Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gaming Lessons from Ultima IV

As I mentioned previously, I've been playing Ultima IV - mostly when I'm watching the Olympics or killing time that I can't productively spend otherwise.

I learned a few things about gaming from it, including explanations for why things I did previously were good ideas.

Focus on the fun part - Ultima IV is an old-school RPG game; you have to buy food or starve to death. Pretty cool, huh? That's hard core old school.

But it also kind of sucks.

I remembered the food issue keenly from my Ultima III/IV/VI days, so the first thing I did this time around was go around solo and build up gold killing monsters so I could stock up on food. This leveled me up, but also distracted me from the main quest since my first priority was getting food. It didn't take long, but "get gold to buy food" is a recurring issue in the game, even if only a minor one later on.

The thing is, it's not fun to buy food or starve to death. The "challenge" of keeping a stock of food is merely expensive, discouraging you from amassing a full 8-man party until you've got piles of gold because of the expense of feeding them.

In my own GURPS game, I track food. But I also made an arrangement with my players to simply charge a bit extra for upkeep, which includes the cost of replacing their rations. If they have a couple day's worth, we know they won't starve in the dungeon, and they buy new ones and presumably eat the old ones. No one complains, and we avoid an issue that doesn't add much fun . . . while retaining the danger of lack of food if they get really stuck.

If it's not fun, ditch it entirely - aka The Wind, She Blows!

Sea travel (and balloon travel) in Ultima IV is influenced by the wind. Which mainly means you learn the Wind spell (and buy the material components to cast it) and save it for when you find a balloon. For ships, it just means lots of teeth getting as you try to sail directly into the wind and take extra game time doing nothing except pressing a direction button. Sure, you get a few more encounters because the wind pins you in close to the monsters. But that further eats into game time, and combat isn't especially interesting. So all the wind influence on the game does is slow down the fun bits (going places, talking to people, coaxing information out of them) and add more unfun bits ("Slow Progress!" as you hit buttons to no avail, or more useless fights.)

So what does this add?

Not a lot. If it only minorly affected sea travel, and majorly affected balloons, that would be fine. But all it really does is annoy the heck out of me when I want to go to some island city and do something and have a nice save point before I get back to work . . . and to do it takes hammering keys waiting for the wind to change.

It basically is extra detail that distracts me from what I want to do (explore, accomplish goals, talk to people) and makes me spend time doing things I don't (hitting buttons and waiting to do the exploring, accomplishing, talking).

Provide a way around bad stuff - In Ultima IV, swamps can poison you. Poison needs magic or expensive in-town healing to cure, which means for non-spellcasters swamp kills you and for spellcasters swamp costs you money in spell components. In Ultima VI, you could get special boots that avoided this. This was a good idea, because swamp squares in IV are just frustrating and annoying. Forcing a one-time cost to avoid the ongoing (smaller) cost of cures is fine with me, because it makes you find an in-game solution to the problem. Yet it makes the problem go away, so it's not an ongoing frustration. But in IV, it's just "stock up, mix Cure spells, and cast them in spades as you have to trek across swamps to reach game-critical areas." Bleh.

I haven't done something quite like this in my game, I don't think, unless you count orcs allowing passage into their dungeon areas. That's my players' doing, anyway. But yeah, if walking into area X causes damage and costs money to fix the damage, expect that area X is just marked down as "unfun, avoid unless you absolutely have to." A tradeoff (this makes area X safe, but it's not as good as other gear) is totally fine, and encourages choices and thought.

Anyway, besides remembering how annoying games without diagonal movement and weird rules are (fighters can use bow, but not magical bows . . . ), and having some fun finishing up a game I never did get to finish, I think I've learned something from replaying this old game.


  1. Play the NES version of the game sometime. It's different in certain ways - your party is limited to four members, and you don't have food management. It makes a pretty big difference in game play: you're better off in the NES game using the moongates to grab Dupre, Geoffrey and/or Shamino as fighters (I'm assuming the future Avatar is either a paladin or ranger) and Jaana or Mariah as a spellcaster. In the PC version, the food requirements make it unwise to get the other characters until you've gotten a pretty sizeable sum of money on hand. I usually run as a paladin or ranger and get Jaana since she can shoot a bow.

