Pushing the Limits of Game Design

The end of and era - sort of

If you're a retro gamer, you may have noticed that video games seem to have become a lot less interesting over the past several years.  While graphics, sound and other technical elements have seen great advances, it's as if the creativity of developing new and interesting game formats has all but dried up.  

Though it may not be as easy to recreate the variety of games that existed in the early days of gaming, a certain stagnation certainly seems to exist when it comes to producing new and exciting titles (let alone genres) that grab our attention.

While they may be written for the same platform (personal computer, arcade cabinet or gaming console) sharing the same graphical, audio and technical capabilities, it is evident that early innovative titles such as PAC-MAN, ASTEROIDS, SPACE INVADERS, and the like are all very different from each other in one crucial area of distinction - gameplay.

Attack of the clones

Why then do we see endless iterations of a very limited selection of certain popular genres and titles when it comes to modern gaming? Sure, you could argue that there have been even more regurgitations or "clones" imitating popular retro tites such as PAC-MAN and SPACE INVADERS, but in modern gaming there are no such things as "clones".  New versions of modern games are called "sequels" or "new releases" rather than "clones" which may not produce quite the same impression in the mind of the game-buying public .  

It's all about the Benjamins

As we all know, the driving force behind this is - you guessed it - the almighty dollar.  When it takes an army of designers, coders, playtesters and other various (and highly skilled) individuals to produce todays multi-million dollar "sequels", game developers are not as eager to take a chance on an un-proven title or never-before-seen genre.  That is why we see endless sequels for such popular genres like first person shooters and real-time strategy games. (Does the world really need another Grand Theft Auto - or a first one for that matter?). These types of games are already popular so why not just take the easy route and continue making more of the same? That's exactly what they do. The game companies already have the game engine that took countless man (and women) hours to produce so why not squeeze as much utility out of it as they can? Seems reasonable right?

A labour of love

But we're talking about retro gaming here folks, a playground for bedroom coders that are, for the most part, making games for (gasp!) - the fun of it.  Sure, we may make our games available for sale to bring in a bit of beer money but we're not expecting to produce the next Manic Miner. (Although we may hope to).  Speaking of which, even Manic Miner - possibly the most popular and well known game ever produced for the Spectrum - didn't make its creator Matthew Smith wealthy beyond his dreams. And what's more, his (arguably) even more popular "sequel" Jet Set Willy supposedly didn't earn him a dime! (or pence I guess I should say).

If you ask any current-day designer of retro style video games why they do what they do, there's a good chance the majority of the answers would be centred around the love of the art.  Coders designing games purely for the enjoyment of it as well as a chance to grow and expand their capabilities.

With this in mind, why do we see such a limited selection of modern day retro genres and titles being produced? Are retro computers such as the Spectrum Next relegated to an existence of executing endless varieties of platform games, 2D (and more recently 3D) maze crawlers and scrolling shooters? And if so, why?  I believe there are two main reasons for this:

1. Programmers code what they know

Programmers are - well - programmers.  Coding and game design are two very different skill sets. The former requires technical programming ability to achieve a desired result while the latter requires a creative nature to envision a game that could exist.  With an overwhelming preponderance of platform, maze and scrolling shooter games in their game playing experience, this is what programmers are familiar with and this is what they instinctively try to code. Having played dozes or possibly hundreds of titles falling into these genres, bedroom coders are well aware of the general result they are trying to achieve and are able to focus their programming efforts on producing just that result.

2. Programmers code what they know

Um... Huh?  Yep. While in the previous paragraph we were referring to "what they know" as being synonymous with "what they are familiar with", in this section "what they know" can be re-stated more descriptively as "what they know how to do".  BASIC on the ZX Spectrum Next lends itself perfectly to the creation of the types of games mentioned above.  With sprites, multi-layer graphics, increased processor speed and enhanced Next BASIC, these common 2D (and simulated 3D-ish) style of games are relatively easy to produce.  This naturally results in programmers producing games that they know how to make. 

A new paradigm

So how do we break out of our platform-hopping, side-scrolling, maze-crawling rut?  By turning the game design process on its retro head. While it may be tempting to design a game based on what we already know how to code, no innovation has ever been created by limiting ourselves to what we already know.  Many games are created by first-time programmers eager to produce a game using the skills they've just learned, or by experienced coders creating games centred around the programming techniques they are familiar with.

While there is nothing wrong with producing games in accordance with your current programming (and game design) expertise, this should ideally be a stepping stone on your way to producing more innovative games that you would like to see transformed from vision to reality. 

To illustrate this let's take an example from a game in development here at Spriteworx.  The game T.H.E.M. (Total Human Eradication Mandate) began as a germ of an idea for a game about alien spaceships invading the Earth.  That's it.  The "look and feel" elements such as gameplay, graphics and even genre had nothing to do with the idea. A cool game about the Earth being invaded by hostile alien ships was all we started with.

You feel me?

Actually, we started with one more thing - a less tangible but no less important element... mood.  If you take a peek back at our "Game Design with a Purpose" article, we mention the importance of mood in a game.  How do we want the players to feel and what emotions do we want them to experience while they are playing our game?  The answer in the case of T.H.E.M. was "Fear", "Anger", "Frustration" and (ultimately) "Satisfaction". 

We want the player to have genuine emotions regarding the aliens who are attacking the Earth. More specifically, we want you to hate them. How dare they attack our planet and be so smug and un-emotional about it!  This is our planet and we're gonna fight to keep it.  These are not nameless, faceless, random Space Invader-ish aliens you are fighting against. These are actual beings with a singular collective purpose and intent and who have no regard for you whatsoever - and we want this to come across in the game.  This may, for example, be accomplished by adding cut-scenes and the beginning of every level with a message from the aliens letting you know exactly what they think of your pathetic resistance efforts.

From there we start thinking about other gameplay elements - not restricted by the capabilities of the machine or what we know how to code, but what we think would be cool.  Spaceships that wobble around when they fly? That's pretty cool. Humans being abducted and/or zapped into oblivion? Also cool. Some form of ground defence controlled by the humans? Starting to sound like a game now. How about the option to play as either humans or aliens?  Now we're talking!

All the other elements come into focus from there. The exact form that the final product will take may be unknown but at least we're starting from a jumping off point with the potential to evolve into a fun and innovative game.  The important thing is to expend the necessary brain power concentrating on elements that will make the game fun while achieving the thematic and emotion-eliciting goals we set out for ourselves in the beginning. If we keep those standards in mind at all stages of the game design process, we should end up with a result that stays true to our original intent.

If creating platform games is truly your passion and that's what really excites you and gets your blood pumping, then by all means go ahead and create the next Jet Set Willy - or Dizzy - of Flippy the Wonder Penguin.  But don't be afraid to make the effort to exercise your creative muscles and really stretch your game design and coding wings. You never know how high you will fly!

- Spriteworx Team