Thursday, May 29, 2014

What was old is new again, but for the wrong reasons.

Old school and new school gaming, two terms that since the end of 32-64 bit era have been at war. One of them roots for perfection while the other goes for change and the broader market. Almost every time a discussion is started about this topic, sparks fly and we hear or read words like casuals, hardcore gamers, people "stuck in the past", whiners, non-gamers, new gaming industry crash and so on. Today on The Gamertologist we will see how old school really came back, but not in the way must of us expected. We are going to look into the ideas and design of games of previous eras and compare them to these times so we can see how we have been slowly going back without us even noticing. Old school did came back, but as a mummy rather than a full revival and here are the reasons why.

Watch a speed run and you will see how short these levels really were.

1) Shorter games

Taking rpgs and the eternal "go for the high score" atari games out of the equation, most old school games were short at nature. We have from the classic 8 worlds to as minimum as 3. There were some exceptions, but the vast majority of old school games balanced length with difficulty. If you were really good, you could basically finish that 50 dollar game in a day, a thing that would be even easier if you went at it with a friend on multi-player (except for Battletoads), but the average gamer just had to take their time figuring out how to beat the stages and defeat the bosses. A little later on, games from the 90's to the early 00's were longer and shared the difficulty of their predecessors making them feel even longer while also having a lot of secrets and a level design based on exploration which made those secrets to be pretty hard to find. If you remember a time where you spent more than an hour searching the same room over and over you know what I mean.

Then came modern games which began emulating the short duration of the games of old, but severely toned down the difficulty and implemented level designs based on action and short thrills (cinematics, quick time events) rather than exploration. This happened because publishers began demanding games to be developed faster than before, while also getting the mistaken idea that gamers wanted shorter/easier games. Nowadays, many of the big AAA franchises are been forcefully taken into the "A game per year" cycle, which sacrifices a lot of things in order to make it up to the deadline.

It was reddish purple Friday on the Shadow Warrior's schedule...

2) Recycling of resources

On old school games, this was something that we basically accepted. We saw characters walk, run and jump through stages that featured the same buildings and objects over and over. At the time, we just didn't care, because the graphics of that era were so simple that we just filled the blank spots with our own imagination. One of those repeated buildings could pretty much be anything we wanted as long as we were using our heads to offset the lack of material coming from the recycled sprites, textures and color palettes that filled the levels.

On the case of modern games we can see this, but not often at the graphical level. The recycling of resources on modern games comes in the form of user interaction. Its the moment when you feel that you have done the same deed many times before and little by little it becomes monotonous. At this point we try to use our imagination to keep us interested, but because the graphics are so good, our ability to make stuff up and "imagine monotony away" becomes very limited so our interest for the game begins to fade away fast. Some of these modern games manage to carry us from the beginning to the end credits on the shoulders of a good story, but many of them don't have that and that is where they completely fail. Of course this doesn't apply to games that ARE supposed to be repetitive like competitive first person shooters, mmorpgs and some action rpg/adventure and dungeon crawlers which are based on character growth rather than passing through the storyline.

Yep as simple as that (well not really, but you get the point).

3) Simplistic game design

When we talk about game design on old school games we talk about levels that consisted of a one direction progress, meaning go left to right, going up to a certain point if the game has a top down or isometric view, screens that automatically moved, forcing the player to go with it or even games that moved "on rails" like some famous shooters like Virtua Cop or Time Crisis. Also we knew that most of the stuff that was put in a level was either put there to further our advancement (platforms, switches) or just as part of the scenery. Later on in the middle of the 90's, game design became more complex with game worlds full of places to explore, secrets to find while rewarding our curiosity with story elements. This advancement in game design lasted until halfway through the 00's when game companies decided to go back to the simple style of the 80's.

So modern games went down a couple notches in game design and began having levels that look beautiful, but lack the stuff that made games famous in the mid 90's. They took the action and simplicity of the 80's, but left behind the deep environments of the middle of  90's to mid 00's time span. This doesn't mean that all modern games are like that, but too many of them go for the cheap design path and that is kind of going backwards don't you think?

