Les mots d’Arnold Hendricks

(Interview donnée par Arnold Hendricks, game designer de Darklands sur PC, en 2013, pour les besoins de la rédaction de l’Histoire du RPG, chez Pix’N Love)

Could you talk about the famous D&D review you wrote in 1974 for The Courier? While Gygax answered to it in crude ways (in Strategic Review Volume1 N°3), your critics were totally right: the game was expensive, impossible to understand… In this review, you wrote “The optimum solution seems to be play by phone, or when the distances are too great, by mail”. At that time, were you aware of experiments with PDP-10 or previous models (like Eliza or Hunt the Wumpus)? Did you know about videogames? Do you think it would have changed your review (by mentioning computer instead of phones)?

I wrote one of the first reviews of the first edition D&D in 1974 for a miniature gaming magazine (Dick Bryant’s “The Courier”). I was familiar with TSR’s earlier “Chainmail” miniatures rules, as well as various skirmish miniatures rules,. I mistakenly thought of D&D as miniatures skirmish game variant. Needless to say, it didn’t make a lot sense, but I tried to be positive and imagine how it might be used. What I failed to grasp at the time was that D&D represented the beginnings of a new genre of small-group cooperative gaming – the Role Playing Game (RPG). It didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d made a mistake. In fact, five years later I was acting as editor and publisher of a fantasy RPG game for a miniatures and game publishing company (Heritage USA).

During the 1970s I considered computers as gaming devices for either very specialized uses (such as operations analysis work), or as dedicated coin-op style machines. As early as 1970 I had used computers to do various numerical analysis tasks related to World War II warship evaluation and damage models that ultimately found its way into a Fletcher Pratt style miniatures game. It wasn’t until the proliferation of consumer microcomputers and first generation home arcade game machines (1979-81) that I became interested in computers as platforms for consumer gaming. In 1983 I left traditional board and miniatures game and joined the computer game industry as a designer at Coleco, to work on the first generation of console games. I’ve been in computer games ever since.

Something interesting about the first edition of D&D – and that disappeared with AD&D- is a player named the Caller, who represents the other players, and “canalizes” their moves/actions, to help the referee in his task. Do you think – I’ve read nothing about it- that this Caller was a kind of precursor for the player role in CRPG yet to come? I mean, in CRPGs, if computer is the referee, the player represents (and decides for) the characters… Maybe I’m wrong… 

That’s a very interesting viewpoint that never occurred to me. In CRPGs where the player controls a party, it’s possible that some people consider themselves nothing more than “assistants” to the characters. Of course, that requires the player to have a very vivid imagination, and to ignore “winning” strategies in favor of actions “true to the character,” no matter how bone-headed. 

In reality, I expect that the “caller” disappeared because of two things. First, the game-master (dungeon-master) role quickly evolved from “opponent to the players” to “creator and maintainer of a good story.” When the GM/DM became responsible to ensuring player entertainment, the need for a “referee” between players and GM/DM disappeared. Second, once RPG gaming caught on, players and gamemasters became sufficiently adept with the rules mechanics that a “rules consultant” became unnecessary.

I was reading Barbarian Prince Events Booklet when I realized that there are some game design links between Dragon Prince and Darklands. Retrospectively, would you say the same? Why? 

Barbarian Prince was created very quickly. I drew upon my wide reading of fantasy literature and RPG systems to conjure up everything from the storyline to the various enemies and locations. In constant, Darklands was more careful and deliberate. It tried to create the millieu of the early and middle 1400s in Germany, but without alienating too many fantasy gamers. Since fantasy gamers were the “target audience” of both games, some similarities are inevitable. Both games are also “sandbox” environments where the player is free to roam as they wish to create their own storyline. Unlike Barbarian Prince, Darklands actually had a deeper storyline with specific “dungeon” adventures and city “encounters” that advanced it. That storyline was a team effort involving myself, Sandy Petersen (Call of Cthulhu) and Douglas Kaufman. I was not consciously trying to “reinvent” Barbarian Prince while doing Darklands, but all game designers have a “personal style.” Impartial observers such as youself can probably identify repeating “style” elements better than me.

Are tabletop games designs and (some genre of) videogames designs linked? How?

At Microprose, I drew on my extensive experience with both miniatures and boardgames to inform our designs wherever appropriate. Linking maps with 3D battlefield views in M1 Tank Platoon was a direct result of my miniatures experience. I knew that without a top-down map view a player would have no chance to intelligently control a platoon to company sized group of vehicles on a modern battlefield. In the Red Storm Rising submarine game, Sid Meier and I both sat in on modern naval miniatures games and “map exercises,” including one run by Larry Bond (but none by Tom Clancy himself – he really wasn’t a gamer). That convinced us that the “periscope” view used in Silent Service (our previous submarine game, set in the early 1940s) was totally inappropriate for a game about 1980s submarines. 

