155: Excellence Never Goes out of Date

Excellence Never Goes out of Date

"No other medium actively erases its past and makes classic works so inaccessible. Technological advancement, the relative youth of the games industry and standard market forces all play a part in relegating prior works to the sidelines of public discourse; but whatever the reason, this phenomenon is bad for gaming and disastrous for gamers. For games to be considered a worthwhile craft, classic works need to be kept alive as reference points for developers and audiences. Currently, classic games are the ones you are least likely to be able to play. Such is veneration in gaming."

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I'd have to say that I think a 'classics' movement has been slowly developing as of late. It's difficult to quantify, but I've even found myself obsessed with classic games - seemingly at random - the past year or so. In fact, I'm currently replaying Crusader: No Remorse, X-COM and Fallout Tactics. Before that; marathon sessions of M.U.L.E. and Ultima VII, with Wing Commander I sprinkled in.

Geez, I replayed more than I thought recently; Deus Ex, Uplink, Out Of This World / Another World... And as a result, I've inspired friends - and even family - to either replay them, or play them for the first time, with favorable results. Maybe it's a sign of the monotony in the industry that these classics - which did what they did so well - seem refreshing?

Excellent article. You really nailed the annoying habit of developers to create frankenstein games; games hastily thrown together with bits and pieces of other games. I believe Yahtzee said in one of his Zero Punctuation's that he noticed a disturbing trend in that rather than trying to please one audience, developers try to to please everyone and just end up giving a blanketly mediocre experience.

That's not to say of course that games shouldn't reuse a good mechanic. The cover system is fantastic in Gears and some games would definitely benefit from it. However, it should only be used in the context of something new and unique. It happens a lot with shooters it seems. Look at Halo: after Halo came out, health bars vanished from shooters because that was what was new and innovative. After Gears, everyone decided to throw a cover mechanic into their game. Reusing a popular game mechanic is fine, as long as you present something new and exciting as well. And I think if you do reuse something like that, it should always be a background player to whatever's new.

Sadly, video games have become a money business. Creativity and uniqueness are throw to the gutter in favor of cold, hard cash. So, we have a serious clash in opinion here it seems. Developers and publishers are going to do whatever they have to in order to make money. Whereas many gamers want uniqueness, something new and exciting.

Unfortunately, its the mass of what I've come to call "jock-gamers" that continue to push on this mediocre path. Because no one can deny that these games sell. There's little to no innovation between them, but they're still bought up like marijuana would be if it were legal. These so-called jock-gamers continue to buy the biggest and baddest shoot-em-up game because its "cool." Ignore the fact that the game itself is just a hastily-edited carbon copy of a previous, more innovative game.

If you ask the typical gamer-on-the-street -- no, scratch that; in my forum experience, it's not necessary to ask.

If you hold still long enough that the typical gamer-on-the-street can tell you about his/her idea for the bestest game EVAR, you'll get a laundry list of features from other recent, popular games. It's not just developers who're affected by the desire to follow trends, it's the audience too. That's why it's good marketing to put a tick-list full of the latest features on the back of the game case... but that still doesn't make it good game design. I still hold on to hope that there will always be the adventurous design teams willing to buck trends when necessary to make their games the best they can be, including features solely on the sensible basis of what makes those particular games more enjoyable to play.

Copy, sure; but only copy when it make sense to do so and please, developers, don't be afraid to innovate and become the guys everyone else try to copy next year.

-- Steve

Being a big retro fan, the fat nerd at high-school who didn't trade in his old games and still had an Atari 2600 (original with wood veneer finish) - and still have it rigged up to this day for when you need to get some hard-core asteroids action fix and the flash clones don't deliver it in the same way I can really relate to what you're saying here.

I feel fortunate to still have all my old consoles and the odd crap pc compatible with older titles (my 386 rawks :D ).

As with most artistic mediums though there will always be those to jump on the bandwagon with dollar signs in their eyes - I think gaming is more prominent to us due to it being a relatively recent medium but as you mentioned a fine Hitchcock movie is vastly outnumbered by the gutter trash of the modern cineplex, there's more cheesy cash-in pop then true musicians in the charts and I'm sure the literary fields are abound with paperbacks destined for the pulper. This is the nature of people.

As much as I dislike alot of this banality I can't stand too much against it. I may not personally enjoy the warblings of Britney Spears they're many out there that do - for poor clone games I'm sure they're many such ardent fans and you can no more convince them that their choice is wrong then you could the Britney crowd.

They're many people in this world with many differing tastes, whilst we may think they're stupid and wrong, they most likely hold the same idea of ourselves.

