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Learning from your earliest video game experiences
Learning from your earliest video game experiences
March 8, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 8, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Design

Game Developer magazine's Brandon Sheffield reflects on what designers can learn from their first video game loves. (Originally printed in Game Developer's March issue, available now.)

They say you're forever dating your first love. Not literally, of course, but the early patterns set by your first relationship, and the relationships of your parents, tend to strongly influence how you approach love and relationships for many years to come.

I wonder: Is the same true for games? Do those early games we played in our formative years influence what we now perceive as "good" and "bad" in interactive media? Do they influence how we design games? I submit that they may.

First kiss is deadly

Let's think about a series like Dark Souls/Demon's Souls. These games are punishing, require rather exacting inputs from players, and have somewhat fiddly controls that require getting used to. That sounds like a nice recipe for a failure stew. So why did these games succeed?

One of the praises you often see from reviewers is that the series reminds them of the glory days of Japanese console and arcade games, which were built with much the same recipe. It's like a new love affair with an old flame - the same problems as always, yet sweetly, lovingly familiar. Japanese publication Dengeki said of Demon's Souls, "Fans of old-school games will shed tears of joy." IGN reviewer Sam Bishop echoed the sentiment, saying, "Those that can remember the good ol' days when games taught through the highly effective use of intense punishment and a heavy price for not playing it carefully should scoop this up instantly."

But what about people who didn't grow up with that experience? What about those who are more used to frequent checkpoints, and the game providing a full experience to blaze through in one go, rather than in halting steps? For them, the game is a harder sell, which is why Sony passed on publishing Demon's Souls in the West, and core-oriented niche publisher Atlus had to step up and do it instead.

For Demon's Souls, its link to the past helped it succeed. But perhaps the reverse can also happen: Our personal game heritages could, at times, make us slaves to our past interests. For example, I tend to like games that are interesting, but flawed. To me, a glitch in an otherwise super-polished Call of Duty is extremely glaring and illusion-shattering, but I'll happily forgive poor graphics and the occasional invisible wall in a game like Nier, which stabs out in all directions with new ideas. If a game tries hard to do something different, I'll forgive its faults - and if I want to be a designer who makes games that are good at making money, this preference for different-but-flawed could hold me back from making games with commercial appeal.

With this thought in mind, I decided to dissect my own past as a player to see what influence it might have had on my current interests.

Lessons from the TurboGrafx-16

My history is a bit odd - I went from the 2600 and Intellivision (which were already old when I got them, but they were affordable!), to the TurboGrafx-16, which I saved up for months to afford. And this is the console that informed my early days as a player of games.

The Valis series, for example, is not very well known, but I played it to death. It's an action, platforming, hack-and-slash affair that stars a high school girl, out to save the world, with a sword taking on a horde of monsters. Pretty standard fare for the 1990s.

You could jump, perform a sword attack, use magic (and could power up both of these attacks), walk, and roll. I replayed Valis III recently, and I noticed something about those rolls that may have influenced my current interests and design habits. Rolling allows the player to travel for a set distance, both under obstacles and across gaps. But this distance is such that, at times, beginning a roll just a few pixels one way or the other means life or death in a difficult platforming section. On top of that, the platforms themselves can occasionally have dressings that don't count as area you can stand on.

This is most likely something one would want to avoid in the modern era, because it feels like the game has tricked you, when you've clearly made the roll visually, but it's counted as a death. Less obvious, though, is the triumph you feel after defeating that particularly difficult section. It's as though you've succeeded in spite of the game's efforts to thwart you. You are actually fighting against the game itself, which we're generally told not to do - but in a modern game like Demon's Souls, it makes the thrill of victory that much more compelling.

There is a lesson here for me as a designer: I can sometimes focus too much on making things smooth for a player in the immediate term, versus their long-term experience.

I won't bore you with my history as a player, but revisiting these old game-loves continually revealed patterns in my current thinking. For instance, Bonk's Revenge's somewhat mystical and alchemic systems helped drive me to chase the elusive beast that is emergent gameplay in a simple game world. But is that my white whale? That pursuit has, at times, led to feature bloat (which is exactly what happened in the subsequent Bonk installment, incidentally).

