Matt's Podcast #3: The Five Games Every Designer Should Make Love to Every Night

Matt Barton's picture

Does Compute!Does Compute!I'm back this week to talk about the Five Games Every Designer Should Know. Read the blog post if you missed it. There's also quite a bit of listener feedback that covers such topics as why Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights aren't as good as Baldur's Gate, and why Portal isn't as unique as some people like to think. Enjoy, and feel free to comment below. Who knows, perhaps your comment will form the basis of my next episode!

Grab the episode here: Matt Podcast #3.mp3.
Post a review on iTunes.

Be sure to listen to Chris's episode first.

Comments

Igor Hardy
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Joined: 01/15/2009
What's the goal of a 5 games canon?

Josh Mandel interview coming to Matt Chat!? Excellent!

As for picking 5 games every designer should know, I believe it's a completely misguided idea.

Of course if a game designer plays a lot of unique and varied games it's a great testament to his passion. Also, I absolutely agree that some games can teach the designer more than the others. I'm only objecting to the words "EVERY" and "SHOULD". I really dislike the idea of choosing 5 titles as the representation of what games are made of and a guideline for making new ones. If we define a designer as someone who should be able to instantly remember and copy popular and tried game concepts, we're contributing to the direction that results in an endless lineup of derivative clones.

I'd value much more a designer that doesn't study all the genres and hits, but is able to constantly come up with new, exciting things in his area of interest, rather than someone who knows by heart WoW, Angry Birds and everything that sells at the moment, but remains completely focused on these games as templates for new ones.

Matt Barton
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Combining
Igor Hardy wrote:

I'd value much more a designer that doesn't study all the genres and hits, but is able to constantly come up with new, exciting things in his area of interest, rather than someone who knows by heart WoW, Angry Birds and everything that sells at the moment, but remains completely focused on these games as templates for new ones.

That's a good point. I don't know any successful artists in other fields (music, writing, film, etc.) that weren't inspired by what they considered a master. They might start off copying their chosen master's style very closely, but (if successful) will eventually break away and start doing their own thing, though it'll always be influenced by that.

In any case, I can't imagine that someone would be harmed by exposing himself to wildly different games that were successful in certain eras, and also understanding the context behind them. At worst, he'd at least realize there were other genres and approaches out there.

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Igor Hardy
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Studying masters and formulas.
Matt Barton wrote:

That's a good point. I don't know any successful artists in other fields (music, writing, film, etc.) that weren't inspired by what they considered a master. They might start off copying their chosen master's style very closely, but (if successful) will eventually break away and start doing their own thing, though it'll always be influenced by that.

Orson Welles would be an excellent example here. He went on to create Citizen Kane with (initially) a completely wrong idea how does a Hollywood film director go about doing his job, and consequently ended up making an amazing film that differed greatly from the norm. Later on he was known for advising young filmmakers to stop studying the established classics, but instead seek their own voices and their own ways of doing things.

Matt Barton wrote:

In any case, I can't imagine that someone would be harmed by exposing himself to wildly different games that were successful in certain eras, and also understanding the context behind them. At worst, he'd at least realize there were other genres and approaches out there.

Agreed. I'm far from saying "designers should try hard not to be influenced by other games!" I just don't feel like anyone should tell others what games they need to study to become a good (successful?) designer. I think everyone should choose their sources of inspiration for themselves and go in different directions for optimal diversity and creativity. At least that's my idealistic vision of a world where designers are not primarily interested in creating some kind of perfect money-making game formula (Farmville anyone?). ;)

Bill Loguidice
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Great job on this one. I like

Great job on this one. I like the format of working in the reader comments.

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Erez Ba (not verified)
Hey Matt, I wanted to post

Hey Matt, I wanted to post this, but I can't seem to register using the facebook account. It is my spiel on the xcom/syndicate/fps issue, with a bit of my take on it all (and why I think games like xcom are so great). Apologies for any spelling/grammatical errors/what not. It is what it is :).

Part I: Within Genre, make it count (or…if you REALLY wanna make yet ANOTHER FPS and follow conventions - read below!)
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I wanted to talk a little bit about genres, and how games (current, as well as those of the past) fit within these genres, particularly in correlation to 'gestalt' theory.

There are two ways to view games, one is as 'following' or adhering to the conventions of genre. In his excellent 2nd podcast, Matt was saying that perhaps the only 'redeeming' feature he could see in clone after clone being made, is that they could be excused by saying they merely follow the conventions of genre, such as a horror or sci-fi novelist would follow those of the horror and sci-fi genres.

However, that does not mean that the author of such stories should be cloning the tales of others. If I write a horror novel, but inject enough uniqueness into my novel that it could be distinguished as a work of its own, that has value. Lovecraftian horror for example, exemplified by H.P. Lovecraft is a completely distinct and separate flavour to that of a Stephen King novel. However, everyone who follows a convention of a specific PIECE rather than that of a GENRE, is nothing more than a copycatter of the worst kind.