Everytime I see a new game mechanic come out, I sometimes wonder if they're going to eventually just run out of possible options. We base all the stuff in an FPS on combat experiences, right? Cliffy B. based 'Gears of War' on playing paintball in NC. It still comes from somewhere.

Is there a finite number of game designs to be developed before you just...have a perfect simulation of combat where you can do whatever you could do in real life? I know Midway now uses a developer sharing method where all their teams share code and game mechanics. So the guys making a sandbox game have the guys who make racing games develop their car physics, the guys who do FPS levels brilliantly swap code & level creators with the car racing game so that there are good shooting sequences. In such an environment, it seems like one universal standard is inevitable.

Once we hit that barrier where everything is a standardized combat game design...developers will finally start doing something creative just to stand out and keep making money.

The problem with retro games is that they're frequently difficult just to extend the life of the game, instead of being difficult on a scale that makes sense. It's not like movies or books, where anyone really can sit down and finish that experience if they want to, thus easily understanding why the sequence of the art matters.

For example; Die Hard was a huge commercial success. After that, there were a slew of good-men antiheroes who must take on villains with devious plans action movies. But even before Die Hard, there was Lethal Weapon, which took the anti-hero to suicidal extremes, and before that there was the 70's where anti-heroes became gritty, tough, hard to like people (thinking of the French Connection). Push this toward the current day with Pulp Fiction (adding snappy dialog) and the Matrix (incorporation of Hong Kong wirework + $$$ special effects) and again, you can see how movies evolved from those benchmarks.

But anyone who loves action movies can watch them, /complete/ them, and see where and how the new techniques of storytelling evolved from.

Not everyone can finish Metroid. Most people don't feel the need to go back and complete Battletoads. If you go back to the Atari games, there were people who never got anywhere in Adventure because it was so confusing, and there was no internet to help you. Berzerk is an icon of gaming, but holy crap is it a pain in the ass to play--and there's no real 'end' to it.

I'm not saying those games should be changed so we can finish them; I'm saying this is the problem we face if we want to keep the history alive. The early games were frequently punishing in their difficulty, and so unless there is a reason to go back to play them, people won't do it. I can still watch Bullitt and get a kick out of it--and with DVD's there are extras to enhance the experience if I chose.

The author does suggest this fix and I certainly applaud that, I just think that we need to be realistic about the possibility of playing those games. Videogames, more than any other medium for me, take up the most time. I can finish a book in a few days, but Assassin's Creed took months. This is in part a time constraint and a lifestyle choice for me; other people may not have the desire to read, but I still believe that there's a time investment there that just can't be understated, especially if we want to preserve the past and learn from it.

For some reason, I thought of timeless looks when I was reading this, especially games with a cartoon (see: cell shaded) look to them: XIII, Max Payne, No One Lives Forever, Freedom Force.

I don't know why exactly, but the look of some games just seems to help make them timeless and really easy in that respect to pick up and play again.

A part of me keeps hoping X-Com will be remade in almost exact detail again as far the game play goes but it would be given a look that is both timeless, functional, more of it, and that it actually works again for me (my original version doesn't work anymore because apparently its tied to how fast computers work, cpu cycles or something). Sorta like how I am so glad Team Fortress 2 has a cartoon look and sensibility, it really does help make it more fun and increase its replay-ability.

One thing we have to keep in mind is the relative immaturity of electronic games vs. movies or music. Music has been around for thousands of years; movies for over a hundred.

I think as time goes on the earliest games will live on in some sort of gaming history, just as the earliest music recordings and silent movies do today. There may even be a specialized media outlet (ala AMC for classic movies) that allows you to experience older games, most likely online via a virtual machine.

Some games will be 're-mastered' to bring graphics more up-to-date or even completely re-made using modern tools and gaming innovations.

And just as music composition and movie making are actual academic degrees game development will become more firmly established in academia, with the study of 'classics' to determine the roots of current gaming features, what worked, what didn't, and why.

Even with the relative maturity of movies and music not every work produced is new and innovative, but often the opposite. But when new ideas emerge, or old ideas executed close to perfection, those works become references for everything that follow on. Its the same with games, I think.

Excellent article -- well written and thoughtful. At the moment, I'm monitoring eBay for a cheap laptop for a Windows 98 installation after I recently ran into a brick wall when I tried to replay the Thief games on XP.

Several people mention the relative ease of preserving books and movies but fail to note that there nonetheless are many classical works and early films that we know existed but are lost forever. The idea that decades worth of work in this medium could be lost is why I come down in favor of emulation, never mind the legal swamp it represents.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the article and agree with 99% of what is written I feel a little perturbed by signing of with the notion that classic games need to have the graphics 'polished' or order to be a viable prospect.
Right now the slew of games being released that are graphically spectacular yet gameplay deficient seems to grow with every other new release.
Altering old games to fit in with this worrying trend is not part of the solution.

