Analyzing Might & Magic
Might and Magic 6 was the second successful RPG (after Fallout) in a time where RPGs were almost forgotten. Fallout and MM6 (and later Baldur's Gate) changed the CRPG scene - now we have tons of RPGs coming, and a dozen on the market.
While most RPGs were rather short and only had good graphics, MM6 was completely different. It's graphics weren't particuarly great, and it was absolutely huge. And still it was a success, and the game companies understood (at least some of them did) that for a game to be really successful it also has to appeal to the hard-core gamers.
Now let us think about why MM6 and MM7 are so much fun, and what we can learn from them.
First of all, the game engine. The game engine has remained pretty much the same from MM6 to MM8. MM7 supported newer technologies, but otherwise nothing changed.
The Might and Magic engine allows for very much freedom. You can walk on the rooftops, if you wish. No place is inaccessible. This, combined with the fact that the game is very open, gives you a wonderful feeling of freedom. The engine has been used very well, when it comes to spells. Spells like walk on water, fly and jump can be used everywhere (except dungeons), unlike other games, where they could only be used in specific situations.
An interesting thing is that when you're outside, you really feel it. You feel "I'm outside". This is propably caused by the fact that when you enter a house you get a special screen, that is kind of "removed" from the rest of the world. This is a rather simple thing, but it helps by providing (a little bit of) immersion. A feature like this is easy to implement and useful- although it doesn't fit in every game.
One of the things that are very much fun in the MM games is exploration. Very few other games allow you to actually explore an area - not just the main map. There are mountains that you have to climb (or fly) up, and islands that you can reach either by boat or some spell (walk on water, fly). Or, if you find some, boots of water walking. This also shows us again how important it is to allow the player many ways to do things, as it gives him/her the feeling that he is actually playing, making choices, not just watching a movie (like in Final Fantasy).
That's what so great about MM. You believe you can do anything - it's up to you. It's a world, not a bunch of options (go here/go there/quit game).
Another interesting element is character creation. In MM6 and 7, you create 4 characters. You can choose their face, voice and class (and race in MM7). Especially this choosing of face and voice let you create the characters the way you like, and makes you bond with them. This is a feature every (non-manga, I suppose) RPG should include, especially if party-based.
Character creation is well-balanced. There is only one non-magic class, several magic specialists (sorcerers/clerics/druids) and the usual half/half classes like the Paladin. However, some classes are almost necessary to finish the game, like the Cleric.
The skill system is very well thought-out, although I would prefer more non-weapon skills. There is skill for every weapon, armor and magic type. As you advance in the game, you can find trainers that allow you to become and expert/master/grandmaster in that skill, which makes you better at it, gives you new abilities (eg attack twice with dagger) or allows you to learn new spells. The interesting point is that you first have to do a quest for the trainer. This is a very useful way of putting quests in your game. Imagine : thirty trainers, thirty quests - your game is much larger. And of course, there is the difficulty of finding the trainer. As long as it's not too difficult, it also provides immersion. When the player goes around the city asking about the trainer he needs, he really feels as if he were there. I have noticed this with me and several people I know. It seems that it is good to add things the player can do and will want to do, but not list them a quests, not make them necessary (player quests). It gives the player that feeling of freedom, choice.
The last special element of MM's character creation/advancement system is promotions. There are two promotions for each class. To get the promotion, you must find a certain NPC and perform a quest for him/her (as with expert/master/grandmaster). Promotions give you more HP/MP and allow you to master new skills/spells. This, just like the trainer quests, allows you to add more quests, give the player something extra to do (if he wants to) and give him a good award for it.
So, thinking about the promotional quests, what else do we notice ? Well, the promotional quests give the player more options. More skills and spells he can learn, places he can go that he couldn't before (wasn't powerful enough) etc etc. Maybe this is what all of this is about : the player going on an (optional) quest that will give him more options. And when he finally manages to get them, he wants to continue playing to use them. Addiction.
A Note on Druid Promotion
The Druids' promotion quests are quite original. To get the promotion, you have to be at a certain stone circle on a certain day, like Equinox. Unfortunately, the Druid promotion is only of use for Druids (unlike other promotions) since there is no skill that requires a druid promotion. But this idea is very good, and could have been used in a far better way - and should be used in other games too. There should be certain holy days, on which the Druid would have to be at a certain place ( a grove or a circle of stones or something). The knowledge of how to do this would be given to the player (if he was a Druid) during the game by other druids. This would give the player a particular "I know something special" feeling. To take the idea even farther, if you did this in a MMORPG the knowledge would only belong to the druids, and would be passed on to the new players by the older ones. That would create groups/guilds on its own, and maybe at some point someone would tell the secrets to someone else. That someone would then become a fallen druid. The fallen druid could then create his own group of bad guys (maybe with the help from the people ho controlled the game) etc etc. You get the picture.
Items and Artifacts
Using items and artifacts the right way can have the effect of absolute addiction. We use the player's greed to make him play more. More gold ! A better sword ! A magic sword ! More spells ! This is similar to the stat/skill thing. You want better stats, so you play on and on, kill monsters (E. G. G. !) etc. But items can be even more fun. And the MM people know that. That's why they've put so many items in their games. When the player is thinking "What am I going to use ? The flaming sword or the magical minotaur axe ? Ummm..." you can be pretty sure he'll keep playing. And, for hard-core players, the MM games include two great specials. The first is enchantment. Yes, you can enchant your own items. And this is really addictive. You buy rings, enchant them, sell them. But you need better rings. You go to another city, or start killing ghosts (for some reason they often drop rings). Then you enchant them. When you finally create that ring of light magic you wanted, you're so incredibly happy ! Total addiction. The second special is ore. In MM7 you can find several types of ore, and some NPCs (in Erathia I think) can turn them into items. In my opinion this could have been used more : there should be a smithing skill, and if the player had the right tools, he should have been able to make his own stuff. And, even better : there should be a smith in (almost) every city, and they would produce different items (eg the dwarves could make great axes).
And one more element that is not used enough is alchemy. You can create great potions using herbs. Allowing the player to make his own items (or even spells) is very good.
Ore and herbs also add what I might call "player quests" - the search for particular items and the player having adventures to get then only because he wants to -not because tells him to. Quests that the player undertakes but that aren't listed anywhere.
Now, if you think about Ultima (9) and how you have to search for certain ingredients, imagine this : The player really wants to make a potion of magic strength. He has heard great things about it by NPCs and managed to find the recipe in an old library. He's got everything he needs except a mandrake root. Now he goes on a player quest to find one. If this is done correctly, it can make your game very immersive.
The Might and Magic series has another great element that should be used in every RPG. Means of transport beyond the clich? Teleporting Circle of Magic Stones That Look Like Stonehenge(TM) . Ships and coaches with specific schedules. This is quite easy to implement and not only makes travelling easier, but also adds very much to the "feeling" of your world.
There are a few more elements in the games that we, as game designers, could use. Little details, that add to the world. Like apples on trees that can be taken (we could do it so that there only are apples during a certain season). Sometimes there is fog - great atmosphere. Spells that create traps. Arcomage (card game) in MM7.
Not so great stuff
Of course the Might and Magics also have problems. One of them is that they are too much hack-n-slash with no story. The NPCs are unimportant. Most quests are like "go there, kill everything, get me item x and come back". And the sci-fi elements really suck. But still, the MM games have much we can learn from.
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Jonas Kyratzes aka runemaster