Thursday, May 10, 2012

Legend of Grimrock and Design Space

There's been a lot of action in the little world of indie role-playing games. Dungeons of Dredmor. Zeboyd Games announcing the next Penny Arcade title. Hack, Slash, Loot. Torchlight 2 coming.  And, of course, two modest titles from my company.

Which makes sense. With few exceptions, major developers have left the genre behind. And whenever a beloved genre gets left behind by AAA titles, that is a great opportunity for small developers to duck in and eat all of those tasty, tasty scraps.

Which brings me to Legend of Grimrock, from Finnish developer Almost Human. This surprise hit came out on Steam about three weeks ago and proceeded to make the large moneys.

I played Legend of Grimrock from front to back. It's a pure nostalgia trip, extremely well done, and I enjoyed it immensely. If you like role-playing games of the retro school, I recommend it.

So there. That's the review portion out of the away, complete with a nice pull quote. Phew.

But what I find very interesting about the title is where it comes from, and how I suspect that its design doesn't have many more places to go from here.

Ancient History

Legend of Grimrock is a very faithful tribute to the 1987 classic dungeon crawler Dungeon Master. It has a first person view, takes place on a square graph paper grid (you can only move north, south, east, and west), and has lots of physics and timing puzzles involving teleporters and pressure plates on the floor.

In Grimrock, as in its inspiration, you can still only attack foes directly north, south, east, or west of you. This creates the peculiar situation where an enemy one space diagonal from you cannot affect you in any way. In Dungeon Master, you could exploit this to defeat even the strongest foes with ease. Grimrock has used a variety of tricks (like having foes turn left and right rapidly to try to outflank you) to mitigate this problem, and, by and large, combat is fast-paced and fun. It's a little surreal, but it plays.

Anyway. It was a huge hit and a lot of fun back in the day, and things that are fun don't stop being fun just because time moves on. There were four Dungeon Master games, the last coming out in 1993. The same basic design was used for three Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games from SSI. The last of which also came out in 1993.

And then, that's it. That style of game, which was so much fun and made so much money, disappeared from the face of the earth for twenty years until the Almost Human team picked it up, dusted it off, and turned it into gold.

I suspect that it will be used a bit more. Maybe Grimrock 2, or a similar tribute from another developer. At which point, I predict that the design will disappear again.

Why? Because of a really cool and nerdy game design concept: Design Space.

Design Space

So suppose you make a role-playing game. There are basically two steps. First, you make the engine. That is, the graphics, the game system, the character classes and spells, the stuff you can place in the world (walls, doors, traps, things that spit fire out of the walls, arrows and knees, etc.). Second, you take this toolkit you made and you design a world in it. You take the elements of the design and piece them together into a game.

When you have finished this first step, then you can look at all of the possible neat things you can do with them when making the material the player will actually experience. This finite list of possibilities is the design space.

Some engines have really big design spaces. There is still a lot of new adventures you could write in the world of Skyrim. They made a lot of games with the Infinity Engine. Some engines, on the other hand, have a small design space. There isn't a lot you can do with them without starting to repeat yourself. The original Penny Arcade games had this problem. The first one did OK and the second one flopped. I think a large part of the reason is that, once you'd played the first game, you had seen everything the engine had to offer.

This Is Why I Rewrite My Own Game Engines Every Few Years ...

... as much as my fans hate when I do it. I wrote a five game series called Geneforge. Five games. By the time the fifth one was done, I think I'd done just about everything with that game engine and system that I could. All the juice was squeezed out of it. I had to write a new thing just so I could have fresh ideas again.

Back To Grimrock

Once again, Legend of Grimrock is a ton of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. However, it is a game on a square grid with monsters, pressure plates, secret door switches, and holes in the wall that shoot stuff out. There is only a limited number of ways that you can piece those elements together to make interesting dungeons for the player to explore. It's finite, and, by the time I was at the bottom of the dungeon, I was already noticing elements repeating themselves.

As I said, there might be a Grimrock 2. But, as we discovered twenty years ago, this earth will only stay fertile for so long before it needs to lie fallow again. Only then will it yield a fresh crop for a new generation of gamers. (Analogy!!!)

This is NOT a criticism of Legend of Grimrock, which is, for the third time, very good. This game doesn't have to be responsible for carrying future titles. It only has to be fun by itself, and it does so very well.

I just think it's a good example of the varying durability of different designs. Some can support many titles. Some only a few. This isn't a problem. It is simply important, when planning games beyond the first, not to heap onto a humble structure too many expectations.

Side Thought

The Grimrock devs plan to port the game to iOS. This game frequently requires a lot of very fast, precise movements to finish puzzles or to just survive. Controlling this sort of game on a touchpad is almost always neither fast nor precise. I will be very, very interested to see how they tackle this problem. I suspect encounter by encounter rebalancing will be necessary, which will suck for them, but I hope they prove me wrong.

