Boom! Could Have Seen That Coming: A Lack Of Retrospective In Video Games

SLW_WIIU BE CVR SHT 7

So this little monster of a game had been brewing for a while and while some were doubtful of its potential most seemed optimistic. The idea of a small side series away from the main canon, developed (at least on the Wii U) by a company consisting of some former Naughty Dog developers who seem to have the golden touch. It had potential, oh lord did it have potential, I was even prepared to try it should it be welcomed by praise and acclaim. Sadly, I was disappointed, yet somehow not particularly surprised. I could go on about what were this games issues and the problems encountered trying to keep it on the rails and development turned into a nightmare, instead I want to point you to a small issue this industry seems to have: learning from its own mistakes and others.

So what do I mean? Well lets look at the efforts taken to preserve the many years gaming has been kicking since it was pulled from under the rubble in the crash. The recent generations of consoles have decided that it is too much work to support the games of old in their system via backwards compatibility, to a degree I agree that the price shouldn’t sky-rocket on already pricey systems. However I draw issue in abandoning them completely, look at the efforts a company like Nintendo makes to make sure new gamers can get a hold of the games that made the franchises we know, the infant form of gaming giants to see where it all began. To have that available is important, if at least to inform each new gamer of the years of work produced beforehand, to identify when “trying something new” is actually bringing back old creations in a new light. I know myself that I was sort of surprised going back into the Kirby games past to find out a bunch of the enemies were just cleaned up a bit and lifted into some of the more recent ones. I wasn’t upset mind you as it wasn’t a large part of the content being spit shined work and it was nice to get a go at old enemies with new powers.

Looking back at old games can be enlightening, you’d be surprised how many cheap mobile games and smaller titles use some of the oldest tricks in the book to hook people in, yet it works for what I suspect is a lack of a palette, these people don’t know how long this kind of thing has existed and are going in as new as we all did at a young age. This is the reason we have to tell young children not to open up suspicious emails and the like, obvious to us is only out of watching and learning from the experience of it over the years. So what can actually looking back at old games do for the games? Glad you asked (you might not have but I’m going to assume you did).

You ever wonder how a sequel could forget the things that were good in the original and just ignore the simplest form of critical analysis? Imagine what they could do with a deep understanding of years of gaming experimentation. We’d never have to put up with awful loading times because everybody has all looked to the guys who got it right a few years back and learned how they did it gracefully. I wouldn’t have to put up with a bad lobby system for my multiplayer because the successful template already exists in a game from a few years back, programming genius in pulling out power in a system we never thought could handle this graphical fidelity becomes standard knowledge. The dos and do nots of gaming have already been laid out in the past for us all to see, yet there is such a push in the industry of recent to always look forward, to the next big thing and jump ship for our next fantastic shrine of gaming. Except more often than not the “new and improved” is playing catch up with the one title that showed us how to do it several years ago, what is the short term memory loss present not only in the developers but the consumers too?

I bring all this up with Sonic Boom at the helm because even if the game didn’t encounter issues during development, most of which are mistakes already done before and should have been learned from, I don’t think we would have had much of a game to enjoy. Many people call the combat repetitive and I note that they were looking for a combat designer midway through production for quite some time. While I can understand there might be complexities I don’t understand, to be such a designer might be so simple as to understand at a critical level why previous combat systems in games worked as well as why they didn’t. Why do more people find say Smash Bros. controls simple and deep, a perfect fit for the game we are trying to make? What were the issues with combos in this game? What mechanics do people seem to enjoy? You don’t need a specialist to know that the system as it is is a boring one, this may be a developer with no games under their belt but analysis and understanding of games shouldn’t be something you need a specialist for unless we are going into horrendously complicated or deep systems like an actual fighting game. A brawler with a heavy dose of “it’s for the kids” injected? Just… look at the entire history of gaming combat systems and find something that works, I’d sooner have them rip from a good game and get it to work then chuck in the same design as a hundred bad games and bring down a core part of the gameplay.

Just a little side note, since when did “it’s for the kids” ever become an excuse for bad game design? I’ve heard that line pulled up a number of times in reviews and discussions about this games complexity among other things and I find it to be an awful excuse. What games did I play when I was a kid? Oh hey the original Sonic trilogy, look how bland and viciously easy these games are! Oh actually they are sometimes kinda difficult, the good kinda difficult that only reared its head as we approached the end of the game and the design of the game promoted having fun with basic jumping and running. Not all games we played as kids seem friendly to kids yes, if your grandmother got you Ninja Gaiden you might still fear owls to this day, yet a game for a child still deserves love and attention. It is often argued and I agree that designing for children is the hardest thing a designer will do, you have to learn how to convey so much in so little, worse if they may not be able to fully read yet.

