In which I call for designing less and arguing more.
One thing I absolutely hate is those MMORPG-like "+1.75% to whatever" bonuses on items and skills which you absolutely can't feel, but which can actually stack up and break the game - if you're willing to create a spreadsheet (usually by playing the game for a few months at least) and then do some advanced math analysis on that to come up with the perfect build.
My ideal for ability design is where each ability you can pick on level up makes you go "I want that because I'll be able to kill everybody in game with that!", makes you salivate over choices, makes every skill point precious. Of course, the new skills shouldn't REALLY break the game - maybe only for a little while, until you reach new enemies with new abilities.
Very few games ever try to do that, although I think Arcanum comes closest - the choice of spells or craft schematics to learn was always sweetly painful in this game for me.
That said, my own criticism of QW2 ability system would be not that it's too simple, but that it's a bit too boring. I don't EVER get a feeling that THIS spell finally will let me dominate that fight I've been avoiding for the last three levels. For example, the three attack spells - Ice, Poison and Fire - feel too similar. Yes, the damage and shape of AOE differs a bit, but neither feels too powerful - or too interesting. Contrast and compare with late-level spells in Arcanum, one of which allowed you to disintegrate basically any enemy (at the cost of also destroying his equipment, though, and you could only cast it 2-3 times before resting at best).
Or, for another example, I absolutely hate everything about combat in Dragon Age: Inquisition. It has exactly the kind of "incremental improvement for stats" skills and items that I find utterly boring. Dragon Age: Origins, on the other hand? THAT game had fun combat. I still remember the kick I've got every time I got to loose that high-level arrow ability (forgot what it was called, been too long) at an enemy, or pulled of two-spell combat with freeze and shatter, which utterly destroyed lower-level enemies. Yet, DA:O combat was also way harder than watered-down click-fest that is DA:I.
High-level spells in D&D also sound exactly like high-level spells should sound - utterly devastating. Knights of Chalice 2 gives the player a great opportunity to play with them, but it never becomes too easy even when you have a bunch of reality-altering powers, because the combat design in that game is just perfect: it gives you broken powers, and gives you enemies that REQUIRE those broken powers to defeat them.
I would question people going "OMG EXILE WAS SO MUCH BETTER." Including your own memory. That was thirty damn years ago, and anyone who tells you everything was better thirty years ago is either lying or has forgotten a bunch of important things.
Personally, I prefer the Nethergate-era engine to the new Avernum, but have enjoyed the QW and new Geneforge engines just fine (I found the new Avernum seemed to require a LOT of investment in skills to remain...massively weaker than I was in the old Avernums. Rather frustrating). From a game design perspective around the combat, I personally prefer a few meaningful and straightforward abilities (especially ones that were quick to use) to ones that weren't that. I hit things with basic melee attacks, use a lot of direct damage spells, and don't like summoning things. I think the older games tended to allow this more, but QW does a decent job at it, as did Geneforge. Story and worldwise, QW1 was 100% weird and unique and felt very much old-school Spiderweb - it was basically a lot of the neat old school world elements, but with quality of life elements from a much more modern game. QW2 isn't as unique, but is certainly still characterful and interesting. I really need to actually play through the final version.
In regards to the complaints about Queen's Wish, I don't think it's really the 'stripped down' nature that's the core of the complaint, although it's why the complaint manifests. As you note, your old Exile games were full of tons of fiddly bits and little weird things that were maybe useless and pointless but were quirky and potentially interesting. And you've had a possibly unusually resilient audience that has stayed with you for decades (I am certainly not the only one who has played the original Exile all the way up to QW2).
I think the reason you get a lot of criticism is that there just aren't a lot of games that do the quirky fiddly kitchen sink stuff and unlike what you write about GOW:R it wasn't that hard in Exile/Avernum to earn the quirky fiddly stuff so you could experiment in bizarre (if useless) ways easily and that does tickle some people's fancy, and now those people who have nostalgia for Exile can't do that in your newer games and it hits harder than if somebody named Veff Jogel released a brand new game that doesn't have it.
Now, I'm with you on the journey, I loved what you streamlined about QW2 and other than finding serious hard tactical combat brainpower time harder with a young kid around and less sleep, I enjoy it a lot more than the old stuff. It's pared down, but it all works, and on Hard I only ignore like 15% of the skill tree instead of 50%+.
Geneforge is another of the 'weird and quirky' kind of things even if it isn't as mechanically complex, playing around with monster combos and all that is fun, so I hope you'll continue to see success with it. But I also hope you'll make QW3 because I'm excited to finish the journey of my fantasy family!
Regarding QW2 and the reduced skill tree abilities thing,
Personally I thought the streamlined way to get good and the semi frequent requirement to change abilities of the party to suit different challenges was cool. Made dying more fun as opposed to having to keep the same shit and just grind away until it happens (or restart, early save wvr). Also, I felt this game had good value as a replay, because of how wildly different it could be played (although I haven’t replayed, I don’t often replay games).
