Have Games Evolved?

There’s an interesting blog post at Armchair Arcade that discusses an evergreen debate: are modern games better than old games, or are they simply different?

I don’t think there’s an absolute answer to that, even if you discount technology changes (the main point of his blog post). There’s one thing that’s clear to me though: game players have definitely evolved. I’m not saying there aren’t super hard-core, old school people out there who relish and savor specific types of games… but I’m talking about general standards here, not specific niche genres or game styles.

As an example, I’ll talk about Lands of Lore. It’s an awesome game, one that Good Old Gamers should snap up in a minute (if EA was licensing their old content to GOG, that is). When it came out, it received almost universal acclaim and good review scores. It was one of the first really casual, light-weight CRPGs with more action-based gameplay, fewer stats, and pre-made characters. It’s really playable, even today, and I’d encourage you to borrow or buy a copy of it if you haven’t played it.

I played Lands of Lore when it first came out, and finished it at least three times. It deserved those high review scores at the time, but there are design aspects of Lands of Lore that a modern game developer would never let out the door. It has nothing to do with graphics or technology or a change in “style” and everything to do with the evolution of games as a medium.

— Spoiler alert! If you haven’t played Lands of Lore, you plan to play, and you like solving puzzles with absolutely no help, stop reading now! —

It was fantastic that Lands of Lore had an automap. An automap in a step-based RPG was like a ray of sunshine for those of us who didn’t want to work graph paper and pencil into our ergonomics while playing a CRPG. Here’s the crazy part, though: the in-world item you click to activate your automap is in an optional room, not on the main path. Think about that for a second. You don’t start with the automap, or gain it automatically at a certain point in the game. You don’t even come across it while playing through normally. You have to explore to even find the automap.

And here’s where it gets crazier. When you go to the second area of the game (Southlands), you enter a somewhat small but non-linear area. Your goal is to talk to a specific character to get a specific item. The path to him has some pretty strong enemies, and at this point you only have one character. You can acquire a second character (making the battles a lot easier), but you have to explore to find the inn, and then click on all the people at the inn until you happen upon the one you need.

Guess what? There’s something else you need at the inn too. If you knock on all the closed doors, you’ll find one that opens. The man inside that room knows the king and decides to help you out by giving you a compass. Yep, that’s right–unless you explore, find the inn, knock on all the doors, and meet that one guy, you can play the entire rest of the game without an essential piece of the HUD!

It doesn’t end there. You can drop items in the world that are required for quests later on. Sure, items you drop remain on the ground forever… but it’s a big game, and it’s tough to remember where you dropped that recipe you thought you didn’t need anymore. There are also two specific types of enemies that can only be defeated with specific weapons that are otherwise completely unrelated to them–with no in-world hints or clues I ever found.

All of these things make it sound like a terrible game, and that’s my point–it wasn’t a terrible game at all, at the time. In fact, it was an excellent game at the time, and it was really forward-looking in terms of usability and casual playability. Yet the things I mentioned about would be unthinkable in a modern game, even one intended for hardcore gamers.

Games have evolved to match the evolved expectations of the people playing them. Things like not letting me drop required quest items and automatically giving me required HUD elements don’t represent the “dumbing down” of classic games or even a gameplay approach that has gone out of style. It’s just plain poor design, and now we know better.

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