Final, Unsolicited Advice

If any other indie developers are looking for an old design to pick up, dust off, and have great success, Ultima Underworld is just sitting there. This was the next step in the design progression started by Dungeon Master. It still takes place in one huge dungeon, but, instead of taking place on a grid, it is fully 3-D with 360 degree movement.

Huge hit. Ton of fun. Someone! Rip it off! Fast!


  1. Ultima Underworld was fantastic for its time, which was back in the late wolf3d/early doom era. I seem to remember the combat being very similar to the Elder Scrolls series though (aka, mediocre.) The exploration was really good. I should go back and finish UU2...

    1. IIRC, melee combat/weapon balance and gameplay was actually quite good in UU 1+2, and I, for one, was always frustrated that Bethesda didn't just steal it wholesale.
      It was certainly much better than anything The Elder Scrolls had to my knowledge (with the cave-out that I didn't play Skyrim).

      In UU every one of the 3 melee weapon types had different damage and speed ratio and also affected various types of enemies differently.
      Also, each weapon had 3 different strokes (overhead, slash, downward stab) and depending on the weapon types some of these strokes were stronger than others.
      Enemies had 3 different hit zones and some were more vulnerable than others, i.e. depending on armor they wore or enemy type.

      Finally, you could strike quickly and weakly or charge strikes.

      All of this resulted in a lot of tactical depth and variety.

      Anyway, yea, I really wish for more ripping off of UU, maybe with addition of some Eye of the Beholder style puzzles, though.

      Couldn't get into Arx Fatalis, for some reason. Isn't it much more linear than UU? I guess I'll have to try it again some time.

      Generally, I have recently realized how much I enjoy even rudimentary puzzles in a game, like those in Max Payne 1. They really add a lot enjoyment to exploration and offer a break from the routine of killing.
      Too bad that modern games have completely removed them for the sake of "accessibility".

      Fallout 3, for one, was just crying for some environmental puzzles to spice up the exploration. Atmosphere is good, but give me some gameplay too!

  2. Interesting article. I suppose that's why we don't see that much Chess video games series on the market.
    On the other hand, how can they come up with yearly iterations of sport games?

    1. They update the player roster every year and the graphics every 2 years.

      And. That's. It.

  3. I play Ultima Underworld on my tablet under DOSBOX, works great and still just as awesome as ever, if showing its graphical age.

  4. i want spiderweb software make new avernum series
    because avernum is most interesting story from all aSpiderweb games

  5. I don't really think that because one game company made a dungeon crawler game that is a homage means there isn't anywhere to grow in the genre. That's just where people with new ideas come in, create different worlds, overworlds, new fighting designs etc.

  6. I believe Arx Fatalis was the do-over of Ultima Underworld.

  7. With all respect, I think many of your own games have done just about all they can with their respective engines... well before you stopped making games with them. Pot calling the kettle black, a little? :p

    The big difference between Spiderweb-style titles and something like Grimrock is that those games are highly story-driven. The gameplay is there, but mechanically they are all quite similar and a few changes to the character system rarely make a big difference to the player.

    Grimrock the first can't fall back on story to carry it, at least not in its current incarnation, but who knows where it will go from there? Maybe the next Grimrock title will go fully 3D, like its original concept was way back in 2001 or so. Maybe they'll add real-world physics simulations, or outdoor environments, or will put in non-combat elements and a heavier focus on characters and story... the point is, to suggest that Grimrock's model is any less capable of producing meaningful and enjoyable sequels over a long period of time is just as silly as to say that first-person games can't progress beyond Doom.

    Additionally, RPGs fell out of fashion in the mid-90s because action-oriented titles were flashier and more immediately compelling, and because their developers were poorly managed and all went under for reasons largely unrelated to the genre itself. I don't think you can blame that on limited design space.

    You're also overlooking the fact that there are a lot of games like Dungeon Master, Wizardry and so on still being made... but they're showing up on handhelds, and often come out of Japan. Atlus has been responsible for localizing an ungodly number of those games over the last several years. They never went away, they just became niche titles while the big players either died out or decided to move on to bigger, more technically impressive and (most importantly) marketable things.

    I also have to point out... most developers do not reuse the same tech without changes over and over again. I highly doubt even Spiderweb titles don't have changes engine-wise game to game, even if it's just additions to allow new types of scripted events and conditions, and that's even more true of bigger developers with more team members (gotta have those programmers justify themselves!).

    Anyway, I simply think it's fallacious to conclude that those 3D dungeon crawlers are a dead and gone genre because there's nowhere else to go. Such an attitude underestimates the talent and design sense of game creators, and it's kind of a defeatist way of looking at things to boot.

