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November 21, 2012

What's with all the old games lately?

Astute readers of the blog¹ have obviously noticed that this year's posts have mostly been about old games from the PS1 and PS2 eras, with nothing really said about today's games. I was asked this question via twitter and found it impossible to boil down to 140 characters, so I'm throwing out this little post here explaining my thinking behind the decision to go back and play through my old library of unfinished or unplayed games. Note, this primarily describes my feelings as a player, not as a developer.

The Backlog

About a year ago I had cause to evaluate my consumption habits; every year I look at what I've read for the year, what I've watched throughout the year, and what I've played throughout the year. This year, I also took a look at what I hadn't read, watched, and played as well -- and I discovered that I had over a hundred games I've bought and really not gotten much out of, including 25 that were still in the shrink wrap, some of them going back over five years.

I view this as a problem.

It's a problem from a number of perspectives. First, having a hundred games on my shelf that I've not really played represents a conspicuous consumption that is rather unfortunate -- that's an investment of around $5000 in round numbers, money that was essentially flushed away. So I'm forcing myself to play through those games to cure myself of this impulse to buy new games that I haven't the time to play.

Furthermore, buying games only not to play them is a failure of my own private curation; it speaks to my inability to choose those games that I think will actually return my time investment with some kind of value. In other words, I've allowed my selectivity to wither away, though of course over the past year I've bought far fewer games -- and more about those I have bought and played later.

This is really just two sides of the same coin: make better selections that respect the amount of time I have for gaming, and learn to select those games that are going to really give me what I'm looking for in an experience at that moment in time. I'm looking to become a consumer who thinks more about what he buys, in other words.

The Escape

When I'm really honest about what most of these games are providing me, it's simply escapist entertainment, not much different than consuming dozens of popcorn Star Trek novels when I was much younger. These were books that followed a pretty established formula, and I've forgotten just about every word I ever read in any of them. And that's fine -- I'm making no elitist judgments about that, far from it.

I'm not sure, for example, that playing the latest and greatest JRPG is all that different than playing one from ten years ago, with the exception of the graphics². Although I've said before that graphics can greatly increase immersion, I think that's an initial experience with a new generation that fades over time. In the same way that people will say that they don't see violence in videogames as real violence, merely the scoring of points, I think I tend to dip into the systems that guide the experience very easily and stop being distracted by the graphics.

Setting graphical achievements aside, then, in the realm of AAA console games fairly little has changed over the last decade. And honestly, I don't think it needs to, despite what some folks have to say about how games aren't reaching their full potential. That's an alarmist position that I don't think can be supported -- there's plenty of interesting work going on in smaller games. Mainstream triple-A titles are akin to big Hollywood blockbusters: big budget films are tentpoles for their studios, but the fact is, if those really tall tentpoles didn't exist, there would be a lot less room inside the tent for the unusual, the off-beat, the deeply personal, those films that really cause us to turn a mirror on our own souls and explore what our humanity means to ourselves³.

(Put another way, without the 70 million PS3s out there made possible by the AAA experiences of Madden and Call of Honor 16: The Reckoninining, there wouldn't the same kind of market for a Journey or a Mark of the Ninja, both smaller games from the past year that I played and really loved4. There might be a way to find an audience for these games, but I suspect it would be hard work and a much bigger risk than it already is.)

Going back even deeper to the PS1 era, I will say that there were greater opportunities for variety in the AAA space than there are today in that same space, looking at something like Final Fantasy Tactics. This greater variety today has migrated to the phones and the PC (where yes, it has always been to a degree), in what Will Wright called a pre-Cambrian explosion at his GDC talk a year or two ago.

For my part as a player, I have to admit that the games we're playing today provide me largely the same escapist value as the games ten years ago. Certainly a lot of things are better, but when I sit down and get absorbed in one of these old games I pretty rarely step back and say, "That's really terrible." And when I do, I tend not to blog about it -- I'm trying to only say things when I have nice things to say, which brings me to my third and final section about why I'm playing these old games.

As a Developer

As a developer, having a bit of time between these old games and what's being played today is nice; I have to remember whenever I speak that people may take what I have to say as if I'm speaking with the authority of Bethesda Game Studios behind me. (I'm not.) So if I'm commenting on some game that came out ten years ago, people are less likely to get too outraged about it -- it's not fresh. But I'm still a person who wants to evaluate things and point out the strengths of a thing rather than its flaws; I think these old games have something to teach us5.

