Currently playing: 7 mages, Drive to Moscow, Ravenloft: Stone Prophet

March 20, 2012

Why I play old CRPGs

One could wonder how it comes that I - in my late thirties - could even think of playing old CRPGS created 20-25 years ago with its extremely bad graphics and sound compared to todays standard. Add to that your friends or familys wrinkle of their eyebrows when they see the games in action. 

For me, it all begun in januari 2011. I had no games to play at the time. I stumbled upon Freegameempire, a site which had old CRPGS downloadable and bundled with a selfstarting Dosbox environment from within your browser. Just Click´n & Play.

I started out with Ultima Underworld, one of the first realtime 3D RPGs released in 1992. Despite the horrendous vga graphics there was something that hooked me immediately. Perhaps it was the vulnerable spot in which you start. No weapons or equipment and confined into a dungeon with no way of escaping. Or maybe it is the dark atmosphere or graphics that accompanied the game. Or the lack of todays handhelding with arrows pointing you to your objectives ? The feeling of owning nothing and having to aquire everything you need and learn what you need to do makes the game more accessible in the beginning.  Compare it with a modern game like Drakensang that has these cartoonish-like colours for kids. Even the manual for Ultima Underworld helped build up the atmosphere required.

I have played a lot of roleplaying games released during the last decade. Many of them are great like Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim. Add to that Gothic 1-3, Witcher 1-2 and a few others coming behind. And yet, It is clear where the RPGs are going. The last couple of years have had me more and more irritated of the development of modern roleplaying games.

  • Recent RPGs gets more and more easy on the "normal" difficulty level. Classical RPGs are much, much harder and unforgiving. Today you not only get easier fights. You are handheld all too often. You either have direction arrows for your objectives or the fights are easier, more cinematic with great graphics and a story that almost never let you get stuck anywhere. There are seldom any puzzles, hidden levers or anything that slows you down on your quest. 
  • All the numbercrunching and stats are hidden, if they exist at all. Look at the development between Morrwind - through Oblivion - to Skyrim. The stats are gone. You have fewer skills etc. Look at Neverwinter Nights vs Dragon Age or Dragon Age vs Dragon Age 2. Things gets more streamlined and cinematic. Every game should be immediately accessible and give instant satisfaction. If you are not able to fight a fire-breathing dragon within 5 minutes they fear you will drop the game (Witcher 2 is a perfect example of a breathtaking intro that is done to capture the player).
  • When did you last find a secret door, lever or hidden spot in a modern RPG ? When did you miss out this magical and hidden item by exploring parts of the world in which no one had ventured before ? Most of the modern games are either very linear with few hidden things to discover in its enourmous worlds. Even though they might give your the feeling of going everywhere how often can you come across places which really hides useful items or treasures ?
  • How often do you have to backtrack because you meet an opponent or obstacle so tough that you have to level up a bit before taking it on in modern RPGs ? Grinding is a concept totally unknown for todays players. I am not saying countless of grinding hours is fun but the fact that you need to do your homework before tackling the real challenges should be natural. Where are the patience and perseverance required and rewarded ?
  • The lack of any useful manuals. There are not even ingame manuals in all games. Most rely on tutorials or ingame encyklopedias - that while good - lacks the developers written enthusiasm for their games which could be felt when reading the designers notes or introductions in the old manuals.
These are just a few things that I feel is lacking in current RPGs released. What is the reason ? I have two theories. One is that most games are done for several formats. The console market hosts in average younger players. They cannot be bothered to read thick manuals anymore (hey, there are almost no manuals printed at all anymore. That´s another topic!) to understand pros and cons of choosing different races, professions, learn what the statistics mean etc etc.They just want to play straight on. That leads me to my second point.

Today the competition is so fierce so you cannot afford to make a game too much of a challenge and risk the player getting tired of it and move on to another game. You have too keep up the interest at all times. So you lead the player in a very graphically beautiful, cinematic story with mostly quite easy obstacles and focus on a strong interactive story instead.

Compare that to the old CRPGs. They came with thick, atmospheric creating manuals. The boxes bragged about the features of the games like the number of monsters or spells, the amount of dungeons, classes or professions. How many modern RPGs is advertised in that way ?

The classical CRPGs are much harder and unforgiving. Some of them are even to the extreme and make bad examples but in the end of the day I will always choose to play an RPG which is a little bit too challenging than the other way around. The enjoyment of gaining a level, getting the final gold needed to upgrade your equipment or having enough gold to get the spell needed to defeat a tough opponent is irresistible.

