ultima games. There’s an outside chance all you had was an Intellivision with a Dungeons & Dragons-based first-person random dungeon crawl, or similarly derivative works on niche PCs like the TI99-4/A, but that particular flavor of game remembers its roots just fine. Otherwise, your main options all had a lot in common.
At first glance, they don’t seem to offer much that can’t be found in any given modern RPG, but look again. There’s a lot you can overlook about them at first glance. To start off, they all offered a general approach of openness. The original Dragon Quest in particular is rather impressive in that you have the theoretical ability to walk to just about any given point in the world right from the start of the game. The only thing keeping you from doing so is the fact that the farther you strayed from Tantagel Castle, the tougher the monsters became. Take about 25 steps counter-clockwise around the big C that is the world and at any given point in the game was practically suicide. Now, you might look back at the original Dragon Quest and say that’s boring, pointless, monotonous busy-work, and that you have better things to do with your time than sit here and kill something like 50 blue slimes so that you’re tough enough to head north a little and start killing red ones. This is actually absolutely true. Even at the time, it was pretty tedious, and should not be particularly missed.
The thing about Dragon Quest, though, is that it wasn’t really just about piling up dead slimes. It was about saving money. You’d gain your experience and level-ups, earn better stats and learn better spells, and all of that was a great side benefit. But the truly notable gains came from upgrading your equipment. This let you finish fights more quickly, take on bigger and more rewarding enemies, and save up bigger pools of cash and experience before dumping cash into the local inn to heal up. There was a fair bit of strategy involved here. Combat was fairly risky, with significant random factors to damage (1-3 HP lost per hit is a huge range when you only have a max of 12), flat-out misses, and those rare and precious critical hits. Fights against even wimpy monsters could last 4 rounds easily, and the run command failed more often than not, wasting your turn that round. How closely should you skirt death to squeeze the most cash out before hitting the inn? Misjudge and you’d die, losing half of your hard-earned wages.
Furthermore, each town offered its own impressive variety of new weapons and armor to choose from. Sure, you could grab that dagger right now on the cheap, but that chain-sickle is better, and you’ll lose a fair bit on the trade-in value if you work your way through the whole list. Is the modest extra damage of the weaker weapon going to increase your cash flow enough to pay off the difference? Then, of course, there’s going to be even better gear in the next town. Hmm... maybe you should just upgrade your armor now and save up a fair deal of cash, race over, running from fights, and leapfrog to a really snazzy sword over there.
This sort of efficiency math can get pretty deep, and still forms the basis for other genres which are still considered vibrant. StarCraft and Civilization IV rely, fundamentally, on the same basic risk-reward balance when it comes to competent play. RPGs on the other hand have, for the most part, completely abandoned all meaningful aspects of money management. Each time you reach a new town, your bank account will be so bloated that money is no object, allowing you to swing by the weapon shop, followed by the armor shop, grab the one and only new item available for each slot of each character’s equipment list, slap them on, and proceed. At that point, why bother? Few games even change things cosmetically when upgrading, and most downplay the importance of stats, so this process could be dropped completely or simply automated. If cost isn’t going to be an object, walking into a new town should just automatically upgrade your gear. Equipment upgrading is only interesting when meaningful decision-making is present. You can drop it and still have a decent game, but make it a clean break.
