A couple of weeks ago, Wolfwood enthusiastically shared his experience of playing the preview version of Lego Indiana Jones, saying "These Lego games are really about good old fashioned fun". When I asked him what made it so much fun, he said "Funny, but I can't quite put my finger on that". Without realizing it, he made a profound statement on how games are built and played today. Are we actually still having fun with our games?
I often find myself longing back to the classics of old. When the mood strikes me, I pull out games going back as far as 1991. Games such as Civilization, X-Com and the original Dune regularly appear on my screen and Sid's Colonization even has a permanent home on my hard drive. I have long wondered why it was that these old, crappy looking games still appeal to me as much as they do. Why do I grab back to Civilization for DOS while Civilization IV is a fabulous game, offering many cool features that Sid could only dream of when he first laid the foundations for the franchise back in the 90's?
The answer isn't actually that hard to find. All you need to do is have a close look at how games have evolved over the last two decades. When you do, you will find two tightly connected reasons for why the gaming in the good old days was so different. And no, it isn't all about nostalgia.
Simplicity is not that simple
Early games required the player to have a vivid imagination, similar to what is needed to read and enjoy a book. You were lost if your imagination couldn't fill in the blanks for the lack of your PCs graphical prowess. Today, your friends will likely call you raving mad for seeing a Deathknight in a white @ character that is sedately blinking on your screen to indicate an enemy coming into view after you moved up one square using the arrow key. To become immersed in the game, both game and story had to come to life in your mind. In truth, these games would bore the pants off most of us in this day and age.
The almost non-existent graphics meant that games appealed to only a limited number of people. It wasn't until color and shape could be defined that a larger audience started showing an interest into this new form of entertainment. In this era, a marvelous blend existed between getting players to use their own imagination on one hand, and leading them into a particular direction with simple yet recognizable graphics on the other. With just the right amount of information, the mind got triggered to process the images, using the player's own ability to fill in the blank with his own creativity.
That era ended with the advent of 3D graphics (Diamond Monster 3D anyone?) and these days, gamers are fed crisp graphics that are hard, if not impossible, to differentiate from real life. Gran Turismo 5 is a prime example of how nothing is left to the imagination. A fun test created some time ago by Generation Dreamteam compares real life photo's with images generated by the game. Consider yourself a graphics expert if you score higher than 10 out of 15. Fueled by the ever hungry gaming community, the industry has started to compete in an 'arms race'-like quest to produce better, more life like graphics in games. Poor graphics often result in disappointing sales, an instant motivator for any developer to do their utmost best to shine in this area.
It would be folly to think that advances in gaming technology are restricted to better graphics alone. As new technology became available, developers added features that contributed to realism, gameplay mechanics and complexity. It is the latter that is the second reason why Wolfwood noticed that playing the Lego games was 'old fashioned fun'. Games these days ask so much of the gamer that they almost seem like hard work, rather than entertainment.
There is so much to keep track of in a modern game that the player is severely taxed trying to maintain control. Do we really want to work this hard to play our games? When does a game cross the line and change from 'a fun challenge' to 'hard work'? For me the latter group is instantly recognizable by looking at my own behavior. I usually game in sessions that last between two and five hours. A fun and entertaining game will keep me glued behind the screen for the entire session. A great game will pull me back in after I have had a break, keeping me playing for days on end. These games are, almost without fail, games from the (distant) past. Newer games tend to keep me engaged for two to three hours during the first session but the sessions shorten considerably after that. Even a superb game such as Bioshock can't hold my interest for more than two hours at a time. It is not that I am not enjoying the game, it is just that it is taxing my brain, senses and reflexes too much for it to be a relaxing game. Oddly enough, this is in stark contrast to my desire to be challenged by the game that I am playing.
The right idea
The above is by no means an argument for less complicated games with cartoony graphics. Quite the contrary. The astonishing pace at which games have developed could only have been done with publishers trying to push gaming technology beyond its limits. But it does seem to me that there is a market for games that are easier on the eyes and brains and favor fun and entertainment over realism and complexity. Put that way, Sid Meier may understand gaming better than any other developer out there. To understand what I mean with that, I would suggest trying out Sid's Pirates! and Railroads! Games.