I loved QW2, narrative was all that, the endings cool, twists fun, etc.
Your best game as far as I’m concerned was original exile with a 6 party, I loved the lot of it. Even how the old number pad could move the party, the old graphics sounds and talking mechanic, loved everything. Do a re release of that for ipad ✌️
Re: How God of War Gameplay Used To Work --
The series got more complicated pretty darn fast. Absolutely not on the scale of GoWR, mind -- I'm not saying the new game isn't bizarrely overdesigned. I am saying nostalgia may be simplifying your impression of the original trilogy.
Your summary is mostly accurate for GoW 1, though it also had a magic meter and four separately upgradeable magic attacks (the coolest of which was medusa's head. Least cool was that two out of four were lightning attacks. What? Who makes a game with four spells and has two of them be the same element?). There was an alternate weapon for a third of the game (a slower, heavier sword with different combos), but you used it for plot reasons, not an option to freely swap back and forth. If I remember right, there was only ever one upgrade currency through the trilogy, which the games referred to as "Red Orbs", 100% ripped from Devil May Cry without examination, and some quarter-heart style items to find to upgrade HP/MP/Rage.
By GoW2, in addition to the Blades of Chaos and a NG+ super weapon, there were also:
Barbarian Hammer: A slow, but powerful melee weapon originally wielded by the Barbarian King, Alrik. Kratos could deliver powerful slams and smashes, and also summoned legions of souls.
Spear of Destiny: A weapon originally used by the Dark Rider. Kratos could perform deadly swipes and stabs, and could also fire dangerous piercing projectiles at enemies.
I have copied that from the wiki because, although I was pretty sure I remembered there being other weapons that could be swapped between and separately upgraded, I could not have told you anything about them to save my life. I did correctly remember that this was the game where the Golden Fleece added a parry / reflect move. Plus rage meter, plus magic meter and five separately upgradeable spells. Plus some gimmicky location-based "Glide if there are air currents!", "Slow time when these statues are around!" stuff that only occasionally came up.
By GoW 3, there were five weapons, six spells, a dash/wall run move, and a flashlight. (plus all the usual suspects)
I had kind of forgotten how much stuff there was until reading your post made me think "there were other weapons, right?" and made me go check. I'm kind of afraid to boot up GoW3 to find out whether I've just forgotten how like GoWR it is, and Pandora will actually tell me how to solve all the puzzles if the game thinks I'm taking too long.
Just seeing the old Exile 3 spell list made me irrationally happy, so you must have been doing something right…and those are just the priest spells!
But yeah, my experience with GoWR was almost exactly the same. I felt bad, but eventually I just started ignoring most of the more complicated stats since I didn’t feel they had the same impact as raw strength. Still loved the game though.
The Queen's Wish system is brilliant. 4-stat and 6-stat systems are starting to feel cumbersome now, and I enjoy the difficult choices with consequences that are never perfect. I am also older now than you were when I first started playing your games, so that may be a factor.
TL;DR I think complexity in some games, like spiderweb games, is a wonderful thing to have but pseudo-complexity does more damage to a game than just keeping the game simple.
I am one of the people that prefer the older spiderweb games to the newer ones but I still end up buying them all anyway so I guess that says something in and of itself. Having played your games since I got Exile 1 and 2 on a demo disk back in time immemorial I have some kind of mixed feelings with where the games have gone since then.
I personally loved the customization that was offered to the player in Exile and original Avernum. I think a lot of that was lost in new Avernum, Avadon, and Queen's Wish, but on the same token those games are much more accessible to new players than Exile or even Avernum ever was. I loved Exile because it was a game I could get lost in trying different builds, trying to figure out if I could make some of the spells I undervalued more useful in a way I hadn't previously thought. I loved Exile because of how complex it is, buy I dislike a lot of modern games because of the illusion of that complexity.
I have not played GoWR because I don't really buy consoles anymore but I can apply this argument to Assassin's Creed Origins as well. I loved the early Assassin's Creed games, the were simple and fun and I knew exactly what I was in for when I jumped into them. Origins tried to mix that up by turning it into an action RPG and they put in equipment that's randomized and a skill tree you can progress through but the game didn't feel any different than when I had first started playing. It was an illusion of complexity and I never made it past the 3 hour mark of origins and I haven't played an Assassin's Creed since.
While I find myself mostly on the, “no, this game needs more” side of the fence 9/10 times these days, the idea of systems bloat being poison? … yeah. Yeah, that’s not something I can logically argue against.