Reconstructing our past

Just to make sure I wasn't the only one who's influenced by his past, I asked my friends Tim Rogers of Action Button Entertainment and Frank Cifaldi of, with whom I record a weekly podcast (which is also called insert credit), to talk a bit about their formative games, and found them similarly branded by past experience.

For Cifaldi, it was The Secret of Monkey Island, which gave him the first glimpse of a full, living interactive game world. This colored his interest in games for years to come; when he was young, he made adventure games in HyperCard, and later, when he was working at GameTap, he made an interactive community adventure game called Captain McGrandpa.

Rogers, meanwhile, thinks Super Mario Bros. 3 is the best game ever made. SMB3 is very much about precision and timing of jumps and reactions, but also about secrets - warps, hidden passageways, and coin boxes in the sky. It's no wonder, then, that the first game he directed (ZiGGURAT for iOS) is a deceptively simple game about timing, precision, and nothing else - aside from the occasional secret.

Tell me about your Mother

For your human relationship problems, you can go to a therapist - but they'll just reflect back what you already know. I highly recommend you take a self-analysis approach to your game history. Going back and dissecting those early learnings can help you grow past your earliest ideas of what a game is, or can be, because while most lessons will be good, some will be bad as well.

The musical platformer Sound Shapes is an interesting case study: If you read the postmortem in the December 2012 issue of Game Developer, you'll see that the game's mastermind, Jon Mak, said, "I don't like platformers, or level editors, but in the back of my mind they made sense." He also added, "That was a thing that we learned: We couldn't achieve our design goals with what we would do naturally."

So here is an example of developers playing against their type, and against their early imprint. This worked well, and brought Sound Shapes to critical acclaim, and many IGF nominations. But at the same time, is it any wonder that (sorry, Jon) the game just doesn't feel like a solid platformer? It feels like an interactive music toy where platforming happens to be the mechanic to drive progress. Without the music element, this would not be a loving homage to the platforming genre.

There are lessons in our past for all of us. Try it out on yourself; think about the first game that really grabbed you. Maybe it's the first game that compelled you to keep coming back, aiming for a perfect score; maybe it's the first game that made you feel like games were a living world; maybe it's the first game that let you play against another player.

Revisit these games with new eyes. While playing them, think about the jump distances for platformers, or how you start a drift in a racing game, and how long that drift lasts. Think about the level progression in RPGs, or the score multipliers in a shooter. How has your current work reinforced those old ideas? How have they strayed? Should you be more critical of those old ideas? It's an interesting exercise which can yield some surprising results. Even if you don't come away with something practical, you may have an easier time explaining why you prefer to sink hours into Minecraft over Skyrim - or the reverse.

Back to the future

The kids of today expect autosaving, persistence, checkpoints, and massive interactivity on a Minecraft scale. And they're not wrong to expect it! That's what they grew up with, and that is to some extent the future of entertainment. But when they grow up, what will they expect from games? What will their first love affair teach them to love and hate?

Getting closer to the now, what about kids who grew up with the Nintendo 64? The precise magic of GoldenEye 64 has never been properly revisited. What of a child who grew up with the Dreamcast? Is anyone serving her needs?

I'm not suggesting we need to mine the past and prey on nostalgia. But attempting to serve similar experiences to those people felt in their youth - in new and modern products - can be a valuable goal. Nobody wants to play a new game that's exactly like GoldenEye 64. They want to play a game that feels like how they remember GoldenEye 64 at the time they were playing it. With a little self-analysis, and a careful study of these bygone eras of games, you might just get at that mystical and elusive feeling.

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Daniel Hayes
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Great article! An interesting perspective of how and why we enjoy(and create) games.

Chris Clogg
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Actually, a new game that's exactly like Goldeneye 64 would be a huge step up... JK! lol.

Val Reznitskaya
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This is completely true. Not going to lie - it's thanks to Ocarina of Time that I just can't be immersed in a game world I can't interact with, no matter how beautifully rendered it is. That might also have to do with why I never thought random treasure chests in the middle of the woods were experience-breakingly ridiculous.

Children are really impressionable. I just hope that 15 years from now, we won't have a flood of developers thinking "Oh man, you know what I miss? Games that were constantly bombarding you with ads and energy bars and dual currencies. Enjoying those without paying was a game in itself. How nostalgic."

