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KestrelPi's blog

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KestrelPi avatar 7:51 AM on 01.20.2009  (server time)
Long Live the Less-Is-More Design Approach

My favourite drummer is Greg Saunier from a band called Deerhoof. I'm going somewhere game-related with this. The band itself isn't to everyone's taste but it is difficult to deny the amount of energy and life the drummer brings to each performance. Perhaps the most impressive thing, though, is that he does all this with a very limited set of tools. A bass drum, a snare, maybe a hi-hat and cymbal - that's his entire kit. The amount of different sounds that he manages to beat out of it can be truly impressive. On the other end of the scale you have drummers who, while also very talented, surround themselves with drums of all shapes and sizes for all occasions.

While the latter can be very skilled in their own right, I never have quite as much respect for them, as I get the feeling that they never have to go searching for the right sound - it's all laid bare in front of them, a feast of different possibilities from which they can pick and choose without necessarily having to be creative in their choices.

I'm not sure what the story is. Maybe Saunier could only afford a partial kit and it stuck. Maybe he consciously chose it from the start - either way, it did him good. In the world of game development, veterans are no strangers to working within limitations, those very same limitations encouraging the same sort of creativity I see in Saunier's drumming.

For years and years, developers simply didn't have the technology to do anything too technically impressive and complex. I believe that one of the reasons that Retro games seem to be so enduring, why many gamers find themselves drawn towards the old days or indie titles like Spelunky that remind us of them, is simply because of the creative potential such limitations seem to unlock.

Take Megaman, for example. The later Megaman games sacrifice tight level and enemy design as they add moves to the blue bomber's arsenal, then number 9 comes along to remind us just how inventive it can be with a simple run-jump-shoot control scheme. It forced them to simplify the level design for the better and be creative about inventing enemies that challenge the limited controls in a number of different ways.

I don't want the lesson here to be that more games should be 'retro' or that games which take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to design (like GTA4) can't be good. I just worry that as it becomes more and more possible to put whatever you like into a game, developers will start to forget that using restraint in design is actually an option they can choose. I want them to remember they can use limitation to their advantage, whether graphical, gameplay or audio (one of the reasons I like chiptunes is because of what you can do with a limited set of raw sounds).

So many games now don't know when enough is enough. How many games have you played that include a multiplayer mode which might as well have not been included? Enemy types that add nothing new? Terribly implemented co-op (hello, Fable 2)? Sub games and specific set pieces that are simply worthless to play (how's it going, Dead Space asteroids)? I think more developers need to have enough confidence in their basic idea to say 'We're going to make a game about X and only X,' where X can be anything at all. In Portal it was, uh, portals, in Spelunky it was exploring caves for treasure but it really doesn't matter.

Hell, let's say X is 'sniping flamingos.' The challenge, then, is to find as many different ways to make sniping flamingos awesome, while still remaining a game about sniping flamingos. The temptation is to decide the player needs a break from sniping flamingos and change things up by making them fish for octopi or arm-wrestle the Pastry-King for a while. Maybe those things would be nice and all but I'd respect the game a whole lot more if instead it surprised me by presenting another awesome and creative twist on sniping flamingos that I never would have thought of.

...Does that make sense?

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