Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Top 10 Least Recognised Game Designs

Most of the games listed below either addressed or solved a game design conundrum (more-or-less successfully) and yet in many cases their solutions have been ignored by subsequent game designers. Some of these games were commercially successful but no-one seems to realize how influential they were (e.g. Ultima Underworld), while others were brilliant designs that have for some reason not been influential (e.g. DragonQuest).

In no particular order (and including both computer and paper games)...

10. Voyage of the BSM Pandora

This was a paper game designed by SPI and originally published as the "centrefold" of an issue of ARES magazine. There was probably a game like it beforehand (e.g. Source of the Nile, eventually but not originally published by Avalon Hill) or after it (e.g. Tales of the Arabian Nights, by West End Games) that can claim to be earlier or more refined, but this is one of the games that began the entire concept of a content-driven game design.

Like many such games, and many computer games, but unlike most boardgames of the time, Pandora was a solitaire game, where the content, dice, and game algorithms neutrally simulated the universe you explored. As well as tables, the events in the game were driven by numbered paragraphs; tables led to paragraphs which themselves could interconnect based on your decisions: a sort of "choose your own adventure" on steroids (but before the first "choose your own adventure" books were published).

Some computer games are essentially little more than obvious implementations of the concepts of Pandora, e.g. Starflight (itself a near legendary and underrated game), Space Control 2, Alien Legacy, etc. etc., while almost any game that tries to combine open-endedess with content designed for effect (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) owes something conceptually to this game and its brethren.

9. Faerie Tale

Maybe it's because it was originally released for the Amiga that this game has not received its just recognition, but this was (as far as I know) the first game to try to implement an entire fantasy world in a single mode, and succeed. And, supposedly, it was created entirely by one guy in six months (he even did the music -- I'm not sure if he composed it or stole it from some ancient folk music, but it was quite nice). In Faerie Tale you play three brothers (one at a time, it's kind of like having extra lives in a video game) trying to figure out what's happened to your father. In the process you defeat a witch, a dragon, ride a giant turtle and a golden swan, rescue a princess, and defeat the major villain in an alternate plane -- all seamlessly.

8. Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief (a.k.a. The Dark Project)

This is probably my least controversial choice. Ultima Underworld (which has approximately nothing to do with the Ultima games) was a best selling game of its time, but today people forget that it predated Doom. It was the first seamless true 3D role-playing game (you couldn't go outdoors -- strike one against it -- but you could talk to people in game and what you said *mattered*, which more than makes up for it).

It's interesting to see how the enormously ambitious concept of Ultima Underworld (which allowed you to play a RuneQuest-style jack-of-all-trades-you-practice) was gradually honed into a much more immersive but focussed game in the shape of Thief (where they turned the first person shooter on its head and made you sneak and skulk and avoid combat at all cost; just to show how clear their vision was, when you turned up the difficulty level, you became easier to kill and had more constraints against killing). If only Looking Glass had lived on they might have been able to broaden their vision again and given every character concept the visionary implementation they give thieves in Thief (e.g. consider that Thief probably had the best implementation of fencing and archery any FPS has had to date, and it was hardly a focus of the game).

Why do role-playing games show up so much on this list? Well for one thing they're often the most ambitious game designs, and for another most megahit games are, in essence, dumbed down role-playing games: e.g. Medal of Honor (you're a soldier), Grand Theft Auto III (you're a thug who drives cars), and Diablo (you're a barbarian with RSI). Even strategy games these days, e.g. Warcraft, tend to (a) personify you, and (b) personify your subordinates, and (c) personify your enemies to give a greater feeling of immersion. RPGs are the original immersive game design, and these days pretty much everything is influenced by RPG design.

7. Cinemaware Games

Cinemaware never really produced a single great game, and their biggest hit (Defender of the Crown) was really a very lackluster piece of work (it was a great showcase for the Amiga's graphics though, which made it a hit).

Many years ago, SPI used to put one paragraph game concepts in its feedback section and ask readers to rate them. One of my all-time favorite proposals was called "Tale of the Three Kingdoms", which read like an April Fool's Day joke or a role-players wet dream. The basic idea was something like, you wake up in the middle of a field in an imaginary central European country sometime in them middle ages, and from there you can become a vagabond, a minstrel, a knight, a duke, or all of the above, waging power politics or sneaking into mansions to steal cheese.

Cinemaware tried to make interactive movies where you could do pretty much anything that would make sense in the movie (always some kind of hackneyed 50's movie full of cliches), so in Defender of the Crown you commanded an army, snuck into enemy castles, fenced, and tried to court a princess.

