I’ve written before that I appreciate good old games. I’m not the only one.
Good Old Games is what I wish Steam would be. No DRM, relatively cheap access to games from the entirety of gaming history (still working on that one), modern OS compatibility, and no internet connection required to actually play. I just buy the games, download them, and play to my heart’s content. If my hard drive crashes, I download it again, no charge. This is the promise and beauty of digital distribution; low overhead, low maintenance, digital property and tech-savvy customers.
Why do publishers and devs abandon good old games?
OK, so beyond shilling for a cool site, what does this mean for the game industry? Well, there’s this thing called “abandonware” that is the retro gamer’s dirty little secret. It’s kin to ROM emulation, and resides in a legal grey zone. Sort of.
Strictly speaking, it’s piracy. I have no qualms calling it that, even though it does mean that by doing so, I cut myself off from the gaming nerdvana that it might supply. I refuse to pirate software. The temptation is great at times, but I’ve chosen not to go that route, so I don’t cave in. Still, I can empathize completely with the “abandonware” mindset; the publishers and devs have all but tossed these games in the trash, despite the fact that people would play them, and even pay for them. Distributing them is part historical tribute, part public service.
I don’t see myself as the young revolutionary any more, though, having grown out of my “rebel with a cause” phase. These days, I just kvetch about things here and try to find sympathetic ears, all while biding my time and building my “street cred” in the industry itself. You know, the “when I’m the CEO” mindset. In the meantime, the relentless march of technology keeps me from playing Descent and Star Control 2 on my new WinXP machine. (There’s a rant in there about backwards compatibility, but I probably should just refer to my “Planned Obsolescence” article.) These are games I own, and would love to install on a new machine and play, but it just doesn’t work.
This is even true on the consoles. Backwards compatibility is one of the big reasons I purchased a PS2. Since Sony has dropped that ability from the PS3, I’m completely uninterested in the system. The GameBoy systems have typically been very good about this, but again, I’m not interested in the new DS system because it drops the GBA slot. I have a whole library of games that I want to keep playing or replay.
Beyond the mere consumer frustration, though, there are larger undercurrents to consider. The gaming industry is young, but it still has a history, and the way that gamers binge on the latest and greatest has had the unfortunate effect of killing good old games. Publishers and development houses wither and die as the cruel Moore’s Law effect and consumer ADHD consigns their hard work to “that is so yesterday” status. Some parts of our history aren’t simply being ignored, but are being actively destroyed.
Some of these old games were actually good. Some blazed trails that modern games tread with heavy clodhopper boots. No, Pong isn’t exactly the epitome of game design, but the gameplay elements of games like Elite or Privateer are still relevant today. Yes, Freelancer did a lot of things right, but they also dropped the ball on some design issues that had already been solved in the older games. (Let us not mention Privateer 2.) Magic Carpet 2 wasn’t a perfect game, but it made for some great fun, and there’s still nothing quite like it. StarCraft has much to teach us about balance. There still isn’t a good sequel or successor to Master of Magic. Many people still play Scorched Earth, and while there is a 3D version, people still play the 16 color iteration. These old games are FUN, and that element has been lost in the shuffle.
Game designers who are content to build their own mousetrap and reinvent the wheel are not tapping into the design knowhow of previous generations. We see this sort of wanton progress in pretty much any human endeavor, but games have advanced so rapidly that there’s little time to really learn from the past before you make the same mistakes. Modern designers just make the mistakes bigger and more expensively.
I fear we have lost much in the relentless quest for higher resolution grunge, denser explosions, enhanced mammary physics and assorted “bling”. We’ve bought into style over substance and are paying for it with a dearth of game play innovation and evolution. (Must… not… make… political… comments…)
Sites like Good Old Games are tapping into the retro trend, anti DRM sentiment, and the beauty of digital distribution. If only more publishers and devs joined their cause.