To make a comparison to our "world": Call of Duty 8 (yes folks, MW3 IS COD8…do the sums :P), is not a unique piece merely following a genre (FPS), but rather
one that follows ANOTHER piece (COD7), that one in turn follows another, then yet another - until the lineage could be followed all through to a dead king which COULD unquestionably be called
different (or as Matt says 'different ENOUGH') - and that to me personally is COD4 (which although mechanically wise was NOT unique, it did identify itself in enough good areas in setting, presentation, multiplayer, and the overall delivery - to have its own character, one that allow us to easily identify pre-COD4 and post-COD4).

Another one (and arguably a better example), is 'The Darkness' - what other FPS allows you to grow tentacles out of your body, possess them to wiggle around in the world, and then lunge forward to consume the heart of your enemies. What other FPS allows you to summon minions (of varied usefulness), create black holes, while feeding the strength of your armor by the lightning around you. The Darkness, while having many problems, did distinguish itself in enough good areas - this time mechanically - to be considered a unique piece within the FPS genre.

However, any piece that does not bring anything new to the table (mechanically, like Darkness, Portal and so many others, or by the sheer force of its presentation and production values - unseen anywhere else before its time, such as was MW) does not deserve to be made.

So sure, make another FPS - but make it COUNT. Don't make it LIKE Doom, Don't make it LIKE Gear of War, Halo or Call of Duty, Don't even make it LIKE
Portal. Rather, make it its own unique piece of work that cannot be mistaken for any other. Let us make games that define themselves despite their genre,
How? That is for you to show us; innovation rarely presents itself but by hindsight.

Part II: Beyond Genre, make it last, or why we are so passionate about games like X-COM (or…good, you DO want to make something better new and innovative, but still 'stand on the shoulders of giants'):
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A loftier goal, however, would be to make something that while may following certain conventions of genre/s, cannot easily be defined by genre.
Such works are the most memorable of all. In many years time, I doubt anyone will even remember such games as I have detailed above, because while they are still different in their own right, they still follow conventions too closely. Some games define themselves beyond genre, and those are the ones with an impression that will live in our memories forever.

One such (to give an example, among many others) is X-COM. It feels only right to discuss it, since it had initially sparked this discussion.
I am, of course, referring to the original, not the nefarious plot to turn us all into FPS loving pod people. Now, a bit of disclaimer - it has been many years
since I have played the game, so I might make an error or two in describing this or that mechanic, but I believe the overall explanation will still serve its purpose.

When you think of X-COM, what do you think it is?

Fanboy A: Why, its a tactical turn-based strategy game: APs, % to hit, cover, damage, range, stand/crouch positions, .. the best there is!.
Fanboy B: You are talking rubbish, it obviously have Civ building elements in it - forming multiple bases, developing them with new facilities, building units, researching, trading, etc.
Fanboy C: No way, this is a global defense game, analyzing the statistical appearance of enemy craft so that you can building perimeters based on that data and send off ships to intercept enemy craft - and all in real time!
Fanboy D: Hrumph, definitely an RPG, the level of details, equipment and options for you characters is just staggering - 8 stats!!! - thats more than your D&D! They also improve through battles throughout the campaign, and boy do you start caring about those characters and the emergent stories that they provide.
Fanboy E: You guys are all missing the point - Horror! The eerie music, the horrific advance towards the unknown or a dreaded descent to a lower level of a strange and alien mothership.

So, who is right? Maybe everyone, maybe no one. Is X-COM really defined by genres, or does it simply have elements that make it X-COM.
If we remove any of the said elements mentioned by either of these individuals, but leave all the rest would it be X-COM? No.

It is as if some games follow the Gestalt principle of the "unified whole", where individual elements are grouped as unified wholes to form a recognizable image rather than just a collection of simple lines and curves, or in our case - gameplay elements, which we recognize as belonging to 'genres' but when put together in such majestic way emerge as something we recognize as truly miraculous and utterly recognizable.

And that is X-COM and other such genre transcendent games, for although it seems everything has already been explored (it hasn't really, as proven by independent games such as Minecraft),
and is so easy to follow conventions or 'stand on the shoulders of giants' 'stands on the shoulders of giants', sometimes old ideas transform into new shapes and forms that are no longer individually recognizable as other than the sum of their parts - and create true beauty.

Part III: It does not end here…
----
The list of course, is plentiful: Starcon2, Captain Blood, Realm of the Haunting, Magic Carpet, and the list goes on and on, I will be happy to expound on this list and why
I think they transcend all genre, but a simple play-through would humble even the most elaborate explanation.

Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
There's a lot to ponder and

There's a lot to ponder and pontificate on here, Erez. I couldn't agree more that even if you're working on Call of Duty 49, it should be different enough from all the previous CODs and FPSs that you could recognize and distinguish it. One obvious thing they could do (and I wish they'd do more of) is the historical stuff. I keep waiting for a COD Civil War or a COD War of the Roses, etc.

There are authors out there who simply copy the formula every time. They're called hacks or formula writers. You can pick up almost any Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book and read the same story over and over again, with just enough details changed to avoid outright copying. But for people who really love the formula, that's wonderful.