All game design builds on earlier work in the same genre. You can trace a fairly direct path from the 1820s German “Kriegspiel” publications (I have one in English translation) to the early 1900s H.G. Wells “Little Wars” to Donald Featherstone’s miniatures rules of the late 1950s to Avalon Hill board wargames, SPI boardgames, WRG miniatures rules and onward to computer wargames. Similarly, paper RPG, early Wizardry and Ultima, through the early SSI “gold box” AD&D RPGs, and onwards to the present day. The fact that various “FPS” features are being grafted onto RPGs is just another “branch” in the “evolution” of design ideas. Like any evolutionary mutation, those that prove successful live on, while those that fail, or live in rarified environments, tend to die out.

It is no accident that when you look past arcade-style games in the 1980s, many computer games were based on genres that had been successful paper games. There were hex-based wargames on computer. There were fantasy RPGs on computer. There were small-unit battles with 2D (and later 3D) equivalents of miniature squads and vehicles on computer. 

In late 80s and early 90s at MicroProse we were trying new things almost constantly. Many of the games were either inspired by paper games (board, miniature or RPG), or informed by paper game. We knew certain topics were likely to fail, and certain paper game mechanics were not translating well to computers. The design staff at MicroProse all had extensive RPG, paper and/or miniatures experience. That was where most professional designers had gained experience during the 1970s and early 1980s. Looking back, we really did assemble a quite amazing “dream team” of designers at MicroProse during that time. In fact, at that point in computer gaming, we were one of the few companies that strongly fostered the “designer” role independent from programming.

Today computer game design is a well recognized discipline. Designers can look 30+ yeras of computer games to learn their trade. Those successes and failures to teach us what works and what doesn’t – fertile ground from which new evolutionary branches can grow. The art of game design is understanding why games succeeded and failed, and using that knowledge, plus a bit of creativity and insight, to create a game that pleases customers AND makes money.

Do you remember how came the idea of creating Darklands? What was the concept?

I’d always wanted to do an RPG with an historical setting. Being a historian by training, I started by thinking about eras, and then filtered my knowledge through the lens of a designer who wants a successful product. I’d seen many pen & paper RPGs sputter or flop because they were too esoteric. I had even experimented briefly with a pen & paper game set in Byzantium during the 800s AD, and played it with a few other designers at MicroProse. This convinced me that interesting but highly esoteric historical settings would fail. Fantasy gamers have certain expectations, such as warriors in heavy (e.g. plate) armor swinging swords, maces, and other assorted weaponry. That meant Western Europe during the late 1300s to late 1400s. I wanted a “sandbox” style game with a variety of randomly generated encounters. This required violent and chaotic real-world region. The choices boiled down were the Hundred Years War in France, the War of the Roses in England, the Condottiere wars in Italy, or the Raubritter era in Germany. Germany had the romanticism of the “raubritters” (robber knights), castles on the Rhine, and the ready-made ultimate evili of witchcraft and satanism as described in the Malleus Maleficarum. Furthermore, it was a constantly lawless and chaotic land over which small wars were constantly fought. This lent itself better to “sandbox” style random events. France, England or Italy would have required an historical storyline. I wasn’t ready to do a storyline game, although it turned out we needed one in the end anyway (provided largely by Sandy and Doug).

The notion of making beliefs and fears of that era into game enemies and adventures was my own. Given that assumption, it became easy to fit together various historical elements into the game system, such as various saints and relics having “real” clerical powers, alchemists creating things similar to “wizard” abilities in high fantasy games, etc. Curiously enough, to this day nobody has taken me to task for my representation the pre-reformation Catholic church, probably because the early 1400s were one of the nadirs of the church (it had three competing popes for five years starting in 1409).

I think that any number of “historical” RPGs are possible, especially if you have the budget to build one around an historical storyline. The “novelty” of combining role-playing with actual history doesn’t wear off, and there is plenty of history to pick from!

Like in many games of this time, Darklands was fragmented in different sequences: city exploration and discussion through text, map travelling, fight in real time in a specific window… A structure that we also find in Pirates! Why?

We wanted to travel around a larger world, to go interesting and different places, and fight fun battles in all those places.  Given the technology of the day, the only way we could conceive of doing that was strategic travel on a map, and then tactical battlefields (or menu options) related to your strategic map position. We never had the staff or budget to make enough terrain to represent the entire world, even if we tried to scale it down. I have to admit that miniatures “campaign” style games were my direct inspiration for this approach. In those games, players use a large-scale map and large time scale to create and move armies. When armies meet, an appropriate tabletop battlefield is created and players fight a miniatures battle of the forces involved. Obviously this works best with pre-20th-Century wars. Creative Assembly’s “Total War” series (which I greatly like) also use this approach.

