Early video games showed especially tight game design because technical limitations forced the programmers of that era to make do with what they had. Now that the market is separating out, and the lower market is offering new options, we see the possibility of new games with tight game design because financial limitations will force the new low market game designers to design efficiently. The first point is raised in our book, which I am contractually obligated to plug, the latter point has been dawning on me for a while now.
This evening, I decided to sit down and write about this new concept of 'neo-retro gaming', but before I did, I thought it would be polite for me to check that the term wasn't already in use. Needless to say, there was some loose suspension in my jaw when I found the term in use at Lost Garden - along with a big picture of my hero, the Prince of All Cosmos (from Katamari Damacy). Danc is talking about art style when he says neo-retro, but he's talking in the same terms I'm thinking in.
It just goes to show that we don't ride the zeitgeist, it rides us.
What is extremely disorienting is that Danc was apparently inspired by Greg Costikyan, whose blog I have subscribed to, but I haven't seen anything like this in Greg's posts... perhaps it's between the lines? And ironically, Matt Mower, who got me into blogging, told me over a year ago that I was in synch with Greg's philosophy, but I just didn't see it at the time. And I missed his talk at this last GDC too... that was careless.
Today I drafted some legal paperwork which is going to put our vision of neo-retro design into practice. I'm actually surprisingly nervous about it. I'll start talking about it soon, but right now I'm waiting for the emotional turbulence to settle down.
So what is neo-retro game design, as we see it? Nothing more complicated than having a single clear concept statement, and then implementing nothing more than what is needed to support the play implied by that statement, thereby minimising the development costs.
Or, to put it another way, simple ideas, simply implemented.
I've often compared the 8-bit era of games to the Cambrian Explosion, that period in prehistory when life explored almost every conceivable bodyplan. Because multi-cellular life was new on the scene, all possibilities were open to exploration... only later did competitive forces drive unsuccessful lifeforms out of business. Similarly, the golden age of gaming is filled with innovative and inventive games, many of which are really quite unplayable by today's standards (although it has to be said, add a save mechanism via an emulator and the situation often improves somewhat).
A few games are notable because they had a strong game design, such as Impossible Mission (Commodore 64), which was an exemplary 2D platformer with considerably more inventiveness than any modern game in that genre, or Paradroid (Commodore 64) which allowed the player to take control of many different robots via "the influence game", which is arguably still the most remarkable mini-game ever to be made. (I worked with Andrew Braybrook briefly, in the last days of Graftgold... like many of the programmers of this era, he was utterly modest).
Most games are notable because they delivered new and interesting play experiences we hadn't seen before, such as Cyclone (ZX Spectrum) in which you fly a helicopter in a region beset with a tropical storm, rescuing people; or 3D Ant Attack (ZX Spectrum) which managed to create an atmospheric survival game from very limited resources. (I worked with Sandy White too - one of the nicest programmers I've ever met).
Often, the enjoyment in playing a game had little to do with the way the game was intended to be played. For instance, I often enjoyed playing Scuba Dive (ZX Spectrum), but the stated goal of getting the treasure back to the ship interested me considerably less than just exploring the underwater world, and seeing how deep I could get. The stated goal of Elite (BBC Micro) was to reach the rank of Elite, but most players used the game as a simple space RPG playground, where they simply enjoyed flying around in the near-infinite space provided.
With a few exceptions, these 8-bit games were short. They could be completed in a few hours - but they supported play over a longer time scale because you had to play them over and over again to either work out what to do, or acquire the skills to win. It didn't matter greatly, because you generally didn't sit down and play just one game, you played a whole set of them. (Often, for instance, one would have a tape with dozens of games on it, and you would play through them in sequence).
It wouldn't be viable to make games with the same principles as these old games, as you need to be extremely partial to fail-repeat gameplay (mostly a Type 1 Conqueror trait in our model) to tolerate their level of difficulty. Many of them required extreme precision just to stay alive - one false move could kill you (what you might call a narrow survival channel). They were early experiments, and many are unplayable by today's standards. But we can look at their simplicity as inspiration, and fuse this with modern game design appreciation for such things as ratcheted progress, clear communication of instructions and wide channels of survival.
Neo-retro games, as I see it, should begin with a clear conception of central play; ideally one which supports more than one form of play. To help this, they should be easy to play, but contain elements for the expert player. Rather than making the conditions for progress exacting, make the conditions for progress relatively forgiving, and instead have exacting goals only for the optional tasks that expert players will complete to prove their mastery.
They aren't going to be mass market - they should expect to sell around 50,000 units or so, with the possibility of selling 200,000 or so if they happen to come together perfectly. Because of this, they should use the fewest number of subsystems required to support their model of play. This will keep the cost of development to a minimum. Similarly, they shouldn't need to offer anything more than 8 hours play in total (although different concepts will support different maximum play lengths, of course).
If they are to succeed, they will need support from Hardcore players... Without them, awareness of the games will be too limited. Since the Type 1 Conqueror players are currently getting their play needs met in the upper and mid markets, the Type 2 Manager and Type 3 Wanderer archetypes are perhaps our best bet. In particular, we associate the Type 3 Wanderer archetype with a desire for new and unique experiences - if neo-retro games can build a community of players who connect with Wanderer-style play, they can succeed.
If a market for neo-retro style games exists and can be reached, it will secure the delivery and supply of original and inventive games for the foreseeable future. It could provide the 'art house games' market we have often talked about, and drive innovation that could influence all scales of the games industry. It's an exciting prospect. We just have to see if the gaming community is open to it, or if they are too addicted to the high production values of the upper market to care for innovation and creativity.