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Learning from your earliest video game experiences

How do your early video game experiences inform your design preferences? Game Developer magazine's Brandon Sheffield reflects on what designers can learn from their first video game loves.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

March 8, 2013

9 Min Read

Game Developer magazine's Brandon Sheffield reflects on what designers can learn from their first video game loves. (Originally printed in Game Developer's March issue, available now.) They say you're forever dating your first love. Not literally, of course, but the early patterns set by your first relationship, and the relationships of your parents, tend to strongly influence how you approach love and relationships for many years to come. I wonder: Is the same true for games? Do those early games we played in our formative years influence what we now perceive as "good" and "bad" in interactive media? Do they influence how we design games? I submit that they may.

First kiss is deadly

Let's think about a series like Dark Souls/Demon's Souls. These games are punishing, require rather exacting inputs from players, and have somewhat fiddly controls that require getting used to. That sounds like a nice recipe for a failure stew. So why did these games succeed? One of the praises you often see from reviewers is that the series reminds them of the glory days of Japanese console and arcade games, which were built with much the same recipe. It's like a new love affair with an old flame - the same problems as always, yet sweetly, lovingly familiar. Japanese publication Dengeki said of Demon's Souls, "Fans of old-school games will shed tears of joy." IGN reviewer Sam Bishop echoed the sentiment, saying, "Those that can remember the good ol' days when games taught through the highly effective use of intense punishment and a heavy price for not playing it carefully should scoop this up instantly." But what about people who didn't grow up with that experience? What about those who are more used to frequent checkpoints, and the game providing a full experience to blaze through in one go, rather than in halting steps? For them, the game is a harder sell, which is why Sony passed on publishing Demon's Souls in the West, and core-oriented niche publisher Atlus had to step up and do it instead. For Demon's Souls, its link to the past helped it succeed. But perhaps the reverse can also happen: Our personal game heritages could, at times, make us slaves to our past interests. For example, I tend to like games that are interesting, but flawed. To me, a glitch in an otherwise super-polished Call of Duty is extremely glaring and illusion-shattering, but I'll happily forgive poor graphics and the occasional invisible wall in a game like Nier, which stabs out in all directions with new ideas. If a game tries hard to do something different, I'll forgive its faults - and if I want to be a designer who makes games that are good at making money, this preference for different-but-flawed could hold me back from making games with commercial appeal. With this thought in mind, I decided to dissect my own past as a player to see what influence it might have had on my current interests.

Lessons from the TurboGrafx-16

My history is a bit odd - I went from the 2600 and Intellivision (which were already old when I got them, but they were affordable!), to the TurboGrafx-16, which I saved up for months to afford. And this is the console that informed my early days as a player of games. The Valis series, for example, is not very well known, but I played it to death. It's an action, platforming, hack-and-slash affair that stars a high school girl, out to save the world, with a sword taking on a horde of monsters. Pretty standard fare for the 1990s. You could jump, perform a sword attack, use magic (and could power up both of these attacks), walk, and roll. I replayed Valis III recently, and I noticed something about those rolls that may have influenced my current interests and design habits. Rolling allows the player to travel for a set distance, both under obstacles and across gaps. But this distance is such that, at times, beginning a roll just a few pixels one way or the other means life or death in a difficult platforming section. On top of that, the platforms themselves can occasionally have dressings that don't count as area you can stand on. This is most likely something one would want to avoid in the modern era, because it feels like the game has tricked you, when you've clearly made the roll visually, but it's counted as a death. Less obvious, though, is the triumph you feel after defeating that particularly difficult section. It's as though you've succeeded in spite of the game's efforts to thwart you. You are actually fighting against the game itself, which we're generally told not to do - but in a modern game like Demon's Souls, it makes the thrill of victory that much more compelling. There is a lesson here for me as a designer: I can sometimes focus too much on making things smooth for a player in the immediate term, versus their long-term experience. I won't bore you with my history as a player, but revisiting these old game-loves continually revealed patterns in my current thinking. For instance, Bonk's Revenge's somewhat mystical and alchemic systems helped drive me to chase the elusive beast that is emergent gameplay in a simple game world. But is that my white whale? That pursuit has, at times, led to feature bloat (which is exactly what happened in the subsequent Bonk installment, incidentally).

