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Could CRPG Save Game Functions be the "Real" Origin of the Tyranny of Fun?

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Gamasutra has a new feature article on Computer RPG game design over the years: Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs. The introduction to this very long article is on Original Dungeons & Dragons as, while it was not a computer game like say online poker, it was the basis for the entire computer RPG genre. While I've never been much of a computer RPG fan as I find them very boring compared to tabletop RPGs, I found this article interesting. I had, at least, played an hour or two in most of the non-Japanese games the author discusses.

The section of the article on Nethack grabbed most of my attention, however. First, because Nethack and other Rogue-like games are the only CRPGs that I've ever really enjoyed playing. Second, because what the author said here made me really think about tabletop RPGS:

Nethack is a roguelike, and so I'm required to say something about one of those games' most controversial features: permadeath. (Okay, I admit it -- I've been leading up to this.) Since Ultima and Wizardry, but unlike pen-and-paper games to this day, players are allowed, and even encouraged, to save games and return to them if things go badly, a design characteristic that makes it almost impossible for anything really bad to happen to the player's characters.

I make no secret the fact that I consider this one of the most pernicious aspects of CRPG gaming, that permanent disadvantages acquired during the course of play cannot be used by a designer because the player will simply load back to the time before the disadvantage occurred. Admittedly, the prevalence of this attitude comes from some older games that could easily be made unwinnable if the player wasn't careful.

However, it's reached the point where "adventuring" in an RPG rarely feels risky. Gaining experience is supposed to carry the risk of harm and failure. Without that risk, gaining power becomes a foregone conclusion.

It has reached the point where the mere act of spending time playing the game appears to give players the right to have their characters become more powerful. The obstacles that provide experience become simply an arbitrary wall to scale before more power is granted; this, in a nutshell, is the type of play that has brought us grind, where the journey is simple and boring and the destination is something to be raced to.

Nethack and many other roguelikes do feature experience gain, but it doesn't feel like grind. It doesn't because much of the time the player is gaining experience, he is in danger of sudden, catastrophic failure. When you're frequently a heartbeat away from death, it's difficult to become bored.
I've never really thought about it before, but perhaps one of the main reasons some tabletop gamers can't stand anything bad happening to their character -- even just losing a magic sword to a rust monster -- have that attitude because their first encounter with RPGs was the computer variety where if anything bad happens to your character, you just restore your last saved game and undo the effects. Magic items can't be damaged for long because you can restore a saved gamed. Did your character just suffer a nasty curse that will take a lot of time and trouble to remove? Restore your last save. Make a bad decision? Restore your last save. Lose an important combat? Restore your last save. Etc.

Computer RPGs may have taught a much of generation of players that nothing truly negative should ever happen to your character -- and if it does, it shouldn't last any longer than it takes to restore a saved game in a computer RPG. Could this be an major part of the origin of the school of RPG design that wants to eliminate everything that causes permanent harm to the character while making rapid level gains and showers of treasure standard? I don't know, but I strongly suspect it has played a part in the so-called "Tyranny Of Fun."

Anonymous said...
July 8, 2009 at 4:02 AM  

I think that's a very good point. I do believe that computer gaming has strongly influenced the psychology of tabletop gamers and now informs their expectations of how tabletop should play out. (I left a comment to this effect on d7's "The Rust Monster Provides No Risk" but it's still in moderation right now...). Pretty much every tabletop player I know also plays CRPGs and in some cases spend absurd amounts of time playing a certain well-known MMO. Of course that's going to have an impact.

taichara said...
July 8, 2009 at 4:50 AM  

Spoken truly like a person who has never lost hours of progress, or a rare / hard to succeed at goal, in a computer rpg. Or for that matter some who has never made a poor decision hours back in a game that you can never undo.

You can't always just back up to the last save, you know, and start over blithely. Players do lose time, effort, and achievements (whether items, experience or story goals) -- and woe to the person who is defeated when there hasn't been a save point to be found for hours. Or who have saved past a point where they could have undone a mistake, or made a crucial decision, or met a certain NPC, or ...

Any good point you have -- and there is one, buried in the knee-jerk blanket statements -- is quite poisoned by the rhetoric. I'm sorry, but I can't get onboard with this one.

Anonymous said...
July 8, 2009 at 5:55 AM  

Well, backing up to a save point in a CRPG may not have the simple convenience of an 'undo' function, but I think the point is still a valid one. And even more so when you consider the death-as-inconvenience philosophy of some popular MMOs.

Norman Harman said...
July 8, 2009 at 8:44 PM  

No restore for online games/online play FPS/RTS/MMORPG. Online seems to be the most popular, perhaps somewhat due to the no death == no challenge == not as fun.

So, maybe that argument holds true for peeps who grew up in the period before online play but I can't see it holding water any longer.

Lots of people make this broad claim "new players/gen y'rs/youngins these days are full on entitlement/hate to have bad things happen" I've seen little evidence put forth to support this view (a few vocal peeps rant for/against it but that's FAR from evidence or reality). I've experienced players who felt that way, as have others from the beginning of playing back in early 80's. So, really you should work at proving the point before trying to rationalize an explanation for it.

E.G.Palmer said...
July 8, 2009 at 9:08 PM  

Hmmm, You may have something here. I can't really speak from experiance about computer games though. They always seemed like sad, limited versions of table top to me. I don't think I'll be interested in them until they get to the holo-deck level.

lewisr said...
September 20, 2009 at 3:23 PM  

how can u save a game when you no game?

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