Why do modern games suck so badly?

gh3_old_guyI know I have hit my twilight years, because blowing stuff up in videogames just isn’t as much fun as it used to be.

Might as well admit it.  “I’m an old man.  I hate everything but Matlock.  Oooo, it’s on now!”

When I was a younger lad I worked in a software store.  Truth be told the store probably made more money from me than I ever made from it.  I bought games pretty well every week.  There were gazillions of games catering to all kinds of players.  Simulators of all varieties, shooters, sports games, adventure games, strategy games, role-playing games, side-scrolling console games, educational games that were both fun  and entertaining…

These days the PC gaming industry has really narrowed its focus down to four major genres:

  • First-person shooters where you blow up Nazis (or the undead, or aliens, or genetic experiments gone wrong, or—let’s get really original—undead Nazi genetic experiments gone wrong!)
  • Hack-and-slash RPGs
  • League-branded sports games
  • Massively multiplayer online games that feature one of the above.

I understand this is where they are going to sell the majority of their titles, but good gravy it is boring.  How many more Call of Duty or Medal of Honor games can they crank out?    Now that we have fought the virtual WW2 longer than the actual WW2, it’s getting a little old.  I’m done with WW2 games and first-person shooters in general.  That stuff was fun ten years ago when I was playing Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon using contemporary scenarios and equipment.  These days the big trend is to get hyper-realistic graphics with seriously unrealistic gameplay.

Most of my favourite games of yesteryear didn’t have wicked 3d graphics, fast framerates or depend on carpal-tunnel-inducing clickrates.  Here’s a little trip down memory lane for old times’ sake, featuring ten games (in no particular order) the industry will probably never make again.

f191.  F-19 Stealth Fighter (1988).
Yes, I know, there is no F-19, but neither the game developers nor the general public knew that twenty years ago.  This game was a lot of fun because it was the antithesis of the normal air superiority sim.  Success didn’t depend on turning and burning at max afterburner at 25,000 feet.  It depended on threading your way through a forest of enemy air defenses (without getting detected), getting faaaar behind enemy lines, accomplishing your recon or strike mission (with very limited ammo), and getting out in one piece.

You had to plan everything in advance and be ready to adapt the plan (or chuck it) when the enemy started to make things go pear-shaped.  Some of the longest, most challenging missions lasted hours—not an easy feat, trying to hand-fly a wobbly jet low and slow, in the dead of night, deep into Soviet territory.  If you maxed out the difficulty settings you could, eventually, reap the highest rewards—promotion to Brigadier General and, if you were especially skilled, winning the Medal of Honor.

To their credit, MicroProse did release an excellent updated version featuring the F-117 a few years later, but the principles of stealthy flying were never as fully realised in later air combat sims (such as Jane’s USAF) which did feature stealth aircraft.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: The whole point of the game is to get in and get out with minimum fuss and hassle, not taunt the enemy and get a five-on-one furball going.  There is not much opportunity to have four other buddies on voice chat flying the same strike package (or other missions); you’re supposed to be plausibly deniable to the US government.  This game requires some thinking and rewards patience and good planning, not the kind of thing that excites the average teenager.  You have to be a bit of a grognard to get into the spirit of this one.

alter_ego 2.  Alter Ego (1986).
This game has almost no graphics to speak of but is interesting in its own way.  The core of the game revolves around making life choices for a fictional self, from cradle to grave.  Not exactly pulse-pounding action, but an interesting exercise in what-ifs.  It allowed one to explore the consequences of their own decision-making in a humourous, fictional way.  See what happened if you played with matches, or ignored schoolwork in favour of sports, or tried to date five girls at your school at one time.  These are negative examples, of course, but even the relatively positive choices have consequences.  Spend a lot of time studying and you may well impact your ability to interact socially, or your physical stamina.  It can be hard to strike a balance, but sometimes it’s also just plain fun just to make all kinds of dodgy choices and see what kind of hell you can get yourself into.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: We already have The Sims, which admittedly tends to focus on minutiae (have to go to the can regularly, furnish your house, have dinner parties) as opposed to development of one’s personality and values.  Oh, and some motivated souls have already put a browser-playable version of Alter Ego online, here.

baris 3.  Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space (1993).
What kid didn’t want to be an astronaut when they grew up?  In this game you take command of the American or Russian space program, and guide it from the early days of unmanned satellites to a full-blown lunar landing.  You pick the spacecraft to research, the mission types to be flown, and the individual astronauts who will fly them.  Each stage of the mission’s success (or failure) will be illustrated for you via actual video footage of real-life NASA or Soviet missions.  The CD version features lots of additional video footage that the diskette version simply could not accommodate.

