What's Wrong With Modern Games?
by Cliff Harris

Are modern PC games any better than the early efforts that came out around the time of the Sinclair ZX81 home computer? or even more worrying... are they actually worse? Here is a list of 12 problems, myths and misconceptions about the modern PC games biz, seen through the eyes of an independent games developer and lifelong gamer.

1)"Minimum requirement: 70 Terrabyte Hard Drive."

A quick check shows that an install of Deep Space Nine: The Fallen weighs in at roughly 702MB, over double the size of my Operating System. To most keen gamers this might not seem much of an issue, after all we live in a time of 30 gig hard drives, so who cares? There are several reasons:

Firstly hard drives will, and do, fill up quickly. Games compete for our disk space with ever bigger applications, huge operating systems and ever growing MP3 collections. Sure we can uninstall and reinstall our games when we don't play them, but wouldn't we rather have space for all of our games, ready to play, rather than just ready to install?

Secondly our hard disk drives may be measured in gigabytes but RAM, both on the video card and the motherboard, are still measured in MB. A game with 400 MB of textures often suffers huge load times between levels, and even worse, major disk or RAM thrashing during gameplay. Ironically this slowdown hits at the worst possible times, just as we enter new game areas, or new enemies appear in our field of view.

Thirdly, a big game normally has a big demo. You can look at 30-100 MB or more for some demos. Sure, there are a few lucky hardcore gamers out there with cable modems, but the rest of us have no chance of downloading the latest Mechwarrior4 demo. As a budget game developer, I have 2 games selling shareware right now. One is pretty average, and 1.8MB, the other is pretty good, and 10MB. Guess which one generates more sales?

2)"The New age of Interactive sexism and Macho manliness"

I don't watch much cheap TV. Badly acted stereotypes don't strike me as having much entertainment value outside of parody. The problem is these stereotypes extend to the game world too. Duke Nukem looked bad enough, but with modern games hours of sound files he can sound cliched too. You can only listen to so many chisel-jawed marines shouting "Lets kick some alien butt marine!" before you start to cringe physically at every line of dialogue. The obsession with butch chiselled American marine figures is almost (but not quite) as embarrassing as the blatant sexism in the characters in Tomb Raider and Sin. Like most people over the age of 15, I am pretty embarrassed to be associated with games (and game imagery) like these.

3)"Bugs are part of the experience..."

Nothing spoils the sense of immersion more than a bug. When enemy soldiers walk through each other, or your character gets his arm stuck in a wall, it's like a powerful arm yanking you back into the real world. Gamers seem to put up with it, but imagine how many copies of say, the last Harry potter book, would be returned in disgust if pages 32 to 44 were printed upside down? Imagine how annoyed people would be if they were told you could fix this by pulling out the pages and sticking them back in. (This style of advice is often to be found in the troubleshooting pages of games publishers web sites...).

Crash bugs and visible artifacts are one type of bug, but lazy coding that results in hideously long load or startup times is sometimes just as bad. Worse still is the omission of obvious features. Pressing ESC should always get you out of the current screen. How many times have you played "Hunt the quit key" along your keyboard?

I'm aware of the standard arguments, I've gone through what seemed like never-ending bug-hunts on my own games, sometimes chasing bugs that seemed impossible to fix, or even to reproduce. There are two reasons I can imagine a world without bugs though:

a) It's in the publishers best interests. I do get bug reports about my games. They are a pain, take time to fix and reply to, and for everyone who emails a bug, you know you lost a sales on two dozen who gave up without mentioning it (have you ever reported a bug to a publisher?) The one game I have that went through exhaustive QA, has not had a single bug email, and also happens to be my biggest seller by far. Coincidence?

b)We all know it's possible. Found any bugs in Age Of Empires 2? I play it every week and have done since it was released. So far my bug count is zero. It CAN be done. It's just very hard work, but if you don't like hard work, change your career now.

Bugs can ruin otherwise great games. failing to fix them, or fixing them after the event is not good enough. If i want to QA for Eidos, I'll apply. until then, sell me finished products thanks.

4)"Sequel Mania"

Hands up who is excited about Black & White, or maybe Halo? now hands up who is excited about Tomb Raider XXXVII? Sequels are probably the most depressing example of money-driven publishing. Tomb Raider sequels, and games like it, rely on people buying them as safe presents for people who they liked the first one. Sadly this doesn't mean the follow-on games are any better. There are exceptions, AOE2 vastly outshines its predecessor, and Mechwarrior3 is also a huge improvement. The problem is these examples get vastly outweighed by the vast sea of Command and Conquer sequels.