Now let’s get back to all that slime-slaughtering from Dragon Quest and the whole notion of level-grinding. Using tougher monsters to block player progress fell out of vogue fairly early on, as RPG world maps became strangely contrived collections of cavernous tunnels, outer oceans and inner seas, and towns flanked by impassible mountains on two sides. There was still some freedom of exploration to be had, but the player was initially restricted to a small area, widening in bursts as plot goals were achieved, leading to the building of bridges, the commandeering of ships, and the additions of cranes to the bottoms of airships to allow hovercrafts to be carried over rough terrain. At this point, there was no longer really any need to force the player to circle around towns to keep upcoming monsters from killing them, and experience points lost a lot of relevance. It took some time for people to realize that completing the tasks required to expand the world map out would put them through enough battles to flesh the game out, with Final Fantasy IV being the first real game to stand up and say hey, let’s balance the EXP curve so that you’ll level about as much as you need to if you go straight through the quest and never run away from a fight. The notion that you can go even further, dropping experience levels entirely, or awarding them for the completion of plot-related goals, allowing for much tighter combat balancing and requiring the player to employ effective strategies, is still extremely controversial, but it’s been proven to work here and there. It usually plays out best with an easily reachable experience cap that gets kicked up a few notches after each boss fight, as in Chrono Cross or Lost Odyssey?. At the other extreme, we have MMORPGs, which, as a general trend, have regressed back to that Dragon Quest approach: Opening up the whole world but dividing it into zones of increasingly tougher monsters, forcing one to spend literally months building up levels. But at least these games are using the concept in its original form and not just keeping a watered-down approximation for tradition’s sake.
Again, though, much better than constant level-grinding to keep the player from jumping to the end are those wonderful world maps, where new vehicles expand your exploration options. Somehow, these have disappeared. How did this happen? More importantly, why did this happen? Exploring an ever-expanding world is always fun. Maybe this is a slippery slope sort of thing. Way back when, you had to slog through the wilderness to get anywhere. If you’re doing a lot of backtracking, you’re going to end up spending hours on random overworld battles. This was the whole point in Dragon Quest, but again, we’ve moved beyond that. We’re no longer trying to travel as far from the world’s only save point as we dare to journey, do the best we can out there, and head back before we overextend ourselves. Well, not outside of Diablo or something similar, anyway. So, we add in the teleport spell. Now you can just zip right back to any town you’ve already visited rather than having to limp back after scraping through a dungeon. Admittedly, doing that could be an interesting prospect, offering the tension of potentially getting picked off by something wimpy as you stagger home, but it’s a fair trade off -- especially since the character with the teleport spell could die, forcing you to walk back anyway. A lot of games eventually started giving you late-game access to vehicles which completely removed random encounters, and were crazy speedy. These can make it tricky to restrict access to new locations if you don’t wait until the very end to toss them in, but again, those vehicles are satisfying and cool. They’re a nice milestone to progress, too. Chrono Trigger came along and gave us this abbreviated world map system, with no random battles and short walks between obvious towns and dungeons. Vehicle-based map expansion was pretty much a one-time thing, bringing you from a state of being stuck on one continent to having total access to everything, but they still accomplished the same practical results with the gimmick of time portals connecting to particular spots in different eras. Getting from continent A to continent B and getting from year A to year B each boil down to essentially the same thing.
A fair number of developers really liked Chrono Trigger’s map and decided to run with that approach. They didn’t do the time-travel thing though, so we didn’t have portals popping us into new hunks of the world all at once. We didn’t go back to the tried and true vehicular upgrade angle either, since it doesn’t really fit well with the abbreviated map view. Instead, the trend became setting up choke-points, with towns in little valleys and such, keeping you from moving on to new areas before the plot wanted you to. From there it was a really quick jump to the modern standard of point maps, and then Final Fantasy X?’s One Long Corridor approach.
“Point maps,” of course, refers to the setup in which players start with a blank map, and a little point marking a new location appears every time the plot gives the party cause to go there. It’s like we’re always using those old teleportation spells to get everywhere, even the places we’ve never been. Now, even with that summarized version of things, this felt like a natural progression, where we’re refining things down to the essentials, right? This is presumably the logic of the industry as a whole, but what it fails to take into account is the huge loss it creates. Exploring an enormous world looking for new stuff is fun. It’s why Metroid is a timeless classic and Kid Icarus just wants to be. It’s what gives the better games in the Zelda series such an epic feel. At least half the fun of older RPGs involved wandering off and finding little optional towns and dungeons on tiny islands in the middle of nowhere, with cool stuff in them. Every RPG should feature this sort of thing, and if you’re dropping it, you might as well have the words “Level 6” pop up when the player first enters the obligatory icy cavern.
