Videogames Were Better Before The Year 2000

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When people ask me if I’m a gamer, I usually tell them that I was one, a long time ago, but I stopped finding time to play.

Which is true, but not totally.

During recent years I often had way too much to do to play more than one hour every other day. This isn’t enough time for most types of games (except possible arcade/racing/sports…), because it doesn’t let you play long enough to feel immersed. Unfortunately, immersion is the only thing that can keep me playing a game until it’s finished.

I still play, though. I bought some of the last generation of game consoles, usually many years after their original release, chasing the best-rated games for cheap, and trying to play and finish each and every one of them. I’ve had little success with this because most of the time I don’t like the game I am playing enough to persist and complete it.

But back in the day, I was a real gamer. I never was a hardcore gamer; I never played a game a thousand times to achieve the best possible score, but I finished more games than I can count.

I particularly enjoyed two kinds of games: games with originality, and “journey” games, but mainly the second category. And if a game combined both, I was the happiest man on earth.

Playing a game gave me the same feeling as reading a good adventure book today, except I had to play an active role in the adventure – which is incredible, when the scenario is good enough.

When advanced 3D arrived in the videogame industry, I was thrilled. By advanced, I mean with textures and all, not the first polygon-based attempts, even if a lot of them were really interesting (like the awfully ugly Alone in the dark or the strange Little Big Adventure).

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The feeling I had the first time I played games with vaguely realistic graphics was undescribable. I died more than once because I was staring at all this stuff moving in real time. It seemed to have unleashed developers’ imagination too, because at first a lot of very original and incredible games were made, like Dungeon Keeper, Giants and a thousand others.

And the industry was willing to make the most of it. Videogames starred rock stars and their music, symphonic orchestrations by renowned writers and orchestras, Hollywood superstars likenesses and voices, and sometimes even big movie writers.

When I bought Outcast I couldn’t stop playing it until I completed it. And still, it is quite a bad example of graphics, as it was not technically using a 3D accelerated graphic engine, but it was a videogame super production like few before. It had issues, like the fact that you could literally see the bullets go from your gun to your enemies, but it was a masterpiece overall.

Between 1995 and 2000 a lot of the games I consider the best games ever were made. Developers made a lot of stuff from scratch, giving life to new game designs and gameplays, and benefiting from the graphic boom at the same time. Some of them were filled with bugs or contained some relatively unplayable sequences due to too much ambition (does The Nomad Soul ring a bell to you ?), but they were at the perfect crossing between old school games creativity and realistic games.

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But 15 years later, when I look back, I think the industry started to become its own enemy at this exact time.

“Realistic” graphics have increased production costs. The more textures and polygons a game has, the more it seems to cost to produce. In ten years, the average development team size seems to have been multiplied by ten, along with the overall game budget. Some years ago I watched a TV documentary about the development of Prince of Persia: Sands of time and was very surprised by the size of the team. I mean, if I had taken the time to think about it, I might have realised that modern games involved so many people. But in my head, big games were still made by teams of 5 to 20 passionate and crazy programmers/artists/designers.

Without us gamers noticing, the ever expanding cost of making a game started killing original ideas.  While we were focusing on the most beautiful games, it had the effect of putting independent studios aside.

Some “old school” mastodons were still in the industry trying to produce the best games. They still had a little faith that the biggest game designers of this transition period had ideas good enough to invest big money in, risky or not.

As time passed, every unsuccessful game was costing more and more, and even earlier visionaries were not trusted by the “investors”. Many started to leave big companies to start their own again.

Producers tried to minimise the risk. For some, it meant buying engines already made and well tested. For others, it meant doing sequels of the same series over and over again, with the biggest risks being the addition of a new weapon or game mechanism, or changing the location or time-period of the setting.

Some formerly successful games became standard “First Person Shooter” or “Third Person Shooter” games, even if the success of the original game had a lot to do with its very own original gameplay, like Fallout. In Fallout 3 and later titles, the hero’s actions consist mainly of shooting everyone, and the impact of the RPG elements became way less interesting than when we were playing a turn-by-turn game.

But turn-by-turn games are almost dead as well. That’s a shame too. Everything has to be real time now. It’s like, the minute we had the possibility to emulate the real world in a videogame environment it became one of the most important things to do. People call it genius if you are able to turn off the light or close a car door in a videogame. Really? Is that what you want in your game? Is it that important?