No classes, no Xp, was Darklands seemed inspired, mechanically speaking, by Runequest and its system? Why?

From a systems standpoint, the two paper RPGs that most influenced me were RuneQuest (both Chaosium and Avalon Hill editions) and GDW’s Traveller (especially the first edition and MegaTraveller). Character creation was inspired by Traveller, of course. I added the age tradeoff in character stats to make young, hearty characters as useful as old, wise ones. As a designer, I always strive for “game balance” that gives many useful options to players.

The lack of character classes and XP was inspired by the “historical realism” philosophy as much as paper games. I wanted players to think about the characters as people, not just collections of stats. While a Darklands character can theoretically do “anything,” in reality the game make it impossible for a single character to be good at everything. A well-rounded Darklands party typically has some very different characters in it.

If given the opportunity to be design director of a large budget RPG today, I would almost certainly use XP and level-up mechanics. The positive effects of customer enjoyment through “level up” mechanisms greatly exceeds that found in a grinding struggle through a semi-random world in search of uncertain rewards. Of course, I now have 20 more years of computer game design knowledge!

MicroProse was known for its simulations, and in flight or tank driving simulation, you usually don’t use visible stats (I mean, stats on a sheet, like in RPGs). It is more about “being” in the plane than to see stats about it. So, if you follow my thoughts, how would you describe Darklands? Is it a CRPG, or a simulation of tabletop roleplaying rules?

Military vehicle simulators are very much about numbers. Weapon ranges and effectiveness, vehicle speeds, hit probabilities, flight envelopes – it’s all numbers. In fact, computer “simulation” games generally give players more information and second-by-second knowledge than their real world counterparts. This is because enjoyable gameplay comes from INFORMED decisions. In the real world people frequently lack critical information, and suffer for it. Getting clobbered by something you don’t understand is no fun. 

In many MicroProse games we included detailed game manuals (and often a keyboard overlay). The data for “informed choices” in gameplay could be found in the reference section. I wrote many of those manuals, and included data that would be helpful to the player (as well as some general data, to give the player a “feel” for the differences in various planes, tanks, ships, etc.). Today this kind of reference is often put inside the game itself.

Rereading my last question, I was wondering… Would it be possible to find other ways to bring stats information to player without having to show them on character sheets? Ed Del Castillo talked about visual informations, like better looking weapons and armors, etc. For example, Tabletop RPG has evolved through time, like, for example, with diceless PnP RPG (Amber, etc.)? Wouldn’t it be interesting to search new ways of expressing rules in a CRPG? 

Today a designer can choose what to show visually, and what to show with numbers. The choice depends on the kind gameplay — audience matchup. In some situations, making everything visual will work. In others you still need text, numbers, bar graphs or similar. A modern game designer needs to remember that the product must APPEAL to a reasonably large number of players. Too much reliance of visuals can be confusing, just as too many numbers can be overwhelming. For example, the big AAA car racing games on everything from PC to consoles typically have chart of vehicle information, to help you decide what to modify, and in what direction, on your racecar. The numbers may be disguised as bar graphs, but it’s still all numbers “underneath the hood.”

In fact, I’m designing a Science Fiction spaceship game right now. It is a much fast action PvP game, with no numbers appearing on the screen. Nevertheless, managing different ship characteristics, physics engine inputs, ship improvement modules, upgrade bonuses and penalties, etc., requires a remarkably large assortment of spreadsheets that fill multiple screens with a sea of numbers.

Could we say that CRPG (nowadays everybody is saying RPG) is a genre by itself, evolving apart from its tabetop roots? Why? 

Computer RPGs were dramatically different from paper right from the start, and still are. The paper games allow gamemasters to create an infinite number of worlds and stories. Computer games have the story and gamemaster built into the software. This is just as true in MMORPGs as in solo CRPGs.

In other studio, like Looking Glass, roleplaying is not about stats but about physical interaction with environment, and its feedback. Do you think that RPGs are, now, split between these two tendencies (Direct interaction vs Stats management)?

I don’t believe CRPGs are “split” between direct interaction vs stat management any more than they are “split” between theme parks and sandboxes. The design differences are due more to business decisions about the platform and expected audience, rather than the all-powerful designer insisting that a game follow his or her artistic vision. Designers are forced to work within the business world of game creation, and must select appropriate gameplay solutions to stay gainfully employed. However, even though players don’t see numbers in some RPGs and most FPS games, there really are numbers happening behind the scenes. Learning about those numbers and algorithms is just more difficult, often requiring a good deal more trial-and-error. 

Sometimes I feel that CRPG’s World and mechanics relies on geek legacy. I mean, do you think that the first known RPGs (DnD, Moria, then Ultima, Wizardry, Bard’s Tale) created convention and codes of the genre – like team-based gameplay-, that are unavoidable? 

