Accessibility in RPGs (With more Daggerfall/Arena stuff)

Another piece by Rowan, prompting another response/extension here on LC.

(Sure, unsurprising. But, hey, even when I disagree, I like what he writes. So why not?)

This time he’s talking about the surprising accessibility of Might and Magic 3. Its relatively simplicity in design and play means that it’s pretty accessible in ways that more ambitious games aren’t. He ain’t wrong there.

My immediate response—as I said on Twitter—was a reminder old JRPGs tend to do quite well when paired with more up-to-date graphics. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, whatever; they do really well, and there’s reasons for that. You may not have all the choice that you do with a modern western RPG, or even the older western RPGs, but the whole “attack, defend, magic, item” thing is pretty instantly understandable. As long as you tweak the random encounter rate so that it isn’t painful, you can give people a really satisfying experience, even if they don’t have Ultimate Freedom And Control. Compare that to, say, Ultima 4. Sure, it’s highly-regarded, but it’s also famously off-putting to modern audiences.

…Since this IS Leveling Criticism, though, I’m gonna bring it back to Elder Scrolls.

Folks, I’m pretty close to finishing Daggerfall. I’ve pretty much gotten as high as I care to in the factions that I’m interested in, I’ve booted around the overworld in high-speed cheaty-mode, I know pretty much what’s going on with the main plot, and I’m a few main dungeons away from getting it all sorted out. I’ve opened up the spell-maker, the item-maker, and played around with both, making some neat stuff. I’ve seen most of what Daggerfall has to offer in terms of dungeon and quest design. And guess what?

I prefer Arena.

I’m still not quite sure why. I’m quite sure it’s true, but I’m not quite sure why it’s true.  Certainly Daggerfall is a more ambitious project, and it’s a fair bit more immersive in many respects. There’s loads more to do, and the environment’s still daunting and huge. I’m still gobsmacked at the size of the major cities in Daggerfall and am very aware that nobody will ever make anything as bit again. But, yeah, I do prefer Arena.

Rowan may have hit on part of it. Arena‘s relative simplicity may have something to do with it. Arena ain’t complicated. You’ve got a big evil overlord that’s imprisoned you and wants to kill you, you’ve got a friendly ghost helping you, you’ve got to break out of the dungeons and take out the Big Bad by collecting together the 8 chunks of foozle. You go into sixteen different hand-crafted 2D tile-based dungeons in order to do it, before heading to the seventeenth—the same dungeon that you escaped—in order to do it. Simple. It even comes with an auto-map, and the combat’s marvelously intuitive once you get used to it.

Sure, there’s stats, and classes, some neat random quests, and a really neat spell-maker gizmo that lets you make spells that completely break the game if you want to. And, yes, its’ got a big world. But for all its size, Arena is pretty simple. The most off-putting thing is that the initial dungeon’s tuning needed a bit of work.

Compare that to Daggerfall. Leave aside the sheer size of the environment. You’ve got a game where you can do almost anything. You have a class-making system. You have a spell-making system. You have an item-making system. You have a potion-making system. You have a variety of attributes, and a HOST of skills, all of which need to be considered and managed. Manage them right, and the game’s easy; manage them wrong, and it’s impossible. Good luck.

You have dozens of factions, many of which are opposed to each other, where your reputation with said factions is something you need to often consider and manage. You have a main quest woven into these factional conflicts which is so quiet and inobtrusive that many players may not even realize it exists until it’s too late.

(It’s so very, very easy to break the main quest of Daggerfall. You’ll never know you did it, either.)

Raising your status with the factions usually involves going into immense dungeons and finding targets of such immense obscurity that every FAQ on the Internet tells you to cheat if you want to have any hope of doing it at all. And if you mess up your status with some of the factions, that’ll affect the main quest too, in ways that are impossible to predict.

Sure, it’s rich. It’s incredibly rich. It’s immensely rich. But that richness does mean that it just doesn’t feel that accessible. Arena did.

Skyrim is infinitely more accessible than both, of course, since Skyrim dispenses with even those parts of Arena that can be offputting. It doesn’t have classes, and barely has stats. The factions are more about hosting quest-lines than about managing quantitative status. Most quests are carefully written and scripted, and the random ones are used to shuttle you about more than anything else. It’s also near-impossible to break the main questline. It’s difficult to break ANY of them.

It’s the dungeons that really show the problem, though. Daggerfall has an endless number of dungeons, and all the dungeons are so intricate and difficult in design that the mapping tool simply can’t manage it, though it’s quite possible that no mapping tool could.  Daggerfall dungeons often look like something out of the latter parts of Descent.

Arena dungeons are simpler, sure. They’re 2D tile-based levels that would be familiar to anybody who’s played anything from Shining in the Darkness to Dungeon Master to Phantasy Star to, yes, Might and MagicThat’s why they work. They’re an expansive, immersive version of something that’s already pretty familiar. They’re easy to grasp and simple to map, yet still employ some fun three-dimensional trickery to make them more entertaining. They often subvert the map, but they never make it uselessDaggerfall‘s dungeons, astonishing and huge and groundbreaking as they are, were really just too much.

(Quite a bit like Descent, in fact.)

That’s the main reason I haven’t done a dungeon-by-dungeon examination of Daggerfall like the #craigplaysarena series I did on Google+ about Arena. I wouldn’t know where to start. I can’t even find decent maps of the things anywhere. Even the FAQs never have a full map, but just a set of directions.  I can’t keep a map of the things in my head, the map I use in the game is useless, and nobody else seems to have any either. How can you critique or analyze a dungeon like that? So, instead, you get these broader discussions.

Once I move on to Morrowind, I’ll try to get back to discussing individual quests and dungeons again, since I know that they’re a bit less daunting. It’ll never be a full-on “Let’s Play”, but I would like to be able to focus a bit more than I have been able to with Daggerfall. I’ll also make a point of returning to the game when the DaggerXL engine modernization project has moved on a bit.  I’d be interested in seeing whether a modern engine helps.

I know people are absolutely in love with Daggerfall, and I can really see where they’re coming from. Every so often, it really can suck you in, and at those moments I do wonder whether I’m being too hard on it. It was an astonishing project, even if it didn’t quite work. I want to love it more than I do.

But, yeah, it does show that Rowan’s bang-on about accessibility. You can be too big. You can be too ambitious. If you’re not very careful, it’ll just leave players behind.

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