The Brainy Gamer — who in real life teaches a class in which he periodically subjects his students to classic computer games like Fallout and Planetfall — has written an interesting article that really hammers home the gulf between gamers of yesteryear and gamers of today. Of particular interest is that the game that serves as the foil in the article is nothing other than Ultima 4.
He summarizes the core of the issue handily:
I had supplied them with the Book of Mystic Wisdom and the History of Britannia, both in PDF form, but not a single student bothered to read them. “I thought that was just stuff they put in the box with the game,” said one student. “Yes,” I replied, “They put it in there because they expected you to read it.” “Wow,” he responded.
Some of their difficulties must be chalked up to poor teaching. I should have done a better job of preparing them for the assignment. I resisted holding their hands because in the past I’ve found it useful to plop them down in Britannia and let them struggle. Figure out the systems, grok the mechanics, and go forth. Ultima IV may be a high mountain to climb for a 19-year-old Call of Duty player, but it’s well worth the effort.
At least that’s what I used to think. Now it seems to me we’re facing basic literacy issues. These eager players are willing to try something new, but in the case of a game like Ultima IV, the required skill-set and the basic assumptions the game makes are so foreign to them that the game has indeed become virtually unplayable.
And as much as I hate to say it — even after they learn to craft potions, speak to every villager, and take notes on what they say — it isn’t much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn’t feel like so much work.
In a way, this sort of shift was inevitable. Gaming on the PC was, at its inception, very much the province of the bookish, techie types. So was console gaming, though to a lesser degree. Conversely, gaming today, as Warren Spector recently mused, now has a much wider audience across a much wider variety of platforms. And as a result, the nature of games themselves — and the expectations that gamers have going in — has changed substantially.
But let’s keep our focus on Ultima specifically, and PC RPGs in general. Take something like my favourite Ultima, Ultima 6, which doesn’t really offer the player much in the way of an in-game tutorial. Lord British, if you talk to him, explains the conversation mechanics a little bit when you first speak to him, but after that you’re more or less on your own figuring out how the game works. Unless you read the manual, of course, which was just something you did back then.
Fast forward a few years and consider Ultima 9. Ascension still included the usual Ultima documentation in the box — the bestiary, the spellbook, the game controls explanation, etc. — but it also featured an opening tutorial in which Hawkwind guided you through the basic interactions that would drive the game forward. Between the Avatar’s house on Earth and Stonegate, you were introduced to the inventory system, clothing, the journal, the spellbook, combat, keys, switches, and jumping…all the things you would need to navigate through Britannia.
A lot of Ultima fans didn’t like the introduction of an in-game tutorial element. Many felt it broke immersion, or that it broke with tradition, and/or that it was poorly executed and felt tacked on. I’m certainly prepared to grant the last point; the tutorial was very overt. Compared with something like Mass Effect‘s tutorial — which used the context of an initial set of missions (Eden Prime > the Citadel > Investigating Saren > Becoming a Spectre) to introduce you to the game, its environments, its controls, and combat, and which gave you control-specific instructions with pop-up notifications — Ultima 9′s opening sequence does stick out like a bit of a sore thumb. I don’t think it breaks immersion, per se…but you definitely get the feeling that you’re starting in the shallow end of the pool.
But since I’m kind of digressing, let me now return to the main point: even in the Ultima series, we saw the shift. Ultima 6 was very much a gamer’s game (for lack of a better term); the developers could (reasonably) expect that its audience would have a certain level of literacy and technical proficiency. Ultima 9 wasn’t strictly a gamer’s game; given the wider audience of Ultima 8 (which was, if memory serves, the top-selling Ultima game), Ultima 9 was in turn targeted toward a wider audience, and took steps to ensure that people who couldn’t necessarily be bothered to pick up and read a manual through from cover to cover could still get into the game and play it to completion.
In other words, Ultima 9 was, in part, targeted toward a very different kind of player than previous Ultimas had been. The developers tried to do this in a way that wouldn’t seem egregiously out of place to established Ultima fans; the debate over the level of success they achieved has been raging ever since.
This is something that modern developers — including developers of Ultima remakes and new Ultima stories — need to consider, I think. The days of expecting a player to grind his way through something like Ultima 4 in order to get completely leveled up and recruit every companion are pretty much extinct. Granted, enthusiastic players may still opt to churn their way through every fresh hell the game can throw at them in order to reach that level cap (be it level 8 in Ultima 6 or level 60 in Mass Effect)…but that’s not an expectation that can be placed on the person who is going to play the game through once, for fun.