State of the Game: Evolution or De-Evolution of Games? Part I

I unfold a large rectangular shaped glossy paper several times until it covers a quarter of my bed space. I sit back with a flashlight, and some sticky notes, I review the areas I’ve already covered in the galactic map spread out before the bed. By my estimation, roughly half the map has been explored, my brow wrinkles up in concentration, I’ve made about 4 new allies, and amassed a decent number of resources on my last adventure, humanity is starting to look like they .. just .. might have a chance (/Shatner voice).

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That map, this damn map all I did was examine every square inch of this map for months

After careful planning and examination I realize that I have enough fuel and technology to visit the stars that form Orion’s belt and head back to Earth I have decided to pit stop at numerous planetary groupings along the way. The year is 1992, the game is Star Control II, and the absorbed teenager, and yeah that’s me. I would spend hours upon hours in my room, in front of my PC, visiting countless stars and planets amassing allies and resources to destroy the evil Ur-Quan for their enslavement of humanity behind a red planetary shield, using my kick ass and decked out Precursor vessel. This is a game that had tremendous amount of buildup, yes some would say What I didn’t know then, was that there would never be a space exploration and galactic conquest game as good as Star Control II ever again.

"Go over bridge.  Pick nose. <enter"
“Go over bridge. [enter] Pick nose. [enter]”

King’s Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest, you know, years ago in prehistoric computer times ago, back when computer game players were also self-made computer technicians, games had a different feel to them. Take these Sierra games as another example, they had a lot in common, they required reading but reading came at the reward of you chuckling every few minutes at some very witty writing. You had to use your head to type out sentences for your main character to do. You actually had to type out “go to window” to make your guy go to the window. Sky was the limit as far as the requests that could be made, and I always got a kick out of discovering that the game’s creator had thought of roughly the same weird action I was coming up with, and jokingly had some choice consequences or responses for those goofy actions.

Back in the ancient computer era, simulators simulated stuff. They used words like "simulator" in their game titles, amazing.More than just throttle and pew pew.
Back in the ancient computer era, simulators simulated stuff. They used words like “simulator” in their game titles, amazing. More than just throttle and pew pew.

Do you remember the first Creative Labs sound cards? I do. I had to install my first one, and then mess with its DOS settings to play X-Wing Simulator. X-Wing Simulator wasn’t just ANY Star Wars game, I mean for 10 years there was a rail shooter style polygon outline arcade game that let you pilot an X-wing into the Death Star trench blow it up woohoo and do it again but THIS, no THIS was different. This was better. This game was in MY room, not some noisy and dark Pizza Hut lobby, and better yet, it was what flying an X-Wing was SUPPOSED to feel like. It was more than just move a joystick and pew pew, the end. You had to balance weapons, shielding, engines, you needed to dogfight, and count your torpedoes, making every shot count because what was unlimited ammo? That wasn’t invented yet. This was a great game, and in the title it explained to us why it was so good. It was a Star Wars simulator.

There are terrorists holed up in a house, they have hostages, innocent people who will be killed if my team doesn’t pull off this infiltration and extraction just right. My government agency has acquired the blueprints to this location, how they got their hands on these plans, who cares, because I am drawing exact lines all over the place, these cool little lines are signaling where and how my Rainbow seal team will enter the home, take down the tangos, and secure the hostages. Hopefully, nothing will go wrong with my plans, but in case it does, I have carefully planned out my load out of flash-bangs, silenced weapons and such that even if I have to improvise, we will not be seen. Time is of the essence soldier, and you could cut the tension with a knife, or a tactical blue route line.

 

The most tactical thing about modern Rainbow Six Vegas games? Probably that slot machine over there
The most tactical thing about modern Rainbow Six Vegas games? Probably that slot machine over there

What I am talking about are my memories of some the greatest games of all time, that have no actual sequels or true successors. I am talking about actual game experiences that transended mere beeps and boops. Yeah I love “fun” games, the Marios, the Maddens, the Call of Duty type games, sure those are fun, sometimes you just want to blow stuff up. However, as I recently covered in my in depth Pillars of Eternity review, detailed, highly involved, high payout and rewarding game experiences are a bit of rarity in this era of gaming. Did something change in what makes a game “fun”? Have games advanced to become more involved, more intricate, deeper, and even more meaningful? Do we simply view “old school games” as good because for their era, there was nothing better to weigh them against?

