By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
ver heard someone say "I'm bored of 3D shooters" or "I'm bored of real time strategy games," and dismiss entire categories of games out of hand? Why should this be so, when either genre seems like it should support an almost infinite range of gameplay? Because if you look at it from a game design perspective, the groups of games known as "first person shooters" (FPS) and "real time strategy games" (RTS) are not entire genres at all, but rather iterations of the single original designs which generated the FPS and RTS terms. None of the successive games of any type do anything from a but take established pattern (the game design) and give it different settings, graphics, and minor tweaks to the standard rule set. Yet our industry continues to churn these games out a dozen a year, boring the average (i.e. non hardcore) gamer, and worrying me.
There has always been a certain amount of cloning going on in gaming - just take a look at many knock-offs of Space Invaders and Galaxian (itself a Space Invaders clone) which you can now see first hand with MAME, or the glut of "3D rendered slideshow with abstract puzzles" games which were produced for years after Myst. Despite the everpresent cloning, there was something which always kept me coming back to gaming: there would always be a new type of game, something completely unexpected, an entirely new design. Genres, such as RPGs, were made up of a bunch of games with similar design goals, but, fairly significant differences in design from one title to another: compare Ultima 3 to The Bard's Tale to Might and Magic, for example. They all shared similarities, standard RPG conventions like conversing with NPCs, developing characters, and going to shops, but the method of presentation and interface varied much from one to the other, and the underlying rules varied quite a bit. Now compare any RTS game to the game that started the RTS craze, Dune II: choosing one of two or so races, you pick buildings and things from a list on an edge of your screen; your buildings enable you to produce and upgrade more units, and your units go and destroy the other guy's buildings, with the aid of much mouse clicking. Until games like Uprising and Battlezone, which most people probably wouldn't even put in the RTS category, every game has had exactly the same control method and presentation. 3D units in Total Annilihation and different ways of making the landscape (isometric, rendered, tile-based) have only changed the looks, and never the underlying design. The only thing which changed the design significantly was the inclusion of multiplayer in Warcraft, which was the second RTS game to be published, and the true beginning of the RTS deluge.
FPS games follow the same pattern as RTS games, but with even less design innovation. Every single one has been Wolfenstein 3D with increasingly better graphics: run through a 3D maze, collecting weapons which will be accessible on 1-0 on your keyboard, and using keys to get through doors. Besides multiplayer, mouselook was the largest change to the design of this game design, and both were introduced in Doom (although Wolfenstein set the basic design, this design didn't actually become very interesting until coupled with the more flexible graphical engine of Doom - and yes, Doom had "mouselook" - you just couldn't look up and down at all in that game!). Even the much-lauded Unreal represents no revolution in first person gaming. It is still exactly the same game as every other, with minor gameplay tweaks, most of which (like the "translator," the secondary weapon firing modes, and the ability to backtrack somewhat) had actually been invented by other games, and was only copied in Unreal. Unreal's significant contribution to the FPS style is heaps of graphical effects and nice textures, but given that the only real differences between these games have been in looks and not game design, it is not surprising that it made as big of a splash as it did.
As both a game designer and game player, I'm growing increasingly dissatisfied with these two genres, from which have come some of the best-selling games of the last two years. Starcraft and Unreal, the latest examples of each, are exceptionally well crafted, but innovative? Hardly. I personally was tired of clicking on hordes of little tanks with no brains and no ability to work together like real units after playing Dune II for a month, and I was tired of running through corridors looking for the red keycard after finishing Doom. These are great designs, but we need new designs. Uprising and Battlezone are good examples, but really fall into another category of game, the hybrid design, and as both these titles show hybrids often end up with more problems than their parent designs. How about a game that runs in real time, where you look down on a lot of little tanks, but the majority of gameplay is not about how optimally you can gather resources and work through the production tree, or about how quickly and accurately you can click on the screen? How about a realtime first person game that is not about finding progressively more powerful guns and unlocking the next door? Or at the very least where defeating your enemies requires something different than unloading enough ammo of the appopriate type into them?
There are a lot of reasons why game design innovation seems to be faltering recently, including the diminishing interest in industry management to take risks on anything "new," and the increasing difficulty in putting all the required art and technology of a modern game together. The best we can do as gamers is not allow the industry to continue to sell us the same game over and over again - there's nothing wrong with buying the very few games to come out which do everything right, but don't support even second rate versions of played-out designs - there will be nothing in them that you haven't seen a dozen times before. The best we can do as game designers now is to make new designs. Game makers - come up with something of your own! Don't just copy someone else's design and throw a bunch of different weapons/units, enemies, levels and new technology at it. If you want a place in game design history, you must innovate, not imitate.
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the upcoming game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
|Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Nothing New Under the Sun is © 1998 Rich Wykoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.|