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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I recently played Spore for the first time thanks to the recent Steam sale. After reaching the space stage I concluded that Spore is an amazing editor tied to simple mini games which is a shame. After ending my recent save I started thinking about Minecraft and how both game strive to deliver open ended game play in much the same way. Yet Minecraft succeeded and the more I think about it, the greater understanding I have about its success.

At this point I think everyone knows what Minecraft and Spore are so I won’t be giving a synopsis of them. Both games revolve around player interaction to expand the game play. In Spore you are given a blank slate to design creatures, buildings and more. The majority of parts have a secondary function of giving benefits to your creation, such as increase health or speed.

In Minecraft you are given Carte Blanche over the world. If you want to spend your time digging out an underground strong hold then go ahead. Or build a tower to the clouds and then build a mansion and so on. Like Spore you are limited by resources in terms of your impact on the world and as you play you’ll be able to build new things.

However both games use that as a branching point. In Spore you are locked into stages of development with your creature and once you reach the next stage the previous stage is closed off. In Minecraft currently there is no objective, just do what you want within the confines of the game space. Yet with that said I would purpose that there is a sense of development in Minecraft like Spore, it’s just that we’re not told about it.

Playing Minecraft the player will go through different stages of development in my opinion. There was a Penny-Arcade strip from a few months back that was a perfect example of this . Starting out you will scramble trying to find suitable locations for materials or defense with the sun as the timer towards danger. If you survive you’ll start to dig in at your location, setting up a base camp and deciding where to go from there. At some point you will developed your tools or base camp to the point that you are secured in your surroundings and can start experimenting with the world.

Now this is where the discussion gets interesting. While both games follow a path towards complete control over the game it’s the philosophy and systems that separate the success of Minecraft from the failure of Spore in my opinion. In Spore each stage is self contained in the game play and usage. Once you complete the cell stage you will not come back there with that creature.

However in Minecraft it is possible to move through the various development stages at will and return to them based on your mood. Let’s say the continent you are on has been completed mined out, just make a boat or swim to somewhere else and see what you find. Tired of your castle? Go to the ocean and create an undersea base. In Minecraft you are never locked into anything compared to Spore.

In Spore the game defines a goal of reaching the space stage with everything else building up to that stage. What hurt Spore was that the various stages before that were very simple and it felt like work reaching the final stage; also while you have a great deal of customization with your creature, very little of that will affect the game-play.

With Minecraft there is no goal set by the game only by the player. If you dream of building the Hollywood sign out of glass then there is your objective. If half way through you decide to change it into the statue of Liberty then that’s fine. Because there are no goals it leaves the game-play up to the player’s interpretation.

In this manner Minecraft has accomplished what Spore didn’t; deliver an open ended game in which the player’s decisions shape the experience. On one hand I can’t help but feel jealous of Notch (the creator) for coming up with Minecraft, yet I also have to give him a round of applause. With Minecraft he has created one of the best open ended games and a true sandbox experience. With the game finally hitting beta it really is the sky’s the limit for Minecraft for what it can become, both from the designer’s standpoint and the players.

Josh

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This has been a banner year for open world titles for me, especially how I fell out of love with the genre last year. I’ve played through and enjoyed Assassin’s Creed 2 along with Just Cause 2 and just finished Red Dead Redemption the other day along with the Undead Nightmare pack. For this analysis I’m just going to cover the base game of RDR as I’m working on another entry to talk about Undead Nightmare. Also note that I considered “the good, the bad and the ugly” for the prefix to the entry title but I figured it would be too easy.

RDR takes us back to the old west, as John Marston, a former gang member who has been called in to hunt his former gang in exchange for his wife and son. In standard Rockstar form this involves going on missions for a variety of locals.

To be fair the story is a step above most video game stories and I don’t want to spoil it here. I’ll just say that the first and last quarters of the game are the best story wise. Also I have to give credit to the ending, even though I knew something like that was going to happen I didn’t expect how cinematic it truly was. The voice acting helps as well, John along with the main characters is expertly voiced.