The best way for publishers to help this situation would be to go the route that 'Prince of Persia: Sand of Time' did in including the original title in the package.

Why not be able to play Uniracers from the TV in GTA IV?
Why not have an Amiga in Jimmy's dorm room so you can play Lemmings in Bully?

I was always under the impression that I'd be playing videogames for decades to come, that the children of the Spectrum generation would grow up be the first digi-pensioners but if the trend towards the recycled and ripped off continues at this pace then there'll be nothing worth playing, nothing worth beating, when I'm 64.

Secret weapons of the Luftwaffe now that was a classic flight sim, I loved the B17 being able to cycle all of the turrets and the bombardier position and the fighters were such a joy to fly, now normally I agree with Yahtzee on remakes but that game needs one straight up, they could change next to nothing except add the planes that came out as extras into to bundle and give the graphics a nice polish.

Well being 32 I'm not sure if I agree with some people's definition of "classics". But I understand the point.

See, as an RPG gamer I miss games like "Wasteland" and "Wizardry" and "Might And Magic" where you could create and name a personal party of characters to explore the world and finish the quests. I'd like to see what I call "real" RPG games return, as one of the things that bothers me in games is being handed some hero that someone else named and all of his pre-made companions and such. Looking at what they did with the voicework/personalities in Wizardry 8, I can only imagine what they could do today for creating large numbers of potential character personalities, letting you plug them in, and seeing differant party dynamics develop based on what you chose to do and how you played.

The problem is that it seems that companies aren't willing to put the time and effort into developing things like this, as it's easier to hand you a character like "Tidus" or "Will Rock" or just some voiceless genertic guy named "Bob" and script everything.


Right now I think the bane of game development is the existance of "plug and develop" engines like "Unreal" and "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter" (add in whatever number). See the problem today is companies have no interest in innovating seriously. One company makes an engine and does all the hard programming, then they sell the engine to other companies who simply have to tweak it and add in new artfiles and skins. Games today aren't just similar or reusing the same ideas, in many cases they are LITERALLY the same game.

Now honestly, I can understand re-using tweaked and improved versions of the same engine in some cases (like they did with Baldur's Gate) and then developing new engines when it becomes totally obselete. But the problem is that today it's been taken to a ridiculous extreme.

Your typical "Jock Game" isn't just similar to other games, if it's running the "Graw2 engine" basically it's more or less the same game as any other game running the "Graw2 engine" the only differances are minor tweaks, graphics, etc... This is why so many of them play so similarly and why someone who learns one simple game can so easily pick up another one and master it too... it's the same thing (perfect for Jocks).


Also honestly I have a hard time considering things like Fallout Tactics to be "classics". Good games yes, but geez, I probably have things in my fridge older than that game. Sort of like the article writer I guess a game has to be from the "Dos Prompt" era before I even consider that at this point. Basically if you didn't have to set your ports for your sound card or whatever when installing, then it's not old enough to be "classic". :P

Personally I'd also point out that if someone with coding skill would take the time to create a more user friendly version of Dosbox, I think Abandonware could keep a lot of classic games alive. Right now I think the biggest problem is that it's simply so hard
to do.

I mean geez, as a Teenager I remember being rushing to get a 386 so I could play Ultima 7. But honestly I still think Ultima VI was my favorite.


On the topic of preserving classics, I believe an institution or University should begin collecting games and cartridges and basically ripping all of the source code into storage, so at any time it can be rewritten and changed for new platforms. You'd likely be unable to store a lot of older games, and it's a painful process, but honestly I think it's worth doing. Unlike film, music and movies, technology has evolved in such a way that has made things obsolete within less than a decade, let alone a century.

As for repetitive play, this is one of those things I think everyone over-reacts about, but then again I also find myself playing a wider variety of titles than others. There's also some contradiction here. You quote Gabe Newell telling aspiring game designers to play games, learn what works and what doesn't, and then you criticize them for trying to take what works. I'd say the true problem is implementing good ideas poorly (every game trying to use the cover system from Gears feels half-assed in its implementation).

Also, I think people ignore the developers that do try different things. Look at Alone in the Dark, or the upcoming Too Human. They both try different things with controls.