There are of course a lot of old CRPGs better avoided, but take a modern game like Gothic 4 for example. The expectations where skyhigh. The game was so unchallenging and easy, so empty and with so bad NPC:s and dialogue that you wondered if it was meant to be played by children alone. This must be my worst example of modern RPGs. Then you have Risen, a perfectly balanced game, true to the ancestral lineage from the Gothic series. Very hard at times. Yes, there are examples of good modern RPGs but they are getting fewer and fewer inbetween.

Lastly I will admit that a great part of my fondness for classical CRPGS are of nostalgic reasons. When you are young you literally suck in all the emotions from these games and they stick with you for all these years. It is very seldom this feeling comes back in modern RPGs.

There are also three other reasons for me playing these old CRPGs. One is that many of them are abandonware today and while you are waiting for new mainstream games like Skyrim or Risen 2 you could always spend some time with these golden oldies. The other thing I was about to say was that since they are turnbased they don´t force you to be active in front of the computer all the time. You could pause whenever you want and get interrupted by the surroundings without spoiling anything. Besides, these games work splendid on small netbooks or other old laptops you might have lying around.

One game company that have seen this problem today is www.basiliskgames.com who have produced Eschalon book 1 and 2. Two excellent RPGs true to the charm of old roleplaying games. I can highly recommend these two games. They are worth every penny. Check them out.

So, readers out there, why do you play old CRPGs like me ?



29 comments:

  1. I am older than you and I still prefer the older CRPGs. I remember the first time I played Might and Magic 3. I can't count the number of restarts and level building I had to do to get past those darn screaming heads.

    I like that the older games are not (for the most part) internet hobbled. I prefer a game that I can sit down and play at my own speed against the computer or the game itself.

    And yes, I like having to find hidden squares and treasures and the like. I enjoyed the manuals and the maps that came with them; (or my sorcerer's stone in Zork, the Great Underground Empire). I wore out my Might and Magic T-shirt years ago.

    Now they expect you to read the manual on the computer. Um. Excuse me. I have to STOP PLAYING to do that!

    I agree. We have a society of people who don't want to work for the end result. They want it given to them and as such most games are, as you say, too easy.

    (I also despise 3-D graphics, but that's just me. They give me headaches.)

    Thanks for the links. I will check out Eschalon, also. I could use a break from Heroes of Might and Magic 3 and 4. :o)

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    1. Have a look to these games.
      The Avernum series itself takes a real long time and feature lots of free exploration.

      http://www.spidweb.com/

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  2. I prefer older CRPGs, but really haven't played many of the newer ones (too busy going through old ones). I think the challenge of figuring things out is a big draw for me. Today, games seem to all about feeding the player the experience instead of the player experiencing the game on their own terms.

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  3. You hit the nail on the head, Saintus. The only thing that I could possibly add is that console gamers are usually not computer savvy. Computer games require some know-how just to install them and get them running, thus computer users are used to challenges, more invested in playing the game (after all the time spent installing it), and are on a whole, just smarter. Since console games make a lot more money than computer games, the industry is now "dumbing down" games that are made for both systems. My two cents. :)

    - Amy
    That RPG Chick

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  4. Its called: dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. No complains here, i have plenty old CRPGs to play: Now playing Crystal dragon and Black crypt waiting.

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    1. If you read this, then please help me out in how to defeat the sorceress Elitia if you ever reach that part.

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  5. I don't agree that it's anything to do with youth or consoles, despite the fact that I'm neither young nor a console user. I think it's all about big business.

    Yes, consoles are easy to start up, keep in good shape and so forth. But there is this term, "Nintendo Hard". Console games back in the day were hard. Really hard. Maybe not harder than our own RPGs and adventure games, and maybe not hard in exactly the same way, but definitely no easier. You still needed to work at it, and think about it overnight or over a week, until you worked out what it was the game wanted from you. Just like we did 20 or 30 years ago on our PCs. And some of us were children, maybe even as young as 5 or 6, but that didn't mean we gave up after 5 minutes of non-gratification.

    However, these days, in both Japan and the west, game companies aren't run by nerds and gamers any more, they're run by executives who see the value in the games market, and want the biggest payout possible.

    You can't make a big name game anymore with your best friend in your computer room, and if you want lots of graphics and all the rest of the stuff that we're told we want by advertising executives, you have to have backing to hire the people to do it, and that means you make the game you're told to.

    As Anonymous said, it's dumbing down to the LCD, because that's what makes the most money, and executives don't care about what makes a good game, they care about what sells.