Gaming is a business, but that doesn't mean that it has to be one sided.

To wrap things up

In summary the mainstream aspect of modern games revived some of the old school game characteristics, but only on its cheapest aspects like shorter gameplay, recycling of resources and simplistic game design. So if you are an old schooler that says that old school gameplay must come back, think again because it is already there, just not what you expected to see.

If you want a real old school styled modern FPS, try Wolfestein: The New Order.

There is still hope:

Even though the last generation (Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii) spent almost their entire lifespans using the cheapest stuff they found about old school gameplay in order to save money and develop fast and pretty looking games, they began fixing things up in these last two years and the trend has continued on the new generation with games that feature the nice graphics and effects of today with the GOOD parts of the old school style minus the cheap stuff with the indie scene serving them as an example of how to do things right. So let's hope that this trend continues to live on and we get to experience those super advanced games many of us had dreamed of, with the modern advances of today and the fun and interesting styles of old.

Bonus stage!

If you are one of those old schoolers, looking for some recent (as of May 30, 2014) modern (but old school) good experiences you can check out these games:

Wolfestein: The New Order 

Child of Light


Killer is Dead (Re-released on Steam)

Mario Kart 8


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Are we complaining too much about this generation of consoles?

Any gamer that surfs the web often, has to be familiar with the intense criticism that the new generation of consoles (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U) has received. There are many supposed arguments that seem to support the idea that this generation of consoles is not as good as the companies want you to believe. From my point of view and after reading a lot of these comments and rants I can say that we are not been realistic enough into what new consoles are and the things that consoles in the past have showed us. In order to prove it, I am going to take the most heard/read complaints out there and throw some light at them with facts.

Poor guy... His game was one of the most praised games of 2013, yet "Wii U doesn't have good games".

1) The new consoles have no good games.

This is basically the strongest complaint about the current generation, but at the same time is the weirdest one. This is because on the surface it looks like there is a "lack of games" while in reality we have more games since the launch of each new console than we had on previous generations by the same amount of time. First of all we are failing to consider "indie" games as part of the console library. I know many of these games can be found on networks like Steam or Origin, but guess what? Not everybody has a gaming PC and some gaming setups are still not based on the living room where a setup for full gaming is more convenient than an hybrid console-PC one.

Also for all 3 of the current generation consoles, we have seen games from different genres (counting indie and not indie). There's action, horror, puzzle, adventure, first person shooters, platformers, survival horror, action-rpg and even combination of genres into one. If things are like this, then how can people say there are no games when there is clearly stuff to play? If we go back 2 generations to the past, there was no digital game thing and we basically had to make ends meet very few retail games (often one of them was a killer app, while most of the otthers were not that great). So now we have more choices, but it seems that we have become so spoiled that if it isn't a AAA super-hyped cutting edge game apparently it doesn't count. Well, I leave that for you to judge, but talking about spoiled brings us to our next complaint to break.

If you sold your old console and went straight for the new ones, I have news for you...

2) The new consoles are been dragged down by the old ones.

Once again another thing from the past we seem to have forgotten. Throughout almost every generation the passing platform sticks around for a while before the new one sets in (except in the case of consoles that have died too soon like the transition from Sega Saturn to the Dreamcast). On this generation we have 2 consoles whose hearts are till beating and those are the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. These ones are still receiving love from the game companies for one reason and that reason is that they have a BIGGER established fan-base.

Lets be honest folks. The PS3 and Xbox 360 have an established user base that is still gigantic, while none of the newer consoles has touched the 10 million mark by themselves yet. If you have a game company, you will most likely target the biggest market around and up until now and it isn't the new generation. We all know that the previous generation will eventually get cold and die, but they still have at least one more year on their lifespan and because the Wii U is the only console with a solid backward compatibility feature, the PS3 and Xbox 360 will live on for a little while longer.

