Nostalgia vs Game Design

Nostalgia vs Game Design
PAX South 2019

Everyone has the game that consumed their childhood. You grew up playing Quake 2 mods, Civ II, or Everquest late into the night. You got obsessed with Aerobiz on the SNES or DotA (the original one). You want to recreate that experience that was so core to your gaming life. But… can you? What was it ABOUT those games that made them so perfect. Was it the game, the context, or possibly even just you? From remakes to reboots to spiritual successors, some game mechanics are best left to history.

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The funniest part about writing this panel was realizing, in doing my research, just how many games are basically Tribes 2 enough but I never played them (or worse, didn’t like them).

I also played some Bionic Commando and Bionic Commando re-armed…

And some Gemfire…

The problem with imitators/clones is that they can get most of the things right, but getting even one small detail wrong throws the whole thing off. Look at all the Advance Wars clones that are no good. I have some hopes for Wargroove, but it could fall short also.

There are too many factors involved in recreating the perfect storm, but it’s not impossible. Nobody has been able to beat Minecraft at Minecraft but Fortnite obliterated PUBG. You have to be able to recognize what made something good and polish that part like crazy. If you don’t polish enough or were wrong about what the good part was, then you have a produce that looks just like the original, but feels completely different.

There are a lot of ways to put meat and cheese between two pieces of bread that will taste nothing like a legit cheeseburger.

Part of it was that Tribes 2 matches were really really long. Same with the earliest Natural Selection. Like, 45min to an hour.

The Weapons Factory server I played on had 40 minute timers on games. They ended at 10 caps (unlikely), or at 40 minutes. Score (not caps) won the match.

I loved that shit. But it’s nonviable today. And Rym of today doesn’t have time for that shit.

Long matches aren’t what made the game fun. You could easily just have a match where you win as soon as your team gets 3, 2, or even 1 capture.

Maybe a better title for this would be “Games We Loved and Why”, because the nostalgia is the weakest part of the talk. It’s mostly filler until the per-game slides.

Long matches allowed scouting missions, probing attacks, feints and counter-feints. You had time to spend on things like that. If the matches were shorter, you’d load up a transport and attack right away, or else turtle until the opposing transport arrived, crater it, and then attack yourself.

The CTF games would usually end on points, not caps. Caps were worth a LOT of points, but every kill also got you a single point. Those kills added up. You couldn’t just cap, you had to be efficient. Unless you could cap a LOT.

The immense size of the map and the auto defenses of the base is what allows for scouting, probing, feints, stealth, etc. An immediate direct attack will usually fail mid-field. You’ll have to send a secret mission to take out the generator at least.

Here’s a more concrete example.

Old CTF had looong matches and a large number of caps for victory. As such, you’d often see long periods of fighting in midfield while both sides look for an advantage (e.g., a few picks, a well-placed spy, etc…).

If another team was up by a couple caps, there was time to recover, and comebacks were much more possible.

In Overwatch’s CTF, the game is to three caps. That’s it. And the timer is relatively short.

So there’s a frantic battle for the first cap. Once a team caps, short of a wide skill imbalance, it’s common for the team that’s ahead to turtle HARD and wait out victory.

Longer match time would make that impossible.

I’m saying no timer. Let’s say you play to three caps. There is no score at which you can turtle.Though if it’s 0-2 the team that is down will probably “pull the goalie”.

That does in fact happen, and it’s awesome. They basically pull their defense to rush a cap, and try to catch the “empty net” flag bearer in midfield on their way back.

The trouble with unlimited match length is the same reason hockey doesn’t have unlimited OT in the regular season…

I mean, you can just play to 1. The problem is that it might cause a double turtle from the start. Just have to design the game itself to ever so slightly favor offense.

The NFL has changed their rules to heavily favor offense in the name of “player safety.” Only people upset are those who like defense.

My point is that I personally found a lot of direct value from longer matches, but I recognize that this was a product not just of the way it affected these games, but the way I was willing to spend my free time.

The Rym who was happy to sneakily build an OC trap outside the little-used exit to Marine Base over the course of 10+ minutes is dead.

The Scott who would strap a satchel charge to his back, ride a bike to an enemy outpost, suicide bomb its infrastructure, respawn, and do it again, is eternal.

Fortnite is as big a Minecraft and PUBG because it combines elements of both. There’s the building aspect and the battle royale aspect. There also the social aspect which is also there in Minecraft, but not really there to the same extent in PUBG.

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Oh yeah, I forgot it has building.

This talk made me think back to the games I played and what I loved about them. While I had good memories for some specific games or series, I think generally i associate any specific game as more of a product of it’s specific time and a signifier of a moment in that time. It’s more a style of game or a genre that will make the connection. There are exceptions where maybe a specific game did have a standout aesthetic or mechanic or feel that really shines. But you guys are right in that most of the memory is about that one moment in time, more than specific titles, or the way Mario’s jump is timed, or how the sprites move.

Some games were fun specifically for the community of people that were there playing it, and any game with that group would have been mostly interchangable. For example the gaming group I was in during my early online MP years was a bunch of older guys on Xbox live who for the most part were into the slower paced Tom Clancy shooters. I’m nostalgic for those games we played for sure, but going back and playing them without those guys, it’s just never going to fill the receptors in the same way. We won’t be making fun of the sniper from Quebec or chatting with the French guy living in Ohio who loved absinthe or hearinf stories from the Newfie bouncer lumberjack. The games themselves were just the medium.

Sure I can go back and try playing the first Ghost Recon and maybe get some enjoyment. But no one today can make that game again. (Well they could but who would?) Technology has more or less moved on and the strange quirks and graphics that game that game character, in their removal would largely leave the result completely different. Most of the maps would not work with features like, well, jump.

Ghost Recon is actually a good example of a series where by the 3rd generation of the game, to a die-hard fan it had been going down hill since the first one. But for maybe casual players the features and fluidity of the later games was clearly “better”.

C&C Red Alert is another for me. The 1995 game is perfect as it is, for it’s time. It’s a deeply flawed game. RA2 and arguably 3 brought many modern Features and made it a more polished game but in doing so took the core draw for me completely out. That is just part of how sequels work but in context of nostalgia… I want to go back and play that original Red Alert again and again. But the panel discussion reaffirmed the the specific things I pulled from the RA game is specific to me. Not many people played it the way I did, or for the the same reasons perhaps. I was more like Scott with Civ II: build a massive base, constructed elaborate defensive networks, mine ungodly resources. Amass impossible armies. Actual fighting was some small part of what made the game good, but then actually having that take place is what kept the game from being a Sim City experience.

In all I think about whether the C&C remastering EA has announced is going to yield a product that satisfies that original gameplay loop urge. I wonder if it will hold my attention long enough or like so many older games I buy again, hold me for one evening and then go back in the shelf forever.

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I enjoyed the talk. It took a while to get to the points, but once you did I got your thinking.

I thought you were going to bring up the story of a developer making a pixel art game, and the people who bought it complaining that the game would only run in a low resolution, not understanding the “pixel” part.

Lots of people have strong nostalgic feelings for pixel art, but personally it doesn’t appeal to me much at all. I think too many games use it as a filter over the top of the look and feel of the game. It’s like an instagram filter that makes not great photo “interesting” by degrading it in an “artistic” way. I’d prefer a good photo without a filter, just as I’d prefer a good game with a smoother art style.

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What’s also hilarious are how many people change the shader/renderer/filter in emulators and remakes to make old games that were originally pixelly un-pixelly. It’s like colorizing an old black and white movie, but not well.

The argument is that this is an attempt to make the crisper LCD screens look like CRTs, where the blurryness was “Intended in design”.