Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Retro Required!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 5, 2012

We game developers are ALWAYS copying past games. We have to. There’s simply far too much that has gone before for us to even be capable of reinventing the wheel.  Even the most innovative games out there borrow from tried-and-true examples. We always build upon a foundation of what has come before us.  Anything else would be akin to us creating a new alphabet and language in order to write a book (Okay, Tolkien notwithstanding). This is a good thing. Sometimes we take a giant leap of innovation, but most of the time we mix and match, we borrow ideas from here and there, and we make small refinements and innovations. That’s the way everything else in the world works, so I don’t see why games should be different.

So here’s the question: Would you rather have games built upon exclusively upon the examples of the top games of the last couple of years,  or would you rather they be built upon the 40+ year legacy of the entire medium? Which would provide a greater variety and push more boundaries?

To me, it’s a no-brainer.

I realize I’m forcing a dichotomy, but the former may not define but does exemplify how the mainstream game publishing works. There’s really big money taking a very risk-averse approach, which means following the “trend” and trying to duplicate the biggest, most recent successes.

Then there’s the indies. And there’s some concern that instead of indies going wild with incredibly innovative new ideas and games that all create new genres, we have a whole bunch of non-publisher-funded folks going… retro.  Cashing in on hits from a couple decades ago. Some folks are yelping, “WTF?” Now, I will admit that John Walker has a point, but I think his “ideal version of events” is not so much an outside chance as en inevitability – although he doesn’t take far enough. He writes:

“Perhaps an ideal version of events is that what we’re seeing now is the establishing of a new timeline. A comic-book-style reboot of the gaming world to 1993, to see what direction things would have gone in if the internet had been ubiquitous two decades earlier. The first round will be all these games made in the style of their 20 year old forefathers, but the next stage will be new innovation from them? Maybe in seeing RPGs and RTSs and adventures rebooted, we’ll then see what other possible directions they could have taken, evolved in, and innovated toward without a publisher model requiring homogenization? Two parallel gaming worlds, Publisher Gaming and Ultimate Gaming?”

Here’s my view, as both a gamer and a game developer:

Indie gaming – and all the cool things that make it possible (digital distribution, virtual offices, crowdfunding, etc.) – has unleashed the freakin’ horde.  We’ve got new talent (and old) pouring into the field all going nuts trying to find a niche in this brave, new world. Many aren’t going to survive. But they are exploring the market, the technology, and the limits of their own abilities simultaneously. In many (most?) cases, these folks are getting back to their roots – the core intersection of what is possible within their limitations (esp. budget and skill), what is likely to pay the bills, and what really love about gaming.

That intersection tends towards retro.  It’s the common answer to four questions new indies with aspirations towards survival as a business must ask themselves:

#1 – What’s possible with a small team and a small budget? Naturally, older game styles – which were completed with smaller teams and smaller budgets using less advanced tools than we have today – become obvious choices.

#2 – What’s familiar enough that we have a chance of making an executing on a plan? Going indie is unfamiliar territory, whether you are new to game development or just new to going at it on your own. It’s helpful to have some kind of familiar foundation to anchor yourself so you aren’t completely reinventing the wheel, and you are able to work with SOME known quantities (and make reasonable projections, which is critical when you know there’s no real chance of asking a publisher for more time / money near the end of the project). Retro gives new game developers a comfortable design template, and gives old-school developers a chance to work in well-known former territory.

#3 – What has a decent chance of success (meaning: what will sell)? Gamers have been clamoring for certain kinds of “old-school” games for years – ever since they were abandoned by the mainstream publishers years ago. Nobody really knows how big this market is (though we’re starting to get some reasonable guesses), but it’s clear there’s an underserved need.  This is another little pocket of relative safety for new indies.

#4 – What can the team feel passionate about making? If you are a game developer willing to make the sacrifices necessary to go indie, chances are you are doing it out of a love for the genre. And the games that probably inspired you to take the plunge are likely to be a decade or so old. Retro.