My overall point is this: if Sega had looked to the past and seen what happens when you give a brand new, rather small team something this big, they’d have known it was going into dangerous waters. If the developers at BigRedButton had simply looked at the actions games of old and maybe while they were at it taken a peek at what happened when the creator of the engine tried running it on the Wii U, they’d have learnt that button mashing isn’t fun and that the CryEngine was a bad choice. This wasn’t pushing the boundaries going into uncharted territory, this was a retread of stupid decisions from people who don’t learn from the mistakes of those before them. In general, Sega seems to be afraid to refine the formulas of the games and instead just move onto the next “innovation”, there is almost a complete disregard for the successes and failures of previous games with some of the best recent games for me were the ones that took what Unleashed gave us and refined it, took what Colours learned and applied it elsewhere. I love Sonic 2 because it learnt what went wrong and what went right in Sonic 1. I am okay with Crash Bandicoot 1 but I love 2 more because it got what I felt was wrong originally, right. Why is learning from even the most recent outings so hard for so many? Are we all doomed to loop around in fallacies as we repeat the same mistakes of those before us? It seems miraculous when a sequel is better than the original, shouldn’t fixing up the problems and expanding what went right pretty much always yield better results? Have we all just resigned to the idea that some people are just never gonna learn, even from success? The future to me sometimes look a bit more like the past in a fresh coat of paint, but that shit still stinks regardless.

What games have you played that seemed to forget all the things you liked in the previous entries, even so close as the last entry? Are many developers doomed to never learn from each attempt at striking oil? How would you feel if your kids never got to try and learn from the games that you grew up on as they are no longer supported? Do you think current attempts at preserving games is good enough? Thanks for the read and I’ll see you all later.

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  1. #1 by Andy Primm on December 3, 2014 - 6:38 pm

    I don’t get why they won’t just make a sequel to Generations. Why make one-off games like this and Lost World when they have a solid formula to improve on?

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    • #2 by Prof.mcstevie on December 4, 2014 - 12:47 am

      Well Generations was an anniversary title after all, perhaps they for some reason saw it as a fresh start to loosen up and try some new things. The big issue? Experimentation goes on in a lab, not with a full budget title, they don’t seem to even scrutinise these gimmicks before shovelling them in.

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    • #3 by Andy Primm on December 4, 2014 - 7:35 pm

      Yeah. There was such a solid progression from Unleashed to Colors to Generations, but they threw it all out to make a prototype game, Lost World. They should stick to incremental improvements instead of experimenting.

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  2. #4 by A Voice on December 1, 2014 - 10:11 am

    NB I fixed as many errors as I could but, seriously, feel free to redact obvious typographical errors. The lack of a preview function is fucking mindblowing.

    (1) When I finally purchased a PS3 I was disappointed by the lack of backward compatibility. Then I was angry that backward compatibility existed on the initial models and was removed on everything going forward. (When I sent Sony an e-mail about this they said it was because they wanted to push PS3 games.) Then came the hyper-proprietary PSP and, later, the hyper-proprietary PS Vita. And can the Vita play PSP games? Natively, yes, there is on-board support for the titles but these must be purchased digitally: the PS Vita cannot physically play PSP games.

    Yet the various iterations of Nintendo portable consoles could play the last few generations of games. This is particularly fascinating. From the N64 onwards, Nintendo consoles have been one gimmick after another and this is especially evident in the controllers. Nintendo didn’t learn from this yet, amazingly, it kept doing the right thing with their portable consoles -and, hell, we’ll forgive the 2DS. Sony, on the other hand, had an entire generation of hardware releases that doubled-down on bad mistakes.

    And now the PS4 may get backward compatibility, some day, maybe, according to rumour.

    But these new consoles simply aren’t worth it and for one reason: lack of dedication. From the PS3/360 to the PS4/One, these consoles are about being an all-in-one box that does almost everything a computer can do. Why? To bring in a larger audience, to get people that may not own a gaming device or consider owning one to get one. In an era where PC gaming recovered from and roared back to life after the late 90s early 00s hyper-expensive hardware nearly killed it, console makers are doubling-down on mistakes. Why buy a console when a gaming PC, while more expensive, can replaced the PC you already had AND the cost of the gaming system when the gaming system is, all things considered, technically inferior in hardware and more limited in software?

    Microsoft and Sony don’t get it and Nintendo…well, it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. There’s no real way to compete with PC gaming when console games lack ‘killer apps’ in kickass exclusive titles, the power of gaming computers, and the flexibility of computers in general.

    And this is where GOG comes into play. While console gaming companies aren’t at all keen on preserving their wonderful legacy, PC gaming is working on it in its own way. GOG, of CD Projekt Group fame, actually vets the titles they sell to make sure they work on current operating systems. I couldn’t use my System Shock 2, Shadow Warrior, Duke Nukem and so many other discs, however when they released on GOG they worked just fine. This is because they weren’t sold ‘as-is’, because the company checked to see if they (1) needed accessory software like DOSBox or (2) patching and goes on to include them in their releases to make sure they are stable. System Shock 2, if I recall correctly, uses a different engine and some community patches and plays just like I remember it. Steam’s Quake, on the other hand, is missing music files.