First and foremost, its 2015, and my smartphone is roughly 500 times the gaming device my first computer was. The canvas for which a gaming artist can create on is infinitely superior. Many aspects of what it takes to develop a single game has decreased significantly. So you would assume that the games made across time are deeper more intricate than ever before, but that has not always been the case for the most part triple A gaming has been on the sharp decline ever since. Take the Rainbow Six series for instance, the careful planning stages and the intricate planning moments are gone. Instead the series has moved for a more arcade approach, constant scripted sequences that pushes players to the next big spectacular explosion. Not the next greatest self-defined experience that stays with you much longer.

 

Build your own robot, and with a friend, blow things up, this guy wanted to play and Xwing mech. Doesn’t get any better than this folks.
Build your own robot, and with a friend, blow things up, this guy wanted to play and Xwing mech.
Doesn’t get any better than this folks.

Games have pushed for better graphics, better physics, better multiplayer maps, but little depth for the most part. However, not all games in the last 15 years are bad, not at all, there have been some exceptional gems but even those have been choked down over time. Take for example Chromehounds, a 2006 Xbox 360 title, little was known of Chromehounds as it was approaching release, and it released with little fanfare. Several gamers however took note of certain key elements announced beforehand and followed intently its release. Those key elements proved to be extraordinary when put into play.

Chromehounds is a mech game (I mean what happened to real mech games? Did they die? Because there are some robot games out there but they are Call of Duty games with robot skins… looking at you Titanfall and Hawken), one with a unique take. You start off by building your own robot death machine. Six possible movement designs to choose from like tank treads, heavy legs, six wheelers for some speed, these movement choices already begins to define your mech choice, where you making a sniper, a scout with base crushing abilities, a heavy tank, a stalwart defender etc. The build choices could be interchanged anyway you wished, you could have a defender style robot with massive artillery, or one artillery on a crazy speedy scout allowing you to lob one shell anywhere on the map as the recoil sent you 90 miles backwards. Point is you were free to try thousands, and thousands of combinations.

Still this was only the start of a great gaming experience, once you and your friends had giant robots of doom ready, you jumped into an online war. You were one of three factions, and each battle mattered in the conquest of sections of the map. The online war was persistent, and each battle mattered in the overall war. Once on the battlefield however, true strategy unfolded alongside the heavy mech action through the use of one device. The developers called them COMBAS towers, these towers allowed your voice communication to work. Without them, literally your headsets were useless, seems like a small element at first, but no communication REALLY mattered when you wanted to actually WIN. Controlling a tower meant being able to tell all those within range of a tower where the enemy was, what it is you wanted to do next. Without it you were like talking to yourself and just hoping that your team knew what you wanted to do. I remember sitting back as a defending player, in my tank treads and heavy armor as two enemies in fast scouts were trying to sneak into our base. They had taken COMBAS towers, and were clearing planning a two pronged attack with their teammates. The main enemy group was pushing into the middle of the map to control the biggest COMBAS tower, while the small two man scout group was poised to take our base. They sat in waiting for their moment to strike. I told my partner of their plan, and said let them push in and take the main COMBAS, we will feign a move to retake the middle tower they were pushing in – but really veer to the right and take the COMBAS tower they scouts were using. Result?

Hawken is a modern mech game but stripped of any tactical planning, or complex team work, seen here is a mech strafing. Yes, strafing...
Hawken is a modern mech game but stripped of any tactical planning, or complex team work, seen here is a mech strafing. Yes, strafing…

 

It was pretty glorious being some mini-Napoleon on the battlefield, we took the tower quickly, enemy team was pushing in on the middle tower, and was unaware they lost communication with their scout team. The scouts realized too late something was up they were almost on our base when they turned around and we were bearing down on top of them reigning fire shells at their location. Two scouts dead and buried. By the time the middle COMBAS tower was lost our team had regrouped near the eastern COMBAS tower, two smoking husks of dead enemy mechs behind us. That one element, changes the game, to something deeper, something more involved. What happened to Chromehounds? Shutdown in 2009, and there was no sequel, why? Because I was left yearning for a multiplayer mechanized game as deep as Chromehounds for the last six years.

Further, the Mechwarrior license has a rather large following, and after handful of excellent Mechwarrior games in the 90s what has big dog Microsoft Studios done with the Mechwarrior license? Well, nothing. If Chromehounds was amazing for its time as a console game where would it be today as a PC game? From Software accomplished a great deal as a small studio in Japan, with the limitations of a ten year old console. Where could a big studio push this genre if it wanted to on the PC platform with its capacity for larger multiplayer mayhem? Who’s stopping them? Gamers? I highly doubt it. What gamers want and what publishers think gamers want are often polar opposite, and Kickstarter games prove this. And in Part II of this feature I will delve into what Kickstarter and gamers are showing they want, need, and prefer to play.