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Past the Past Pastel Dreams

Altdevblog Design Game Design
Past the Past Pastel Dreams
Originally written for #AltDevBlogADay

Take a moment, think back, past the nostalgia and sepia dreams so we can consider old, forgotten mechanics. The thing we love about games is that they are complex and detailed but primarily, they are games. Systems of interaction and exploration within a created framework. All creative works evolve, compete, succeed and in some cases die out.

Though within these sepia dreams and old memories live viable mechanics which when re-examined and explored anew provide exciting areas of creativity.

Among the games of my youth three digital games stand tall, in order played: Hero’s Quest: So You Want to be a Hero[1], X-Com: Terror from the Deep and Shadowrun on Sega Megadrive. Now some of these games have seen reboots or attempts at reboots which quite frankly angered fans and often missed the point. Thankfully through Kickstarter for Shadowrun and Firaxis for X-Com these two titles are getting a modern, caring treatment and re-examination.

X-Com Squad Turns

Many people passed over the unique quality of team-based turns. There have been many other games in the tactical genre but few have explored this idea of "I move all my units, then you move all your units". This concept of moving multiple units simultaneously thus requiring a session of planning which manifests as a massive investment.

As control is taken away from the player, breaking a golden rule to strengthen this mechanic, a high point of tension is created as the plan unfolds.

Of interest to modern designers is that this investment, planning and then tension as you take away control from the player. For a modern interpretation with a different angle I suggest looking at Frozen Synapse. The turns are simultaneous and you plan 5 seconds increments but once again, control is taken away from the player as they watch the consequences of their plans.

Golden Rule Broken: Taking Control Away from the Player

Shadowrun Hacking

Almost a fully fledged game within the game but with deep seated roots in the core gameplay. So often “hacking” or another core ability is thrown in as a tangential mini-game. With limited or no interaction with the core-gameplay other than a binary outcome of success or failure. This follows the premise of not creating a game mode shift for the player and avoiding a development investment in what is essentially a “second game”.

Older games were much bolder in this. In Shadowrun hacking you hunted down better hacking decks with a whole subset of stats which could be upgraded. The camera shifted from isometric to third person over the shoulder with new UI and controls. You built contacts and went on missions to acquire that “better piece of software” or that “underground deck”. Your decker’s point of access, which related to hacking difficulty, is determined by their physical entry point into the system. Individual nodes on the hacking map relate to camera systems or subsystems of the physical security system. Triggering the alert system or disabling it, affect the real world alarm systems.

That massive investment in an alternate game mode layered on top of the primary mode added massive levels of depth to the world and further fleshed out the game. Looking for modern alternatives I was unable to find a good modern execution of this concept.

Golden Rule Broken: Avoid Gameplay Mode Shifts Alternate Expression: Focus on a consistent experience.

Time Based Gameplay

In Quest for Glory many moments of interaction were determined by time of day or the day of the week. This occasionally meant as a player you were running around waiting for an event to happen or cleaning out the stables to earn some coins and some time. While some modern games have integrated NPCs timetables much more complex than their predecessors, they have been made insignificant by removing their game altering potential and turning them into minor points of flavour.

The depth of gameplay this added to the world was significant. You had to work around a real world. As a side note the fact the game required you to grind some monsters or chores like stable sweeping to earn your coin allowed you to effectively use your downtime. In Skyrim I can wake up a town blacksmith and purchase armour, removing all gameplay impact of the town schedule. This mechanic lives on in many modern games but in our fear of inconveniencing the player it has been neutered. I encourage designers to look at the gameplay affecting elements this play style offers.

Golden Rule Broken: Never Inconvenience the Player Alternate Expression: Never waste the players time

Mixing it Up

Quest for Glory additionally mixed combat, role playing, adventure elements while providing multiple solution paths gto many problems. Environmental storytelling, usage based levelling and many other elements which have survived into modern design lexicons.

X-Com famously mixed the tactical and geoscape layer in a very complex interwoven gameplay. Though as Brendon Chung's GDC talk into his trouble with Atom Zombie Smashers highlighted this is not a simple task. I’ve also already talked about the Shadowrun hacking element as another example. For modern designers still bravely exploring mixing of genre and mechanics you do have to look outside mainstream metric focused development. Though I worry that their lack of polish and budget in many cases restricts their ability to smooth out the seams and truly integrate genres.

Golden Rule Broken: Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)

Conclusion

As many of these older mechanics show, breaking what we consider a golden rule today can sometimes be key to development of an interesting mechanic. These are just a few picked examples from these games. Many other elements exist in these older games which have been gathering dust.

Many of these older mechanics first came about due to technical limitation and were discarded with the limitation. Our Golden Rules were not forged by the gaming gods but discovered through trial,error and exploration. Some of them may lead to an evolutionary dead end in design, an appendix when no longer needed. I encourage you to mine old games. Not for the IP, nostalgia, or history but for the game. Uncovering the hidden machinery of the past, broken paths and discarded branches of game evolution for old and interesting ideas that can be made new again.

[1] Later renamed to Quest for Glory: So you want to be a Hero to avoid confusion with another game, Hero Quest.