Killring Rick Dillon's Weblog

The Retro Gaming Fad

As 2012 draws to a close, I think its worth taking a look at retro gaming. Near the dawn of virtual reality and well into the teens for globally shared MMOs, it's popular to be playing and making "retro" games. What I've noticed, though, is that this is only true so long as the games aren't too retro.

Real Retro

GOG.com has given really good old titles new life, which is a good thing for everyone, as I see it. As Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software said in his 2009 blog post The Joy of Rereleasing Old Games:

One of the most frustrating things for me about video games as an art is that individual titles die out. The older a game gets, the better the chance it will stop working on new machines. ... The machines that will run it grow ever older and dustier. I think this is HUGELY wasteful.

Jeff makes his living writing fairly retro games, and his games probably deserve at least a post of their own. He's been making retro games for so long that his original retro games really are retro now, and he has to rerelease them to keep things up to date. I love playing his games, just as I love playing through the titles I've purchased from GOG.com. There are several reasons these games are appealing:

  • Time filters out most of the low-quality games, leaving the best to survive
  • Old games tend to work well under Wine, which I use to game under GNU/Linux
  • My laptop is a couple of years old and isn't high end, but it plays these games really well
  • Great titles can cost only a few dollars, giving you excellent return on investment

I never got to play through Baldur's Gate (one or two!) or Icewind Dale. Now I can. This is real retro gaming at its best. I also have Avadon: The Black Fortress, Avernum 6, Avernum: Escape From the Pit and Geneforge 5 (all from Spiderweb) on my Linux laptop in varying stages of play. Jeff doesn't make games for Linux very often, but they do seem to work great under Wine. But I digress. These are mostly real retro games from years ago that have been made available for play on modern machines.

Synthetic Retro

But there's another breed of retro gaming going on as well. New games are being made the look like games from 15 years ago, and they're making developers a lot of money. And the graphics really are pretty retro. Take a look at Minecraft, released in 2009. Very little effort was made to texture the game convincingly. Instead development effort went into gameplay, and the lone developer, Notch, who created the initial version made millions and started his own game company.

But Minecraft's paltry graphics weren't due to a lack of technology, they were due to a lack of development resources. Dragon Age Origins also came out in 2009, but had hundreds behind its development, and the differences are stark.

And that perhaps highlights the core of the issue: gamers like seeing games that don't necessarily fit the mold cast by the huge game publishers. That opens the door for indie developers to create cheaper games that can satisfy a niche market that seeks a particular style of gameplay. Minecraft, at its core, is an alternate world where gamers can build freely. There are other elements built into that base (like "zombie survival horror", go figure), but there's little doubt a major game studio would have ever funded its development. This is one of the reasons Kickstarter and IndieGoGo funding models are so popular now: there's a lot of the room for indie developers to make money on a minority of the gaming population by catering to niche markets.

Even before Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, there were companies doing this successfully, like Spiderweb Software and Introversion. Now that the funding model has become more popular, however, new games created in the "retro" style are popular, because they can experiment with the medium of games in new and novel ways, ironically taking risks that the huge developers and publishers never would. The Humble Indie Bundle has cashed in on the popularity surrounding these indie games in the last few years, and have just released their seventh bundle this month.

But the phenomenon isn't limited to only the graphical aspects of the games. Retro gameplay styles are coming back into vogue as well, with titles like Faster Than Light appearing in Ars Technica's Top 20 Games of 2012. FTL bills itself as a roguelike, not only sporting retro graphics, but also old-school hardcore gameplay, including randomly generated worlds and permadeath. There are other popular, more overt, roguelikes being made as well, such as Dungeons of Dredmor, which is a slightly modernized take on the classic Rogue games. These games all offer a sort of Zen gameplay where failure is all but inevitable, and you learn to simply begin again, hopefully wiser the next time through.

Too Much of a Good Thing

With all the attention on making, selling, bundling, reviewing and playing retro games, I sort of hoped that I could drum up some interest in really retro games. These games were originally designed to be played on a terminal, and include (among others) interactive fiction and roguelikes. I had a discussion last year at a party and brought up what an interesting art form interactive fiction was, since it gave one developer the power to create worlds of amazing depth and complexity. I ended up gracefully exiting the conversation after a few minutes of arguing that no, interactive fiction games were not the equivalent of choose-your-own-adventure books.

There are dozens of old-school roguelikes, and I've tried many of them. My favorite remains Angband, because it offers a depth of gameplay unparalleled in many modern games, is light on resources, and is heavy on strategy, but manages not to trip my "this game is impossible" sensor. Being turn-based, it not only allows, but requires that the player stop and think about how to best survive. It has many of the elements everyone loves about, say, Day Z (a wildly popular FPS mod that features permadeath) or Faster Than Light, but is playable just about anywhere (including phones and tablets) and is great for mobile gaming because it is turn-based, so can be paused at any time safely.

But really old-school text-based gaming seems to be a bridge too far for most gamers today. Even those that appreciate the quirky graphics of Minecraft and FTL, or trumpet gameplay over graphics as they play Gurk can't get into a game with nothing but ASCII for graphics.

Nevertheless, as we close out 2012, I'm pleased that so many elements of retro gaming have suffused the popular titles today. We're getting a chance to really explore video games as an art form due to the efforts of thousands of indie game developers all over the world, and it looks like the retro game fad is here to stay, well into 2013.