Do the math! Now not with bits but frames per second and resolution numbers.

3) The game is not 60fps and 1080p or does not feature a breakthrough on graphics? Well it's not next-gen then!

If this generation has something in common with the one from the early 90's, is the obsession with numbers. Back in the day it used to be all about bits. 8 bits, 16 bits, 64 bits, OH MY GOD 128 bits! Now it's more like the frame rate and resolution of games. It is understandable to ask for the highest resolution possible because nobody ever buys a good HDTV or monitor to see a game that looks like Bubsy 3D on enhance mode, but at the same time asking for the full maximum quality AND frame rate on every game regardless of how the game itself is, looks kind of selfish and unrealistic.

Not all games are the same, and while linear adventures are easier to develop and easier to make them look pretty, sandbox games for example, force developers to use their resources as efficient as possible to create giant worlds in the best way they can. Not also this is very taxing on the developers, but also on the consoles themselves which were not meant to be competing with high end PCs in terms of power (unless you wanted to spend 800+ dollars on a game console (for an example check the price tags for all the Steam box machines). Also the graphical jump on this generation will not be as big as we believed like the jump from SNES and Sega Genesis to the PS ONE, Nintendo 64 and Saturn. It is something a little more subtle which will get better with time, but not as a giant leap as some people expect. Some games may look a little "photo-realistic", but it will not be that much and it will be based mostly on graphical tricks just like Nintendo did with Mario 64 to amaze us back in the day.

Do these games deserve to be called "AA"? 

4) Huh? That is not a AAA game!

This one is caused by the debate on how a AAA game should be. On this generation of consoles, games like Infamous: Second Son and Titanfall, took the heat for not been "AAA enough". Now here is the thing. Both games featured advanced graphics graphics, good gameplay and an enjoyable interaction between player and game. Now that we looked as those characteristics then what else do they need to be considered AAA? I've even read people classifying those games as AA and I just had to laugh. AA? Wow, what's next then, A and a half? Whatever happened with games just been games and not classified by how much money the company spent on them.

This kind of thinking may happen because we got too accustomed to cinematic showcases in games rather than the gameplay itself. It is like we are asking the developers to drop content in favor of exposition. So what if the game doesn't have a thousand cutscenes and cinematic style parts showing off how much the company spent on it? What we should worry about is what happens when we are finally able to use our game pads and move the character around. Of course this doesn't mean that games should be blank and devoid of any type of exposure, but that should NOT be what sets the bar on quality over a videogame.

The elephant in the room that nobody seems to care about...

5) I wont support any new console until I see it flourish!

This one can be pretty much considered a fallacy of thought. It is a vicious spiral that can severely damage any platform (think of the PS VITA and Wii U). Let's see, you won't support the platform because it doesn't have any games (see complaint #1), but the gaming companies will not release their games on the platform until enough people buy it. So if neither of the two parties involved yield, the console suffers as the result.

The case of the PS VITA and Wii U shows this perfectly. When both systems launched, everybody was like "wow, it is a cool machine, but I wont support it until they show the heavy hitters". That alone was a set back to the consoles themselves as they had horrible sale numbers and third party companies were like "huh... How about no?" Right now, the PS VITA is slowly gaining speed, but it is because Japanese companies yielded first, released good games and got good profits. Now these games are been released on other countries and we will get to enjoy them, but not because of ourselves, so thank the Japanese people for that. As for the Wii U, they are trying to bring interest to their console with the games they are and will be announcing before and during this year E3 event, but third party companies are still not convinced that the console will make a comeback. If regardless of all their effort the console fails, it will be a shame because it is a good machine and there ARE games for it, you just have to look, just like with the Wii.

Hype and more hype, but if the companies deliver, our wallets will cry...