Cinemaware was (and remains) remarkable for having tried to implement games where you, the central character, could do almost anything that made sense in terms of the story. It's not surprising that they, eventually, failed as a company. But it's amazing that they tried and to some extent succeeded as a game company.

6. DragonQuest, 2nd Edition

DragonQuest achieved so many firsts in role-playing that it's hard to know where to start. The fact that it was something of a "dog's breakfast" design somehow managed to enhance rather than detract from it (essentially, the magic, skill, and combat systems were designed separately, and are distinct enough that magic "feels" different from skills and combat, while not feeling like part of a completely different game).

Probably the most important single feature of DragonQuest is that it appears to have been the first role-playing game to have been designed as a simulation. Earlier games essentially seem to have named dice spreads and hoped they behaved in a manner vaguely related to the thing their name was taken from.

Let me give you a simple example: when you put on a suit of armor, it weighs you down and constrains your limbs making you slower and less mobile. There's no two ways about it -- no-one puts on a suit of chainmail before entering a running race. Hitting a person in armor is thus easier than hitting someone dressed in light or no clothing. Hurting them is another matter. So putting on a suit of armor implies trading off between the ability to dodge and the ability to withstand blows. No game prior to DragonQuest made even a pretense of representing this simple fact, and most followed Dungeons & Dragon's absurd lead in doing the complete reverse (armor makes you harder to hit).

DragonQuest also eschewed the concept of character classes but figured out a way of keeping character design a matter of making tradeoffs (so your character couldn't just turn into an omnipotent killing machine given a bit of practice). RuneQuest got rid of character classes, but ended up with all characters looking pretty much identical. The Fantasy Trip made you choose between magician and warrior, which is artificial and didn't work. Traveller had skills, but no experience system.

Speaking of experience systems, DragonQuest was the first role-playing game to give out experience for achieving objectives (rather than killing people or just using one' skills).

Perhaps the most hilariously original feature of DragonQuest was that its weapons, magic, and item lists were based on actual research (some of it perhaps not so exhaustive as it should have been). The prices of goods were, if not totally accurate, at least plausible. Weapons were actually properly named, had the appropriate characteristics (including weight), and were as useful or useless as they should have been. The magic in the game was designed to resemble specific books (e.g. Naming Incantations was straight out of "A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula K. Le Guin) or mythology (e.g. Greater Summoners were based on the Lesser Key of Solomon). Incredible.

Oh yeah, and it was more fun to play and far less complex than D&D.

It's amazing to consider that over twenty years after it was published, DragonQuest's key design features are still ignored in favor of idiotic D&Disms. In most computer (and many paper) RPGs, armor still makes you harder to hit; characters are either RuneQuest-like Swiss Army Knives or members of bizarrely constrained classes ("Argh. My knowledge of magic has rendered me incapable of picking up this axe..."); and the only way to improve your knowledge of alchemy is by killing thousands of orcs.

5. Taskforce, Cityfight

SPI's game designers had two obsessions which were reflected in many of their later game designs, and which would both turn out to be significant but underexploited benefits of implementing games on computers. TaskForce and Cityfight were both double-blind limited intelligence games that, uniquely among such games at the time, did not require a referee. In essence, both games were designed like highly complex variants of "Battleship" where (unlike in Battleship) your pieces can move, and what you look at in some sense gives away where you are ("If he's looking at J5 then he must be in an adjacent square"). Both games used brilliant mechanisms to reduce the amount of information given away when you searched an area without making the games unplayable.

The fog of war effect produced by these designs was amazing, and a foretaste of what would be seen in computer games such as Harpoon. Implementing the fog of war is something far easier to do in computer games than in boardgames, and yet remains pretty much restricted to (a) you can't see enemy units that aren't in line of sight of your units, and (b) maybe don't show the map of places you haven't visited yet.

4. Gulf War

Another of SPI's and later Victory Games' obsessions was with removing "modes" from turn-based games. Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader are examples of perhaps the most egregious "sequence of play" ever seen in a boardgame.

For those of you blissfully unaware of this term, the original board war games went something like this: Player A moves any or all of his/her pieces. Player A resolves combat. Player B moves any or all of his/her pieces. Player B resolves combat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Over time, games got more ambitious, and issues such as supply, artillery, air support, amphibious landings, production, etc., started appearing, and in almost every case they became distinct "phases" of the sequence of play. So a turn became: Players calculate production total. Players allocate production. Players move units in production one step towards completion. Completed units are deployed to staging areas. Players determine unit supply status... And we haven't even gotten to actually moving or fighting anything yet.