For that matter, that obligatory icy cavern has really lost its edge over the years. Dungeons used to be a a huge deal. What we call “dungeons” these days are really just surrogates for nasty overworld stretches. Way back when, to get from one town to another, you would have to cut through a tougher stretch of ground, and survive a few encounters with some nasty local monsters. These days? We pop a location up on the map called something like Haunted Forest, and the next town doesn’t appear until we walk through the forest. Then we call that a dungeon. Way back when, a dungeon was some special, off-the-beaten path location. There would really only be a handful to hit over the course of the game, and they were a very big deal. In addition to the way random overworld encounters would have worn you down on the journey there, you’d also need to make sure you were fully loaded up on supplies, cramming what healing items you could afford into your cramped and restricted inventory, along with a torch. Maybe even two or three, in case you briefly resurfaced and had to use another to see in the next segment. Meanwhile, in real life, you’re getting a pad of graph paper out, preparing to work out a nasty maze, with potential pitfalls dropping you down to somewhere on a lower level. A dungeon was an intimidating endeavor that really gave a sense of accomplishment when you emerged, either with a piece of the best equipment or some magical artifact needed to reach the last location in the game. It was also common practice not to ever let you save your game while exploring these dungeons until you made your way back out into the daylight.
The intimidating dungeons of old had another benefit. You know all those random citizens wandering around towns spouting random bits of drivel? Those used to be a precious resource. Random citizens would give you vital tips on how to make your way through dungeons, point out what can be found in them, and explain where their entrances lay. Some games would make NPC chatter mandatory by only putting the Eye of Argon in the Cave of Monsters once someone told you to look for it there, but either way, those random NPCs once had purpose. Information gathering -- possibly even taking detailed notes -- used to be a task RPG fans had to master. It was interesting, and involved you more in the game and its story. The original Phantasy Star was particularly impressive in this regard, really hiding the best equipment away in places you wouldn’t normally think to look and explaining where to go through NPC conversations, some of which were loaded with outright lies. Some information could only be gathered by communicating with certain intelligent monster types rather than fighting them.
Today, your next destination is always a completely straightforward matter. NPCs are always window dressing, except for people in places of power who advance the plot by unlocking the exit from town after you sit through their cutsenes. Oddly, despite their uselessness, they tend to exist in far greater numbers. Instead of a handful of citizens likely possessing important information, we have dozens and dozens of idle passersby, none of whom ever have anything important to say but will gladly blather on about their personal lives should you happen to be bored enough to ask.
As for those intimidating dungeons, here’s another little fact that may surprise the modern gamer. It was surprisingly common to fully explore them without ever encountering a boss. These days, bosses are obligatory. You hit a town, you shop, you move on to the next “dungeon” and walk the fairly straightforward path to the end, the screen shakes, some random anonymous boss jumps out to fight you, and you have what might be an actually challenging fight to deal with. Lather, rinse, repeat until the end. Formerly, bosses were, much like proper dungeons, a very big deal. Normally, you would simply have the random encounters to deal with, and they were plenty challenging by themselves. Random battles weren’t speed bumps, they were large clumps of monsters: Not likely kill you outright, but capable of damaging you enough to force you into using your healing items and spells, slowly whittling you down to a point you’d have to abandon your dungeon-diving to head back to town. Any time an actual boss was involved, extra prep work was required.
Again, Phantasy Star provides an interesting example. There, you learn that Medusa has the best axe in the game. She’s also abandoned her original lair, and she has that whole petrifying gaze power that will wipe out your whole party if you don’t come prepared. So you explore, you amass hints from people here and there, you learn the location of the tower where she’s set up shop again, you learn about the mirror shield needed to defeat her -- it’s hidden in a place you wouldn’t know to look if you weren’t gathering this info, naturally. Assuming you have the vehicles needed, you set out, get the shield, find the tower, prepare, head in, map out the first couple floors, saving every so often for safety’s sake. When you find where Medusa is, you leave the dungeon completely. You rest up, resupply, find the most direct possible route from the map you made, rush in, kill her -- well, hopefully, as it’s a tough fight even if you do come prepared -- and get out. It’s a pretty epic experience for just a little sidequest.
