I find it funny when people use the term, "old-school" when talking about game design, as it is the only one I can think of that can be used both positively and negatively. Some titles strive to deliver that old-school feel, while others are condemn because of it. This leads to the point and question for this entry: what mechanics or design are considered old-school?
Several months ago I talked about how game design has become more streamlined and accessible over the years. During that entry I briefly touched on the theory that some elements of old-school design were in my opinion, either bad design or arbitrarily raising the difficult level of a game; for instance, a bad control scheme or hard to follow UI. Another example would be games that had no in game map whatsoever. I know that there are plenty of older gamers who are going to disagree with that last one, growing up with CRPGs that required graph paper to draw maps. However, this is going to be a point where we'll have to agree to disagree.
With that said, I'm going to attempt to distinguish some of the positive mechanics of old-school design. First, is simply non linearity, whether that comes from progression in the story or available tactics to the player. Games like Demon's Souls and Etrian Odyssey, give the player a variety of available options on how to progress in the game. In EO, there is no perfect party composition, and this is helped by having utility skills split across classes. While in Demon's Souls, the player is free to improve their attributes however they wish and have three viable combat options with close, ranged and magic combat.
Depending on the type of gamer, challenge could be considered either good or bad for old-school design. Most games designed for that old-school feel, have enemies that are more than just a minor annoyance. In Ninja Gaiden Black , even the first enemy type you run into on normal can still take out the player if they aren't paying attention. With Etrian Odyssey, mini bosses are scattered around the various floors with some so powerful that the player can't take them on until returning to the floor several hours later.
With those high points mentioned, let's talk about some downsides. Obscuring information comes in several forms with old-school design. It could mean anything from not telling the player what items or skills do, to hiding important information behind screens of text. There is a fine line between letting the player figure something out on their own and forcing them into a scavenger hunt for basic information.
Knowing how much information to give the player is always a challenge, as there are times that you don't want to tell the player exactly what everything does. In the game: King of Dragon Pass, the player is required to make decisions base off of information, but is not told exactly how their choices will affect the village. This gives the game a unique feel to it, forcing the player to think like they are in the village instead of as a player using spreadsheets of information to determine the optimal route. This concept definitely deserves its own entry and I'll be coming back to it at a later point.
The UI is a big deal when it comes to design; many older games use archaic UIs that make it hard to follow what is going on. I'm not going to spend too much time on this point as I'm already writing a separate entry on this.
As I lurked around the Internet after playing The Witcher 2, I kept seeing the same defense people threw out whenever someone had a problem with the game. That it was trying to capture that old-school charm with a bad UI, unresponsive controls not having a proper tutorial and so on. To me, that's not having charm, that's just simply bad design. Once again, an excellent example of this marriage between old-school design and accessibility would have to be Demon's Souls.
I know that I've been harping on Demon's Souls for a while, but it is that good. For designers who want to see how to balance difficulty with accessibility, it is one of the best. My final example for this entry is a quick comparison between two RPGs.
Recently a new Wizardry game was released on the PS3 via PSN. For those like me who never played the series, it is another long lasting old school CRPG. I thought that I was going to enjoy it, much in the same way I loved Etrian Odyssey. However upon loading the demo, I found out that when they said "old-school" they really meant "old-school".
The demo had no manual, no in game map, to create each party member I had to fiddle with stats until the game told me that I could create that character. The shop interface was obtuse and the final nail in the coffin came from a slow battle system. This was a game completely set in its ways, compared to Etrian Odyssey, which took the best parts of old-school design and tried to remove as much fluff as possible.
As game design continues to evolve, I can't help but feel that the term "old-school" will begin to define more and more game mechanics. Who knows, perhaps someday, hiding behind cover to regenerate health, will be considered too old-school for the shooter market.