In Gulf War, Mark Herman (formerly of SPI) finally went for the ultimate "in this phase everything happens" game. It was an immensely appealing design idea, and really foreshadows real-time strategy games.

3. The Longest Day

For some reason Avalon Hill thought licensing the name of an old war movie would help sell copies of this behemoth (I still have a copy somewhere, I think: I wonder how much I can get for it on eBay...). The Longest Day was Avalon Hill's only real foray into the "Monster Game" category (war games with over 1000 units on board at once), but the truly brilliant feature of this game was the way it handled supply.

Supply is the dirty secret of war game design. In most war games it is an afterthought, simply used as an excuse to constrain players from deploying their units in ways that would seem very sensible at first but would be insane in real life. Unfortunately, the rules often break down when the supply rules actually come into play. Typical examples are: (a) when out of supply a unit is suddenly rendered dysfunctional, and (b) you may not voluntarily move a unit "out of supply".

The idea is simple: in real life a military unit is pretty much useless without (a) fuel, (b) ammunition, and (c) victuals. These are generally furnished by a more-or-less continuous stream of vehicles, peasants, or whatever, between some supply stockpile and this unit. Keeping track of all this is generally seen as too boring and tedious to bother players with, and so it's usually abstracted to "if you can trace a clear route to a friendly supply depot" you are "in supply", otherwise you are "out of supply" and either thus drastically affected (e.g. your combat strength is halved, you movement rate is halved, you surrender in two turns, etc.).

The sad thing about such abstractions is that they essentially remove from a military simulation what, in many cases, were the kinds of decision that made the difference between good and bad commanders. (Consider that probably the most decisive move of the American Civil War, Grant's Vicksburg campaign, involved deliberately moving an army out of supply, something that many war games simply won't allow you to do!) It's like having a marksmanship content where having a nice shiny weapon is more important than hitting the target.

The Longest Day treated supplies as units that could be moved around, stockpiled, and consumed. Supply was still very abstract (e.g. ammunition was not handled separately from fuel), but now you had the concept of a military unit being able to function well without being "in supply" if its stockpiles were sufficient or if, for example, it didn't have to do much moving or fighting. Suddenly, a prospective Grant could, in this instance, gather up supplies, leave behind surplus units, and boldly strike for the rear to capture a strategically important objective.

Again, it's sad to see a concept like this, which has been nicely implemented in a board game, all but ignored by designers of computer games which would have far less trouble incorporating it into their products.

2. John Carter, Warlord of Mars

It seems to me that the fundamental failure of online RPGs to this point is in their failure to efficiently harness player creativity. This observation might seem out of place in a discussion of "John Carter", a multiplayer board game, but I contend that John Carter tried (in a rather more rigorous way than Chivalry & Sorcery) to address this issue.

To begin with, John Carter was an early "characters and armies" game -- something SPI tried to do, with varying success, with quite a few games (notably its rather good "War of the Ring"). For another it had a very neat fencing game, using cards to "pre plot" moves, making it both more fun and less annoying than GDW's "En Garde".

But the really neat trick in John Carter was that each player played a hero and a villain. In other words you were doing dastardly deeds for the player to your left to handle as you yourself handled the outrages perpetrated by the player to your right. And this actually worked! This kind of approach is a far cleverer solution to the lack of dynamic content in online games than, for example, allowing people to build and decorate houses, produce things by tradeskill, or simply fight one another.

1. Swords & Sorcery, Freedom in the Galaxy

These two games represented the pinnacle of the "character and army" game, where everything from diplomacy to commando raids to naval engagements happened in concert on the same board. This genre has since been taken over completely by computer games, but it's remarkable that very few games even approach the scope of these computer games. The closest attempts are probably Master of Orion, Master of Magic, and their sequels and imitators.

Perhaps the most hilarious thing about Freedom in the Galaxy is that it was published before "The Empire Strikes Back" came out, but -- while being an obvious Star Wars parody -- it easily allows for pretty much any of the events or story lines seen in the subsequent Star Wars films (including prequels) to occur, and much besides.

A good simulation game should, in my opinion, do a great job with typical situations and a good job with atypical situations; it should do as good a job of allowing what actually happened to occur as it does of allowing what might reasonably have happened instead to occur. (Most simulation games do none of these things!)