Maybe part of the problem here is that we're stuck with the model of companies making new games all the time. Same for books...It'd be different if they could just make a game once and then you had to pay a small fee each time you played it (the arcade model). That's why there wasn't fifty sequels to Donkey Kong. Frogger 4? No need. The same Frogger machine is still there making money. But the way games are sold now, they don't make money after that first sale, so they need to keep churning out "new and improved" Froggers.

Most people would probably be just fine playing the original COD over and over, but they buy into this idea that the new one is better and more desirable.

Books and movies work along the same principles. You read one the new Stephen King novel, you watch the new Matrix. You can only re-read them so many times without getting bored. But games don't have to be that way. A game could be designed to last forever, like Tetris or Rogue, with no need for sequels to keep them fresh. Only fixed content like stories and characters make them stale.

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Hiro Prinny
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Joined: 09/11/2011
Disgaea

Matt, just to give you a little more info on Disgaea, it is indeed an anime style, the story part of the game proceeds in chapters made of a number of game maps. Each of these maps is a different tactical situation, where you pick up to 10 of your own characters to clear the map. In many ways this game is closer to a wargame then a traditional RPG, more like a tabletop such as Warhammer then D&D. The RPG elements of the game include making your own characters and leveling them up. Disgaea is a grind fest, you make up characters and level them up and also dive into random dungeons as deep as 100 levels to level up your weapons. The story introduces a number of playable characters that grows as it continues, but you have complete control if you want to use any of the characters or not. I like the humorous storyline but it can be completely skipped at the press of the button. You can grow your own party of warriors, mages, healers, thieves, and monsters then equip each anyway that you choose. Each map is different so a diverse party and strategy are necessary for each map. While the most number of units per map is limited to ten, you can have literally hundreds of units to choose from, and hundreds of hours of playtime.

BTW a Prinny is a monster class from Disgaea, a Penguin that explodes when it's tossed

I really like strategy games so my five games I’d like to see developers play today and learn from are in no particular order.

1) Panzer Grenadier or Eastern Front – WW II wargames for the Atari 8 bit computers
2) Civilization
3) Medieval Total War – PC wargame
4) Mule – colonial strategy game, Atari, Nintendo and many others
5) 7 Cities of Gold – I played the Atari edition

Erez Ba (not verified)
Top 5

Just about the top 5 - I think there is a difference between top 5 that developers play and learn from to make games, and top 5 that developers
play and learn from to make $$$. For example, in Matt's original list, I think that WoW for example belongs to the latter whereas Zork (both in terms of excellent example of use of limited resources, as well as 'tactile' value which is what the 'feelies' were) belong to the former.

Blizzard's so-called 'secret sauce' is really finding the most common denominator and catering for it - nothing too secret about it and it has been a known formula for many generations. When I first played WoW (and I was a big WoW advocate/player since Beta), I thought it was the best thing coming from MMO's (and god, did I dislike MMO's) since the second coming - it was a challenging game with a rich background and an ease of access unknown to MMO's. By removing some of the elements that always irked me and many others - such as punitive measures upon death, constant grind on mobs (quests actually give you more XP than mob grinding), and many others - Blizzard had created a game that was accessible to soft and hardcore players.
Since then, however, and in an effort to expand its market (and I believe also its shareholders - as it soon after it went public via the Activision deal),
the game has dialed up the 'easy' mode to its nth degree, removing any semblance of challenge. I stopped playing soon after Burning Crusade, although I have heard from some people it had gotten better with Wrath of the Lich king/Cataclysm, but I have since lost interest. One has to wonder, though, if removing the challenge of the game really improves upon it? An interesting comparison is to Naughts and Crosses (or Tic-Tac-Toe for you folks across the globe), a fun game to play until you realize the game is deterministic and there is no real challenge and then you simply lose interest. Is this what is happening to WoW?

I also want to make a distinction between 'challenge' (which I appreciate) and punitive measures (which I do not). For example, in Wizardry (and other games of its kind) automapping is not provided - I don't see it as a punitive measure, but a challenging feature - since many of the games puzzles (mostly focusing on teleportation) rely on disorienting the player, something which would not work had an automap been provided. It also makes spells like DUMAPIC useful and really gives you that simulationist feeling of survival in an unknown and hostile environment. On the other hand - in that same game - I consider the increased cost of resurrection (and the high percentage of failure and possible disintegration of your character - AFTER you have already paid the hefty sum!) as a punitive measure that does not contribute to the game in any shape of form. There is little reason that the most fearful of all places in that game, would be not the dungeons of the mad overlord, but the local priesthood of a friendly town.

Stay tuned for my top 5 (few surprises there though :))

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Just a quick point about

Just a quick point about Zork, Erez, it never really had feelies except when part of the Zork Trilogy bundle. It was Infocom's best selling title and ironically pretty much stood on its own. In that way, I do think it's worthy of being on "the list" since it was gimmick-free...

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Oizukitom (not verified)
Hi, @Cymon Wrath

Hi,
@Cymon Wrath Unleashed.
Star Control - Good sound and I must agree, games like that Unholy War / Archon style games = fun.

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