All good designers are game geeks with wide experience in many kinds of gaming, frequently both computer and tabletop. The more types of gaming and gameplay you know about, the more you can draw upon to help you build a better game next time.

What’s your feeling about Japanese RPG and their way of dealing with RPG elements? 

Some really great computer RPGs have come from Japan, just as the Japanese anime art style has informed countless computer games. Whenever I think of storytelling in fantasy games, one of my first thought is of the various Final Fantasy titles. Personally, I prefer more player choice in storyline direction than those games allow, but the “game as story” approach is valid. Bioware has proven this with their magnificent plots, characters and themes. An RPG game designer should have a many design arrows in his or her quiver, to be used appropriately. Story and sandbox are two such arrows.

I interview Greg Stafford (Runequest) a few days ago, and he said that CRPG are boring, too much concentered on mechanics and not enough on roleplaying, direct interactions with worlds, etc. What’s your feeling about it? Do you think it would possible, in the future, to create RPG that are closer to the pen & paper experience? Or is it just impossible?

In pen & paper RPGs there are a great many different play preferences. Some GMs and players involve themselves in world exploration and human interaction. They can spend an entire evening without using a weapon. Other groups feel bored and uninterested unless there is plenty of action, including multiple traps, battles and/or chases every session. 

The great strength of pen & paper games is that the GM can adjust what he presents, on the fly, based on player preferences.

Computer games build storyline and GM function into the software. Given the time and budgets available in computer gaming, this inevitably leads to limitations. The explorer and human interaction players may find “adventure” style games appeal more, while the combat players will prefer what is currently called an “RPG” because it is filled with minute-to-minute battle situations.

When it comes to actual roleplay, MMOs offer a full-scale stage for roleplaying almost at the level Greg Stafford talks about. In games as old as Anarchy Online, or as recent as Guild Wars II, I saw in-game guilds that worked together to represent political groups, police forces, underworld mobs, spy services, as well as the typical bar or tavern workers and owners. Elaborate, multi-week storylines were planned by small groups, then enjoyed by scores of people with plenty of ad hoc roleplaying along the way. RPers in each game developed unique conventions for handling “combat,” since the game’s PvP mechanics rarely suffice (SWTOR is a partial exception, thanks to its duelling option). My guess is that Greg never delved deeply enough into MMORPGs to uncover these fascinating pockets of roleplay creativity and interaction. This kind of roleplaying doesn’t happen in every MMORPG, but when it does, it’s a joy to behold and participate in.

Do you think that MMO’s have changed the way RPGs are now seen by consumers, by mass market? Why? 

MMOs were extremely different from solo games in their early years (1997-2004). When WoW appeared and demonstrated the huge advantage of allowing solo playable content within an MMO, overlap began. Barriers between MMO and solo RPGs continue to fall today. In SWTOR (Star Wars: The Old Republic) each player guides a team of two by default. This breaks the traditional “one player – one character” limitation found in almost all earlier MMORPGs. 

Today the value of a constant server connection for better monetization, seen in most successful social, mobile and tablet games, blurs yet another distinction between solo CRPGs and MMOs. Furthermore, many social, mobile and tablet RPGs are asynchronous, another “half-way” house between the synchronous interactions of traditional MMOs and “no contact with other people” in traditional solo games. MOBA (multiplayer online battle arenas) are yet another type of half-way house between MMOs and solo games.

In the near future, I believe that designers will be required to include some kind of interaction with other players, synchronous or asynchronous, due to its critical importance in viral marketing and the evolving F2P business model. 

Reading you website, it seems that creating a MMO is more difficult that a solo RPG? Could you sum up why? 

The biggest difference between an MMO and a solo game is technical. In addition to all the things a solo RPG must do, an MMORPG needs a “server” that coordinates everything that everybody is doing in and to the world with each other. The server not only maintains world data (including all the mobs and NPCs), but also all the player data. Every time a player does something, or something happens to a player, the data base is accessed. Furthermore, the servers must be reliable. A server error can and will crash thousands of players. Pernicious database errors can slowly corrupt data for all players on that server, requiring complicated real-time streaming backups of the database. 

The software engineering challenges on the server side are VERY significant considerations. Teams inexperienced with online game development, especially synchronous games (multiple players interacting simultaneously), continue to perpetrate spectacular multi-million-dollar software failures. Whenever I see game project mysteriously “cancelled,” or “rebooted” with a different development team, I wonder if another project was torpedoed by the arcane complexities of server engineering.

From a design standpoint, no game is more or less “difficult” than another. Every game has challenges, be it a solo, social, mobile, tablet, MOBA or full-bore MMO. “Small” games aren’t necessarily “easier.” In fact, they may be more difficult, due to limited time and budget. Would you say that painting like Picasso, Van Gogh or Rembrandt is more difficult? They’re simply different.

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