I like to research the 3-man mini-shuttle instead of the Apollo capsule, because the idea of a reusable X-24A going to the moon is ten times cooler than an ordinary capsule.  NASA itself, incidentally, reused the shape of the X-24A for the ISS’ aborted X-38 Crew Return Vehicle.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: The video-rich CD version is pretty freely available as abandonware right now, and it works just fine under Windows XP (using DOSBox). Unfortunately it’s a niche game for space geeks, and there likely aren’t enough of those around to make another game like this commercially viable.  But those who love it, love it a lot.

lion_game 4.  Wolf (1994) and Lion (1995).
I love these games because they are a kind of science fiction.  You don’t play a human or even a humanoid, with typical human motivations. You have to figure out what the title creature requires to survive, and, playing as that creature, do your best to survive and prosper. The games manage to jam all sorts of wildlife data into your head without really trying.

They also give you a tiny sense of just how dangerous and unforgiving life is for our canine and feline friends.  Hunt at the wrong times and you a) get tired out too quickly and b) fail to catch your meal.  Fail to catch prey too many times and you’ll be too weak to hunt at all, leading to starvation and death.  Hunt easy prey (like livestock), or on human-occupied land, and some guy may put an end to your nomadic, carnivorous existence.  Lay down scent markers, roar at dawn and dusk to let rivals know that this is your turf.  Assuming you manage to fend off hunger, thirst and others of your kind, you can try to meet a female of the species and start pushing out puppies (or cubs).  I grant this kind of gameplay is not for everybody, but I like the fact that I learned a lot about the animals’ lives as I was playing the games.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: Real life doesn’t sell as well as Barbie.  Animal-centric games today (i.e. Ubisoft’s Petz line) follow a lame sort of Pokémon/Sims mold:  feed it, teach the thing to do tricks, when it does enough tricks you unlock another ability/trick/wardrobe item, rinse and repeat until you’ve collected all the trinkets you care to.  You learn absolutely nothing about the instincts and natural behaviour of the animals; the animals are just a trophy item for the player to dress up and show off.  Wonderful conservation message we’re passing along there.

shadow_president 5.  Shadow President (1993). A fun but flawed game, which cast you in the role of President of the United States circa 1990; i.e. when the West were the good guys and it was okay to hate filthy Commies.  The game gives you a stable of Cabinet advisors and comes with some scenarios, but is otherwise fairly open-ended.  You can do crazy things like try to overthrow the government of France, or nuke the Soviet Union.  Your actions will impact your relations with other nations, your economy, the standard of living at home and around the world, and even the willingness of your Cabinet secretaries to continue serving under your administration.

Probably my proudest moments in the game were halting the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait with slightly fewer casualties than in real life, and managing to overthrow the government of the USSR and turn it into a democratic state.  Unfortunately that one didn’t pan out so well, as it basically followed the real-life trajectory of post-Communist Russia.  The new leaders eventually became somewhat disenchanted with the West, and despite billions of dollars in economic and military aid, gradually drifted out of the Western orbit, becoming de facto opponents once again.

The only real downside is that sometimes, despite your best effort, making a real difference in the world (in geopolitics, security, or the standard of living) was a crapload of effort for very little change.  I am pretty sure that the game designers saw this as a feature, rather than a flaw.  Most years that is true, but sometimes monumental change does occur in a short period of time.  You’d figure that lesson wouldn’t be lost on a game developed shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: I guess people don’t get as excited about the being the Leader of the Free World when there’s no Evil Empire facing off against you.  Despite the fact that geopolitics and shifting balances of power are much more complex in a unipolar world.  There have been various attempts to produce successors, notably the Superpower and Supreme Ruler series of games, but they eventually devolve into micromanagement hell or design bug hell.

x-com 6.  X-COM: UFO Defense / UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994).  Released as X-COM in North America and UFO elsewhere, this is probably my top game of all time.  You lead a globally-funded task force to shoot down UFOs and investigate the crash sites.  You have to design and equip your underground bases, train and equip your personnel, and finally lead them in  turn-based small-unit firefights against the downed aliens.  As the game progresses, your research grants access to more and more alien technology.  If you do a good job of intercepting UFOs, more countries will contribute to your funding.  Let your vigilance slacken, and your funding sources will dry up.  The aliens will get more aggressive too, sometimes targeting and invading your own bases—which will be displayed as a faithful recreation conforming exactly to the base layout you yourself designed.

