When I was a kid I played the cello. I played for about 15 years and in doing so became better at the cello than when I started. Over time I improved through use and continued practice. That’s the way life goes, or at least that’s the way REAL life goes. For most games these days you go from being inept to elite hacker with the click of a button. But for a select few others, your character’s skills increase with use, but only rarely does it matter.
I’ve been playing this game Quest for Glory for the last week or so. It was a Sierra game that came out in 1989 originally under the name Hero’s Quest. There was some legal battle over the name and Sierra changed the name to Quest for Glory. A part of me feels like only sell outs would call it Quest for Glory, but there were four games with the Quest for Glory title and only one without, and I’m not really down with that kind of exclusionary behavior in the first place … but I digress.
In 1989 this action adventure RPG came out, allowing you to wander around in a world interacting with objects and other people. You could run, walk, or sneak. If you ran, fought, or climbed something your stamina decreased … and if you pushed past your limits you could easily kill yourself with exhaustion. But another interesting thing happened as well. Your stamina may decrease, much like your health or your mana, but your vitality (the basis for your stamina pool) increased, and sometimes so too did your strength.
The more you climbed things, or tried, the higher your climbing skill got. The more spells you cast, the smarter, the higher Magic ability, and consequently the larger mana pool you got. You gained expertise at the spells you cast more often. This worked across the board. Things requiring strength (like cleaning out a horse stall) raised your strength. Actions requiring agility raised your agility, and so on. Your dodging, parrying, weapons use, and more all influenced the skills they were affected by.
This may seem like nothing, especially in a day where we have games like Skyrim that do something very similar, but this was one of the first games that allowed you to wander a game space in this way … hell, this was one of the first games period. It was made almost 30 years ago and it executed Skill Improvement and Learning better than almost every game since.
Other than Skyrim, MMOs are another entire genre that started in the same vein. Everquest and World of Warcraft, to name a couple, both required you to use your daggers to increase your dagger skill and your effectiveness with them. It was basically meaningless though for a number of reasons. In every MMO I’ve ever played the time you spend leveling up and improving your skills is minuscule compared to the amount of time you spend fully skilled and leveled. In addition to that, it never took very long to raise the skills and the accomplishment felt both necessary and empty, which isn’t a good combination.
I reached a point near the end of Quest for Glory where I had to climb a wall. My climbing skill wasn’t anywhere near what it needed to be to continue, so I had to go and practice climbing somewhere (being careful not to exhaust and accidentally kill myself). It didn’t take a ridiculous amount of time to do, but it felt natural.
I didn’t go and buy a climbing skill and then return, miraculously able to scale 60 feet of sheer marble with nothing but my bare hands and feet. I practiced and I got better.
At this point you might be asking why I’m talking about this.
I’m talking about this because it matters in gaming. That every attention to detail matters. It’s not enough to add climbing to your game. It’s not enough to add use-based skill improvement to your game either. You have to fully understand how they’re implemented. You have to fully understand the nuances involved. And you have to fully understand the final experience of the player.
I didn’t feel defeated or put-out by realizing my meager climbing skills wouldn’t hack it. I bought some stamina and health potions (safety first!) and I practiced on that hard wall until I got it.
Honestly I can’t put my finger on exactly what makes it work here, but I can definitely point to what makes it fail elsewhere. I’m not going to sit here and say that new games just aren’t the same as old games, because there are some phenomenal games these days. I’m just saying that a little more attention to detail is in order … and if you have the patience for older games, you should go buy the Quest for Glory collection.
Then come back here and tell me all about it.