This doesn’t preclude the possibility of high-concept, totally out-there innovation. And we get some of that. But we’re talking about a whole hell of a lot of people out there working on their first or second generation of games, learning the ropes while re-learning the lessons of the past.  Everybody’s got to re-establish a baseline, and re-learn the art their own way.

This is not where it ends, people. Yeah, we’re gonna get a huge crop of retreads, and I doubt that will ever stop. New developers are always going to be making My First Platformer, and while they are introducing absolutely nothing new to the genre, it’s going to be a magical game for them. They are learning their art. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

But eventually My First Platformer is going to become – three or four games down the road (if they stick with it) something different. That’s where this all leads.  Once they’ve had a chance to gain some mastery over the craft, they are going to explore. Revisit old assumptions. And they are going to do some amazing things.

They already are.  Some commercial projects. Lots of not quite primetime stuff.  But the horde has been loosed, and this new era of gaming is still in the oven.

Ditto for the old-school professional developer crews who are now Kickstarting retro projects.  First of all, I do not believe for a second that all they will be doing is a clone of one of their past hits. I do not believe they are approaching this with the view that, in hindsight, everything they’ve learned over the last 15-20 years is bunk and they had it 100% correct in 1997.  That’s silly. But I think they are recognizing that there’s a certain flavor, certain feelings, certain style that has been lost, and they are working to regain it with modern technology, with their more seasoned skills, and take it to newer audiences.  I will personally be quite disappointed if all that comes out of these “big name” projects are games I feel like I already played fifteen years ago treated with a new coat of paint.

I think the revival of retro is a great thing, because to me it’s a sign of the maturing of the medium. It’s no longer just about newer, bigger, better, more shocking spectacles. We’re starting to explore our legacy, and ask questions about it. I don’t see any reason to fear that we may get mired in the past. In all honesty, eventually both gamers and game developers will get bored with that.  We’ll move on, with plenty of new indies taking revisiting the territory as we go. It won’t be, as Walker suggests, two parallel gaming worlds, but a whole continuum.

So let’s enjoy the moments, shall we?

Filed Under: Biz, Design, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • jwmeep said,

    Great post Jay.

    And yeah, I do disagree with idea that doing Retrogames somehow prevents doing new things. Like when you talked about Gramrock, you praised the fact they worked in Portal puzzles, expanding past the usual format for these types of games.

    I liked Chris Avellone’s response:

    >Meanwhile, Kickstarter seems to be ruled by nostalgia these days, and I feel like Obsidian’s a perfect example of why it could be a problem. On one hand, you’re making a very intriguing game. On the other, Obsidian’s created some truly innovative and forward-thinking features in games like Alpha Protocol. Does this trend put progress on hold? Is it dangerous for everyone to be indulging in nostalgia like this?

    >Avellone: Innovative concepts don’t need to be tied to modern blockbusters or to nostalgia. While RPGs have lost some mechanics over the years in their transition phases from PC to console, there’s plenty of innovative elements you can do in old school nostalgia games – for example, low intelligence options were pioneered in Fallout, and that didn’t require any special tech whatsoever. It just required the Fallout team to think it up and put it into practice.
    Why would doing an older style game put an end to progress?

    If anything, I think using modern technology on older style games opens up a ton of options. We all played those old games and asked “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do THIS?” Wouldn’t be cool if you could actually drive the Battlezone tank into the volcano? Wouldn’t be cool if you actually could fly your fighter into that Giant Shivan ship in Freespace 2, get you of your fighter, and start running around in the enemy ship? Wouldn’t it be cool if I could haggle with the shop keeper? Etc, etc. Well I think we may have gotten to the point where technology can actually do those type of things (within reason, and budget manpower limitations). Now is a great time to explore those avenues that technology at the time couldn’t let you do.

    I don’t think that developers are nostalgic for the old stuff just so they can rahash them, I think they are nolstalgic for the freedom they had with those old games.