Thing is, to me, that applies only in systems where “diversity” means more to invest in and potentially get wrong or moreover, shutout of other fun options. Having every bladed weapon under the sun in your game is fine and good and I’d honestly love to see it. But having separate *skills* for “sabers” and “spadroons” and having one means you sacrificing the other and every other type of sword is… crossing a line.
Diversity within a system is good for flavor, and I still find most games these days need more of it. I think of all the massive, colossal open world games running around with a Russian sized gamespace and enough variety and progression to fill half a Lichtenstein and it makes me very sad. And flavor for flavor’s sake isn’t a sin – every weapon type and variant doesn’t need to offer a totally unique gameplay experiences or character build. But it does add spice to a world blander without them.
That said, the central point still holds true. If your diversity adds more things a user can do/see/engage with then great! But if what you’re really doing is putting in more doors to lock a player out of then you’re not doing them any favors. If the "variety" in question isn't anything to expand on the game's world or setting, and just serves to make the player feel like they've built their character wrong... probably better to leave it out.
Unfortunately, the “best” compromise feels like one of those “wisdom of the ages” things that can’t be simply, objectively stated, if at all...
gonna start looking up game credits & CTRL+F "Player Investment Design" before buying… EUUGH. kinda says everything you need to know about the product you're purchasing.
My theory is that, a big part of the success of retro games of all types isn't just the retro aesthetics, but also the simplicity.
Plain clear colors, controls constrained by simpler controllers, simpler stories, no screen shaking or "cool" visual effects, no gimicks, faster loading times, etc. Less, fewer, lower.
There are many games that look great, but just feel a bit "too much" after a hard day at work.
Hey Jeff, I just finished QW1 and started QW2. They have been for some time on my steam list, but now I got the time to play them.
As someone who only played Avernum 1 EftP and Avernum 2 CS, It was quite different... Yet I loved both experiences. I truly enjoyed QW, and hope for the 3rd sequel!
IMO, your choices were all correct regarding the QW series. The chests and experience system felt rewarding after hard battles, the world felt alive as characters reacted to my choices, and the story is neat.
Sometimes less is more, and the systems must fit the story that is being played out. If I'm an Explorer in a prison-cave of colossal proportions, where we all struggle to survive, even junk has its importance. But as royalty, I wouldn't care for this and rather focus on investments. Hence I don't think QW was stripped down, IMO you just adapted tbe system so it made sense storywise.
Sacramentum, and now the Rokaj are entertaining experiences. I say that as somene who plays many CRPGs, and your games are some of my favorites.
"Maybe I was dumb to change anything."
Honestly my biggest issue with the Queen's Wish games is that they are too ... polished? Formulaic? It's the same issue with Thea: The Shattering as opposed to Thea: The Awakening. Sure the original game had unbalanced systems, some things were useful and others weren't so much. The tech tree had empty spaces and dead ends. But that was organic, that felt real. The Shattering, and Queen's Wish, and to some extent the Geneforge series, are just constantly reminding me that I am, in fact, just playing a game, and I can never get fully invested as a result.
Exile III though. Now that was a good game.
Life is messy, there's lots of stuff we learn, skills we acquire that don't end up being useful in what we actually have to face. As long as fixing your mistakes isn't too onerous, having those things in a game, especially a roleplaying game, isn't a flaw it's a feature. (Of course, it's even better if that stuff does turn out to be useful if you can get creative. But that doesn't mean it needs to be efficient, or as good as other options.)
Something I learned along the way, which, like many things, I wish someone had taught me at a much earlier age, is that ideal project management involves 90% (competent) planning and 10% (competent) implementation. Following this approach significantly impacts the statistical probability that the project (for example, a video game) will turn out how it was intended (which, due to the planning, will have accounted for the majority of potential pratfalls and felonious fallibilities). Granted, it does not mean the project will be successful by any other metric (hence, my adding the terms "competent"). Humans ensure the world is not a fair and just environment.
A spiritual sibling to the above belief is simply "content is king." This has become one of my most typed mantras (originally, ages ago, regarding websites - now most often regarding movies, but it applies to almost everything - and I do apply it to almost everything). Meaning that the majority of projects you encounter in the wild - be it a film, board game, city infrastructure (or, usually, lack thereof - Hello, dearth of "urban planning"), or video game - should (yes, that dirty word) never have been greenlit.
I haven’t finished reading this review yet (but I will). Instead I followed it down a linking rabbit hole and eventually ended up on the Wikipedia page for the Kingkiller Chronicles.
What happened? I came across those books by accident years and years ago. They were terrific. How come he never finished it? We’re at the point where I’ll need to reread the first two books before reading the next one, which is annoying, and I’m old enough that I’m not as up for that as I used to be.
In the third section of this article, are you really saying that the correct way to develop a big AAA game is for a bunch of artists to separately develop whatever they want and non-verbally unofficially communicate in such away that it all just magically works out in the end?