5)"Tech Demo 2: The revenge"

When is a game not a game? When it is a tech demo. Have you noticed many mirrors in games recently? or perhaps very shiny floors? To what extent is this needed for reasons of atmosphere and realism, and to what extent is it just an excuse to show off groovy new video card features like environment mapping? If you want to see jaw dropping computer graphics, download graphics demos from the web. Games are games, they are about fun, not selling video cards. How appropriate for games to be given away with the hottest cards, in many cases they are blatant adverts for them, nothing more.

6)"Coming soon..."

Are you sick of being told about a game three years before it's released? Even more scary is when people consistently talk about games like Black & White as though they are the "Game of 2000".Somewhat ironic considering the game isn't even in Beta as I write this, 3 days before the year 2001.

I don't mind knowing whats coming up a few months in advance. Why buy game X now when better game Y is coming out in a month? as long as game Y DOES come out in a month, or even come out at all.

Babylon 5 combat simulator? forget it, after all that hype the game was ditched and never seen again, ditto Mortyr as I recall. What was the point of all those interviews, previews, screenshots et al for Max Payne, when even that game got canned? How many pages of the latest games magazines are given over to coverage of games that will get dumped? Aren't you curious as to what games do NOT get any coverage at all because the big publishers pushed news of 'soon-to-be-binned' projects?

7)"Dumb and Dumber"

Why do games treat me as stupid? Even if we accept that keys and doors are a pathetic expression of the term 'Puzzle', would it be too much for certain keys to fit certain doors without needing the doors and keys color coded? Even in this instance we can probably press F1 (at least we could, if games developers standardised such things. Do you programmers REALLY not know that F1 summons help?) and have some painfully slow audio telling us "To open the red door, you will need the red key...".

The problem of being given too much help in a game is a real and gameplay-defeating one. of course I could turn-off DS9:The Fallen's auto-aim feature to make it more difficult, but why tempt me by putting it there in the first place?

One of the games I remember as defining computer gaming as a kid was a game called Hacker. Hacker had no manual, no instructions, it started up with the words "Please log in", with no clues and no help. The game drove you mad, but was addictive and rewarding. At later stages, the game would ask you questions in foreign languages. No F1, no help, just work out the answers. Sure, you had to work hard at that game, but things you don't work hard at are simply not rewarding. There is a lesson here for modern game designers.

8)"Multiple Death animations"

What is so entertaining about death? Even putting aside the gore element and the perverse interest some game playing kids have in the realism with which bits of their victims catapult across the screen, death, from a game design POV is the crudest and most basic dynamic.

Thief proved to any who would doubt it, that sneaking past the guards is more rewarding than shooting them. Sadly very few games have taken the idea to their hearts? You would think games designers were desperately trying to push the barrier even further, but no, here comes a Klingon guard, (I know this, because like baddies everywhere he has the courtesy to yell "stop! intruder" at me before he shoots) I suppose I should shoot him with my phaser rifle... Sadly many first person shooters resemble tech demos wrapped around sub-pacman gameplay.

9)Blockbuster mania

Everywhere on the web and the media the tale is told of how 'Modern games cost a fortune to make' and 'Development costs are spiralling out of control' And like most myths that are constantly repeated, these views are never questioned. These days a super fast computer with lots of RAM and enough Hard drive space for gigabytes of art assets can be bought for under a thousand dollars. The latest compilers and 3D graphics packages do everything but make coffee, and instead of writing custom video drivers we have DirectX and OpenGL, and even better, ready-to-use engines that do a huge portion of the work for us. So why aren't games cheaper to make? and thus why isn't there more choice?

The answer seems obvious looking at new games, they have technologies we never dreamed of many years ago, lip-synching, realistic shadows, bump mapping, Newtonion physics etc. The extra development effort required for these extras pushes games budgets up there with the new Star Wars movie. The problem is, as more money is spent on the games, the projects suffer from diminishing returns. If the budget doubles, the playability and review score doesn't double, and most publishers keep piling in the dollars long after this milestone is passed. If game X cost x million dollars, game y MUST spend twice as much. The problem is, there are no publishers bucking the trend, so the 'perceived wisdom' becomes that you HAVE to spend that amount of money to get a hit. Games that buck the trend like Rollercoaster Tycoon are quickly forgotten as publishers queue up to spend millions on hours of Full Motion Video. These days, any belief that all a game needs is talent and creativity are swept aside in favour of the all-encompassing belief that games just need lots of money, another reason why games are dumbed down to appeal to the largest demographic.

