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Blowing Everything Up: From AAA to Freedom

December 20, 2009

I was recently asked this question: “Why did you blow everything up at the end of Wizardry 8?” This is a game I worked on nearly 8 years ago now, and at the very end of the game, the whole universe – planets, people, long story lines, subquests, potential sequels and everything – turned in a giant cloud of cosmic particles. Granted, the player actually blew it up, but I didn’t leave them any choice. There were a variety of ways it could go, but baby, it was going. BabaBoom. When I came up with this ending for the game, I had no idea that it would also be the last game published by Sir-tech Software, nor did I have the slightest inkling there wouldn’t be a Wizardry 9. Looking back, though, I suspect we all knew that the days of the single-player, hard-core PC RPG were numbered. You don’t make RPGs for money. You make them for love and to break even. They are the most time-intensive games to create with the largest confluence of systems. When I hear people brand new to game development saying that they want to start with an RPG, I want to simultaneously hug them and warn them. Have fun with the balance, kid. Remember not to get too deep into the math or you and your player will never figure your way out. Oh, and there’s a system for everything. But, I made RPGs for 20+ years, so clearly, I have a long love affair with them.

Back to the matter at hand: I blew the whole frigging thing up. Why?

  • Clearing out the baggage: Writing the story for Wizardry 8 was like performing micro-surgery. I had to scour every previous Wizardry, and specifically 6 and 7, for any story tendrils and tie them all in and wrap them up. I suppose in retrospect that I didn’t need to do that, but as a long-time Wizardry player, I would have felt robbed doing it any other way.
  • Starting with a blank slate: There were so many different directions the game could have gone had it gone on, but the longer the story lines went on, the more challenging it became for people to pick up the storyline midway. I think of shows like The Sopranos or Lost. A single episode is pleasurable, but people are less likely to join in when they know that they can’t get in from the beginning.
  • Mechanical innovation: Games don’t just carry story. They carry mechanical and interface expectations, too. I needed you to start with a single character, and not your party of 6 which had followed you in from Wizardry 6 or Wizardry 7 or been created new here. Group play in games was now about six people playing six individual characters, not you controlling a party of six yourself.

So, the industry had evolved, and I wanted to do something new. Blowing up the universe was a radical solution, but it may have been the only one, and it serves as a decent metaphor for my return to full-time game development. There is a similar bababooming happening in the industry, and those who see it coming are making their way to the new game, the new universe, the new way that things will be. The industry today very much feels like the industry of 1982-ish. There are tons of games being released by single individuals or small groups, and they cover Facebook, indie game sites and the iPhone. The means to weed out the bad from the good is still evolving, and many are jumping on the bandwagon. Like 1982, some suspect that this “video game thing” is a fad, and that the love affair with Facebook as a platform and the iPhone will pass. I have heard myriad arguments about how the path to success is covered with lots and lots of polygons, lighting and particle effects, but I just don’t buy it anymore.

At their core, games have always been about social engagement. Always. It is more fun to play chess against another human being than a computer. In WoW now, it is more fun for me to play with my friends than it is by myself. Our play approach is laid back, we get together for more serious sessions on weekends, but our goal is socializing, not optimizing (in fact, I suspect that if I start to play that way and really pay attention to it, the RPG designer that lives in my head will show up and start analyzing everything to death).

While the platform (Facebook) and the game (WoW or *.ville) may change, the inherent forward momentum is toward massively social games where people have an opportunity to have fun with their friends, meet new friends and engage in the inherently social behavior for which we are wired.

At its core, the industry has always been about ROI. Spending 25 million for 20 to 1 odds for a payout is much less appetizing than spending nothing, $250, $2500 or $250K for similar odds with potentially larger payouts. There are other financial advantages: Gamestop is not reselling royalty-free instances in WoW. I believe our games will get smaller, more inherently social, more world- and destination-like and be in a constant state of rapid iteration in response to player desire. It is an amazing time and an amazing space to watch, be within as a player and a part of as a dev.

If you’re not familiar with Wizardry 8, here’s a refresher:

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven/Brazen_ permalink
    December 20, 2009 5:43 pm

    Great piece of work; Thank you so much

  2. December 20, 2009 10:08 pm

    Wizardry 8 is one of my favorite “modern” RPGs, along with Might & Magic 7. I especially enjoyed the retro dungeons in Wiz8, reminded me of playing the older games (although I first played them on the NES since I didn’t have a computer when I was young.) I didn’t play Wiz8 until much later, after SirTech was closed, so the ending did seem a lot more final to me.

    In WoW now, it is more fun for me to play with my friends than it is by myself.

