BlasterMax

BlasterMax
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Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why I make retro-styled games

Recently I was having a little chat with some friends who are not games developers and they asked me why I make pixel art based retro-looking games. To get the answer to this, we have to look back at my childhood and the moment I first encountered gaming.


It was some time around 1980, shortly after my family had moved into a house on a newly built council estate, that my older brother took me to the barbers to get my hair cut. The barbers was a pokey little place called Kate and Sue's that was a doorway between two bigger shops that led down a narrow hallway into a small room where you would get your hair cut. In a little alcove off the hallway was a table-style Galaxian arcade machine and we'd play this for hours. We used to save up our pocket money to get a go on it.


Sadly, the arcade machine was removed from the shop and my brother, who is nine years older than me, started to discover other things to keep him entertained, but my parents had noticed that I was interested in games and they bought me a Sinclair ZX81 for Christmas in 1982. Now, I'll be honest and say that it really didn't impress me at first. It was monochrome, had no sound and the games took what seemed like forever to load. It was a world away from the vibrant colours and sounds of Galaxian, but my dad sat me down with it and showed me some stuff that he'd typed in from the manual to make an asterisk move around the screen. Suddenly something clicked and I realised that I had a way to make games, not just play them, if only I could learn this weird alien language they were written in.


However, I didn't jump into making games right away. I was enjoying what I played on the ZX81, which included Mazogs, 3D Monster Maze and a Space Invaders clone, but it wasn't until the summer holidays that I actually started to learn how to program. I was bored, because you can only play Mazogs, Space Invaders and get chased by a T-Rex so many times, and all of my friends had gone away on holiday, so I pulled out the ZX81 BASIC Programming book and started working through it. It was fairly heavy going at first, because I was ten years old and didn't really understand most of it, I even threw the book across the room a couple of times in frustration, but I kept at it and more and more of it was slowly sinking into my brain. The bits I was truly stuck on I'd ask my dad about and we'd sit down and try to figure it out together. Over the next six weeks I worked through some of the book and borrowed some books that had games listings in them from the local library, and as I was typing the games in I started to understand more and more of what the code was doing.


After about a year (I remember that I was just entering secondary school), I felt confident enough to have a go at my own game. So I coded a very simple Space Invaders clone of my own called INVADR. I was hooked! I'd made a game of my own, and I could play it. I could even make copies of it on my dads dual deck Hi-Fi and let my friends play it. It was great! But I had a rather unfortunate accident and killed my ZX81, by trying to be clever while balancing it on the seat of my chair, when I decided I wanted to move everything into the dining room from my bedroom, and it slipped off the seat and fell down the stairs.


So, I was computer-less, and my parents were less than pleased with me. However, this didn't stop my parents replacing my ZX81 with an Atari 2600 the following Christmas. Games-wise I actually preferred the Atari, and I still remember how amazing some of the games were on it, but I couldn't make stuff on it ( I wouldn't get back into making games and learning more about programming until I got a Commodore 64). This didn't matter too much, though, as many of the games were just amazingly fun to play. The Atari games always seemed to have an emphasis on being fun first and pretty later, and this is something I think tends to be overlooked by modern games. The gameplay was really solid and all the games had this "pick up and play" design where you didn't need complicated tutorials, realistic sound or 3d graphics, you knew instinctively what to do. The games were designed to be enjoyed as games, something fun to play, not something trying too hard to be like the next Hollywood blockbuster with awkwardly obtuse controls.


You see, in my opinion (and I may be wrong about this, but hear me out), modern AAA games spend far too much time trying to wow us with their complex stories, their life-like graphics, their A-list Hollywood voice actors, their fully symphonic orchestral scores and arty camera angles. They're trying to compete with films, and they're edging more and more towards becoming interactive movies, rather than doing their own thing. I'm not saying games shouldn't try to look as amazing as possible, but they often do this at the expense of the fun. I find myself often feeling more wound up or stressed out playing a modern AAA game than I do playing Pac-Man, Space Invaders or Centipede. This is because modern games often artificially ramp up the tension by introducing plot elements that put pressure on the player, because the stakes are high and everything has to be adrenaline fueled like the epic ending of a Mission Impossible movie starring Tom Cruise, or whatever. The slightest mistake will often see you failing to complete your task and end up making you feel annoyed at how unfair it felt to die. Where as when you died in Pac-Man you felt it was your own fault because you'd foolishly blundered the wrong way and ran into a ghost!

Gameplay done right is challenging and fun without the need for making the player feel like you're deliberately trying to make things awkward for them. I've lost track of the times I've played a modern game, have really been enjoying it, and some dick of a developer has decided that the next boss is going to be such an annoying bastard that it becomes a frustrating slog and I end up not bothering to play the rest of the game in case it takes me out of my happy place again. And this is the problem. More and more developers seem to think that they have to make games frustrating in order for them to be challenging, where I think that a developer should be like a good GM in a Dungeons and Dragons session. A good GM is someone who tries to make the quest entertaining, challenging but fun and fair. Their job is to keep the party engaged and not do stupid stuff like creating traps that you have to roll a natural d20 to deactivate every time or have mosters that wear so much epic gear that every hit is like thrown marshmallows at them. They create a fair, balanced world, and they trust the party to play fairly within it. Many AAA games developers on the other hand are like a bad GM trying their hardest to kill every party member by putting really awkward situations in their way and sapping all of the fun out of it.


So, why do I make games in a retro-style? Because I've played games pretty much all of my life and I've never had as much fun playing games as I did when I played on the Galaxian arcade machine in the barbers, my ZX81, Atari 2600 or Commodore 64. There was something about those earlier games, something (at the risk of sounding corny) magical that made the games fun and challenging. I'll honestly say that my favourite games machine of all time was my Commodore 64, and I've never owned a machine since that has made me feel the way I felt when I played many of the games on it. Sure, I've owned massively more advanced machines, computers, consoles, etc, but for all their technical wizardry the feeling of fun I had just isn't there and I just feel frustrated most of the time. In my own games I'm trying to capture the feeling of playing something because it's fun to play and has the element of challenge alongside an air of enjoyment, instead of the feeling that what you're playing has been deliberately designed to frustrate the hell out of you.

Basically I'm making games for fun. The fun of making them, and the fun of playing them.

Thanks for reading!

Sorry about this begging bit at the bottom, but my aim is to make video games and, as much as possible, let people download them for free. I do, however, still need to eat and pay bills, so if you'd like to support me you can do so by buying me a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/peteuplink this will enable me to continue doing what I do and your support is really appreciated!

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