Reconstructing our past

Just to make sure I wasn't the only one who's influenced by his past, I asked my friends Tim Rogers of Action Button Entertainment and Frank Cifaldi of Gamasutra.com, with whom I record a weekly podcast (which is also called insert credit), to talk a bit about their formative games, and found them similarly branded by past experience. For Cifaldi, it was The Secret of Monkey Island, which gave him the first glimpse of a full, living interactive game world. This colored his interest in games for years to come; when he was young, he made adventure games in HyperCard, and later, when he was working at GameTap, he made an interactive community adventure game called Captain McGrandpa. Rogers, meanwhile, thinks Super Mario Bros. 3 is the best game ever made. SMB3 is very much about precision and timing of jumps and reactions, but also about secrets - warps, hidden passageways, and coin boxes in the sky. It's no wonder, then, that the first game he directed (ZiGGURAT for iOS) is a deceptively simple game about timing, precision, and nothing else - aside from the occasional secret.

Tell me about your Mother

For your human relationship problems, you can go to a therapist - but they'll just reflect back what you already know. I highly recommend you take a self-analysis approach to your game history. Going back and dissecting those early learnings can help you grow past your earliest ideas of what a game is, or can be, because while most lessons will be good, some will be bad as well. The musical platformer Sound Shapes is an interesting case study: If you read the postmortem in the December 2012 issue of Game Developer, you'll see that the game's mastermind, Jon Mak, said, "I don't like platformers, or level editors, but in the back of my mind they made sense." He also added, "That was a thing that we learned: We couldn't achieve our design goals with what we would do naturally." So here is an example of developers playing against their type, and against their early imprint. This worked well, and brought Sound Shapes to critical acclaim, and many IGF nominations. But at the same time, is it any wonder that (sorry, Jon) the game just doesn't feel like a solid platformer? It feels like an interactive music toy where platforming happens to be the mechanic to drive progress. Without the music element, this would not be a loving homage to the platforming genre. There are lessons in our past for all of us. Try it out on yourself; think about the first game that really grabbed you. Maybe it's the first game that compelled you to keep coming back, aiming for a perfect score; maybe it's the first game that made you feel like games were a living world; maybe it's the first game that let you play against another player. Revisit these games with new eyes. While playing them, think about the jump distances for platformers, or how you start a drift in a racing game, and how long that drift lasts. Think about the level progression in RPGs, or the score multipliers in a shooter. How has your current work reinforced those old ideas? How have they strayed? Should you be more critical of those old ideas? It's an interesting exercise which can yield some surprising results. Even if you don't come away with something practical, you may have an easier time explaining why you prefer to sink hours into Minecraft over Skyrim - or the reverse.

Back to the future

The kids of today expect autosaving, persistence, checkpoints, and massive interactivity on a Minecraft scale. And they're not wrong to expect it! That's what they grew up with, and that is to some extent the future of entertainment. But when they grow up, what will they expect from games? What will their first love affair teach them to love and hate? Getting closer to the now, what about kids who grew up with the Nintendo 64? The precise magic of GoldenEye 64 has never been properly revisited. What of a child who grew up with the Dreamcast? Is anyone serving her needs? I'm not suggesting we need to mine the past and prey on nostalgia. But attempting to serve similar experiences to those people felt in their youth - in new and modern products - can be a valuable goal. Nobody wants to play a new game that's exactly like GoldenEye 64. They want to play a game that feels like how they remember GoldenEye 64 at the time they were playing it. With a little self-analysis, and a careful study of these bygone eras of games, you might just get at that mystical and elusive feeling.

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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