Thursday, February 4, 2010

Post Two: Regarding Mega Man 10, Madden 10, and the question of innovation in retro-style games

This post was a commentary on a video by a cool guy on the internet who usually makes insightful commentary videos on the state of video games. I don't always agree with him on every point, but the videos are always entertaining and fairly witty.

This first showed up as a forum post in HG101, a little while before I formed this blog. I've since come to decide to form this blog so that I can make longer talkbacks like these more accessible, and to avoid rage strokes nosebleeds from people commenting it was a good thing not to have bothered reading it due to the source site for the video being (For what it's worth, aside from GAME OVER-THINKER there's not a lot on that site that interests me either.)

The original video is here


I thought this was an interesting video, if for no other reason than the fact that the questions along the lines of, "Is Mega Man 10 holding back gaming?" were actually pretty controversial here, and we've got a few other threads that I'm going to use in regards to my discussion of this article. I'm actually a very big fan of the Overthinker series, and he makes a lot of good points. I feel I agree with the basic points he makes, though in this case I disagree with a few of the details.

Everyone on IRC has probably read this schpiel already, but I figured I'd repost the gist of my statements here because there are only like 7 people in the channel.

In looking at a game like Madden, one has to realize that the game is meant to be a fairly realistic simulation of playing football in general. Now, the NFL is really only 80-or-so years old, and the rules of the game are basically the same as they were back in the 60s, and pretty similar to the very first games too -- you have a ball, try to run it from one end of a field to another, and get 4 chances to move it 10 yards at a time until you go, say, 80 to 100 yards depending. That field hasn't changed in size or shape much over the years, and is just a pretty empty rectangle all things considered. Any game that tries to be a simulator doesn't have the luxury of being able to innovate because they're trying to copy the experience of the main game, which is supposed to be fairly unchanged over time in order to balance competition.

Madden doesn't change much over the years because it's usually pretty closely tied to the hardware that it's on. Consider Madden 95, for the Genesis or SNES. They play pretty similarly to the games right next to it on the same systems, but compare that to Madden 09 and it's a very different experience indeed. At the bare minimum the controllers for the XBox 360 and PS3 are fairly different from that of the Genesis or NES -- there are more buttons to press, and thus more plays/maneuvers that can be done. Whereas in an early Madden game like 94 or 95, all that's required to catch a pass is to put up one's hands, in more recent games there's a lot more to it, like using the right analog stick to move your hands closer to where the ball's landing. If you haven't been keeping up, it's a huge change, even from PS1/N64 Madden. This will probably reach a limit around the time that really good motion controls come out; given that everyone's working on them already, this probably will happen sooner rather than later and a well-calibrated motion controlled Madden could be worth getting in general.

The engine for these games is also tied to the system that it's on. Madden on the Genesis can't do 3D rendering so the angle of view is fixed, and the screen can't really zoom-in/out to give a wider field of view on passing plays. Current Madden has limits to how well it can simulate everything as well; we can't render every single molecule in the space nor can we render every beam of light. Obviously as the games on the system get older, the engines they run on can get more refined, but as fairly high-budget titles that have a full year for development and don't have to worry about level design or bosses (more on that later), most work goes into the engine itself so there's not a lot they CAN do to make it better, aside from start developing for the next system.

In fact, after Madden 95, the Genesis/SNES Madden titles were made by THQ and published by EA, using the engine from 95 because it worked pretty darn well (in fact, Madden 95 I'd say is worth playing in general and I do so from time to time; it was no accident that it got a plug-and-play TV re-release with replica Genesis controllers). There wasn't a lot that THQ needed to do to make a football game for the Genesis. There was also a character creation mode added from '96 on, which was mostly inconsequential but a significant change from years before.

To summarize, the main strides in Madden's (and other EA Sports titles') development as games come from being able to take advantage of new/different hardware. The games are unable to innovate in gameplay because the gameplay of real football also doesn't change from year to year, and Madden's appeal is in being a simulation game. That's not an unreasonable developmental decision, I think, for the game, any more than it is for, say, Gran Turismo. The only problem is that it ends up becoming a niche title -- the more complex technical details bog it down slightly, make it less accessible, and as a result less fun for most people. Hence the comments on the video and the link to it put on YouTube -- Madden's not always widely regarded as being a very fun game to play in the first place, which is retooling a formula that to many doesn't work in the first place.

Now, if you look at something like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you see something that isn't remarkably innovative because of the fact that its formula has been tried and tested to work quite well -- as noted in the video with the narration "Super Mario Bros. 3 is the most significant development in all of gaming" (or something very similar).

Now, we can't come down too hard on NSMBW for being 2D, which is arguably stagnating in gameplay, because 2D platforming is a very different experience from 3D gaming -- lining up to hit an enemy is a more complicated affair in 3D requiring the player to line up with the enemy on two axes in order to make contact (which is why many such games have homing attacks), dodging enemies is easier due to the ability to sidestep them in most occasions, and along with that gravity thus becomes the biggest enemy because the level geometry can't extend infinitely in any direction -- every 3D level has nothingness on its outside, though this can be compensated for in most cases.

NSMBW may be graphically and musically similar to the DS version, but it doesn't look exactly the same as it. There's been some definite progression in the art, though it retains a style fairly consistent with Mario in the past, and before we get too far into things, we can probably all come to agree that there's no need to fix what isn't broke, nor that a sequel shouldn't have some things in common with its predecessors, which often include art style. In any case, there are some differences in gameplay, most notably with the inclusion of the ice suit and a 4-player mechanic, among other things. No other Mario game had co-op and from all accounts it drastically changes the way the game is played. Ultimately that's a new experience right there.