Val Reznitskaya
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15 years is a long time relative to the medium's age. With all due respect, I don't think either of us can know where we'll be then. But I think it's safe to say that today's children are growing up on very different games than anyone currently working in the industry.

Steven Christian
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To be fair, the medium of painting (canvas and paint) wasn't exactly developing in leaps and bounds in the 1900's.

Currently the medium of gaming is changing and evolving at an alarming rate, so I think that we will see some changes yet.

Russ Menapace
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My first experiences were with the arcade games, and the sense of urgency to perform was massively driven by the fact that you had a quarter (~70 cents accounting for inflation) at stake. Playing a game for hours on a single quarter was a transcendent experience that caused people to gather around you and watch.

I haven't felt that level of intensity in any other setting, and I think it would be impossible to recreate, given the reluctance to even pay a buck to own a game.

Tom Maxwell
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I'm really hoping that someone figures out how to leverage the social aspects of the PS4 to emulate the experience of watching the good players in the arcades in the 80's. It will need the right combination of game type and social circle, but it could be cool.

Michael Joseph
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Nice article. First experiences can be both shaping and revelating. Too often we think that media can only reveal whats already there. And maybe it makes you wonder how much of a difference there is between the two. Maybe they are two aspects of the same coin.

game design challenge:

create a game where the player avatar is shaped/changed by its experiences (maybe like Gish, Knack, Altered Beast, pac-man, giant/miniature mario) but without any "ingestion" mechanic of pills, potions, or shrooms, and where each change leaves a permanent impression on the avatar (and in this sense no change is completely reversible) and influences the available future changes the character can undergo thereby changing the way the game can be played and/or how it can be completed.

Luis Guimaraes
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That's how the whole RPG genre came to existence.

Michael Joseph
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You are right of course.

But I was thinking of something more abstract which is reflected in the examples I used.

I was also thinking of something where the player's learned knowledge about how the various experiences will morph their avatar becomes critical to devising tactics to pass various levels.

Those evolution games where you start off as a simple organism and evolve into complex fish creatures as you eat captures the dramatic morphing visually, but they don't require the player study the level design as part of divising a morph path strategy or even allow players to choose a path (maybe some do? This still breaks the "no ingestion" rule. I'dlike to see the player to morph via their interactions with things in the level so that it's experience driving the morphs, not food or chemicals).

David Serrano
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This is slightly off topic but relevant in the larger sense.

Is it accurate or fair to claim Dark Souls was "successful?" The worldwide active installed base for the 360 and PS 3 combined is approximately 86.3 million. Dark Souls sold 1.6 million copies worldwide. So the game only appealed to approximately 1.8 percent of the potential worldwide audience.

Given that most AAA games sell under 1 million copies, it's accurate and fair to claim Dark Souls was successful within this context. But is healthy or productive for the development community to view the failure to reach 98.2 percent of an established and active audience as a "success" which should be emulated? Because in any other industry, this would be viewed as a massive failure on every level and it would result in drastic changes to the underlying design and business strategies for future products.

But amazingly, the game development community continues to place Dark Souls up on a pedestal. I would understand if this was simply a case of other developers applauding From Software for attempting to expose a wider audience to an extremely esoteric interpretation of what constitutes play, but failing. But for designers and developers to continue to point to Dark Souls as a gold standard is a disconnect from reality I simply cannot comprehend.

The lesson the development community should take away from Dark Souls is esoteric theories and personal preferences must be reconciled against the actual needs, desires and preferences of a majority of the potential audience. Because if they are not, in all likelihood the result will be the game only appealing to a single digit percentage of the potential audience.

Brandon Sheffield
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Answer - it is a success compared to what everyone thought it's audience would be. Is that not obvious?

Mike Murray
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You're looking at this wrong. The goal of the developer is not to reach out to 100% of the installed base. Within that installed base, consumers are divided into people with certain preferences. The goal is to cater to those preferences. Going by what you're saying, every game ever made must be a failure because it doesn't appeal to 100% of a console's installed base.

Dark Souls is a success because it goes against standards. It's a game that says it's OK to not hold the player's hand every step of the way. It doesn't insult the player's intelligence. The game is designed for a specific audience, but at the same time it offers a revolutionary passive multiplayer experience. It's not going to pull in Call of Duty-like numbers, but that was never the goal. Even so, it still did very well, probably the most From has ever made in their lifetime.