Where There's a Whip

Where There's a Whip
The Forgotten Gamers

Dana Massey | 4 Jul 2006 12:02
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As a child of the '80s, I hear one comment over and over among my non-gamer peers. "Videogames are just too complicated now," they tell me whenever my job comes up. They miss the simplicity of Mario and Duck Hunt. Sure, advances in technology have let game designers accomplish amazing new things, but have these advances overshadowed our roots in making fun games?

Chess is thought to have been invented in sixth century India. The rules have been tweaked, and it underwent an intense localization process in the middle ages, but for the most part the game has endured for a millennia-and-a-half. I can guarantee World of Warcraft doesn't have that kind of re-playability.

The longevity of chess and other games like it is an example that cannot be - but often is - ignored. I want games I can play to win. I want games I can play over and over. Losing should mean I've learned something for next time, not that I start over from a save point.

Games today owe far more to books and movies than to board games. They're all about the journey, and like a book, you put them down once they're done.

The beauty and longevity of chess lies in its sheer simplicity. It is 16 pieces per side on an eight-by-eight board. From that very simple premise are near infinite possibilities. There is an entire publishing industry centered on chess strategy, good players are internationally famous and with a short lesson, anyone can try it for himself.

Modern game designers have everything they need to invent products that will endure when chess is a distant memory. With the internet available on every console, people can always find someone to play with. Sure, it is fun to beat the AI, but a game is not a game until you've beaten someone else.

Sports games touch on this chord. They have basic rule systems and pit players against each other or the AI. Their very premise, though, is their undoing. The old cliché is, "Why play some computer game when I can go outside and play the real thing?" But in Fight Night Round 3 for the Xbox 360, I spent weeks gleefully boxing my way to the championship. That wasn't something I was going to try in real life.

Then, one day, it all crumbled. As the game got harder, I adapted and identified a hole in the AI. I could win every fight in round one and I set the game aside. Inevitably, there is always some trick or exploit, and suddenly - like getting three corners in tic-tac-toe - the game is useless.

That's the key: A truly great game needs to be simple enough that there is no inevitable path to victory. Once this is achieved, a game's shelf-life becomes immeasurable.

StarCraft proves this. Likely the most enduring game of our generation, StarCraft is played by millions, and even has professional leagues. Like chess, it pits players against each other and no single strategy guarantees victory.

But is StarCraft really like chess? To me, the enduring artifact of videogaming is the RTS, not StarCraft itself. Think of chess as the genre. Over the years, the pieces have changed and rules been tweaked, but the core game endures. The same can be said of the RTS.

We will still play RTS games in a hundred years. They're fun, they have a complex but understandable goal and there are plenty of ways to win. The FPS will live on, too. It is competition at its most simple: Kill or be killed.

We need to start looking at the genre as the game and then come up with some new ones. I'm not talking about genre-blurring games. While great ideas, they largely appeal to people who liked the original genres in the first place. More people will adopt the gamer moniker as the list of genres expands and new games are invented.

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