Let’s talk about the game-play as there is a lot here then just GTA with horses. Horseback riding was well done and just different enough so that you can’t compare it to car driving in the GTA series. The gun play however I have some problems with. Another mainstay of Rockstar’s games is a less than adequate shooting system, mainly due to the game controller.

In RDR the designers tried to mask this issue with being able to use cover, auto target to enemies’ bodies and “dead eye” mode which is a more controllable take on bullet time from Max Payne. Even with these concessions I never fell in love with the gun play even though there is a variety of guns, rifles, shotguns and more. Enemies seem to be crack-shots from 30 yards away and many of the challenges throw multiple enemies coming at you from all directions. Fortunately there is a lot more to do then just shoot people in RDR.

There are a lot of side quests and mini-games available. Also as you are out in the wilderness the game may spawn random events or characters to spice things up, such as someone being attacked by wolves or a shoot-out. I think RDR has the most side content out of any past Rockstar open world title. However with that said it doesn’t take care of my biggest beef with Rockstar’s open world titles: interacting with the world.

My biggest complaint with Rockstar’s open world games is that outside of the mission structure there is very little for the player to impact the world with. All the mini games and side quests don’t mean much when there is nothing to reward the player with other then being closer to 100%. Rockstar is great at creating these huge detailed worlds to explore, but they can’t seem to fill them with meaningful content.

The missions are incredibly linear with no margin for being creative. Other people have commented on how the mechanics in the missions are just a onetime deal such as stealth or hand to hand which is the same problem I’ve seen in the GTA series. What pisses me off more than just having linear missions is having linear missions with a pseudo choice. Some missions have parts where John can choice from one of two options such as killing someone or doing something else, however these choices do not alter the game-play or story at all. Coming off of playing Alpha Protocol where every choice matter made this even worse.

To be fair it seems like Rockstar is learning as they have two systems of rewards in RDR. First are outfits, some are just cosmetic while others offer a bonus when dealing with certain groups. It works like this; each outfit has a list of objectives to complete, such as killing certain # of animals or beating a mini game. Once you’ve found one of the tasks the entire list becomes visible from the pause menu and you can accomplish them in any order. Complete the entire list and the outfit is yours. This I think was a smart move by the designers, as it gives you a reason to play the mini games or go hunting.

However the second system is where I have a problem with. As you play the game and hunt, gather and do other activities you’ll unlock ambient challenges. Each challenge is made up of ten ranks each with an objective related to it, such as hunt five deer. When you complete the goal you’ll move up in rank and unlock the next challenge.

These challenges look good on paper but once again Rockstar has gone against the open world feel of the game with how these challenges work. My problem is that you cannot do these challenges out of order even if you are able to accomplish or start another rank in a challenge. Basically if I’m stuck at rank two of a challenge and by going on accomplish ranks three, four, and five they will not count because I didn’t finish two. This goes against one of the main draws of open world games, giving the player a reason to explore and progress.

In Assassin’s Creed 2 and Just Cause 2, everything that I do will progress the game in some way. For example in Just Cause 2 every building I destroy puts me one step closer to unlocking the next story mission and working towards overall game completion. In Assassin’s Creed 2, every item I buy will serve as improving the villa’s value and earning more money and of course working towards game completion. In RDR however the player is punish for going outside the lines if they don’t do everything in the order set by the designers.

What would have been a better fit for the ambient challenges would be if once you unlock the challenge you’ll get a ten item long checklist for the challenge. For each item you complete gets you a rank up in that challenge. That way the player can move up in rank any way they choose and at the same time will be constantly progressing in the game. Speaking about progression I wish there was a greater use for money in RDR. Health, ammo and dead eye usage are easily replenish-able and the majority of the guns you’ll get come from missions.