The other thing that appeals to me about these old games is that they were made by small teams, and that's something that is continuing to go on in the phone/pad and PC markets today; it's a direction I may go myself some day in the future though I'm far from having any specific plans. Playing something like Shadow of Destiny is helpful to remind me of the sorts of concerns one might face going through a console transition or with a smaller team or with a lower budget altogether, and how to address those through careful limitation of scope. It's good to keep those things in mind, even if you do have a much larger team at your disposal for your AAA title.

I'm also still working on some side projects, my "personal" games as I describe them. I have one that I hope to finish up by next year, and the techniques I've been using to build that come from a game that came out more than two decades ago, even though I'll be deploying it on the web instead. These projects I do are purely on my own time and aren't meant to make money; they reflect the fact that I enjoy design and game development for their own sakes.

Wrapping up

These old games have things still to teach us, and for me they are providing about the same level of entertainment to me personally as a player in most cases. I want to become more thoughtful about where I invest my time, and hopefully I can cure myself of this need to buy the latest thing just because it's the latest thing. I keep my eye on the AAA space constantly, and when I want to look for games that go a little bit deeper, I often look elsewhere. Hope that helps explain what you've been seeing in this blog space lately.

Happy Thanksgiving to my US readers; I may have time to get to another post this weekend.

¹Hello! I feel like I could name you individually.
²One note about those graphics: I love beautiful graphics, and as a player I personally don't care one way or another if the graphics in the games are state of the art. Similarly, I don't mind if the cutscene animations are blocky or the game isn't voiced, or what have you. The first games I played were entirely text, and the "graphics" in those games are richer than anything I've experienced since.
³It should be noted that before the latest age of the blockbusters, starting in the mid-1970s with Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was dying of self-importance. While I love the films of this era, typically called "The New Hollywood," and I think they're fantastically important, I also don't think they gave a broad enough audience what it was looking for, and without those broad audiences, the studios couldn't keep their doors open.
4This argument is pretty broad strokes -- I know there would still be a PC market, I get that, I'm not ignoring it. I think that the two markets reinforce each other in interesting ways, and all of that is probably beyond the scope of this already long article.
5One good example is that there is something still interesting about games that are really challenging -- they aren't for all players, but old games are far more difficult than their modern descendants. I think we both lost and gained from that change, and I think the fans of Dark Souls and Demon's Souls would agree.

Posted by Brett Douville at November 21, 2012 09:14 AM


When I got your message on twitter regarding this footnote, I wanted to write a reply right away. But I had to postpone until now because I didn't fully understand why playing old games could teach us something as you said.

So I reached my shelf, brushed off dust from my old games and booted them up.... Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Final Fantasy. The reason I chose them because they were my favorite and I always wanted to make games like that (or at least learn why these games make me so crazy years ago). A little difference here is I was replaying old games, yes, re-playing old games, not playing them for the first time.

Having played these games before, I went through them quite fast. And I was be able to look at these games from different perspective then before. As you said, when I played for the first time years ago, the experiences I got were 'escapist entertainment', but replaying them now as a wanna-be-developer, I can see and learn much more.

One thing I did notice about Bethesda games: Despite new technologies, new graphics, gameplay features and overwhelming experience that recent games have over the old ones, Bethesda games still follow one strict design pattern. From very beginning of the game and how things unfold one step at a time.

But overall, thank you for the tips. I would never thought of going back to old games and learn something new as I did.

Posted by: Tuan Nguyen at December 8, 2012 11:47 PM

Glad to hear you're getting something out of those old games, Tuan. I think I can accurately say that in many cases I've been getting a different kind of fun out of these games than I did when I first played them (usually, as I mentioned, only a bit of them), often reflecting changes in the industry.

Take Wild Arms 3, a JRPG I'm playing now and will write about at some point in greater detail. It's unusual in that it's a Western-themed JRPG with a cel-shaded renderer. It's the sort of game that simply doesn't exist today in the triple-A space; there's too much risk for that sort of mix of environment/aesthetic and style. As far as I can tell, the series more or less died out on the PS2, never making it to the modern era. While I've no particular love of this specific series, I would really like for there to be more variety in what I play.

Many of these games are more demanding of their players, as well, and that's interesting to me too.

Anyway, glad you're getting something out of the 'notes' I'm putting up about these old games. I'm posting another one today or tomorrow, the first about Metal Gear Solid 2.

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 10, 2012 06:59 AM