Rampant Coyote Reviews Dungeons & Desktops and some Reflections on the Future

Matt Barton's picture

Rampant Coyote has posted a new review of my book Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. It's a very positive and detailed review and really gets at the heart of what I was attempting with the book: Bottom line (again): I loved the book. If you are a serious computer RPG fan who doesn’t believe the genre began with Oblivion or Diablo II, and especially if you are at all involved in making or reviewing RPGs, you should give it a read. I have a response below.

He mentions the "indie age" for a 2nd edition, something I've thought about off and on. As he says, the book is already so massive and jam-packed it's hard to imagine grafting on another chapter with hundreds of lesser known or indie titles. Still, it should be possible to collect a list of a few dozen highly influential or noteworthy indie RPGs to emerge in recent years. I was just playing a new one called Underworld that'll scratch that itch for early 80s RPGs, and of course several AA regulars are rolling their own as you read this.

RC disagrees with my prognostications on the future of the genre. As you recall, it was my contention that MMO will continue to dominate, with the competition coming with games like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2; that is, games that focus heavily on story, characters, and strategies (the type of things that are hard to do in an MMO). Although I've yet to see a great turn-based RPG, I'm sure it's coming. I don't see much room left for real-time or action RPGs, at least nothing that's going to be huge. Diablo III will certainly make a big splash, but my bet is that it'll quickly fade from the scene as fans get bored and return to World of Warcraft. Bethesda will continue making sensible alternatives to MMOs, of course, with vibrant worlds that are just like WoW without other players. Bioware will likely continue with its Mass Effect series, but I hope against hope that they'll redesign the DA:O engine to include better tactical combat--if not true turn-based, at least something more reminiscent of Pool of Radiance or (at least!!) Baldur's Gate II or Icewind Dale II.

I see a gaping chasm right now that could be filled by a great developer with some true ambition. All you really need to do is combine Pool of Radiance and Baldur's Gate II. That is, during combat sequences, allow the battle to either play out in real time or shift into turn-based mode. In those cases, I'd like options to minimize the graphics, possibly even giving me a hexagonal grid to work with. Naturally, this wouldn't be necessary for every battle, but it could be very useful when the going gets really tough. (Arguably, every battle should be meaningful enough to warrant real strategy anyway). The key with doing turn-based right is to make it as "smart" as possible, with savvy interfaces that can predict or learn from you, saving as many clicks and as much time as possible. Once you feel that you've got it under control, it should be switchable back into realtime mode (or at least automatic) to finish up quickly. I know some games have tried something like this, but none got it perfect. Either the battles were too slow, or the interfaces too cumbersome.

Beyond this hybrid combat mode, the game must also focus either on a strong story and characters *or* a diverse, intriguing gameworld. For the former I think of Baldur's Gate; for the latter, Pool of Radiance. I'm not sure it's entirely possible to have both in the same game. If you try to do both, you'll just end up doing both poorly, or distracting the player (the old "not sure where to focus" problem). I'm not saying that a story/character driven game shouldn't have a great world, just that it can't also be the focus. At a certain point a gameworld becomes a setting or perhaps even scenery if you place too emphasis on characters and dramatic interactions between them. If you limit these aspects, though, you can make exploring the world more important, especially if you're willing to weave a great narrative around it (such as in POR). This is especially important if you have a game where players make their own parties and NPC interaction is limited. In those cases, an interesting gameworld is paramount. Drab dungeons and such will bore the $#$ out of you in such a game.