With all these complaints said I still enjoyed RDR and think that this is Rockstar’s best open world title since Bully. However in a year that I played Assassin’s Creed 2 and Just Cause 2 which both really understood the draws of an open world game, it does put RDR into a bronze position for best open world title. Rating the games on atmosphere and storytelling would put RDR on top but an open world is about letting the player go crazy in the setting not following a linear set of directions.

Josh

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Sometimes it really sucks to be late to the party. I avoided Alpha Protocol due to bad word of mouth and copy protection woes. A steam sale a few weeks ago added the game to my backlog and the recent removal of the copy protection via patch bumped the game up on my play list. Now with the year almost up I can’t believe I waited this long to play what could be close to my game of the year and perhaps favorite CRPG since The Witcher.

Alpha Protocol is a blend of spy movies with a good old choose your own adventure game. Like any good spy movie within the first few hours you will be betrayed and left for dead and have to uncover a massive global conspiracy, you know day one stuff.

What separates AP from other CRPGs is the breadth and depth of the choices you make. First during conversations you can choose what kind of mood you will respond to the question which is becoming popular with CRPGs. You normally have three choices, suave or cocky, aggressive or threatening and professional or straight. Depending on any Intel you bought or found you may have access to a fourth special option.

Conversations will determine how someone will respond to you, either negatively or positively which will affect their mood to you and if they become your handler during a mission the bonus they provide to you. The game features numerous decisions that affect the plot such as choosing who you will side with along with sparing or killing specific characters.

Like The Witcher, you will not see the outcome of your choices until later on in the game. Because of this AP has a lot of replay ability going for it. The middle of the game is made up of you choosing the order of the missions or countries you’ll visit. Not only does each mission have numerous choices to be made but the order of the missions you choose will also affect your choices as well. For example a choice I made at the end of one mission came back to bite me in the next mission when one person heard what I did and refused anything to do with me.

Game-play is a mixed bag. On missions you have access to whatever weapons, gadgets and skills you’ve obtained through leveling or buying. The enemy AI is average, they understand enough not to run straight at you. For hacking, lock picking and getting through electronic locks there are mini-games you can play. While they won’t tax your mental power they serve as an ok diversion.

Stealth is where unfortunately the system starts to break down. The stealth aspects of AP swing too far between too powerful and too weak. At the start without any points in the stealth skill enemies can see you from very far and once one enemy sees you every enemy and his brother for a hundred miles knows where you are. On the other side of things, put enough points into stealth and the game goes into easy mode as you gain the ability to see enemy positions along with a skill that makes you invisible.

With all the choices available to the player I hate to say it but it doesn’t feel that everything was balanced out. I did not need to use any gadgets and just using my silenced pistol along with stealth got me through every level of the game. Boss fights are unusual as you will be fighting humans who have developed the ability to survive multiple gun shots to the head.

One nice touch in AP is that the characters will react to your play style, as I kept myself as stealthy as possible, people would remark on how well I was at avoiding setting off alarms.

I must have gotten lucky as I didn’t run into any major bugs but of course that does not mean they don’t exist. I played AP using a keyboard and mouse and found the controls to be adequate. The only tricky parts were with the hacking mini game and using the mouse to control one of the choices.

The level design walks a thin line between giving the player options and being linear. Many levels offer alternate paths if you look close enough, however all paths lead to the same objective. Overall the actual game-play is just there to highlight the choices of the game.

As I mentioned at the start AP reminds me of The Witcher with the choices presented to the player. There are no morality sliders or choices marked “good” or “bad”, there are just choices. The more games that get away from immediate outcomes from making a choice the better in my opinion; even at the end of the game I found choices that I made at the start were being commented on which I thought was a great touch.

Alpha Protocol was a shot in the dark for me and I came out enjoying the game, a revised touched up version of AP could be something amazing. Sadly it has been announced that there would not be a sequel to AP and I have to blame myself along with everyone else as I waited for the game to be on sale before I bought it. At this point I’m still making up my games of the year list but AP has definitely judo chopped its way to the top.

Josh.

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