Thought of the Day: Why do games go out of fashion?

This week, I’ve been playing a variety of older games, or games which are built around unfashionable playing styles.

  • Starcraft 1 (THE old school RTS)
  • Dragon Quest IX (old school RPG, you wander around and kill stuff and get xp)
  • Thief 3 (picked up from the last big Steam Sale)
  • WoW/LOTRO (may be popular but the game model is 5 years old)

SC2 and DQ9 are both current chart-topping mega-sales games. Both of them are polished revamps of types of game which simply haven’t been fashionable over the last few years. Civilisation 5 will also probably be one of the big sellers of the year when it is released, and not because of its innovative game play.

So clearly players love them and are racing out to buy and play. Aside from the question of how Blizzard could afford to ignore a red hot property like Starcraft for 10 years rather than putting out a couple more expansions, maybe we need to think about why we view games as going in and out of fashion.

Some computer games will go out of fashion because they were designed around hardware that no longer exists. Or they were designed around limitations that no longer exist.

Some will go obsolete because of the internet. For example, these days you can assume that anyone who wants to know spoilers, tactics, or walk throughs can just hop online and get them. That affects the types of puzzles which people play.

Some won’t go obsolete precisely but will be refined out of recognition.

Some just reflect the current preferences of game designers or current views by publishers on who their main market/ profit is (Who is the core player? How much time do they have to play? What makes them buy games? What makes them pay more?)

Good design does not go out of fashion.

11 thoughts on “Thought of the Day: Why do games go out of fashion?

  1. Almost reads like a justification for Blizzard serving people Starcraft again with absolutely nothing new.

    In that case dated graphics and interface count as nostalgia?

    In the case of WoW/LOTRO/EQ: The fascination of virtual worlds or at least theme parks is the common theme of these and other games of the genre.

    Their core mechanic, however, the levelquest for levels and items, that was flawed from the very beginning.

    I.e. it is about time that it goes out of fashion. The sooner the better.

  2. People have been playing chess for hundreds of years.

    RTS is basically just a wargame but with the computer doing all the hard work and calculations. They’ve been popular for at least 100 years.

    Why exactly does a game mechanic need to go out of fashion?

    • The computer technology improved a lot in the last decades.

      Look at some old games like “Monkey Island” or Doom. A huge amount of the game lived in our head, our imagination. If you create such a game today with today’s technology and graphics, then most of the game will “live” in the PC and we’re just playing it, not living it the way we did back then.

      I think it’s the same with literature. When movies were invented you also had to invent a different kind of story. A good book will never make a good movie and a good movie will never be a good book.

      The difference is that people still read but nearly nobody takes out the old Amiga to play old games.

      The other thing is the Internet itself. 20 years ago the world was full of boredom. 🙂 There wasn’t really that much indoor activity you could do. Today, with the Internet there is always more to do then you have time.

      I think that’s why the record company are having trouble. I think the reason why most people don’t buy music anymore isn’t piracy. The reason is that music is no longer an attractive way to waste time. 20 years ago on a rainy day you could listen to music, watch TV or read a book. Today you can also play a video game, surf the Web, read blogs, chat, post in forums, view Youtube, … .

      Things that were fun just get replaced by things that are more fun. The reason why we like sequels or remakes of old games is the same why we go and watch “Die Hard 4”. The memory remembers the positive things much more.

      • Good design does not go out of fashion.

        That, is probably the baby in the bath water. There is so much focus on new tech and new enthrallment. So little on systemic innovation.

        Chess, more or less, has been played for over a thousand years because it adequately taught relevant battlefield tactics and strategy. It was a gateway game to the occupation of warfare.

        What do current games teach us? If you learn some function relevant to your life or the world around you from a game then you may find a mechanic that will not go out of fashion.

        Of course Chess has gone out of fashion; so see what you will.

  3. Nice post. I’ve been mulling over the latent appeal of Starcraft & RTS and has hoped to try out the ‘new’ game.

    I loved Dune 2000 but never tried Starcraft. I never got C&C. Do you have plans to play Starcraft 2?

    • I’m not sure about SC2. I certainly won’t buy it at the current price, I know I don’t have much interest in online play. I wouldn’t rule it out after I’m done with the first game, have gotten more practice in and the price has come down.

      And at the same time, I am enjoying SC a lot, but I don’t know how much I really like having to micromanage everything in real time without being able to pause and think. It requires you to do a lot of your planning in advance which I know is part of the appeal for a lot of players.

      I do get a feel for quite why SC was so ground breaking in its time. 3 balanced races that each play completely differently is a hell of an achievement in game design. It’s remarkable how much role playing you get just from those game mechanics, and that’s a really important thing to take away from it (IMO). RP isn’t just about sitting around in virtual bars and chatting, it’s also playing the role in the actual game.

  4. A game mechanic goes out of fashion goes out of fashion when a better one can replace it OR when people are bored by it.