    Careful here, these feelings are not universal. There’s a growing number of people who are adamant that they want to be able to play an MMO completely solo, without anyone else. Assuming this vocal group isn’t entirely friendless and unable to make friends, there is a segment of the audience not interested in what we might think of as the “social engagement”. I think they still want some of the social elements, but not the same as we designers perceive it.

    Anyway, change always brings opportunity. I’m more interested to see if games will finally achieve legitimacy and come into its own as a medium. Sometimes that seems to be in conflict with the ROI issue; the eternal conflict between art and commerce.

    • December 20, 2009 10:38 pm

      Funny that you caught that, Brian. I think one of the great things about WoW is that it lets me play a satisfying game by myself, too.

    • Tesh permalink
      December 23, 2009 1:06 am

      Thanks for the plug, Brian! I’d also recommend <a href="http://notadiary.typepad.com/mysticworlds/2009/06/thats-right-i-solo-in-your-mmos.html"Saylah's commentary on soloing in MMOs. *Some* people might be wired to be social butterflies, but that’s simply not a universal constant, certainly not at any given magnitude of sociality. Just as *some* people are quite content to be “sheep”, but others march to the beat of a different bagpiper. Sure, we’re all “in this life together”, but how we interact covers a wide variety of responses between introvert and extravert, soloist and groupie. (Not to mention how people can treat other living, breathing people as NPCs sometimes. Objectifying other people is an interesting mechanism, sometimes for coping, sometimes for nefarious ends.)

      Shamus Young (of the Twenty Sided blog) is also taking a look at MMOs and soloability. He rightly notes that some people “just want a really big game”. (And notably, I’ve said before that I’d pay fair box price for a single player version of WoW, just for one example.)

  3. December 22, 2009 8:21 am

    At their core, games have always been about social engagement. Always.

    People often like to tell their friends about the books they’ve read and pressure them to read the same books and compare experiences, but they generally don’t read the book actually together at the same time unless one is a small child. And I’m pretty much the same with video games, whether they be heavily story-based or not. If I enjoyed it, I tell others about it and hope they’ll play it and tell me about it in return; but I’m not all that fond of playing WITH someone and especially not with more than one or two trusted associates.

  4. December 22, 2009 9:54 am

    I loved Wizardy 8 .. its one of the few games I ever preordered and finished (though like the previous games I started out a number of times with different parties). As a player I see that games are changing. For me the “social” MMO’s don’t hold much interest .. its like being put in a bus with strangers instead of watching a film alone or with friends ..
    I’m pretty curious how the singleplayer/online multiplayer setup for White Knight Chronicles will play out. And I wished we’d get new games with the same kind of multiplayer the old Secret of Mana games had.

  5. WCG permalink
    December 22, 2009 10:19 am

    Games have always been about social engagement? Not for me. Give me a good party-based single-player game every time. And yes, I gave up on MMOs because they were too frustrating to try to play solo (I wanted to explore the game – and discover things – on my own).

    From what I’ve heard, only a minority of players use the multiplayer features of games (those that are also single-player games), so apparently I’m not alone. Reviewers almost always mark down a game for the lack of a multiplay option, though. Well, I don’t suppose that reviewers represent the typical player who buys a game, do they?

    And it might depend on the type of game, too. Most games these days are action games, which I don’t play. But luckily, there are still RPGs available, especially in the thriving indie market.

  6. Greg permalink
    December 27, 2009 12:57 pm

    As much as I understand and respect the need for talented designers like Brenda and her colleagues to move into different game designing roles and projects, the grip that Wiz 8 had on me back in 01-02 can’t be understated. While the people who worked on games like Wizardry 8, Jagged Alliance and Realms of Arkania have moved on, I one day hope a new generation of talented designers learns from what made these games really *tick* and bring their deep, innovative gameplay concepts to a new generation.

    In the meantime, I raise a glass to Brenda for her talents and the pure fun she brought to me early on in the decade. 🙂

  7. March 27, 2010 9:58 am

    Wizardry 8 is one of my favorite games. And I will play it again in the future.

    I like the story, the way it is represented and the unique personalities (voices) of the characters.

    On the negative side, it is a little bit too much hack & slay for my liking and I found the game difficulty change from very hard after the monastery too pretty easy at high levels.

    I was so fascinated that I bought several copies (it was hard to get them here in Germany) and gave them to my friends as birthday presents.

    Playing Wizardry 8 also had a social component for me. My flatmate and I both played it and talked endless hours about it or watched each other play.

    ————————————
    “The are two kindes of people: hunters and their prey – let me assure you, I am one of the hunters”

    • March 28, 2010 12:07 am

      Awesome to hear that. I have one copy of W8, and it was damaged in a flood. I’d love to get my hands on a new copy someday.

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