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Smoothing out the wrinkles of game design.

Were games really better back in the old days? Today I explain why that isn't the case.

One of the oldest arguments between older gamers and younger ones is that games these days are not as complex/good as they were back in the day. Having been on an old school binge this past week I have to disagree for the most part.

The main reason in my opinion why older gamers see things as dumb down would have to be how systems and mechanics these days have been streamlined to make them easier to understand. This for me personally is a great thing.

X-Com UFO Defense is considered by many PC gamers to be one of the best games around, with excellent game design that has not been bested since. With that said however X-Com features one of the worse user interfaces I've seen and is an example of what not to do.

You could honestly say the same thing for most classic games. I recently tried to play the original Might and Magic RPG I bought off of Good Old Games and for the life of me I could not figure out how to start the game without reading the manual. I got to the first fight and couldn't find a way to attack and gave up.

Contrast that to today's scene where most games don't even need the player to read the manual as the controls are easy to pick up and the game shows the player what to do. Now we can argue that we have moved away from completely non linear games which I'll come back to later in this entry.

In my opinion the following points are the major changes that have helped streamlined game-play.

1. Standardized controls: Back in the late 80s, early 90s every game had a different control scheme and this was not just limited to different genres. You could play five different CRPGs and have five completely different UIs to figure out. The first thing a gamer had to do would be to read the manual just to understand how to control their character.

These days, control schemes and UIs have become standardized to keep the learning curve low. How many fans of console shooters know before they even played the game that the right trigger is most likely the "shoot" button? Every Real Timed Strategy title to come out these days for the most part designates the "A" key as the attack move function as it is one of the most used commands in the game.

UIs have also moved away from acting as borders around the screen and now either factor into the game (such as having the ammo display on the gun itself), or take up as little real estate on the screen as possible.

By keeping the interfaces and control schemes similar across games it allows gamers to begin any game with the base lessons learned which also removes the first barrier of entry. This allows gamers to transition to the next step in learning a game.

2. Moving the instructions from manual to game: Another aspect of older game design was leaving as much information off the game screens and putting it all in the manual. The player would never know what a power up does or the objective of the game is without reading the manual first. Important details such as what stats do or how to fight would also not be mentioned.

Today most games have all the information the player would need present in game, either through a tutorial level or showing the player as the game progresses. Tool tips and in game help menus are designed to give the player easy access whenever they are trying to understand something without having to resort to the manual.

Valve has gotten increasingly good at this to the point that games like Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead and Portal don't even have manuals for the player to read. Clever level design, tool tips and streamlined controls are all they need to show the player how to play their games.

The consequence of this has been a sizable reduction in game manual sizes. I remember a time where you could cause someone bodily harm by hitting them with a game manual. Today the worse you could do is a paper cut.

3. Giving a helping hand: For most old school games, they were all about just dropping the player into the world and saying "go". If the player wanders off into a section they weren't supposed to go and get killed, well that was a learning experience. Or having three towns in complete opposite directions of each other and the player has to figure out where to go first.

Today with in game maps, quest logs and more the player has a hard time getting lost now. One negative about this is that it does move us away from the wanderlust feel of open world games where the player can get lost and explore to their hearts content. However I think the reason why we don't see more games like this is that designers haven't found an effective compromise between knowing what to do and getting completely lost.

Even though I didn't like Fallout 3, I still liked the idea of having settlements and places to explore that the player could find while wandering around. Of course on the subject of letting the player do what they want I have to mention Minecraft as another great example.

I think one of the reasons why we played older games longer then games today was that the systems were so archaic and hard to decipher that we had to spend the extra time trying to understand how to play the game. On the subject of older game design and new design I want to stop for a second and talk about difficulty.

Another argument made by older gamers is that games have gotten easier and on one hand they are correct. However we need to look at what made the games difficult in the first place. If your game was hard because your UI or mechanics were hard to understand then that's not really making a good game. But if your game was hard due to challenging game play and requiring the player to learn the mechanics then that is in my opinion a good example of old school design.

Games like Might and Magic and other older RPGs, I could probably stop everything I'm doing and just focus on the one game to the point that I could understand it and start playing, but to be honest I really don't have the time or energy to spend learning something that I would use for just one game.

Recently the Etrian Odyssey series for the DS is a great example of touching up old school design with a fresh coat of paint. The series is all about brutally difficult RPG game-play however with the inclusion of in game maps, tool tips for the various powers and an easy to use control scheme does much to smooth out the learning curve and leave the player to focus on learning the game-play.

I think the notion that old school game-play and challenge should be filed as a niche concept is wrong. Great game-play is great game-play regardless of the year it was made. It's what the player will use to experience the game-play that can age poorly or well. On this regard the games industry has improved considerably, as it is far easier to pick up a game today than it is to go back to one, fifteen + years ago regardless of the game design. Demon's Souls was an amazing game using old school challenge and design but used a modern UI and control scheme and it turned out to be one of the best games of last year.

Would X-Com given just a graphical overall work as well today as it did back then? Personally I don't think so; however X-Com given a graphical overall and a retouched UI I think would sell like hotcakes. One of the reasons why games like the earlier Mario and Zelda titles are still regarded with high praise was because the game design was amazing and there wasn't a huge barrier of entry in the form of controls or UI. I could replay Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past without needing to read the manual.

The compromise between complexity and accessibility is always a difficult decision to make and not a lot of game companies get the balance right but when it does work we are usually left with excellent games.

Josh

P.S One last game plug, if you want something with an even more old school feel then Etrian Odyssey, The Dark Spire also published by Atlus may scratch your itch.

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