To wrap things up:

At the end of this argument we need to get a few things into our heads:

  • New consoles start with limited libraries that pick up as time passes and the console defines its place in the market. 
  • Most previous consoles will not magically die off (because of the lack of backward compatibility) so they will still get support and games for them that will not necessarily be released on the newer ones.
  • Superb frame rate and resolution is something awesome to have, but it does not define the full quality of a game.
  • AAA games are more than cinematic showcases so give those new games a chance.
  • If you don't support a platform on it's infancy, you are creating a cycle that may damage the platform which could mean that you will never see the games you want on it, because the game companies see no profit on it.
  • We need to learn to look for games like we used to in the past, with an open and unbiased mind. Doing that will makes us find good games that we would probably ignore or miss if we didn't searched enough.
So at the end of the road, this new generation is really next-gen, but it needs time to fully develop and we need to stop ranting and have some faith. E3 is coming soon and things look bright for all of the 3 competing platforms so sit tight, enjoy the ride...Just play and have fun.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Has the gaming industry forgotten about millennials?

Some weird topic that just popped into my head and I thought was good enough to start the blog. it begins with a simple question, Has the gaming industry forgotten about  the so called millennials? Take into account that this comes from a "millennial" point of view since I was born in 1984, so let's go ahead and dig deep into this idea.

One of the great rpg franchises that deserve to come back.

The end of the millennial:

First of all, it would be a good thing to define what a "millennial" is. As they say, a millennial (or generation Y) is a person born in the time span from 1980 to the early 2000's. It is the generation that ranges from the styles of the 80's, the easy going abundance of the 90's and the shock of the early 2000's. From a gaming perspective, millennials have been there from the very beginning of gaming as an industry up to the point where everything changed. As a generation we are criticized for many things, most of that criticism coming without any facts, but if there is one thing in which we never faltered it is our taste for gaming.

It is not as exaggerated as path-cutscene-path, but it doesn't even come close to the designs of old.

Change for the sake of change:

When we talk about change, we mean the ways in which the industry has managed to change from one business model to another. At one point, some people used to say that the video game industry was immune to the effects of the economical crisis and we as gamers were totally believing it, because quality standards were still high regardless of the monetary turmoil. So imagine what a shock it was to see it all change and basically leave hanging a whole generation that grew accustomed to a gaming style that nowadays is called "niche", "core" or worst of all "not feasible". It can't be denied that great games have been released in these newer generations, but the change in style is very noticeable. Let's start by comparing these two styles as past and present and see which characteristics make them differ.

  • Complex game design based on exploration.
  • Vast use of various types of resources (graphic, sound and user interaction).
  • Strong emphasis on story line.
  • Gameplay over graphics.
  • Games made to make you think hard in order to progress or develop skills over time.
  • Medium to high learning curve.
  • Product was almost every time a full game.
  • Development cycles ranging from 2-4 years at minimum.
  • Fiction topped reality in game content.
  • Simple game design based on presentation.
  • Recycling of game resources.
  • Strong emphasis on making the player addicted to the game.
  • Graphics over gameplay.
  • Games made in a way that it doesn't annoy or frustrate gamers in any way (a.k.a easier difficulties).
  • Low learning curve.
  • Semi-complete product followed by tons of updates and downloadable content.
  • Development trend of making games in 1 year.
  • Reality tops fiction as visual artists make visual material closer to real life.
Every gaming company has their own Warios, screwing things up for the rest of us.

Change for the sake of money:

Each of the reasons why these two styles are complete opposites come from the same principle which is cheap production costs and maximum profits. Don't get me wrong, I am well aware that gaming in within itself is a business, but if we had to describe these two styles with a phrase, the past one would be "Make a kickass game so it sells well" while in the present it would be something like "Make a game that sells and somehow convince people that it is badass".

This is where millennials exit the scene as the ones who were dropped out as the prime customers of the gaming industry. Millennials lived through the many gaming eras that came to pass starting from the early Atari days and if one thing is to be expected from seen how gaming evolved through time is for games to get better; meaning longer, more challenging and more engaging. Millenials are a generation of gamers that have big expectations about gaming productions and will never forget the growth that the industry had, taking big leaps into better gaming experiences. This kind of thinking did not sounded so well to publishers and company investors because it meant more expenses and high risks.