However, let's look at Mega Man 10. It and its predecessor (9) are designed such that they play as though they were running on an NES from gameplay resolution and sprite limits to controls and sound design. To many, after the 7th and 8th entries in the series, feel like a step backward. Is this something that we can criticize the developers for and are they lazy for developing a game in this manner?

Well, it's definitely the case that games back in those days were simpler affairs to create. It wouldn't be unheard of for major commercial games to be done with teams of fewer than 10 people, even for fairly high-visibility titles. Wikipedia tells me that the average modern Square-Enix game will require about 200 people to develop, probably many of them in 3D rendering. Clearly a game like Mega Man 10 takes significantly fewer resources to produce, and respectively will retail a lot cheaper than Final Fantasy 13 will.

Is it necessarily easier to develop for? Well, maybe not, especially if the development team doesn't have much experience for the platform they're trying to simulate. If they want to go really crazy they could do, say, 6502 assembly and maybe even have a limited-edition cartridge release, which would probably sell well. Of course, 6502 assembly (or any low-level language, really) is a lot different from any modern languages used for gaming, at the very least least in structure and syntax. It would not be something that could be done in half an hour and pushed out the door quickly, ultimately, which is why it's not really reasonable to say that something like Fantasy Zone II DX was a lazy effort on the part of the team responsible for it. It wasn't that they just made art and music that looked like it came from that era and put it on a modern engine, but they had to put it on an older system that comparatively few people are familiar with these days. In any case more than a modicum of prior research is required for the game to be a hit and faithful to its design principles.

So, given that it's probably not lazy to design Mega Man 10 the way they do, why should they do this? Does it add anything to the experience? Well, obviously it's not a matter of gameplay at all, but it does have an effect on the player, at least for some of them, namely those who still look back fondly at placing the new Mega Man game cartridge into a console and preparing to kick some robot-master butt. I'm not one of those, having come around just a little bit past the majority of the NES-era, which is why I'm personally not in favor of the design decision and would be just as happy to see something able to take advantage of modern hardware that might actually impress me. I'm not pulled away from the game by its visual style, mind you, merely unimpressed by it.

Would Mega Man 10 be more fun to play without this visual style? Well, probably not, nor do I think it would be correct to say that it will be more fun to play with it. The reason I say this is that the kind of fun that comes from the visual style of the game would still likely remain in watching a playthrough of it as much as actually playing it. Of course, anyone who claims that graphics are irrelevant to gameplay can go and enjoy their Intellivision and 2600 libraries (which are, like early 3D graphics, often not revisited due to the fact that the hardware involved wasn't always developed enough to have very appealing art) but for most people though it's not the most important factor definitely is one. At the very least appealing art can provide impetus to continue playing a game that otherwise wouldn't compare favorably to some of its contemporaries, certainly -- the same can be said for any elements of its presentation. Many tedious RPGs are unabashedly played solely to move the storyline forward. Think of it as analogous to the "carrot on a stick" concept.

But finally, what of the issue of stagnation in a game like this? Since it tries to feel like something from the late 80s or early 90s, it's not doing much innovation, certainly. But is it on the order of Madden, where from year to year very little changes? Certainly not, from the gameplay perspective if nothing else. This would be a valid claim if Mega Man 10 used the same stages as Mega Man 9 but only changed the robot masters and exchanged Protoman for Roll as a second playable character. The main thing that can change in Madden, after all, is the roster itself. However, for Mega Man 10, the level design and certain enemies -- as well as, of course, the robot masters themselves -- will be quite different from the previous game. It is to all intents and purposes a new game. To say that it must be a bad game because it doesn't stretch the limits of modern hardware potential is almost equivalent to saying that no games in the 1980s were any good at all, as they also are based on very limited technology by modern standards. For many platformer games (and related genres), sharing the same level order and enemy set doesn't inherently make a level too similar to be worth playing -- if it did, then there'd be no reason for a level creation utility to exist in a game like Mega Man Powered Up! because nothing could be done with it.

Similarly, while Madden may not be well-regarded in the gaming community, the response I see for the upcoming NBA Jam game seems to be rather positive. Because that game wasn't grounded in reality, along with, say, Mutant League Hockey and Football, it could change things up and break rules that improved gameplay and add modes that made a difference in how the game was played. It wasn't trying to be a simulation at all, and thus the court was more than just a box with lines -- there was a mode in the follow-up Tournament Edition that added hot zones that would give bonus points for making shots in certain regions, so if you were down 6 points, a good shot could easily get you the tie or the win. Something like that -- an optional "hot-spot" sort of mode that enhances player abilities would be an excellent thing to add to Madden, at the very least for casual play, since it would fit along with the idea of impeding player progress -- don't let the player hit certain spots that pop up on plays. It adds a small element of randomness, which, though always a dangerous mistress to court with in game design, may be just enough to make the game significantly more exciting on its own. Also, make these sorts of bonus gameplay modes different with every release, to try to make each one more worth getting.

Another way to make the Madden titles more palatable is to only release a significant version with notable changes every 3-4 years and make other releases smaller expansion packs that retail for a significantly smaller price -- all that will be updated is the player roster and some bug fixes, thus justifying a smaller price tag. (This is at least alluded to in the video, unlike the previous suggestion.)

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