I often find games target a “retro” look and/or sound – usually this means some low-res, stylized pixel art, and music made with simple 8-bit synths. I’m all for that – 100 Rogues qualifies in this way (although we were going for more of a Super Nintendo look/sound, using 16 bit SNES sound-fonts instead of the 8-bit stuff). In fact, I think that setting a limitation in this way, artistically and musically can be a great help to composers and artists, in that it forces them to focus on the fundamentals of what’s great about the mediums. For 8-bit music to be good, it just has to have good melody, rhythm, harmony. It can’t get a pass by having some Arabian sounding woman howling random notes over some giant Hans Zimmer bank-vault door-slam sound effects.
What bothers me, though, is that there are a lot of developers, particularly in the indie scene, who seem to think that the answer is to just copy an old game design. It is certainly true that in modern digital games, a lot has been lost. If you go and look to the games from the late 80s or early 90s, you will notice many things that just aren’t found in today’s games: usually things like “an actual loss condition”, or “a good degree of difficulty”, or “interesting decisions”. Older games were closer to the fundamentals of games – perhaps if for no other reason, because chronologically they were closer to the days before digital gaming. But again, just like music and art, the game designers were limited by the technology and forced to focus on the fundamentals of game design in order to make a good game.
So, what’s wrong with just copying games from that era? Well, a lot is wrong with it. First off, while older games definitely did a lot right, they also did a lot wrong. Particularly, I’m thinking about RPGs from the late 80s and early 90s, here. These games were very unsure of what it was they were trying to do. They were part simulation, part role-playing, part game. And what ended up happening was, with all of them, that they were an extremely opaque experience that usually led to a ton of grinding and the necessity of reading FAQs. I’m talking about games like Wizardry, Ultima, and even to some extent, Fallout. The games were overly complex, and I don’t mean “for casual players”, I mean they were just too complicated for their own good. Needlessly complicated, somewhat for the sake of role-playing or simulation (a great example was how many skills there were in Fallout – Outdoorsman? Doctor? Gambling? Who’s going to take these?).
Secondly, copying limits you to only being as good as those games. That may be good enough for the hardcore fans of those games, but for most people, they’re going to want a new, and preferably better, experience. One thing that modern games actually have been improving on is user interface (UI). In the craze to attract more and more people who probably don’t even want to be playing games in the first place, we’ve actually sort of mastered the art of accessibility in games. Of course, games need to be accessible and deep – that sage wisdom about games being “easy to learn but difficult to master” will always be true. So again, by copying these old games – yes, we’re copying their strengths, but we’re also copying their weaknesses and holding ourselves back.
Spiderweb Software is one example of a company that pretty much exclusively copies the designs from 15 years ago. Now, in theory, I should love them, because they are copying games like Fallout and Arcanum, which I consider to be, probably, the best computer role-playing games ever made. However, Spiderweb is also copying the fundamental weaknesses of those games.
As you can see, we have an incredibly complicated UI here. No less than SIXTEEN buttons on the bottom of the hud, TWELVE slots to equip something on your character, and a large inventory for all the LOOT in the game. It doesn’t take a genius game designer to see the weaknesses in this kind of a “loot-oriented” system in a game. It necessarily becomes busy-work: Oh, look, leather armor. That has more armor than this shirt I’m wearing, so let me go into the inventory and equip it! Oh look, chainmail armor! I wonder what I should do with this – equip it, maybe? Now you have all these items, most of which are completely useless garbage whose most exciting destination will be the item shop in town for a few pieces of gold. Hooray!
What scares me a bit is that when you get into this mindset of simply copying what we were doing 15 years ago, you stop thinking. You have to, because if you think about it you will realize this sort of stuff. I found a wonderful example of this in Jeff Vogel’s “Bottom Feeder” blog, in his post titled “Three Rules for Difficulty in RPGs“.
“Observation One: There are two sorts of fights in an RPG: Fights that are supposed to be easy and fights that are supposed to provide a challenge.
In other words, first, there are fights that will almost never ever kill a player, also known as trash, or trash mobs. If your trash mobs are frequently killing the character, your balance is messed up. Most of the time, the vast majority of the fights in a game will be this sort. Then there are fights that the player can possibly lose (mini bosses, bosses). “
So, this guy has actually embraced the old game designs so deeply that he is totally incapable of stepping back for a moment and asking himself if these assumptions make sense. Does it make sense that for most of the “fights” in your game, you can’t possibly lose? Absolutely not, there can be no tension in a game without the threat of losing. Does it even qualify as a fight if it’s “supposed to be easy”? Again, this isn’t difficult stuff, but it’s very interesting, that there are game designers who have got themselves locked down in the “retro” mold so tightly that they can’t ask themselves fundamental questions.
There are many more examples of “pure retro” games that have come out, with varying degrees of validity. There’s a series of DS games that Atlus publishes called Etrian Odyssey which are basically Wizardry clones. I find that silly, but at the very least these games are introducing a new crowd – modern DS players – to an old game, Wizardry. Spiderweb isn’t even doing that – they’re on the same platform with a similar (or maybe even less) visibility as the games they’re copying.
In short, it’s a good thing to learn from the history of games. But at the end of the day, game design comes down to being able to ask difficult questions and to be flexible.