Longevity through frustration or: How I took off my rose-tinted glasses and learned to love old-school videogame design

This post was prompted by a short twitter exchange about the sheer joy and baffling frustration that comes with playing the iOS version of Ghost Trick. Fun, engaging, and brilliantly inventive, Ghost Trick is almost a perfect mobile game, but parts of it cling to a legacy of game design that should've long since gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Each gaming generation brings with it new technology that, when combined with a bit of human genius, leads to ever more surprising and innovative gaming experiences. During these transitions we also say goodbye to a few old friends of game design, and more happily bid farewell to the odd annoying relative that has well and truly outstayed their welcome.

This post is about the latter; about how some contemporary game designers clearly didn't get the memo, and how I mourn the passing of some of these little irritations despite myself.

Old-skool rulez modern game design

With the benefit of hindsight its clear to see that many of the annoyances with old videogames are failings of technology rather than of game design or ambition. Much to the credit of the early gaming pioneers their creative approaches for exploiting these limitations brought forth some simply wonderful games. But not everything born out of necessity leads to greatness. Far from it. Aside from being the mother of invention, it's also the bringer of destruction... of joysticks, and gamepads, and the odd TV.

Where do we start: No saving; insane difficulty spikes; unfixable bugs; 100 hour RPGs with no quest log; "it was all just a simulation"; pixel perfect platforming; near endless, terribly translated dialogue; <insert your own most annoying old-school game design idea here>

While we have gotten used to many of these idiosyncrasies, even embraced a few, there's simply no justification for continuing to perpetrate crimes against gamers in the name of "old-skool rulez". What was excusable, hell even enjoyable in the good-old-days now just smacks of lazy design.

Ghost Trick's most obvious and annoying flaw is its desire to push as many inane dialogue bubbles at you as your smartphone can handle. Reminiscent of a good-old JRPG, the conversations are long, the text is usually meaningless, and progress painful as you can't skip any of it and invariably find yourself much further ahead with the exposition than the protagonists and so are left impatiently waiting for everyone else to catch up. All the while the game itself is informing you how limited time is, and how you really should be getting on with it. I wonder if you ever possess a smashed iPhone?

To make things worse the game often presents timing based puzzles that usually have a long conversation as introduction. If you miss the trick and have to try again the game incredibly helpfully replays most of the associated dialogue, you know, just in case you missed it the first hundred times you tried. I'm pretty sure the actual "game" is only twenty minutes long - I'd keep time, but need all my fingers to get rid of the next frickin' bubble.

While Ghost Trick's offenses are minor in the grand scheme of things - they don't actually spoil the gameplay, rather just get in the way of it - other games seem to have adopted the much more destructive old-school mantra of "if at first you don't succeed, cheat!", and evolved it to a whole 'nother level.

We all know which mushroom-loving, banana-dropping, rubber-banding, red-shelled devil I'm talking about: Princess Peach. Her atrocities against humanity began innocently enough with only silly little misdemeanours; a convenient lightning here, a suspiciously well aimed green shell there. But boy it escalated quickly, I mean it really got out of hand fast. Not satisfied with rubber-banding that could take your brilliant final-lap red-shell smack-down and turn it into a last-to-first place Charge of the Royal Light Brigade, Nintendo somehow deemed it a good idea to introduce the blue shell - henceforth to be known as "that bloody blue shell". That bloody blue shell ruined everything.

Instead of balancing the game they cheat. Instead of intelligent AI, play testing, feedback and iteration, more testing... they simply cheat. They still basically just cheat.

Be careful what you wish for

My intent with this post was to rage against the old-school machine, but in doing so I've actually started to pine for some of these gamer-baiting design decisions. Perversely, by polishing out some of these annoyances, in broadening the audience for gaming, I do fear that some of the "edge" may have seeped out of games.

I love Skyrim, but when you find yourself almost exclusively traversing this wonderfully realised world via the map screen and fast travel, you've got to ask what has happened that means I don't want to experience the journey itself? It's not the game, or the quests, or the world, or the graphics, or the gameplay, or... it's simply the convenience. We are (I am) lazy, and when I'm on a gold-hunting, or experience-building marathon every minute counts, and I can't help myself taking advantage of the tools at my disposal.

And what about the quicksave? Ooh, what's that? F5. Oh, nothing. Hmm, I wonder what's in that chest? Locked, eh? F5. Fail lock pick. F9. Fail lock-pick. F9. Success! F5. I wonder what person has to say? F5. Speech test. F5....

It's all my fault, I know. That first fast-travel was so useful to help finish that quest and get the reward... it was such a long way, and I was in a rush (or something). But once you have that first hit, it's hard to say no the next time (when you're on a crafting run), or the time after (when you're...)

I'm not picking on Skyrim, it's the 2nd best RPG ever. Secret of Mana, since you're asking. These are all examples of mollycoddling present in far too many modern games. The delicate balance between skill and accessibility, and between difficulty and frustration all seems to have drifted a little too far towards the easier end of the spectrum.

In the future there will be robots

Fortunately some designers are fighting back against this atrophying of challenge in gaming. Standing on the shoulders of giants they are taking the best of the old-school, and blending it with the more user-friendly trappings of modern game design and creating some brilliant games.

Super Meat Boy is a prime example. Furious, unforgiving platforming melded with an instant respawn mechanic creates one of the most challenging and rewarding game experiences of recent years. Pac-man Championship Edition DX - 'nuff said. There are many more too... Dark Souls? (hmm, might have to write a separate post about that one)

While those are definitely smaller titles, this revolution is breaking into AAA as well. Kevin Levine recently described the "1999" mode in the upcoming Bioshock Infinite. His goal being to bring back the weight to decisions players make in games.

Conclusions or: TL;DR

Old games could often be annoying but this was usually because they had to be. Modern games necessarily borrow from ideas of old, but slavishly adhering to out-of-date design patterns is inexcusable, and yet still too common. We have the tools and experience to make great games that don't need to drive us crazy in the process.

However, in trying to appeal to everyone we are at risk of losing the "game" itself. When you emasculate the interactive component of a game it ceases to be one. Games don't have to be frustrating or need to cheat in order to offer a challenge; but offer a challenge they absolutely must, and it seems like some people have forgotten that.

What do people think of the presence of some of the more undesirable old-school design elements in games, and conversely whether progressive modern design is taking the "game" out of videogame?

Alternative titles

  • Standing on shoulders of giants or: How modern videogame designers really should know better and if I get hit by another blue shell I'm going to kill someone
  • Losing the quicksave: How I quit hitting that stupid F5 key and learned to love paying for my mistakes