Now you’ll find a big monster at the end of every dungeon that consists of a path between two towns. The boss fight will still be fairly challenging, but developers, not wanting to discourage players, will do everything they can to make sure you can fight it at full strength. First came save points, which were reasonable. Then came cakewalk enemies on the way, so you weren’t half-dead by the time you reach the end. Again, there’s a lot to be said for having to work out a route to the boss that minimizes how many encounters will wear you down along the way, but it’s a trade off that can be made to work. But it doesn’t end there, as save points began to double as free healing stations. Now, it no longer matters how much we get chewed up on the way in, we’ll always be fine. Even so, we’re still keeping our watered-down speed bump encounters. There’s only two sensible courses of action to take from here, neither of which I can recall being attempted by any RPG. We can drop our now-pointless encounters entirely, strip out the long dull “dungeons” which really serve only to force you into a few random encounters as you move along, and just space out towns and plot points with immediate boss encounters. (It worked for Shadow of the Colossus.) Alternatively, we can take our actually challenging monsters that we’re using as bosses, cut their HP down to something manageable, and use them as our random encounters. “Dungeons” now become quick desperate gauntlets where anything can potentially kill you, all you have to do is survive and get to the other side. Only the final boss is a real proper one-shot long grueling battle.
But wait a minute. If “dungeons” are now just paths between towns ending in big fights instead of places we go out of our way to find, what happened to earning the best equipment in the game through hard work? Sure, the best gear in the game could simply be the stuff you can buy in the last town you find, but modern RPGs have a different solution to the problem: A truly horrible little game concept we’ll call Magic Seeds. Again, the best attainable items in RPGs used to be the stuff of local legend. “The Ultimate Sword is in a cave off in the mountains to the north,” says a random NPC. Great, you prepare, you go through, hopefully you survive to find that treasure chest on the 10th floor, and you make it out alive. Any chests you find without any build-up, just lying in dead ends or out of the way areas, those will have things that are handy in the short term. Weapons you’d otherwise pay a lot for at the next town you find (or even the last, but the price was too high), disposable healing items, plain old stacks of cash, things like that.
Today, things are different. Now to get the best equipment of the game, you need to bring some eccentric weirdo all 100 Magic Seeds. Different games call them different things, but they’re almost always there. Other genres have them too. Mediocre platformers love them as a means of extending gameplay. Sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto use them as incentive to ignore the plot and just go sight-seeing. They were first introduced into RPGs by Illusion of Gaia, which made one of these items completely missable in the early going if you advanced the plot too quickly, instantly establishing them as a hateful source of frustration. Again, missing treasures never used to be a big deal. Skipping that side passage cost you a fire sword? You can save up some extra cash and buy one, or just keep moving forward until it’s obsolete. Don’t want the headache of grabbing the ultimate weapon? Skip the cave its in. You can always go back if you’re getting beaten up too badly and decide you need it to win. Not anymore; you’d darn well better obsessively search everything that can be searched, because any random rock, sconce, puddle, shelf, or deceptive areas that don’t look reachable could have a magic seed in it. If you miss it, you’re going to screw yourself out of something great 60 hours down the line, and you’ll essentially have to replay the whole game to find it. In many cases, you’ll literally have to replay the whole game, because it might be one of those “missable” items that have become surprisingly commonplace.
If someone’s playing a game, odds are good that they want to relax and have fun. If you hide random little goodies all over the place whose benefit is short-term only, great. You’re rewarding them for being thorough. With missable items, you’re punishing them for negligence. And that stresses people out.
Many games have recently elevated this to a new level with convoluted item creation systems. Now not only is the player forced into spamming the search button over every square millimeter of every area, they’re obligated to steal from and kill huge numbers of each available monster type, especially rare ones, and reload several times after killing any bosses. Players need to be certain that a given boss doesn’t have a slim chance of dropping some rare trinket which can be combined with 20 other knick-knacks to make the Helmet of Wonders. While one could honestly make a very interesting game based solely around being some legendary craftsman, searching around for materials and working out how best to combine them, it doesn’t work in the context of a traditional RPG. No, what you’re essentially doing is reverting to the days of slogging through wave after wave of monsters to save up for that shiny new equipment. The difference now is that the player has no idea how much closer each kill is bringing them to their goal, or even what that goal is, and their ability to earn the same things much faster by spending time in a riskier area is compromised as well.