This is when the people in business suits made the change and took power out of the artists hands and gave it to their "market analysts" or "mechandising people". The result of all this is the refusal to evolve and the embrace of a system that began simplifying games to a point that they mostly resemble a bad game from the 8 bit era, but with nice graphics. All this just because it is cheaper, faster and low risk. It is quite ironic for them to keep treating games like simple toys while at the same time saying that gaming has become a full fledged entertainment media with something for everyone. It just doesn't make sense.

Broken down Zero = how our gaming intelligence is treated.

This way of thinking prevented millennials from passing the torch to the newer generation as the new kids were lead to believe that the game development style from the past was too long, boring and passé while the one of the present was cutting edge and cool. People who still prefer the gaming style of the past are labelled as "hipsters" or called "people who still dwell on the past". Companies became rigid, most of the time ignoring what gamers want and using "modern gaming" as an excuse to give us less for our buck. Then as an excuse to get millennials even farther from having any influence, they began to release HD Remakes of famous games of the past just so they don't sell well and use that as an excuse to say "You see? Those games don't sell well any more. There is no reason to make new ones or follow that style of gameplay..."

The stale paradigm theory:

I have the little theory about how things should had been compared to how they are now. If we look into how the gaming industry was evolving, it would seem that people born in the mid 80's would have the industry at their feet from a content perspective. People who became gamers at that time would grow at the same pace as the industry does. So when they were kids the content of games would be mostly directed toward kids, then when going through their pre-teenage and teenage years the content would still be directed at them, then in early adulthood they would still be the poster children of the industry because now they would be the ones with money to spend and have the bigger enthusiasm toward games.

I apologize for the crappy style point chart he he. Just wanted to show the theory in some visual way.
If you see the small chart above, you can see that the emphasis in gaming content grew as people grew if you were a gamer in the 80's. Proof of this come in the games that were smashing successes at the time for each point on the time spans. In the 80's you could picture Mario, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, Loony Tunes games, etc. As soon as the 90's came, more serious and beat them up/fighting/violent games became the norm, and at that time it captivated pre-teens and teens quite nicely. After that it all turned into a cinematic experience with a ton of JRPGs, survival horror and action games, now directed towards the teen-early adults age range. After that when the new millennium came, games became even more serious and adults were able to experience great experiences while still giving good stuff to the teens. 

Now after that, as gaming became entertainment media, it should had kept on the early adults/adults zone but instead it went back to the teens and got stuck there (with the occasional treat to adults over 40 which are points off the chart). Why did this happen? Because those age ranges meant cheaper development and lower risk. Please have in mind that this is just a theory.

Where could all the good stuff be? (btw Child of Light IS good stuff)

To wrap things up:

My conclusion is that millennials were taken out of the gaming scene as the biggest gaming market, because we grew accustomed to excellence and excellence costs more money, money they do not want to spend. So they trained newer generations to love watered down experiences and phased out everything that would resemble the gaming industry standard that lived up for almost 30 years. Don't get me wrong, I am not implying that we should still have games that look and feel exactly like in the past. What would be healthy for the industry is to mix up both old and new, past and present styles of development and come up with games that can show how much we have technically evolved, but without degrading the overall experience.

Currently, that mix between old and new is something that is mostly been done by indie developers, but big time companies are taking the hint like Square Enix, that have learned their lesson with Bravely Default, the people at Capcom who already promised that Resident Evil 7 will return to its "survival horror roots", after seen the franchise's value plunge drastically after Operation Racoon City and Resident Evil 6 or even games like Call of Duty or Titan Fall with new gameplay interactions that resemble the crazy first person shooter experiences of the past. The millennials may be out of the scene, but big chunks of our gaming taste are washing ashore and it is a matter of time until game companies are forced to do something about it.  

There is still hope my friends...