    Reagents are another example where resource management is important. Of course they also happen to be critical to the game, since you get 3 virtues up (Honesty, Justice and Honor) by paying the reagent seller fairly. For instance the shrine of Honor is a pricey trip; even though it's the most convenient shrine on the Britain - Trinsic clear area where I prefer to do most of my leveling up (you can stay on plains which are the best tactical environment), but I generally only visit it once per game to become a partial Avatar in Honor since it's surrounded by swamps. (To get my Spirituality up I visit Hawkwind a lot and use the Moongates to visit the shrine of Spirituality.)

    All of which is to say - the resource management is an interesting part of the game as far as I'm concerned. It's a minor hassle but it gets you to make meaningful choices about different variables in the game.

    1. Sounds like the NES version changed a fair amount. I can't get Dupre with my paladin, because I'm a paladin. And the lack of food track is major.

      You'll notice, though, I didn't mention tracking reagents as a negative. It's actually a cool aspect of the game (but it's better in later versions when you mix spells as needed instead of mixing them one by one.) That aspect of resource management is really fun and adds to the game. The food aspect is mostly a negative, and it slows down party building, discourages exploring just to see what's out there, etc. The reagents drive travel and exploration and interaction, the food aspect drives you away from doing that. See what I mean?

  2. Utlima III was my favorite in the series, mostly because it seemed like they added a lot of things that interfered with the basic fun of the game in later versions. Plus it got more philosophical when all I really wanted was to kill things with spells like Zxkuqyb, which is still one of my most favorite names for a magic spell in any game...

    1. III is where I started. I read about II in a hint guide (I had a map book for Ultima II/III, and Wizardry I got off an add in Dragon). But III was where I started. I think I had Hobbit wizards and Fuzzy clerics or something like that . . . the races didn't matter or make any sense to me. It was a fun game, though.

      For me VI was the most fun. I tried VII, but I found the interface maddening and gave it up. I liked the idea of the avatar and spiritual quest, especially since the other games of the day were pure monster bashing. This was really new, and I felt like how I acted and talked really mattered.

  3. Ultima is what the nerdish side of me was raised on, and it'll always have a special place in my heart (never played UO btw).

    I agree that wind and swamps are annoying, even if you have the spells to counter them. But back in the day I didn't mind. Having to cast spells meant the swamps were "really there". As a low level guy, you would step into them once, learn your lesson, and not go there again. Later (to find ... nightshade, or the city of Dawn, was it?) you'd stock up on cure spells and go look. Yes, it was tedious, but it also felt like you were really ... going into that swamp, and hacking it, thanks to your prep.

    In modern games, we think in terms of obstacle and solution, but to my 15 year old self back then, the game felt more real for it. Getting poisoned in swamps were the rules / reality of the game, and stocking up on cures and going in was what you did.

    I wouldn't play a game that required me to do this nowadays, but don't forget that in the late 80s, there was no game even remotely like Ultima, and the masochistic accumulation of resources to overcome the challenges was, in a weird way, part of the fun.

    1. Well, like I said, even slightly later versions of the game gave you ways around it,and cut a bit of the tedium out of swamp travel (swamp boots, for example).

      But for me the key is what you said - "I wouldn't play a game that required me to do this nowadays" - me neither. My lessons aren't for all time, for everything, for everyone, for all situations. But they sure apply to my gaming now, when I don't have all day in school to daydream about game and then get to play it at lunchtime and after school. Or every single night after work. Those days are gone, and removing the stuff that is tedious but trying to retaining the element of them that is fun is what I'm after.

  4. I am led to assume that Ultima is where Dragon Warrior got the idea to put in poisonous swamps that hurt the player character when traveled through. The didn't leave a lingering poison though, just 1 HP per swamp tile stepped on (2 in the NES version) and there was a magic armor late in the game that negated them.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...