  8. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Etrian Odyssey. Same basic dungeon-crawler style game, but has reached its fourth iteration (in Japan. On its third here) and each one has been a best-seller for its platform, demand actually exceeding supply (seriously, the first one is quite expensive nowadays). They add things to it - to the hub space that most games like this have (Wizardry) and place you in a forest, rather than a dungeon, which feels fresher and it feels like you have more freedom. Also, they have their custom blend of humour and blisteringly difficult battles which feel both old, new, and well-polished. I'd give them a try.

  9. I have to agree with Eric above. Atlas has done extremely well with the old 80s Wizardry style engine for example in their Etrian Odyssey series on the Nintendo DS (3 games) and a 4th coming soon for the Nintendo 3DS. Other games like "The Black Spire" similarly retro have also done well and proven there is still much life left in those old bones.

    I would also agree that saying there isn't room within those engines/game styles for future games is selling those fertile fields short...they do not lie fallow.

    The reason is the DS was and is the platform for that style of game...a mix of expectation and return that is delivered to the player. Going back to the Etrian example. The engine is basic Wizardry/Might and Magic but the gameplay includes strategic boss and "named" fights, diverse itemization, diverse tradeskill and class systems that make Wizardry and Might and Magic feel ancient by comparison even though the visual aesthetic is almost identical.

    1. But Etrian doesn't have puzzles, does it? Isn't the distinguishing characteristic of Dungeon Master et al. type of game that puzzle-solving gameplay occupies a position of at least equal importance to combat?

      And that subsequent evolution of the RPG/FPS genres led to gradual, but eventually complete removal of puzzle gameplay from the games in the name of accessibility?

      IMHO, it is a much more crucial distinction than turn-based/RT combat, etc.

  10. Dungeon Master-style games didn't so much disappear as evolve - into UU and Wolf 3D. I never really viewed FPSes as a different genre so much as a continuation. There's nothing (in fact, there's never been anything) stopping people from putting back in the 4-character dynamic, except maybe mouse-aiming.
    And hey, Wizardy 8 tried that, with mixed results.

    I think people are taking Jeff's comments a bit further than he meant them, but as someone who did this same nostalgia trip back in 2000, let me elaborate a little.

    There were a chunk of Dungeon Master emulations, remakes and clones back in 2k, and I wasted no time getting my hands on them. But after playing through one version (ahh, the good old days), then the next, I quickly lost interest in spite of my enthusiasm for one very simple reason: it was just Dungeon Master. Every remake, every reiteration was just Dungeon Master.

    The same puzzles, the same mazes, the same fireball traps. Only now, they were out of order.

    Wasn't until a few years later that I went back, had some fun with Undercroft (from the Jets'n'Guns guys) and Necro-somethingorather. Same old nostalgia-trip perspective, but with enough new or changed mechanics to make it interesting again. They also had some serious balance issues, but that's another story.

    Point is, unless you keep branching out and upgrading it, the game runs out of tricks pretty fast. I think that's all Jeff was really saying. Not that it can't be expanded, but that it NEEDS to be expanded. With code. With rewrites and extra features. With outdoors areas. And maybe by nicking someone else's engine...

    (that's FUS RO DAH for old farts like me)

  11. "I think people are taking Jeff's comments a bit further than he meant them"

    That's an understatement.

    I think it was obvious that I was talking about how design space is limited for ONE SPECIFIC DESIGN. Obvious if you read the article, anyway. If you change the design at all, it changes the design space. However, Dungeon Master style games like Grimrock (which again IS A GOOD GAME I AM NOT CRITICIZING) don't lend themselves well to this sort of expansion, which is why the genre moved past them very quickly.

    But hey, time might prove me wrong. If three years from now indie gaming is full of 3-D, square grid, semi-real time RPGs with timing and physics puzzles, I will happily admit there was more in the design than it has yet shown. I don't think it will happen.

    - Jeff Vogel

  12. I would just say it was a good analysis and thank you for bringing up design space. Definitely a major thing to thing about when you define the constrains/reach of your engine, which I'm just at a point wrestling with. And about Grimrock and the like, yeah I agree they were a phase in the evolution of dungeoncrawlers, it was just way easier and simpler that the free look of Ultima Underworld and the like. All that said I still think the idea of picking and ancient state of certain genre and blending it with something new we've com up since(not necessarily only graphics), can contribute for new branches of all sorts of seemingly dead evolutionary dead ends. I like to thing of it like kind of writing an alternate history for different genres. :) So Jeff I must say thanks for keeping this particular branch of RPG history still alive and growing!

  13. And so Dungeon Master begat Legends of Valour
    And Legends of Valour begat The Elder Scrolls
    And The Elder Scrolls begat Skyrim

    The next steps for the Grimrock engine is naturally to add free movement, and round the cycle we go again.

    Unless this time it can evolve in a different direction. Now that would be interesting...

  14. Some engines have really big design spaces. All that said I still think the idea of picking. i really like those.

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