I don’t care about going to the bathroom or cooking a roast beef in my game (except if it’s the concept of the game or a really good roast beef); I do that in real life, and it’s boring enough as it is. I don’t care if a game is the best simulation of car racing, or war; that’s not the main point of a game.

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I don’t want a game to be realistic, I want it to have a good gameplay. When developers had more constraints (like a display with only 500 pixels) they had to invent new ways to play, and many of them weren’t realistic at all. It made incredible ideas that fuelled incredible games.

I don’t want to play the same game a hundred times with a different scenario.

I want to learn a new way to play like I did 20 years ago. I want to be unable to understand what I’m doing at first, not just checking where the shoot/reload/crouch/jump buttons are located. I want to have to play a 30 minutes tutorial to understand a tiny bit of what I have to do because I can’t rely on all my habits, or to die 10 times before I have a clue.

You’d have thought developers would at least try to create an incredible scenario. If the technical part of the game is a constraint, at least they could try to write something REALLY good to make up for it, like Half-Life. This game didn’t invent anything, gameplay wise, but it was incredibly written and the action took place in so many different environments.

But most of the time they can’t write a great story, because in order to meet the technical requirements, they don’t have the budget to do what they would love to do. Each new location would cost more money for the different textures, so you have to work with a minimal pallet. Most games can’t have a level in Egypt, another one in NYC, the next one in the jungle, the last one on Mars.  Also, you can’t vary the gameplay too much unless you are a giant company with the budget.

Games cost so much to produce that they have to be awfully short, or awfully redundant, because it’s not possible to afford creative content to make a 200 hours game anymore.

In a way, online games save game companies from those paradoxes, because they don’t require strictly scripted storylines; you just have to design some great levels. Or, with MMORPG games like World of Warcraft you just have to start by creating a universe and quests, and you can keep writing and selling the additions along the way

It’s not bad business logic; if something costs A LOT (and in case of MMORPGs, you pay millions to have servers run flawlessly), you’d be better renting it rather than selling it at the same price other games are sold.

(By the way, why are big video games all sold the exact same price ? There is a little chance they did cost the exact same amount of money)

I am not an online player myself. Online players are their own breed. You have to play every day to be on top of your games because the others are, and I don’t want to put this dedication into games – I have a full-time job and a (little) social life. It isn’t possible for me any more.

I want to be able to play a good story for hours, but the minute I want to stop, I don’t want to involve people from my team in my decision. Like “Dude you can’t leave us in the middle of this dungeon! We’ll have all our efforts ruined!”. Or “Dude, Wednesday night is WOW night, you can’t go out on a date in the real world on WOW night.”

So, I find myself sitting in front of my TV, trying to feel something different each time I start a new game, and failing miserably most of the time.

Today, I find myself turning to independent games. They often sacrifice huge, detailed worlds for originality – or invent ways to be simple AND beautiful, like LIMBO. For just $5, you can get games created by passionate developers.

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But indie games are usually short; I finished Journey three times because it’s a wonderful and incredibly poetic game, but I would love to be able to play that kind of game for 20 hours.

But, independent games are refreshing. They give me a little bit of hope.

I grew up in what might be one of the golden eras of the videogame industry. I enjoyed every minute of it; refusing to shower for five days in a row, raging at my dad calling me for dinner at the exact same time I was facing the final boss ( “Ain’t no tomato soup stopping me saving the world, Dad!”). For that, I am grateful.

Sometimes I wonder how so many players keep buying and playing games in the same franchise every year. Is there something rewarding in those games I don’t see?

In a way, I envy them for being able to have fun with those experiences when I just…don’t.

But, I also wish people would stop buying essentially the same games over and over again, because that’s the only way the investors will be forced to take risks again. That way we might see original AAA games make a come back.

Or not.

Years ago I had a dream that Hollywood kept remaking so many movies that they eliminated the original productions, leaving just two franchises being released over and over. They kept making 100 movies each year, based on those two scenarios, adding only different actors and new locations. In my dream, people were saying “wow, this movie was the most incredible one I have ever seen.” When I woke up, I realised it’s the same feeling I have about the video game industry today.

Video games were better before the year 2000.

This article was written by the immensely talented Vincent Baudry and has been reposted, with permission, from Medium.

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