One big plus was its (for the time) rather stellar lighting and music.  Watching your platoon of determined soldier/scientists slowly advancing through a nighttime cityscape to a crashed alien ship was frequently an exercise in white-knuckle tension.  You could only see as far as your soldiers could, and explored areas that they left behind would turn dark again.  When you ran across a new, unknown alien, there was always a moment of shock and a silent “What the HELL is THAT?!” running  through your mind.  Followed quickly thereafter by “I hope Pte. Hudson has enough movement points left to shoot that fugly bastard…”  Play a nighttime mission in actual nighttime, with your lights out, and you are practically guaranteed to pee your pants the first time an alien shoots at one of your guys.

The tactical environment was superb, too.  The terrain, structures and equipment could be destroyed by explosives or guns of sufficient power.  Burning wreckage created smoke, which is hard to see through for both humans and aliens.  The alien AI made good use of cover, and would typically try to ambush your platoon, so it was always a good idea to try to manouvre so that each person could be supported by multiple overlapping fields of fire from his peers.  If you let one guy or girl get beyond the range of supporting fire, you could all but guarantee that person would be dead in the next turn or two.   It was always a good idea to leave your folks with some spare movement points, so they could react to an alien popping up unexpectedly.

X-COM’s final big selling point is the memories you gained with your own characters.  If your soldiers survived, they gained experience and skills from their missions, and you absolutely hated losing the veterans.  The gameplay was so good that you would inevitably remember notable showdowns with the aliens.  The time the rookie stumbled into a roomful of aliens, and against all odds, gunned them all down.  Or the time the aliens destroyed your squad with a well-placed grenade before they could even get off the ramp of the Skyranger.  Or the time your lieutenant was badly wounded and survived only through the heroic actions of a squaddie who braved a hail of fire to get medical aid to his CO.  You’ll remember the first time your squad had enough firepower to blow a hole in the side of the alien spacecraft, instead of having to waltz through the frequently-ambushed main hatch.  And the hair-raising first time the aliens counterattacked and stormed one of your own key bases.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: It’s tried a few times, with Laser Squad Nemesis and the UFO: Aftermath series, but none of these more recent offerings has the same complexity of gameplay (economic, political, research, base design, RPG-like characters, solid turn-based squad-level fighting) married to a compelling storyline and superb atmosphere.  The original X-COM design crew struck gold, and I personally haven’t seen a worthy heir since.

mech_bde 7.  Mech Brigade (1986). A grognard’s delight, with what are arguably the worst game graphics ever committed to a CGA screen. Redeems itself as an early and fairly comprehensive translation of hex-map wargaming to the PC era.  If you ever thought those NATO generals were overly pessimistic and that any guy with a half-assed knowledge of combined arms tactics could hold the Fulda Gap against the Red Hordes, here was your chance.  Probably still has the largest inventory of NATO and Warsaw pact weapons and equipment ever included in a computer wargame.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: Game producers these days are focused on how to get a zillion people all playing online at once, which is why Battlefield 2 features hilariously dumbed-down vehicle and aircraft performance models, which allow Abrams tanks to actually fire on and destroy strike aircraft with their enormous main guns.  People might be interested in driving tanks (as long as they are part of a non-tank specific game, like a first-person shooter).  But few people are interested in driving tanks well, using cover plus realistic, effective fire and maneuver.  And nobody but aging grognards wants to be the virtual general or staff puke at HQ, pushing around armoured cav markers on a map.  Much more exciting to be the guy pulling the virtual trigger.  I’d be really happy to see a modern-day Mech Brigade successor with Link-22 TDLs, UCAVs and realtime video feeds but that will never happen.

harpoon 8. Harpoon (1989). Another armchair admiral favourite, allowing one to command a custom fleet of naval vessels and pit them against Cold War OPFOR assets.  Based on the extremely successful Larry Bond board game of the same name, which was used to derive realistic scenarios for Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising.

I had a lot of fun with Harpoon, and if you used certain assets wisely (like AWACS, carrier air wings and guided missile cruisers) you could cause a lot of mayhem before the OPFOR had a chance to react in a coordinated way.