On another hand, I think reviewers and gamers themselves are to blame. People bitched when Dead Rising didn't offer a 100% sandbox environment and had time limits: I felt those elements worked well for the game, as endlessly killing zombies gets boring in not too long a time. All the extra depth I found the game to have is what made it interesting. Then there's Assassin's Creed. The game tried to do a lot of new things, but everyone kept bitching about small aspects of the game. Now Operation Darkness is getting slammed critically, which disappoints me because it's probably the first JRPG I've enjoyed in a very, very long time. Sure, the graphics and cut-scenes are disappointing for the price point, and the camera needs a lot of work, but the game is fun God dammit.

It seems the only games anyone can be happy with are first person shooters ripping off of each other, so only the gamers and critics have themselves to blame for "nothing new" ever happening.

I relate how we gamers feel to how hardcore band fans feel when their band gets big. I often hear people say a band has sold out when they go from being the local band to signing a record deal. Why is that? As a fan you should be happy your band finally is making some cash and getting some recognition. Some bands get big and become jerks but others just get paid and become really busy enjoying their career.

I think the same applies to the gaming industry. Yes there are some issues with some developers copying games and releasing bad clones. However there are other developers that use the great innovations and make them better. I think we as gamers are just upset that our "local band" has made it big and everyone is into it now. Because "everyone" is into video games the industry is trying to appeal to as many people as they can. Bands do this too. Many times the second album from a band that makes it big is terrible. Often this is looked at as their sophomore slump.

As an industry I think we may be seeing a second sophomore slump (the video game crash of the 80s being the first). The industry is big and now we are trying to cash in quickly. The industry will learn and things will settle down. There will still be bad games and people just trying to make a buck. However their will be greatness. And like the music industry, someone will always be there to appreciate even the worst game that gets created.

I think this article would have been a lot better if you had stuck to talking about classic games, rather than doing the by-now cliche rant about how games are all copying each other, and we don't have as much diversity and blah blah blah. As long as the big developers are making money, they're not going to change so complaining about this is useless. Point out a way for creativity to equal making more cash and you've got an article.

Also, I think "classic" gaming is romanticized a bit. Nobody watches old silent movies. The very first films were just footage of a train moving and things like that. Some DOS games are basically the equivalent of that kind of footage. It was just a bunch of programmers seeing what they could do, not really something worth playing anymore. You mention Hitchcock, but Hitchcock was making movies well into the history of film-making. He started in silents and then his "classics" are from the 50s and 60s. That's 60 or more years after films first started being made. So, you can't really compare Hitchcock to DOS games. There was quite a lot of film history for Hitchcock to draw from before he started making films. Hitchcock is probably more comparable to our current period, the Bioshocks and Metal Gears.

I think you just didn't think hard enough about some of the comparisons you've made.

I think people are taking the term classic to seriously. Classics are simply games that have an appeal to people who loved them in their time. Even though they are not THAT old, I still consider System Shock 2 and Planescape Torment classics on par with Masters of Magic, TIE Fighter, and X-Com. All of these, by the way, can be made to work on your PC these days through either fan patches (hat tip to those heroes, especially the Sysshock guys who reskinned the whole game.) or the miracle that is DOSBox. On top of that, a lot of these classics are classified as abandonware and are easily obtained on the internet.

Classics don't really require a lot of effort on the part of the individual gamer any more because the communities that love them are still putting forth the effort to make them easily available. Everyone who loves games should take advantage of their hard work.

I find myself strongly agreeing with the idea that lowest-common-denominator game marketing is highly toxic to a fresh, creative game industry. Recently, I have had the distinct pleasure of playing through the original X-COM: UFO defense for the very first time. While the interface takes some getting used to, and the squad combat can be fiendishly difficult at times, booting it up in DOS-BOX for the first time and watching the beginning slideshow with MIDI accompaniment brought me back to a better time in games; bookended nebulously by around 1992-1993 with the release of Ultima 7 and Doom, and 2000 with the release of Deus Ex. I miss having games be really able to let my imagination run wild, and supply a game experience that was not a laundry list of things that the game must do to appeal to the biggest audience.

I think this article would have been a lot better if you had stuck to talking about classic games, rather than doing the by-now cliche rant about how games are all copying each other, and we don't have as much diversity and blah blah blah. As long as the big developers are making money, they're not going to change so complaining about this is useless. Point out a way for creativity to equal making more cash and you've got an article.

Also, I think "classic" gaming is romanticized a bit. Nobody watches old silent movies. The very first films were just footage of a train moving and things like that. Some DOS games are basically the equivalent of that kind of footage. It was just a bunch of programmers seeing what they could do, not really something worth playing anymore. You mention Hitchcock, but Hitchcock was making movies well into the history of film-making. He started in silents and then his "classics" are from the 50s and 60s. That's 60 or more years after films first started being made. So, you can't really compare Hitchcock to DOS games. There was quite a lot of film history for Hitchcock to draw from before he started making films. Hitchcock is probably more comparable to our current period, the Bioshocks and Metal Gears.

