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Tubatic avatar 12:13 AM on 10.05.2010  (server time)
Keep it Complicated, Stupid

Back in my day, games were hard. Jumps would kill you. Potions would kill you. Restarts would be back at the beginning of a level. Moves were only explained in the manual and rally special moves were only available by word of mouth. And you know what? We liked it. For every reason a game was hard, we simply didn't care and played our thumbs raw just to get our gaming kicks.

Then designers realized that some of that stuff was bad design, that they didn't have to suck quarters out of kids and that people generally want to understand how their games worked. So ended an era of ridiculous difficulty. In the modern gaming world, contrary to recent outcry, its fairly difficult to play a game wrong. The industry has matured a bit. There's a general thread of goodwill between game makers and their recognized customers.

But somewhere in there, we've lost something. Its not unusual now to see revivals and canonical sequels to decade(s) old games. Fallout, Civilization, X-Com and Starcraft are all seeing the light of day with fresh new SKU's hitting retail and digital shelves. Each of them finding their own way to keep their franchises relevant. And almost every one of those game makers are meeting with opposition from franchise devotees. Where is the line between gaming blasphemy and making a worthy successor to games gone by?

Consider Starcraft, which maintained a presence in competitive LAN party play for years after its initial release. Games inspired by the franchise went on to expand on the tropes of the genre while playing with new idea in presentation and gameflow. RTS games have toyed with removing resources, hero characters, time travel and even building around the concept of reducing stationary base building. Do you make a Starcraft II with even more bells and whistles, or do you make a prettier version of what you've already done? As I understand it, Blizzard made a "better' Starcraft, and so far, they're not mucking with the formula too much. in result, the new game is generally considered a faithful new addition to the franchise. No immediate awards for innovation, but the product is solid. To say its "money in the bank" doesn't give due credit to the hard work of shipping a solid game, but it accurately pegs the design approach. Low risk, high reward.

But what of rebooting your fundamentals and leveling the barrier of entry for new players? Civilization V approaches the time honored gameplay of flow of Civilization while augmenting the strategy play from square grids or a series of hex cells. Further, features woven into the previous edition through expansion packs have been scaled back as this user friendly new entry re-introduces the flow of the game. Some users find the scaleback dissappointing, while other thoroughly appreciate the fundamental change in the gameboard and streamlined systems perfected in the more "casual" recent release of the franchise Civilization Revolutions

Interestingly, there's a mild rumble of disdain for the streamlined experience found in Civ Rev. The lovable team of game journo codgers at Gamer's With Jobstouch on this topic in last week's podcast. Features that would require added attention, such as army building or worker management are stripped down to facilitate quicker and less cluttered game sessions. This game that could once take 8 or 9 hours to see a single game to completion became a game that could be done and dusted in about half the time. Its certainly still "Civ", but the nuance of nation management has been shaved in the name of pick up and play game flow. You'd find that "hardcore" Civ players will look down their nose at such advancements. The game they know, the game they loved, was lovable to them because of those nuances.

And nuance is everything. Where SimCity, at the last of its numbered iterations, included the simulated effects of several cities in a region upon each other, its offshoot SimCity Societies took a heavy approach to streamlining. The game, while visually satisfying and very accessible as a city block designer, removed much of the simulation play. A player that loved SimCity for that obsessive attention to detail in systems is generally disappointed by the direction that series took. Not to note Societies as anything less than a deftly made and solidly functional release. In that, its successful. But in consideration of the more passion inducing features unique to SimCity as a franchise, it fails confidently.

And that confident failure is at the heart of some franchise fans' concerns. There are plenty of different ways to build a new entry in a series. Even the core creative team of a game has the opportunity to turn out an uninspired game. The saving grace for most franchise is the presence of fans working to keep a game faithful to the what made the original tick, in some way. The new XCOM evokes those feelings of seeing a game change in ways that don't seem to tap into the features that actually made the original games so beloved by their fans.

While I appreciate XCOM's PR team telling me that the thrilling world of the franchise is being preserved, I have my doubts that an FPS can recapture or faithfully modernize that feeling. My own personal enjoyment came from managing the drop team through the different scenarios, trying my best to minimize casualties within that turn-based paradigm. Once I made a move, my guys were committed to it. In that way, it had the feel of a board game. Strategies were put to the test against an AI with a slightly stacked deck of cards. Aside from not seeing alien movements, some of their powers were nigh unstoppable for all but a completely decked out team. The cost of team death was a loss of experience and equipment. If previews of XCOM are to be taken as and indicator of the game to come, the focus seems to be on this named protagonist leading an endless supply of red shirt agents to their inevitable death on every mission. While the concept my have its own merits, that's a missed opportunity in terms of franchise renewal.

Beyond the surface of Earth vs aliens, can the feel of that original game be translated into the game language of First Person Shooters? As a fan of X-Com's strategic gameplay, I would have loved for a big budget studio to really expand on the turnbased strategy systems of the original, much in the way that Civilization was evolved through iteration. Certainly, I can play that game again with shiny graphics already. There are countless fan/indie projects in progress, striving to recapture and improve upon what makes X-Com so passionately revered. But a real, professional method team working to expand the suspenseful flow of X-Com's battle would have been a dream come true.

But maybe that's the rub? In getting that big budget team, you start to take on all the responsibilities of that budget. Chief amongst those responsibilities being the return on investment. When these games first came out lets be clear: I have no doubt that these designers wanted to make a good deal of loot off their games at some point. However, in those formative years of the industry, maybe they had alot more room to just nerd out on the details. When there were no other strategy games as layered as the original X-Com, pounding away at creating a working system and living progression narrative made sense. What did Julian Gollop have to lose by making systems that players maybe couldn't grasp fully on their first run? Of course he player is going to fail their first run! Games are a challenge, and gamers were buying in for that challenge. Could Mr. Gollop walk in as the head of a modern game team and convince everyone from Development to Production that crafting a difficult, complex system is a sound use of resource and a reasonable path to profitability?

Not at all. He'd probably be laughed at, given a t-shirt, and thanked for making some of the best games ever created.

Regardless of anyone's reverence for the good old days, its unfortunate to have to admit that games spearheaded by a singular vision and protected as such are just a rarity now. I'd bet money that even the star executive producer/designers of the industry like Keiji Inafune, Peter Molynuex and Ken Levine don't have nearly as much authorship as anyone's romantic vision of their jobs would suggest. And with the lack of singular vision and direct conduit to the designer's passion, that's where we lose the nuance? Blame investors? Blame team sizes? Blame hardware arms races? Blame it all maybe? Whatever's the cause, its still a shame that complexity in games themselves, despite the immensity and complexity of the industry, is a part of gaming that is simply becoming ancient history.

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