Successor Harpoon II was released in 1994, and Harpoon 3: Advanced Naval Warfare was released as recently as 2006.  But H3 is really just an uprated Harpoon 2; same bad old 486-era graphics, but without the bad old 486-era memory limitations.  H3 does add multiplayer and custom database support though, and that’s a good thing.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: It is rumoured that a Harpoon 4, supposedly due out next year, will feature a graphical overhaul, but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Ten years ago, Ubisoft was the last company to promise a Harpoon 4, and they had apparently developed it far enough along to release screenshots from beta testing, but then the whole mess got shelved and everyone forgot that this kind of game even existed.  Sorry, but I’m not falling for the vapourware hype again.  Purists will say who cares about a graphical overhaul, real-life NTDS screens are butt-ugly.  They’re right, but this is the 21st century.  Warfare is changing.  I want my CVBGs to launch UCAVs, and shore installations to launch maritime Global Hawks, both with precision strike capability and realtime video for instant bomb damage assessment.  Putt-putting along on 1994-era graphics just doesn’t cut it anymore.

megafortress 9.  Megafortress (1991). The B-52I Megafortress was a fictional bomber variant based on a book of the same name by Dale Brown.  The concept is that the USAF took a stock B-52H and heavily modified it as a test-bed for stealth techonologies.  A reasonably complex B-52 bomber simulator, where you had to hop around between the various crew positions (commander, co-pilot, navigator, offensive weapons, defensive weapons) in order to successfully complete your mission.  Bomber sims are always a little more challenging than fighter sims because your ability to use evasive ACM is, well, limited… because you’re flying a big honkin’ slow-moving bomber, not a nimble pointy-nosed fighter.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: Bomber games are a dead genre.  I suppose developers feel that no one wants to have to go through the painstaking mission planning that characterizes games like F-19 Stealth Fighter and Megafortress.  Even the advent of far more nimble and stealthy bombers, like the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit, have not generated any significant game development.  It’s a shame, really, because these kinds of games depend more on mental acuity than mouse-clicking reaction time, but any kind of combat sim that requires forethought has more or less vanished from the scene.

ac_lhx 10. LHX Attack Chopper (1990). Pilot one of four types of rotor-winged aircraft (LHX, AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Blackhawk, or V-22 Osprey) through several different areas of operation on a variety of strike, close air support, or transport/rescue missions.  Not an especially realistic helicopter sim, especially in light of later releases like Gunship 2000 and Jane’s Longbow, but for its time, reasonably good graphics and very diverse gameplay.  I liked the transport/resupply/rescue missions the most, because the utility helos were very lightly armed and you had to be much more careful with them.

Why I Don’t Think The Industry Will Make Another: Like bomber games, helo games are a dead letter.  You can fly helos in Battlefield 2 and other FPS games, but they are as close to having a good flight model as Jessica Simpson is to having a Ph.D in neuroscience.  Back in the day people wanted to be Chuck Yeager or Tom Cruise.  Today everybody wants to be Ding Chavez.  And absolutely no one wants to be a Mike Durant.  It’s a real shame that so many generic and useless FPS clones get cranked out while several genres of game concepts go completely ignored.

You’ll notice I have left out games like Sid Meier’s Civilization, Pirates!, Wing Commander, A-10 Tank Killer and M-1 Tank Platoon.  This is because there have been relatively recent, worthy successors (in spirit if not in title) to these games.  You’ll further notice that my list is a little flight-sim heavy.  Go figure.

What are some of your gaming favouries of days gone by, that have never been updated?

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2 Responses
  1. Following on from your concluding thoughts, perhaps my favourite video game of all time is Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. While I expect I will get round to trying one of the newer iterations of Civilization, Alpha Centauri had the game engine and playability but something more. This is the only game I have played that captures something of the grandeur of Frank Herbert’s work; despite its different setting, it is much more faithful to Herbert’s ideas about cultural ecology and competing forms of social adaptation to an hostile environment than any of the feeble attempts to translate Dune into video game form.
    I almost always play as the Lord’s Believers and make it my mission to exterminate the indigenous flora/fauna, kill or convert rival colonies and make it a special duty to hunt down the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces first.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    I am ashamed to say that Alpha Centauri is one the few Sid Meier games I have never played. I always liked some of the key concepts — like not having to choose a government type per se, but being able to choose specific characteristics/philosophies you want that government to have. That’s damn cool. More games should have adopted that route, including Civilization‘s successor titles.
    I would be tempted to crank up DOSBox and see if I can locate a copy and play it now, but sometimes these things are best experienced in the zeitgeist. I’m afraid of the dated graphics interfering with my enjoying it now. I haven’t fired up X-COM again for the same reason.