More Computer Game History

OK, of course I couldn’t let it lie (actually, Jari couldn’t; there’s a guy who can’t leave a job unfinished). Now that I’ve expanded my list of “essential games” to an unwieldy length, I can perhaps forget the whole thing, secure in the knowledge that I’ve probably caught most games in my target segment. Certainly there’s some obvious additions like the excellent Star Control space opera games, as well as some not so obvious ones, like 4D Sports Boxing, one of the first playable 3d fighting games. I also got a couple more recommendations for my list of games to play in the future! Of course, now I have to put that list on a separate page of it’s own if I ever want to add anything else in the blogroll.

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7 Responses to “More Computer Game History”

  1. Burgeri Says:

    I can’t really comment on this having played most of the old classics myself back in the day, but there is another school of thought that rejects the idea of old classics being relevant material for new game designers, saying that their information value is just nostalgia we old fogeys (who incidentally get to decide what are “must-play” games) have for them.

    Instead, they would write a list of relevant games published over the last 10 years, with Indie hits for the low- and AAA-hits for the high-end. The logic behind this idea is that the ideas from old classics have been recycled time and time again in later games and studying a 20-year old application of e.g. isometrics is not going to teach you anything new compared to the modern isometric stuff.

    Personally, I like to think that my Amiga 500 experience was a huge boon in learning mobile games design.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s an interesting idea. By which I mean, it certainly makes sense that games would retain and refine the significant ideas over time, which would make it unnecessary to delve in history, except for academic interest. And the bias is terribly clear: the only people able to compile canons of classics are those who have already done the work of familiarizing themselves with them. That is like having a car salesman make decisions of traffic policy, of course he’s going to favour his chosen mode of locomotion. Why ever would anybody disagree?

    But then, that’s not how it works in other arts. The needs of the time seem to shift in complex patterns, and we may frequently find insights in old art that have been lost in application. Admittedly the old stuff is more often arcane and not very immediately interesting, as it speaks to concerns that are not applicable anymore. But as a reference for craft, there is no competition for history in most arts.

    Of course, part of the reason for why old art is able to provide us insights is in the breaks in cultural heritage. When art comes to us from alien cultures or times past, where there is no living tradition connecting the artist and the audience, of course it’s going to be an experience fraught with insight. One might argue that there is no such distance in computer game design, it’s all one, continuous tradition. Even western and Japanese game design cultures have for the most part had close cycles of influence, as can be seen from this westerner’s list of significant games. The idea that all the old ideas are contained and improved by the most recent games gains support from an examination of history, if one concludes that computer game design is too young to have broken into separate traditions.

    Computer game design is a bit different in one other respect, too: it has been a form constrained by evolving technique, which has not been true of older arts for generations. Even movies found their basic form already during the ’40s (and again when digital editing came, I guess). I don’t know if the fact that Pac-Man was created for very primitive machines makes it irrelevant for modern game design. One might learn important insights into the basics of the form from a game not cluttered by the technical possibilities, or one might be unnecessarily constrained. No idea.

    From my personal perspective there is of course little difference in the matter: even if the foundational games I list carry no relevance for others (or some conceivable objective ranking list of good games), they are still the basis upon which I judge my own game design efforts. I guess this is the same for everybody, we can only build upon our own personal experiences.

    Out of interest in educating myself, what would a list of reference games for our decade look like? If I were to look for innovation and well-honed masterpieces of the form to educate myself in, which ones would they be? When I try to read gaming magazines these days, the games all seem to meld together before my eyes into one endless mess of overly railroaded interactive fiction.

  3. Burgeri Says:

    Like it or not, that mess yields 90% of all game-related revenue and 99% of the media visibility. Besides any game you make competes with the mess over player interest, time and money, and is likely to be their secondary game to whatever “mess” they are currently playing. That makes the mess well worth looking into.

    The way I see it (and I can be totally wrong but so far it has held up), is that the premium games are dominated by three templates: First Person Shooter, Third Person Action and Real-Time Strategy. Those three types cover 90% of the AAA-titles out there. FPS template games produce the biggest hits while RTS template games have the best median success rate. TPA is the little country cousin of these two as sales go but it is becoming more important with the increasing importance of consoles and casual shooters.

    To make an AAA game, you pick a template and gain its default hooks. You then add 2-3 new hooks as gimmicks, separating your title from others (and there is of course brand-building which is a whole different non-templated ball game). Your design effort is 60-70% about those “gimmicks”, because the basic functions of each template have pretty much been nailed down (and honed to perfection). Really, you have to *screw up* NOT to have an okay first-person-shooter these days. Problem is that with the competition out there, that alone does not cut.

    More importantly, a gamer who finishes his favourite FPS-template game is looking A) more of the same, B) with enough new twist to keep his interest up. If the new title fails in A, he is not going to buy it because he is a fan of the template. If the B fails, you have failed to attract his interest and your game loses out to competing titles based on that same template.

    Roughly speaking, in a premium game project, the publisher and the financiers are looking out to preserve and defend the A, while you as a developer are trying to max out the B. The compromises and risk aversion developers are so often cursing are all about balancing the development budget (time, money, man-hours) between the A and the B, and usually taking away from B to keep the A up-to-date and competetive.

    And that’s the mess.

  4. Burgeri Says:

    Forgot that ultimate bane of creativity and innovation: sports and racing games. Maybe if I take some more pain meds I’ll forget them even more thoroughly…

  5. Computer Game History Analysed « Cooking is about Structure Says:

    […] But I do have the time for a short observation, inspired by Ville Vuorela, who graciously gave me some rather interesting pointers on computer game types as a comment on my earlier post about the games I consider significant. He […]

  6. Olli Kantola Says:

    Hi Eero,

    I think that you should check out the Baten Kaitos series of fags (fantasy adventure games 😉 made for Nintendo Gamecube. They sport the best use of (collectible) card gaming metaphor in a computer/console game to date. These two games might give you ideas for you own design project.

    BTW, Megaman Battle Network is a horrible game.

  7. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll add Baten Kaitos to my sampling list forthwith. As for Megaman Battle Network, I’m sure that I can stand an awful game or two if I also uncover great stuff I’ve yet to sample.


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