    It's not all hopeless, though. There's plenty of great small companies out there, or even small groups of friends, who are getting their games out there over the internet, and even making enough money to quit their day jobs and work as game makers full time, without some exec breathing down their necks and telling them what they're going to put in their games.

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    1. You forgot to mention that the more a game will take to finish, the less the number of games a played will buy.

      It's like your good old hoven that used to be build to last lives long.
      Nowadays, they're made to last no more than several years. It keeps the market feed with consumer need...

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    2. the games a PLAYER will buy, not a played
      sorry for the typos

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  6. Thank you for good explanation. Of cause this has to do a lot with new graphics&marketing campaigns forcing to sell game as much as possible, this means if some will be stopped by game difficulty (i.e. spending more then 5 minutes trying to figure some puzzle or tactics for fight) - this could lead to game lose money that it desperately needs to be pay off huge costs modern games take.

    p.s. There is game in development. Called: Legend of Grimrock, try in out, its out soon - and spread word if possible.

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  7. It’s a fact of life that games will move on with the times. When we started playing RPGs we had to tinker around with system files to get the games running. We had to spend a good deal of time reading through manuals. We had to get out the graph paper to draw maps. We had to invest time creating the best party.

    Nowadays gaming has become mainstream and most people aren’t interested in dice rolls, 2D graphics or hard work. They want a cinematic experience. They want an epic feel. They want it now. Who can blame them when games cost £50? Sadly I think old school RPGs have gone the way of the graphic adventure and are a very, very niche market which big software houses just can’t afford to support.

    I play old CRPGs because I don’t mind putting in the graft to get the most out of a game. I don’t mind simple graphics or sound. I don’t need cut scenes and I don’t like linearity. Give me Ultima VII over Skyrim any day. I also think it’s a generational thing – what you don’t know you don’t miss.

    Having said all that I enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins so what do I know?

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    1. Personally I love to read the manual, if it is well written and tries to explains all the game mechanics, tables with skills, experience, skill levels, weapons and its damages etc That is part of the fun and a strong reason to actually pay for the game.

      I also like to invest time in building the perfect party composition and re-roll statistics. Since I came from C-64 and the Amiga I did never have to fiddle around with system files as with the PC before Win 95 was released.

      Prices of games - for the PC at least - are the same todays as 15 years ago which means they are actually cheaper today.

      The modern RPG market is small as it is. But it is not because of the lack of interest I think. Just look at the records of sold games for Skyrim, Oblivion and the Witcher series. They are all very good products. The problem is that we have to settle for one or max two good RPGs each year in average nowadays.

      If you are into strategy games the Matrix Games is very good at keeping that market alive.

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    2. I don't agree with the "people want a cinematic experience" statement.
      Have today's people only the choice between "dice rolls, 2D graphics, hard word" and "cinematic game" ?
      Not at all.
      The whole game market si feeded by the same executives apllying the same market rules taught in the same TRADE schools.

      Give people a choice, they will choose. Often not what is best for the market executives.
      Give people illusions of choice, they will take whatever is given to them. Often not what is to their best taste.

      Delete
  8. Personally my main reason for playing older games is DRM. It is no longer possible to buy a new game in a store and then install it as many times as you want, and play it any time or anywhere you want.
    Instead of owning a copy of the game you now buy a licence to play it, and need third party programs like STEAM to install, and even play it.
    Thankfully most new games are not very interesting. Newer BioWare games sound like a mix of dating sims and interactive movies.
    I would definitely buy Skyrim if it was not a Steamworks game, though.

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  9. Regarding consoles I think the real decline came with the PS2 and X-Box.
    Before that not "everybody" played video games, but of those that did the youngest kids played simple (but not easy) games like platform games on Nintendo and Sega, while older kids and adults played on computers.
    But with the introduction of the PS2 and X-Box suddenly "everybody" owned a console and the games needed to be dumbed down to cater to the lowest common denominator. A prime excample of this is Morrowind and Oblivon. Many people complained about Caius Cosades being too hard to find in Morrowind, despite detailed written instructions. So in Oblivion they introduced quest compasses so that there never should be any doubt where you were supposed to go next.

    The Golden Age of CRPGs may have been 1988-1992, but the Golden Age of PC Gaming was 10 years later and ended with the introduction of the X-box in 2002.

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  10. There's a very important reason why older CRPGs are better than newer ones. It's a reason that is often overlooked.

    It's because older CRPGs were built to emulate tabletop roleplaying games. Emphasis was on the system, the combat engines and in recapturing the feel of actually playing those kinds of games.

