Good game designer! Have a Marathon!

There is no worse way to start a conversation or, for that matter, a blog post with words along the lines of “back in the good old days…” or “do you remember when…” yet here I am doing it regardless. I guess I’m a rebel. Back in the good old days there were a lot of great little ideas in games that somehow lost their zest and have all but disappeared. This post is a recap of some fond memories of specific game-related elements that I’d gladly see make a comeback.

Inventive copy protection
Younger readers may not remember this, but back in the day there was a way for personal computers, or “PCs” as we used to call them, to hook up together via the telephone line and share data. It involved picking up your phone and putting the receiver on a plastic box with rubbery receptacles, listening to the digital equivalent of a smokers’ cough for a bit and then sitting back and waiting for hours, days, weeks. This marvel of technology as well as schoolyard tape swapping caused many a publisher to seek for ways to protect their product with a little thing called “copy protection”. These days it seems to involve fucking up your system, disabling your disk drive and installing malware, but back then, when floppy disks were actually floppy, they had to think of more clever ways. As a result there were some excellent copy protection schemes.
Of course the boring ones had you periodically refer to word how many on page whatever of the manual, but a game like Leisure Suit Larry 2 replaced that with looking up the phone number of the girl pictured on screen in your little black book, i.e. the manual; ostensibly the same ting but completely in keeping with the spirit of the game.
The most inventive one I remember was the one for “The Colonel’s Bequest”, in itself an excellent game, inspired by Christie and Hitchcock, which saw a young Laura Bow trying to unmask a murderer who is slowly working his way through all the guests at the colonel’s mansion. Before you could start the game you were shown a fingerprint. Using a little paper loupe with a red filter in it you had to scan the manual for the same print and identify who it belonged to. This was not an easy task, as the fingerprints were all very similar, but it was in keeping with the spirit of the game, set the mood, a fun little activity and, above all, impossible to photocopy.

In-box freebies
There once was a time when games didn’t take a couple of million dollars to produce, nor did they require teams so large they had enough genetic variety to propagate the species. In those heady days game visuals were not quite up to scratch yet and publishers had to rely on a few extras to immerse the player in the fantasy. What they would often do was stuff the game box full of goodies. I fondly remember unpacking Ultima and finding a cloth tea towel map of Britannia, a few plastic coins and a “moonstone” (bead of glass). I would spend hours reading the expansive and nicely illustrated bestiary whenever my father banished me from the computer, “for my own good” he mistakenly believed. Magnetic Scrolls gave added value to their excellent text-based adventure games by including faked newspapers, coffee-stained application forms and all manner of stuff pertaining to the game’s story and setting. Even A.P.B. came with a tiny sealed envelope containing a cheat code if you got desperate.
All these items added so much to the overall enjoyment of the product it’s a little sad that these days, in order to push the margins and which ever decreasing box sizes, publishers don’t bother anymore. No longer will players experience the joy of sitting down behind their computers with specially created notebooks or a map draped over their desks. Sure, there are now things called “special editions” or “collectors editions” that include a lot of extra stuff, but usually at a higher price, essentially making them purchased goods rather than excellent freebies that would make you think you were getting real value for money and fostered a real fan loyalty.

Immersive character setup
It’s fun to create your own avatar in games, spending a good few minutes tweaking facial features and selecting classes and skills. But a long time ago Origin sneakily lured you into character creation in a way that made you think and sucked you immediately into the story. When starting any Ultima game a gypsy woman would ask you some searching moral questions, to which there was no true good or bad answer. Depending on your replies your character was created and all that without any die rolling or points assigning. Would I give the beggar one of my rich master’s coins? Would I sacrifice my honour to humbly let a braggard take credit?
The sadly short-lived but extremely excellent Worlds of Ultima series took it one step further, with especially Martian Dreams pushing the boundaries. In stead of asking me if I wanted to play a male or female character, Sigmund Freud wanted to test some of his theories on me. “Do you feel closer to your mother or your father?” ultimately decided the sex of your avatar.
More recently Animal Crossing had a similar random but relevant questions system to create your in-game character, but other than that the art is sadly lost. However immersive many RPGs are, I can’ help but wonder if they could have been better if the character creation element was better disguised, rather than having me assign skill points.

Boss keys
Obviously another one for the PC rather than console crowd but when some developers realized how addictive their products were they thought it was neat to help their customers play more, play at work, in fact, by adding a boss key. A quick tap on the assigned button, ESC or TAB or something similar, would instantly hide the game and in stead show a static screen with a spreadsheet on it. The idea being you could play the game during work but as soon as the boss walked by you could instantly hide it from view and fool him into thinking you were actually busy, you know, working. I can think of a few games that could use this feature. Alt-tabbing is often simply not quick enough.
I also vaguely remember a small game called “Hunt the Wumpus” on PC which had, as its boss screen, a static image of a paused game of Tetris. In those days everyone was obviously busy at work playing Tetris. Class!

Obviously games have progressed far beyond what was possible in the early days, and despite the rose-tinted nostalgia many of us old folk have, games are generally much better now. Okay, I have fewer fond memories of playing games these days, but that’s mostly because my childhood was formative, and the games I played then influenced me, rather than them being superior to anything out now.
That said, there are a lot of great ideas to mine from these old deposits, a lot of neat little touches that can help today’s games get even better. Instead of making the same, avoidable mistakes we always make, maybe we should study the successes more and see what they can teach us or what we can steal.

8 comments:

  1. This is a little off topic, but it drives me up the wall when I open a game box and out drops a black and white manual in 4 different languages that looks like it was photocopied. Publishers would probably say they can't afford to waste money print colour manuals that only a few people will ever read, but the big ones like EA can sure as hell afford to put in gloosy colour brochures advertising their other games.

    Also, it's not just getting a black and white manual that bugs me, it's when that manual is blatantly just a black and white print of what gamers get in America or Japan. If you want to save money on ink, spend a little more and get someone to design the manual nicely with a limited colour palette in mind - the 2 colour ultima underworld 2 manual comes to mind.

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  2. How about putting a 'boss screen' in a console title, just for the fun of it?

    I'll see if I can slip something like that into our Nintendo DS title in progress :)

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  3. Anon #1, yes, EU manuals are utter rubbish. Some Japanese ones are great. Pikmin 2, I remember as being really lovely. And some DS, GBA games actually did come with little extras, like sticker sheets and whatnot. Good fun. You know, for kids.

    Anon #2, a boss key on a DS game would be the zenith of complete genius! :)

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  4. Anyone else remember the pop quiz Copy Protections in the Monkey Island games?

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  5. The art of setting up your game via in store stuff isn't completely lost.

    Halo for example has that whole intro where through the story they try to set whether you want down = look up to down = look down controls.

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