By Alec Meer on April 2nd, 2009 at 12:24 pm.
The initial RPS response to Legends of Zork, the just-released free(ish) browser reimagining of the old text-based adventure/RPGs, was that it’s simply too wretched and cynical to merit a post. Instead of ignoring it though, I’m going to pen a sort of open letter as to what’s wrong with it and what needs fixing to to rescue the fun concept underneath all the howling screw-ups. Why should I bother? I guess I’m a little saddened that a game-name of legend has been treated so cursorily. I’ve barely played the original Zork, but nonetheless this just seems like a bizarre waste of a license. Crucially, though, I reckon it can be fixed (this being web-based and free from expensive graphical shenanigans, it only needs theoretically cheap code-tweaks). Here’s how.
Gosh, I’m arrogant.
That fun concept is, essentially, a turn-based, text-based RPG – along the lines of the boardgame Talisman, or more recently the wonderful Kingdom of Loathing (which really deserves its own post here at some point). You explore, you fight stuff, you loot stuff, and you buy stuff: the core enjoyment factors behind so many RPGs. Sometimes watching a bunch of numbers slowly get bigger is enough, to paraphrase Gillen.
Unfortunately, here it’s not – primarily because the numbers aren’t represented as anything but numbers. Why does the game go to the trouble of having you choose an avatar and buy a bunch of loot with funny-ish names if you then don’t get to see any of it? Given so much of the loot is pretty prescribed – as in, most people are going to end up with the same stuff equipped – it’s wantonly foolish to have no decent visual representation of both it and how your guy looks with it equipped. Otherwise you really are just collecting numbers – which is fine for a pen’n'paper RPG, but when it’s a videogame that already features a ton of environment and creature artwork, it’s that much harder for the imagination to paint pretty pictures in your mind. The slow, HTMLy interface hardly helps.
So it’s this horribly confused halfway house between text-based and graphical adventuring, failing to leverage the strengths of either. Why do I want to wield a frying pan? Because it’s +7 to my AR. Also because it’s a frying pan! Hilarious! Except it’s not. It’s too ordinary a gag – one of the reasons Kingdom of Loathing gets away with similarly rudimentary loot visuals is its item names are openly ludicrous. You don’t need much of an image when the words convey a great gag. A frying pan as a weapon is not a great gag – it’s just a tired stereotype.
The second core problem (and like the first it’s something than could be fixed) is that Legends of Zork is uncomfortably similar to the RPG-satirising Progress Quest. I.e. it plays itself. Combat just happens, as an auto-generated list of stats you have no involvement in. Looting just happens. Healing just happens. Worst of all, the loot you collect sells itself. A message reading “you have sold [all your shit] for [this much money]” is about as satisfying as paying someone to go skydiving on your behalf then tell you what it’s like afterwards.
Sure, selling loot is mechanical and repetitive by its very nature, but there’s a reason it’s bread and butter to so many RPGs – there’s a fascination in poring through exactly what you’ve got, hoping it’s worth a fortune then feeling proud/annoyed when it is/isn’t. There is no point in the looting process being there at all if it automatically and magically turns into dry cash. Make the loot meaningful or usable in some way, or take it out. It’s just a waste of silly names as it is.
Finally, there’s the issue of its free-ness. You get 30 action points per day – that’s real, Earth days. Action points are spent when you fight or travel, which in practice means you’ll get about 20 fights before waiting until tomorrow or paying (with real, Earth cash) for – ugh – ‘Coconuts’ that grant you more APs. Alternatively, there’s a raft of horrific, spam-addled special offers that bung you a few ‘nuts if you sign up for them. Yes, if you subscribe to an online dating site, you get to hit a few more Kobolds. Think of the stories you’ll have to tell on your dates, eh?
It’s inherently flawed. There’s a reason free-to-play games have settled upon a specific model – all the play you want, but with the really cool stuff available as micropayments. People need to be in the game to want more of the game. 20 minutes a day of clicking one button and watching some numbers go up isn’t going to leave anyone wanting more. If LoZ’s payment model is to work, people need to be playing in the first place, then hitting situations in which they want/need something extra. Better yet, make it good enough to earn critical admiration and a large audience, make it entirely free, then earn revenue from those ads that are all over the site. I’m incredulous that’s not the model it’s launched with.
Which, really, feeds into all of LoZ’s major failings. It’s transparently designed to earn money first and foremost, and be a game second. It’s honestly as though someone designed a micropayment system then awkwardly shoved a very crude game on top of it. The ethical ambiguity of micropayment systems aside, it’s something that could work if it’s slick and compelling enough. It’s not – it’s rudimentary, it’s unfunny and it’s horribly cynical. The vastly superior and totally free Kingdom of Loathing, on the other hand, makes a virtue of the first and is the total opposite of the second and third.