    That's exactly why the first official AD&D game was a big deal in 1988. Our first chance to replicate the AD&D experience at the computer (something that "Pool of Radiance" and the other Gold-Box games did fantastically in that era...and anyone who doesn't like those games just doesn't "get" it).

    In reality, most of those games were just rip-offs of Dungeons & Dragons anyway. The people writing them were almost always players who wanted to bring the experience to the computer.

    But, now...that's not the case. Nobody cares what "system" a CRPG is using (when was the last time that anyone made a big deal about it? Fallout 2?) It's what's lacking.

    You can tell me if you think I'm right.

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    1. I think tabletop roleplaying is far more about talks between players and between a player and a game master than about a "system engine".

      I used to play a roleplaying games (a "COPS" scenario) for a full afternoon (from 14:00 to 22:00) without any single die roll, and I enjoyed every single minute of it.

      A good D&D game is a good story with memorable NPCs, a well-written intrigue and a great final fight against a big ugly evil boss monster.
      It's not about killing and looting random monsters, building up levels and optimizing ability scores and equipment.

      That said, I like the occasional dungeon-crawling, resolving puzzles and finding that great +2 giant-slayer sword in that trapped chest guarded by some nasty gargoyles.
      But without a good story, it's nothing more than "PMT", as we say in French (PMT for Porte-monstre-trésor, that means "Door then Monster then Treasure then all again)

      I'm still on the Mass Effect trilogy, and since it can be seen as a "interactive movie" and "First person shooter" mix rather than a real RPG, I really love the way your choices really affect the surrounding universe.

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  11. Excuse me for a bit off-topic, but where did you find german walkthough for Crystal dragon?

    I cant find it, or its English translation. Link you given http://rayearlesgamehelp.info/Cfiles/Crystal_Dragon.html#CRYSDAWT dont work.

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    1. I think this might be the german lösung that has been translated to english.

      http://www.ollivision.de/kl/c/crystald.htm

      Delete
  12. Not that I'm necessarily trying to advertise my own blog (though it never hurts), but I have included a link to yours on my page if you want to check it out:

    http://dmrealm.blogspot.com/

    I think people who are interested in mine would be equally interested in yours.

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  13. Thanks for all input on this issue. I think a combination of all that has been said is very close to the truth.

    In the CRPG golden era there was a lot of RPGs released every year compared to today. Not all of them was good of course but you had more to choose from.

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  14. One thing I feel you forgot: Maps, I love drawing my own maps when playing old RPGs, admittedly, I also do this for JRPGs like the Sega Master System's Phantasy star.

    But to me, there's nothing quite like reaching the end of a complicated maze-like dungeon thanks to a map you drew yourself

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    1. Thanks for visiting my blog!
      Hmm...I did like to draw my own maps once in a time of the reasons you mention. But with todays limited playing time,I just don´t have the time anymore so I prefer old CRPGs with automap when they are available.

      Delete
    2. That's probably the reason why its been ages since I finished an old school CRPG, its possible I spend too much time drawing the maps.

      Oh well, at least I'm having fun while doing it

      Delete
  15. Have a look at these people : I love the Avernum series.

    http://www.spidweb.com/

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  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  17. You'll want to lapidate me...
    I downloaded the "Eschalon Book 1" demo and it's all I can't bear in a CRPG.
    I started 4 times with 4 different characters, I didn't manage to bring any of them to level 2. Doing all I can to avoid as much fighting as I can, I always end up surrounded by two enemies or shot by a range-attacking enemy.
    Note that I can't always retaliate with my bow, since the "enemy is obscured"... obstacles aren't obstacles to everyone...
    I started a characther with the "pick lock" skill and din't get any lockpick in my starting equipment.
    If the game doesn't want non-rogues to pick locks, it shouldn't allow non-rogues to select this skill. Same thing with spell-casting skills.
    It seems the only really playable character at the beginning of the game is a fighter who doesn't know anything else than slashing his way down... but is still unable to break open a door or a chest with an axe or a hammer... very limited indeed.
    That's not what makes a great and NON-LINEAR game...

    To my mind, the Avernum series is far better than Eschalon.
    You can really play any character(s) you want as soon as the game begins and you can take more than two steps at the beginning without being butchered...
    And you CAN use every skill at the start.

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  18. I understand nobody has a corner on the playing old rpg's market, but don't you think it's a little shady to literally copy everything from CRPG Addict right down to the scoring system?

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    1. The only thing in common with CRPGAddicts blog is the passion for old CRPGS. Nothing is copied.

      Delete