    I think this is the core of Blizzard’s philosophy, the time is ripe to serve some Starcraft again, now it is fresh again.

    I think it is about time for MMOs to get a proper revolution. The level driven and quest driven gameplay of today with group activities in the style of raids for example … I hope that these won’t be around in 10 years anymore.

    Chess also changed over the course of its existence. The core mechanics, board setup and and the movement of the pieces, changed enough to say these were not just variations. Wikipedia only stats 1475 as a date of major changes, the origins of the modern game. Granted, that is still impressive.

    If a game mechanic goes out of fashion is a matter of fashion. Think about soccer and american football or cricket. The latter one is pretty out of fashion in general, the other depends on which side of the ocean you are living.

    To put it bluntly, one can take a good basic concept and it will be good for a very long time. Volkswagen for example changes every 2 years the design of the “Golf”, i.e. they replace round reflectors with squared ones. Maybe next year they will be oval.

    This is not exciting. I think there is much more potential for computer games than for board games, which are arguably unfortunately somewhat out of fashion nowadays despite having proven and working mechanics. Maybe they should be called social games you actually play with real people, that is rather out of fashion. :/

    Take another Blizzard game for example: Diablo. It is pretty good! Torchlight is also pretty good, but I did not manage to get through yet, as it bored me to hell very quickly, unlike Diablo 1 or 2.

    But simply take Guild Wars as the evolution of Diablo. Jeff Strain worked on Starcraft, Diablo and Warcraft (albeit “campaign editor” for Starcraft is IMO more name dropping than really having worked on the core game) and then went on beyond EverQuest and Diablo.

    “Innovation” is a risky business. Many things go wrong, and they often fail horribly. But it is the thing that keeps us going. Otherwise we could have stopped at throwing dices and hunting mammoths the old way by driving them into chasms or ambushes. Or applying new paint to the Ford Tin Lizzy instead of designing the Maserati Boomerang.

    • omg that’s fighting talk. You know that cricket is actually a hugely popular sport in large sections of the world? (Australia, India, West Indies, England, et al.)

      I do think that computer games have a lot of potential to evolve. But if people liked old fashioned CRPGs or RTS games then is it really necessary to keep changing the core mechanics. (Note: Bioware obviously thinks so because they are Mass Effecting Dragon Age 2…)

      I also think there is scope for new types of game to be invented. Computer technology does actually allow different types of games. (RTS is a great example; you can run turn based strategy on tabletop but real time is really hard unless you LARP it.)

      Diablo btw is an evolution of roguelikes. As is Dwarf Fortress. (I personally think that rogue has a good claim to be one of the best and most influential games ever invented).

  5. I genuinely do not understand where you’re going with this Longasc, along with most of your points being totally off the mark.

    Most game types don’t go out of fashion due to being boring/dull, they go out because there aren’t enough quality releases to support it. Think about RTSes back in the lates 90s to early 00s. Age of Empires, Starcraf, Warcraft and Command & Conquer all came out around this time, and then what? Nothing, really. Aside from a few solid releases here and there, there was no core of great games being released on a consistent basis to keep the genre in fashion.

    The core of Blizzard has been polish until that in itself is either an innovation, or sets the bar so high that no one can match it.

    What’s wrong with the level driven gameplay? What’s the alternative? Skill-based has had many things going for it, and people striving to make it popular, and it still is by far and away less popular than level driven games.

    Your sporting example is a bit odd as well. Cricket is still popular in England at least, especially since there really is nothing else on (apart from the Euro Athletics.)

    So yeah. Innovation doesn’t need to happen, people need to just stop talking and start actually playing things.

  6. Popularity, like markets, tends to go in waves, for what that’s worth. There’s no shame in that, just risk for investing.

    That said, yes, good design itself doesn’t go out of fashion, inasmuch as it retains its quality, but perhaps it might be noted that implementation of design can wax and wane with the times, and popular reception and perception can change. That’s just how we’re wired, it seems.

  7. Video games evolve quickly in part because computers are still such a young medium for gaming. Enduring games have a mature medium. Compared to board games, card games or physical games like sports, video games from a few years ago look and feel dated in a way that a chess board doesn’t. That certainly drives some game development from a business point of view.

    Enduring games also aren’t owned by anybody. Nobody owns cricket or chess or go or poker. If they’re popular, it’s because the game itself is fun and not because they’re a fad or some game company’s marketing department has done a good job (read: Spore).

    A deck of cards ages much more gracefully than a computer game. When we play solitaire on a computer, we think of it as the “same game” as the card game played offline. In a way, D&D laid the foundation for every fantasy roleplay game we now play electronically. The genre has been popular for over 30 years and though the rules might change, the fundamental appeal of the game is still strong.

    A game with a real future is one that people will play in the absence of a company pushing it. Subspace is an interesting example among MMO video games.

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