    Not only is it possible to innovate in those older style games, I think it’s essential to. Like Jay has said a few times, those older games aren’t just inspiration, they are competition. You have make yourself stand out from them.

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    When I read John Walker’s post I kinda agreed with it and I think I now know where this feeling comes from:

    Seeing “old-school” next to a frickin’ million dollars.

    WAIT! Hold on. Let me finish my point 😉 I get that what cost money is NOT the idea, old mechanics or old concepts. It’s the execution. From what I understand this “old-school” RPG won’t have 8-bit graphics for example.

    So I think the problem for some here is just that the branding tells something that is not “accurate” in some way. It just feels weird to tag “old-school” or “retro” next to a budget most indies can’t even dream about as these tags generally aren’t related to huge budgets. Okay these tags have no direct link to the budget but in the collective imagination it just feels weird I guess.

    As for the “innovation” part well people complain all the time big studios keep giving us mostly sequels with nothing new but I can already tell you that Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 will sell millions of copies anyway so eh. These complaints are just there to have people talk about stuff. If they had really enough of “the same old stuff” well they would stop buying the “same old stuff” so there’s really not much to talk about here.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Great article, and the part about people flooding into the indie and mid-sized developer space is very exciting.

    While developers might be going back to nostalgic old franchises for ideas, the end product will be noticeably different. A good example would be XCOM and Xenonauts, which both use UFO: Enemy Unknown as their nostalgic base, but are proceeding in different ways and will provide different experiences.

    It is my hope (and why I backed them so highly), that Project Eternity, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns and the rest will provide that right mix of the retro and the new.

  • Albert1 said,

    Well, as far as I know the only sharew… ehm indie developer able to last almost two decades is Jeff Vogel who, by his own admission, keeps squeezing&rebooting the same idea again and again… and I don’t see anything wrong in that! I think that games, to people, are more like favorite sports, or even meals: they play/eat their favourite sport/meal everytime they can. Sometimes they get bored, and maybe take a diversion, but then they return to their favorite pet. I think that game followed the same path sports/meals did: from roots to the ultimate form, where very little is added because people simply don’t feel the need to add anything. Computer games, like many other things of the late 20th century, and unlike traditional boardgames, sports and meals, just (almost) completed their evolution in decades, not centuries. These days the notion of time is so compressed!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    To be fair, Vogel took a somewhat different direction with his newest game.

    And the whole Battlezone-Tank-to-the-Volcano thing was been on my mind (literally!) a lot lately – particularly since Utah Indie Night a week ago – and it was part of what I was thinking when I wrote this article.

  • Anon said,

    Well, I don’t care about driving the Battlezone tank into the volcano. Why should I even want it?

    I, for example, also don’t care about the newest Spider-Man reboot – only ten years after the last one. Why is stuff like that even being made and in shorter and shorter periods? Because the industry has to live, too, and it’s easier and sometimes way more profitable to cash in on old (but popular) franchises. Therefore very similar stuff is regularly being made for “new” young people.

    Only problem is: While I get older, I don’t suffer from memory loss!
    I don’t have to see new stuff trying to be new stuff but really being only old stuff in new clothes.
    I’d rather see either the original old stuff again (nothing against a re-run!) or completely new stuff, based on older foundations and perhaps even honoring them.
    Translating this to games I always thought that making a new VCS game, running on this limited but venerable console is a great effort – but making a VCS-game for modern PC hardware is nothing short of a perversity.
    Obviously there is an audience for everything so YMMV but there thankfully is enough stuff out there to please everyone.

  • Albert1 said,

    Unrelated: I used to read 4-5 game dev blogs, but your blog is the only one I still read everyday. Have you ever thought about participating to AltDevBlogADay?

  • Charles said,

    “A comic-book-style reboot of the gaming world to 1993”

    WHO would ever DO such a thing???

    1986 FTW, FFS :))

  • Kyle Haight said,

    The Golden Age of Gaming is probably 16. So I think we should reboot to 1987.