I think you just didn't think hard enough about some of the comparisons you've made.

It's also worth mentioning that

A) Film had more to draw on in the first place than video games. Film is another form of storytelling, meaning that it could learn from books/plays. It had a lot of it's own ground to make up, but it did have those things to draw off of. Video games are a completely unique art form.

B) The last major innovation in film was the use of sound, and that was fairly early on. Sure, they've added color/CGI since then, but neither of those things really change the rules. Computer advancements have meant going to 2D to 3D to exploring online to motion controls.

C) In order for video games to have "classics" that are taken seriously, a generation gap needs to be passed. This may sound cynical, but most "classics" are a lot better because the author is dead and work existed since before the person calling it a classic was born. Films weren't taken seriously as art right away either; they were a novelty that had to become part of culture at large for generations before snobs like Roger Ebert would ever accept them as being a big-boy art form. Television has just recently been sort of coming into this; movies still get more attention as the top rung of the storytelling ladder, but TV is catching up.

D) Let's not romanticize films too much; go to www.rottentomatoes.com and see what's playing right now. Yeah.....

I am disinclined to say that games, at least within the context of the last 7-8 years exist in a vacuum with regards to other media. I see plenty of titles trying to emulate cinematic narrative forms, with FPSes emulating the blood-soaked emotional rollercoaster of the summer action blockbuster, or attempts to transfer the Hollywood space opera to an interactive form. I would not say I necessarily approve of modern game's cinematic posturing, but it is certainly there.

The game industry wasn't that much better in the past. Maybe not any better at all. Games copying each other also happened back then. Lots of clones too. There is still innovation, it hasn't decreased, but you should look in the right place for it.

Excellent! Thank you SO much for writing this article! I have been saying this for years. I used to work at a game store and I'd have to tell people a thousand times, "Games don't get worse; they only get cheaper"... yet they'd buy FFX instead of FFVI despite it being 20% the cost and 200% as good. I recently wrote a similar article at The Expensive Planetarium, my weblog: http://expensiveplanetarium.blogspot.com/

Thanks again man, wonderful article.

This is a pretty good article, but with regards to old games being inaccessible you probably should have mentioned Nintendo. Their games may not be to everyone's taste, but at least they make an effort to make games available to kids who've never played them before. Stuff like bringing out NES classics onto the GBA, letting you download old titles onto the Wii and releasing compilations of stuff like Sonic and Zelda onto the Gamecube (which you can also play on the Wii) are really good ideas.

Actually the further back you go, the *more* likely you are to still be able to play the game. The oldest games can be played via emulators; you mentioned DOS games in particular, which are generally trivial to get working on any modern PC: just run DOSBox.

It's the Win3.1/Win95 era of games that are currently the hardest to get working, primarily because there aren't really any emulators around for that platform, and they won't necessarily run on modern systems.

Heck, with all the DRM lashings that recent titles are getting, there's a decent chance that recent titles will cease working even sooner than the older ones did.

I'm coming into this late, and so almost hate to bump the thread when so much has already been said that's on point about it (older games are actually easier to access, roms, copying, nostalgia value giving us an unclear idea of superiority of the past -- ie data data data that disproves the basic theory here), but it's also interesting that an opinion like this can be prevalent when there's really a rise in re-issues going on right now:


Getting older games via download has never been that difficult -- I played Genesis roms through most of college -- but getting mainstream access to these games is now even easier.

I think games as a medium tend to be too down on themselves, and I really don't know why this is. It's a heck of a lot easier to find classic games than it is for me to get access to a Rembrandt (and experiencing paintings over the internet is not at all the same thing, so Google doesn't really mitigate this), or a myriad classic forgotten films.

To me the interesting thing is why anyone would have a perception that games have less of an appreciation of their past. Appreciation of game history has only increased in the last decade, and if it dwindled before then, it was because there wasn't that much history to be had -- it was happening in real-time. I taught a one week game design course to a crop of twelve year olds last year and it was a revelatory experience to have to explain _Joust_ to them -- but one of the kids, bless his heart, knew about the brown box. And all of them were fascinated with classic games and game history, even though their modern interests were in playing current games.

There are certainly a lot of things about the industry that need fixing, but I don't think this is one of them. Before you decide that games-as-art don't appreciate their past, you need to talk to a game artist. Most of them fully and deeply appreciate the past, as does the growing field of game history.


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