    (2) What made me so damned angry about the first five Final Fantasy games was that they didn’t learn a damn thing. For starters, Dragon Quest was very popular in Japan and had two or three games out while Final Fantasy was in development. I remember playing Dragon Warrior on the NES when I was little, I remember how tough but intuitive the game was. And then I played Final Fantasy, the other big and ground-breaking ‘early JRPG’ and couldn’t believe how obviously bad it was at everything it did (see my entries for further details).

    But then there were issues within the series itself. The third and fifth titles are inarguable remakes of the first title, simply with slightly different stories and progressively better features like the notable job system. These games were appalling in how hollow the stories and characters were, how bloated the job systems were and how awkward itemisation and combat systems were. (Magic is a particular issue.) Yet, oddly enough and in spite of being panned, the second title was a remarkable step forward and character driven. In fact, both even-numbered titles were character-driven affairs that were far and away better than they games surrounding it.

    Yet somehow, Square kept going backwards. They go from a clearly unfinished game to a poor game to a bad revamp of the unfinished game to finish it to a solid game to a revamp of the revamp of the unfinished game: it just didn’t make sense. The same as Bethesda, inarguably making the same games over and over in The Elder Scrolls series while somehow not recognising that they are making worse and worse games.

    Then I look at a company like Frictional Games.

    Each Penumbra title got successively better (omitting the third as it is too different in genre to fit) and that carried over into Amnesia: the Dark Descent. A solid game, then a good game, then a great game and now I’m eagerly looking forward to SOMA…even though I’ll have to wait for them to be willing to sell through GOG. Frictional learned from what worked and what didn’t and in direct respect to what they wanted to do, viz. they had a clear vision and were aware of where they were weak, fixing those weaknesses while improving upon strengths to make better games.

    (3) The bottom line is that companies have to stop looking at games as ‘products’. That’s offensive to me as an actual gamer and should even be offensive to video game players and others who just dabble in the hobby. We all deserve real games, not mere products, and while there have always been lots of poor titles there hasn’t been such a concentration of…accepted ineptitude being the way of things.

    There are no excuses now, if there ever were: learn to use the tools you have before you charge someone money for what you make with them.*

    _____
    *This includes quality use of pre-production time where concepts are fleshed out.

    When I look back at, say, Soul Reaver: Legacy of Kain it’s pretty obvious that the game’s concepts weren’t at all fleshed out and features were missing while other features were superfluous to the point of absurdity. The various magicks? Unnecessary. Elemental Soul Reaver? Unnecessary. Combat? Arguably completely skippable save boss encounters. Action game? Enemies are far too few and spaced out. Puzzle game? Too few and far between, given the game’s pacing. The narrative? Solid, but hollow considering the game’s pacing and inarguable lack of content.

    That is an undeniable if, given, more extreme example. A less extreme example is in Diablo III where it’s ever-changing mechanics seem to fit purported MMORPGs rather than the genre it claims (ARPG) or the genre it actually fits in (Brawler or Hack-and-Slash). One class (Monk) even had its soul sucked out by the removal of the dodge mechanic in favour of armour. D3’s development cycle and continued development is storied, as well as serving as an example of how throwing money at something will not make it come together well. And at this point…well, the narrative for the game is wholly unimportant as play is further and further streamlined to fit in the small confines of Greater Rifts. I don’t know what the game was supposed to be, but I know what it was (bad), what it is now (solid) and how long it took to finally get there.

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  3. #5 by Matt on December 1, 2014 - 1:17 am

    There is certainly a total lack of management happening within Sega’s walls. That’s the only reasons that could explain the fact developers seem to keep forgetting about what went wrong in previous 3-D Sonic installments. Sure, the development team is constantly changing, but that knowledge needs to be maintained somewhere so that the next team can pick up from where the other left off.
    take
    As for sequels that took away things I loved about the original games, the Paper Mario series comes to mind. Super Paper Mario was still fun in spite of the fact it was not as good as its predecessors, but Sticker Star was a total disaster due to its pointless sticker system and the fact Miyamoto decided to remove story and dialogue completely, hence eliminating all the joy that exists in the playing of Paper Mario games.

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    • #6 by Prof.mcstevie on December 1, 2014 - 2:12 am

      I don’t understand how they looked at Thousand Year Door, then Super Paper Mario (which was fun in its own right but not what I wanted) then suddenly just throw everything into the shredder.

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    • #7 by Matt on December 1, 2014 - 9:43 am

      Exactly. Super Paper Mario was still fun, albeit not as fun as the first two games, but Sticker Star was a disaster.

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