We learn today that the casual-MMO Legends of Zork is shutting down, two years after launch:
It is with a heavy heart we announce that Legends of Zork will be closing its doors to adventurers from noon BST (GMT +1) Tuesday 31st May 2011.
We all know that development work has been scarce of late: We have tried to find leeway within a work intensive schedule to devote some time to fixing the issues in the game; We have tried to find time to create new content for the community; But on the whole we have been unable to undertake any major work on the game.
(-- from a post on the Jolt Online forums, May 24th 2011)
I don't particularly want to be smug about this. The resurrection of the Zork license was neither a cause for excitement nor despair. I pretty much said "Let's see if it's a decent Kingdom of Loathing clone." Then when it shipped, I played for a couple of days and decided: no, it's a dull and lifeless Kingdom of Loathing clone. My IF-playing friends all agreed. If Jolt ever upgraded LoZ with more interesting game mechanics, it was too late for me.
Nor was this snobbery of original-Zork fans. Game reviews from 2009, at a quick scan, ran from "This is not the Zork you’re looking for" to "deserves a solid 'B'". It doesn't seem that players ever got excited about the game -- and, reading the above quote, it doesn't seem that the developers stayed interested either. (Jolt is off to some new thing, "Utopia Kingdoms," on Facebook.)
So the only lessons to be drawn are the obvious ones: flash all the intellectual property you like, but you stand or fall on your game mechanics. IF has stayed in the gaming news; this iteration of Zork has not.
I got one nice piece of speculative game design out of the subject, and I'm not ashamed to requote it here:
What if we built our hypothetical Zork game (let me stress that I'm not talking about Legends of Zork here, I'm making stuff up) on a "monetary" basis of unique treasures? We could randomly generate their names and descriptions -- that's not hard. Succeed in a quest, find an antique Dwarvish black opal. Do it again, discover a handful of silver-inlaid knucklebones. Or a rare blue faience brooch. These don't auto-convert into gold; they retain their identity. [...]
The fundamental act of Zork is exploration. What if the basic quest of our Zork CRPG was exploring a dungeon? (Or forest copse, or temple...) An "attack" would be the entire act of entering a room and facing its challenge -- by stealth, or trickery, or courage, or willpower. You'd still find monsters in the dungeon -- but the rhythm of the game would not be fighting blow-by-blow-by-blow, but rather exploring trap-by-monster-by-maze.
(-- me, early 2009)
(There was also a bunch of stuff about algorithmic content generation. I developed those ideas more fully in my Secrets Game prototype, a few months ago.)
I still think that "the casual space" (a phrase that leaches calcium from my fingers as I type it, but what else am I going to say?) remains wide-open for old-style adventuring ideas. True, the mechanics of the CRPG-oid genre have a strong tendency to bog down and turn into cliche. (Because the learning curve is so high that skilled players always dominate the market?) But innovations do pop up regularly and rearrange the landscape. Diablo upset the applecart once upon a time, and then the online heavyweight MMOs did it again.
Nowadays half the casual-adventure efforts that I see hearken back to Nethack, but the other half are genuinely trying to build something new off the basic equation of "effort = reward". (Do I need to link to Echo Bazaar again? I need to play Echo Bazaar at some point, is what I need to do.) I bet there are still many unexplored approaches to, well, the theme of exploration.