10)"I used to sell cars but..."

The best games are made by games players. This may seem obvious, but the industry has forgotten it. You can never really understand an audience if you aren't part of it. The success of the videogames industry has sucked in the money-men who talk about 'product' instead of games. These people never played games as a kid, they never gasped when they first saw Space-Invaders or Doom or Quake2. They believe they can understand the games players by having focus groups and testing the feedback with open betas. It's people like this that suggest we install the game in an "Eidos" subdirectory. Why would I vaguely do this? maybe I should keep my books organised on bookshleves according to publisher too? Sounds stupid doesn't it... except to marketing people.

Some of the best gameplay ideas are coming from the Mod scene, which is to be expected as by definition all mod teams are made of hardcore gamers. In many ways the mod scene is the new bedroom hacking, an essential part of the industry if it is to take in new ideas and new talent. Mod developers tweak the Unreal and Quake engines to do amazing things, but are still limited by the design at the core of these products. Bedroom hackers (like myself) are kept out of the market by the perpetuation of the myth that only multimillion dollar games (almost invariably in 3D) will sell. Statistical evidence that this is a lie (Budget hit Deer Hunter, or 2D successes like Rollercoaster Tycoon) is quietly swept aside.

There is a distinct generation of game developers around the age of Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier, Richard garriot. Sadly, it looks like the next generation is being locked out, their seats taken by the money men and accountants.

11)"The taming of the web"

The internet was supposed to be the ultimate leveller. Suddenly you didn't need a high street store, you could compete with multinationals on an equal playing field. A game could be made in a bedroom in Kansas, and purchased on-line from a customer in Hong Kong. The bug publishers (music, games, books...) would all be swept aside by a new explosion on small independents doing it for themselves...

It didn't happen. The initial wave of fan-run websites started getting too many hits and were bought up by the big multinationals. Search engines that had originally treated all men as equals started offering a premium service that charged people for an immediate listing. Ever tried getting a shareware web site listed on Yahoo? The big publishers make sure a constant stream of identical looking screenshots are fed to the big name websites, every one of which focuses on the same 10 games. Meanwhile the budget publishers, the independent developers, and the true original games are squeezed out. Looking for news on that new indie sci-fi strategy game? sorry, no joy, but we have the same 64 new screenshots of Tomb raider XXVII on our site today!

12)"If we want to be more like this industry..."

The popular claim that "game budgets are going up and up " sits happily alongside those that start with "If we want to be taken seriously like the film industry..." or "If we want to attract the same kind of audience as the music business...". This problem is related to number 10), but basically... THIS IS THE GAMES INDUSTRY. Try reading the fourth word again. The word is GAMES, which, in any thesaurus will lead you to the words 'fun' and 'interactive'. Games are not movies, and never will be, unless they are morphed into hours of tediously acted and scripted FMV. And games won't become books either, the whole notion of interactivity tears to shreds any chance of novel-style scripting. From the music business, the industry is rapidly adopting the kind of disreputable employment contracts and marketing-driven content that has given us the modern pop charts. The music biz is happiest with fewer bands and fewer hits. Just like in games, music has high fixed costs and trivial marginal costs. The end result is a small variety of dumbed-down generic elevator music. Sounds like the games charts to me.


So what's the answer? Am I suggesting a return to bedroom hacking, games that fit on a floppy and 2D sprites? Not exactly, but a creativly-driven, rather than demographics-driven industry would be nice, games that fit on a single CD (at max.) would be nicer still, and a wider tolerance of budget and even low-tech (isometric games DO sell... AOE2 anybody?) would be even nicer. There will always be a good reason to spend mega bucks on a bleeding edge games blockbuster, and I will probably buy some of them, but the danger is that the blockbusters become the only boxes on the shelves. I'm in no danger of losing my interest in games, I was hooked when I first played Pong, and still am. I just think the industry is making some big mistakes and it's time to put fingers-to-keyboard to say so.

Cliff Harris
Indie Game Developer

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Date this article was posted to GameDev.net: 4/11/2001
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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