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Retro Looking Forward

Taylor Cocke | 1 Dec 2011 14:00
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"I've always thought that creativity is best bred through limitations. When you work within a set of limitations, it's much easier to find creative and innovative ways to break those rules and expand the creative horizons," says Andy Schatz.

"Any game experiment needs to be fun with nameless blocks and spheres first, then you can focus on making it look and sound amazing."

Schatz, owner of Pocketwatch Games and lead designer on Monaco, is building something new from the old. He describes his top-down co-op heist game as "Pac-Man meets Hitman." This description is more descriptive than he knows. He, along with several other developers, is going back to their retro roots to explore what makes videogames compelling. Like the pioneers of jazz, they're exploring the building blocks of their medium in order to create something new and unique.

Brian Provinciano, sole developer of the Grand Theft Auto parody Retro City Rampage, is doing exactly that. What started as an 8-bit demake of Grand Theft Auto III has evolved into a full, original game of Provinciano's own creation. Within his game, he's not only taking influence from the Grand Theft Auto games, he's included "water levels or some sidescrolling stuff, rhythm stuff, stealth stuff. There's even missions that play like old 80s coinop games."

There's no reason why any of that would work. There's really no guarantee that a break in the GTA action for a "Burger Time or a Root Beer Tapper" level would be any fun, much less congruous with the rest of the work. Rather than relying on a formula that he knows will be successful, Provinciano's looking for that metaphorical blue note, the small change in that established formula, that has the capability to change the medium forever, or at least push it forward.

Okay, that sounds a bit heavy for a game that's ostensibly a silly parody of a series known for its tendency to push the envelope. But it's indicative of a design mentality that pervades many developer teams looking to create retro-style games. "You have to keep moving, keep playing so you can keep iterating," Danny Day of QCF Design, the minds behind Desktop Dungeons says. "Any game experiment needs to be fun with nameless blocks and spheres first, then you can focus on making it look and sound amazing."

At first, Desktop Dungeons may look like a simplified version of a roguelike, a genre typically known for its incredible difficulty, permanent deaths, and immense complexity; it quickly becomes clear that it's really a puzzle game in disguise. Regaining the necessary health to take down the various monsters in each single screen dungeon requires revealing unexplored squares, and each level has a finite number of said squares. QCF Designs has taken two old genres (roguelikes can be traced back to Beneath Apple Manor 1978, while puzzle games predate the medium itself) and combined them to create something new and compelling.

Of course, the design success of Desktop Dungeons does not imply that any slapped together mishmash of two retro genres is a guaranteed way to further the medium as a whole. These gameplay experiments are just that; they're deconstructions of established formulas that serve to explore the realm of gameplay possibilities.

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