Any number of otherwise wonderful games have been completely undermined by the inclusion of systems like this. Those players who aren’t completely put off by it on the other hand are in all likelihood either running to GameFAQs and playing through the whole game with a giant checklist in their lap, or else they’re throwing their hands up and ignoring the mechanic altogether. No one is getting any enjoyment out of this at this point. Besides, if that last group is able to get through the whole game without ever needing to bother collecting beast hides and frog eyes for the extra edge that the resultant Eyehide Helmet is going to give them, why did you even bother to include it?
We should also take a good look at the characters we’re sticking this equipment on, because we’ve reached a very odd state of things when it comes to swapping out party members. Way back when, either a character was with you, or they weren’t. People could die as part of the plot, or leave, either permanently or for a decent swath of the game. Otherwise though, if someone is willing to be in your party, they’re always present. Later, RPGs started throwing in larger and larger numbers of characters leading to parties of five or six people at a time. Some games decided however that things were getting out of hand with this sort of thing, and put a cap on party size. You can bring four or so people with you at a time, of your choice, but everyone else is going to have to wait around in some home base location. Usually, at least some attempt to rationalize this will be made, be it an insistence that everyone else is needed elsewhere, or some in-game restriction on how many people can travel together at once. For games without any real customization of characters, this was a nice system. If you really like offensive magic, you just take the big blasting mage with you everywhere. If you prefer the simplicity of a big dumb fighter, Magey can sit at home answering the phones and making coffee.
This model quickly became popular, with the standard size eventually shrinking down to three person parties. Fully customizable characters also became more of a norm, at which point it all became questionable. If all my characters are functionally identical, why don’t I just pick three to use all the time, leveling them to godhood while everyone else spends the whole game loafing around? In any case, at some point, someone decided that having to walk all the way back to a particular place to switch people out was annoying, and allowed it from a basic menu screen option. Final Fantasy VII may have made the first step in this direction, and with characters who were just coat hangers for equipment sets at that. More recent games in the Final Fantasy series have taken things to a rather absurd degree, allowing characters to be swapped in and out of the party even in the middle of combat. This makes no sense at all. Obviously, the seven or eight characters who comprise your party are always traveling together, but only three are participating in battle. Everyone else is... where? Trailing a few feet behind, just out of view? Sometimes monsters ambush you. Why don’t they pick on the ill-equipped weaklings in the rear? It’s a jarringly arbitrary situation. Particularly when we have parties of fully customizable characters, all joining up right at the start of the game, most with little or no impact on the story. We could easily eliminate these strange situations by condensing the party to a small number of better-rounded characters, or by letting everyone into the fight and upping the difficulty to compensate. Combat in a fair number of RPGs has become window dressing already, so even without tweaking stats, one could throw in massive parties and not much would be changed.
What all of this boils down to is the fact that RPG developers need to stop and think about what they’re doing. This isn’t a call for a return to a simpler era, although there’s nothing wrong with going that route. Retro Game Challenge’s Guardia Quest is seriously one of the most enjoyable RPGs of the last several years. But no: This is a call for developers to stop being so apathetic, to stop going through the motions. To stop blindly following established conventions that actually harm their games.
Developers! If you aren’t going to give players a real reason to wander around towns talking to all the citizens, just leave the worthless NPCs out. If your random battles never make players break a sweat and offer no meaningful reward, just cut them out entirely. And of course, if you’re worried that trimming out all this fat will leave you with a short, trite little game, with no real gameplay to speak of, what you’re working on is a terrible game. Eighty hours of pointless filler won’t change that. Either bring something new to the table, and change what you have to to make it a good fit... or look into what actually works about what you’re lifting from older games, and make sure you include the context for them, too.
Images courtesy of HG101