Are Retro Sports Games Better Than Modern Sports Games?

I've got back into retro gaming in a big way after buying a framemeister. Me and a friend have been heavily playing Super Tennis on the SNES, amongst other games, and this got me thinking about the idea that retro sports games are (generally) much better than modern sports games. I'm trying not to be nostalgic here. I think it very easy to fall into old codger mindset that 'things were better in my day' but I genuinely believe this to be true. There are  plenty of reasons why I think this, including the fact that retro sports games usually have simpler controls, more iconic representation and a larger focus on the single screen multiplayer experience but I think that it comes down to the simple fact that modern sports titles have an endless obsession with realism.

I think the pursuit of realism  is one of the most detrimental forces in MODERN game design.

I've also never really understood the motivation behind our industries obsession with it. Ok, I get the idea that some people want graphics to look as close to real-life as possible, and it is a laudable goal which I admire (even if it doesn't float my boat)  but I never fully bought into the idea that the game design itself should also pursue this goal.

A retro sports classic. Super Tennis!

A retro sports classic. Super Tennis!

To paraphrase Roger Caillois games are separate and closed off from real life. Unlike life, the very best games are simple, clean, easy to understand. You know who was the winner, you understood everything that took place and can easily comprehend exactly why it had that outcome. So I do find it so perplexing that some designers insist on putting these opaque rules inside the game to better simulate stress levels, concentration or fatigue.

I mean, what does the "vision" stat actually do in Fifa 15?

I go back and play EA Hockey, Irem Skins Golf or Super Tennis and there is an elegant simplicity to the gameplay that makes for a wholly more satisfying experience. I think this is one of the main reasons that Rocket League is getting so much attention.  It taps into that more simple retro sports game design philosophy (that and it was free to PlayStation Plus subscribers!). The game becomes about players pitting against each other real-time competition where the only difference between them is their dexterity and skill.

This is an argument that I've had many MANY times with friends when talking about Fifa Soccer (or why I don't like playing football games any more). I can easily understand why a company like EA would push for more and more realism, but why is it that, on the whole, this is the only type of sports game available? There are realistic and unrealistic racing games, realistic and unrealistic first person shooters and realistic and unrealistic third person action games in the triple a space and yet the only unrealistic sports game of note in the last ten years (that isn't some sort of future sport) is Wii Sports!

Wii Sports Tennis. Good, but its no Super Tennis!

Wii Sports Tennis. Good, but its no Super Tennis!

It is interesting that Wii Sports is also the second best selling video game of all time. So perhaps there is a market for a unrealistic football game after all..?

The Designer's Model Versus the Player's Model

There is a simple principle that I discovered in the classic industrial design text "The Design of Everyday Things" about the conversation any designer has with the user (or in our case, the player). This conversation happens through the piece of design being used and is called the "affordance". Quoted from Wikipedia:

"An affordance is often taken as a relation between an object or an environment and an organism, that affords the opportunity for that organism to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling. As a relation, an affordance exhibits the possibility of some action, and is not a property of either an organism or its environment alone."

I'm not sure my knob affords twisting, but anyway, in relating to video games, affordance is the conversation every game has with the player. Lets look at spiny from Super Mario as an example...

In Mario the player quickly learns the main verbs that the chubby plumber can perform (i.e. jumping and running), from initial experimentation with the controls. When looking at spiny for the first time, the spikes placed on the enemy turtle's back informs the player that the base strategy of jumping onto an enemy's head to squash them won't work for this opponent.

Simple right?

This elegant principle is very powerful but rarely actually consciously discussed by development teams when making games (in my experience). I think this is partly due to the fact that making games from well established genres come with certain assumptions about how the player's avatar, opponents and environment will behave. Also (dare I say it?) I think there is a certain amount of reluctance to admit that a piece of art actually has more of a role to play than just to look nice.

Problem arise when certain misconceptions about the rules of the game communicated through the affordance of the enemy characters and environmental layout go on to build a model of the system image that is incorrect:

The player's understanding of how the game's rules function can only be built from playing the game (yes, the player could build a better model by reading the instruction manual, but who actually reads instruction manuals any more) so games have to be careful about what they are saying to the player at all times and not supply misinformation that could cause frustration.

The additional difficulty with this design principle that is unique to game design is that games are supposed to be a challenge. To quote Bernard Suits, playing a game is: 

"To engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means."

'Less efficient means' is the important part of that quote in the context of this conversation. The easiest way to win at golf would be to carry the ball and place it in the little hole using our hands, not to walk 500 yards in the opposite direction and attempt to get it in only using long metal sticks. We instinctively understand that if winning at the game is trivial then it becomes boring. So, as designers, we deliberately put rules in place to make achieving the goal of the game more difficult using these 'less efficient means'.

But I think that designers can get 'trying to communicate the rules of the game clearly' and 'creating an interesting challenge for the player to overcome' mixed up and start to obscure how the game's rules work in order to create challenge, which I think is a mistake. (Lets be clear, I mean rules and not information. Hiding information about the game's state is a completely valid design technique, with hidden playing cards in a poker game and a strategy game's 'fog of war' being two great examples of this).

I will always maintain that the player having a misunderstanding about how the internal rules work will always result in a less satisfying experience. I would be happy to be proved wrong on this point, though...

Remember, you are always in conversation with your player, so just be careful out what you say....

Brutal DOOM

So, in-between game development and other things taking up my time I've been spending the occasional lunch (when I can) to play Brutal DOOM. Brutal DOOM is a mod for the original DOOM and DOOM II that takes the original game and adds a host of graphical and gameplay improvements. Check this out:

It's a fantastic mod that adds meaningful additions like the ability to aim vertically and reload. (There are other actions, including a "duck" and "jump" which I have chosen to ignore because they weren't considered when designing the levels) These changes, along with much nicer lighting and some of the most violent and over-the-top gory game permanence (that even puts Hotline Miami to shame) makes this version easily the definitive version of Doom.

The most interest part of this mod is that it actually makes Doom's core gameplay even better. Most pc mods either add graphical enhancements, streamline UI elements, or add new gameplay features, but very few (with the exception of minecraft) revise the core gameplay to such a degree as this. The Brutal mod improves moving, aiming and shooting, adding kickback to the shotgun and reloading to the plasma rifle. Also although reloading and head-shots are a staple of modern fps design, I still find it fascinating that these gameplay elements enhance an older game which was never designed to include them.

DOOM is one of the best first person shooters of all time, I mean, it goes without saying. But one of the key strengths of the game that seems either downplayed or downright ignored by modern game design trends is that its completely abstract with the enemy design. Each monster type serves a gameplay purpose first and foremost. What I find most interesting is that nearly all modern first person shooter studios do not design the game working from these simple principles. Why not? Haven't we already seem enough humanoids carrying semi-automatic weapons?

Anyway, download the mod here. Remember to buy the game first.