About two years ago, at the 2002 GDC, Jason Rubin stood up and bluntly stated that graphics were quickly approaching the level of diminishing returns, and could no longer be counted on to sell games on their own. He expressed nervousness at the time, because his company (the excellent Naughty Dog) had always relied on tried-and-true gameplay styles and had never innovated, instead simply choosing to make their games prettier than everyone else’s. Now, he said, it would become necessary to innovate, and that scared him.
Now, if you’ve read my post below, you know that I don’t think he’s exactly right. I don’t think it’s necessary for Naughty Dog to innovate that much, as long as they execute their core gameplay competently, and Naughty Dog has always done so. In fact, I dinged Jak II several points in my review because it handled it’s “innovation” – driving around the city in the zoomer – so poorly.
But I think Rubin’s panic is a sign of the times; game developers are going to begin casting about for something, anything, to distinguish their stuff from the pack. And there’s always nostalgia to be exploited.
And so gaming will eat its dead. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, though we’re off to a poor start with The Bard’s Tale, and the remake of Sid Meier’s Pirates! isn’t looking too much better. This particular strategy will only work if developers truly understand what made the original games stand out, and this requires actually playing them, which I doubt if the dev team for The Bard’s Tale actually did.
If they had, they’d have discovered that a lot of what made The Bard’s Tale special back in The Day ™ wouldn’t go over well with gamers now. The Bard’s Tale was basically a huge homage/ripoff of the Wizardry! series of games, which began on the Apple II computer. (It even let you import Wizardry! characters – or characters from Ultima III, both games from rival companies!) The Wizardry! series began in 1981, making it as old as the Ultima series (though not quite as revered). The Wizardry! games were known for two things: huge first-person 3D dungeons and very crunchy D&D-style mechanics. The Bard’s Tale took both of these and ran with them.
The mechanics of The Bard’s Tale define old-school CRPGs – monsters were nothing but pictures and sets of stats. All monsters existed solely to make the player’s life miserable. Most of the city was uninhabited, what few NPCs existed had very little dialog, and there was little in the way of plot except for the intro and endgame. Nothing was made permanent until the player saved, which could only be done at one place in the entire game. Items required identification, and many were cursed. Players were forced to memorize or look up four-letter codes to cast spells, and a spelling error caused a spell failure, sometimes with disastrous results. Players could easily run into an impossible-to-beat monster party just as the game began. There was no real sense of progression to the game; no sense that the game was inviting you in and pulling you forward, and there was no sense of coherency to the world. The game was what it was: a humongous dungeon (though it was textured as if it were outside) with passages leading to other humongous dungeons, all of which contained frightfully powerful groups of monsters, tons of strange items, traps galore and impossibly hard puzzles. Now, that sounds like fun to me, but it could sound very dull and arbitrary to younger gamers (and hey, they could even be right).
So if you’re going to take a classic game and update it, either don’t pick one that won’t appeal to modern gamers, or accept that you’re targeting a niche market and retain the classic mechanics that us older gamers remember fondly. A license is more than just a name.
So, having said all this, do I have any suggestions for games that would update well and should be remade? You bet. And I’ll be detailing them in later entries.