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Learning Through Classic Games

In this article, writer and game designer Sande Chen urges game design students to take a look at classic video games.

[This blog entry originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month for July 2010's topic, In Search of Old School Fun.  To participate, simply submit articles and topic suggestions to me.  August 2010's topic will be Design 2020: Imagining the Future of Gaming.]

A few weekends ago, I participated in a Playpower workshop to create 8-bit games for children in developing countries.  It turns out that the patents on these old systems have long gone, so Chinese manufacturers have been churning them out and selling them for the equivalent of $10 each.  Who would have known that 8-bit systems were still popular as ever in parts of India or Africa? Outside of the demoscene and video game console collectors, there's probably no one tinkering with a NES or Atari 2600 in the U.S.

Photo: © Imelda Katarahardja  Reprinted with permission

But, we all know the games from that era.  Games like Pac-Man or Asteroids.  These classic games have endured the test of time to become cultural icons.  It seems like more and more of these classic games are being re-released on Steam, XBLA, or Good Old Games.  Game design students should be rejoicing.

In the past, I have had one game design student tell me that he was glad he was born after that era so he didn't have to play games with stinky graphics.

The thing is...  the graphics shouldn't matter to a game design student. Photo-realistic graphics may enhance the game experience, but a game can be a great game even if your ship is an isosceles triangle.  Speaking at the recent Gamesauce conference, game designer Kent Hudson remarked that Jason Rohrer's game Passage, even with its low-rez graphics, had a deep emotional resonance for him.

Furthermore, great game design is about dealing with constraints.  Stripped of the glitzy graphics and orchestral soundtrack, a game stands and falls on its design.  The Playpower workshop outlined the many limitations faced by the original game designers.  Just think:  your watch or cell phone may be (and probably is) more powerful than an original NES.  Yet, people are still playing and enjoying classic games.  That's why game design students should be studying these classic games so they, in turn, can make enduring classic games for the next generation of game design students. 

But take a step further:  If you're up for a challenge, consider signing up and making a 8-bit game for Playpower.  The Playpower Foundation wants games of educational value, but hey, that's just another game design constraint :)  After all, your game may just become the monster hit of the developing world.

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