The Forgotten Art of Game Design or Today's Gamers Only Pay Attention to Graphics?

I was thinking this week about retro gaming. Wondering what it is that keeps masses of people (including myself) playing games from 20 to 30 years ago.

People usually hastily label it nostalgia and do not take the time to give it any deep thought. However, if you are a retro gamer you know there is something more to it. A lot more in fact. Although you may not be able to easily identify exactly what it is.

Although it was the 16-bit era that really fine-tuned level design and game-play in general I’ll use NES games as examples. NES games are where game-play was first focused on as an art. That’s not to say there was never any good games and no focus on game-play before this time!

Let’s take a brief look at Super Mario Bros.

I realize many modern gamers look at this and think it looks terrible. It’s 2D not 3D. OMG! Generally there are about 10 to 14 colors on the screen at any one time and the tile design is obvious. OMG!

Okay, so let’s forget about the graphics for a bit. Just accept it. This is how it looks. Time to move on to more important things.

Now people watching will see a little dude running and jumping. That is mainly what you do as you play through the timed levels. Based on many of the SMB type of games I have seen people making these days it is obvious they only have a surface level understanding of the game.

One of the things that makes SMB so addicting even to this day are secrets. Many games from long ago had secrets and SMB probably was the biggest reason for that.

Secrets in SMB include:

Invisible blocks
There are many secret blocks hidden in the game’s levels. Some of these are useful just to reach other sections of the level. Others release coins. Others may have the “big man”, a fire flower or even an extra life. And one may even have something that leads us to the next secret…

Secret areas
Some people seem to still not realize you can go down inside some of the pipes. Those are what I consider to be the sort of obvious secret areas. However, did you know there are certain places you jump, hit a block from underneath and a beanstalk will grow out of the top of that block? Climbing that will take you to a special area where you ride on a cloud and can collect coins.

Random stuff
You may have managed to jump off the blocks and land on the top of the flag pole scoring the maximum of 5,000 points and yet you did not see the fireworks display and wonder why. It works like this: if the last digit of the Time (remaining) is a 1, 3 or 6 you will get the fireworks display. And that digit determines the # of fireworks explosions you get and how many bonus points you are awarded.

Beyond the secrets the game is packed with other game-play. When you jump on a turtle it flips upside down. If you then move into the turtle you will send it sliding across the screen eliminating any enemies it hits. You can run behind the turtle to extend the distance the path will be cleared. Although I have not done it, I have even heard if you hit 7 other turtles with this sliding turtle you will earn an extra life. Oh and of course every time you collect 100 coins you earn an extra life.

Okay, I don’t want to ramble on any more because many people don’t like reading more than a paragraph or two per post. :wink:

Anyway, it is the kind of stuff described above that keeps retro gamers going back to old games. The games were just… well… games first and foremost. They were meant to be played not looked at. And they were filled with all kinds of cool stuff for adventurous gamers to find. The time and effort was primarily spent on level design and secrets and techniques and so forth. Not on graphics.

I wonder has this art of real game design been lost as more and more emphasis has been placed on the presentation wow factor through the years? Or do modern gamers just not appreciate such things?

Why do you think modern games seem to miss the mark on the actual game-play side as far as the above is concerned?


The problem lies almost entirely in graphical expectations. Most early games didn't have the capability to look better than they did because of the hardware. This meant that art was done simply and quickly, with more time spent on polish, level design, and gameplay.

Unfortunately, in this modern time, the hardware can now support gorgeous graphics. As a result, companies feel obligated to utilize those graphics, especially when a larger company. This pumps up production cost. The higher production costs get, the faster the company is pressured to "just get it done." And thus the cycle continues.

For big companies, this will only get worse as graphics improve. For smaller companies, like indies, the problem is exactly the same, just on a smaller scale. Indies don't have much money, that's a given. All the work they do tends to be in their spare time, and they don't have the budget for AAA art. What this means is that they either spend years on a product without seeing any returns, or they pump it out and try to make an early buck to fund future development.

I'm not sure what the solution is, besides somehow incentivizing studios to make games between AAA and the usual low-budget titles. If we can get people to live with $50,000 to $100,000 art budgets and spend 1.5 years on gameplay, I don't doubt we'll get more Mario Bros. I'm just not sure where they'll get the money, outside of Kickstarter.


I'm not sure it's fair to compare Super Mario Bros to the typical games of today... SMB (and especially SMB3, which IMHO was the pinnacle of the series) was the absolute best of its day. For a fair comparison, you'd have to compare it to the absolute best games of today, not the common ones. Or to turn it around: there was a lot of junk back in the good old days too; it's just that even retro gamers don't bother playing (or remembering) those anymore.

I'm not sure what the best games of today would be, but there certainly are modern games that I would say have good gameplay. Infamous was one that impressed me. Also the Tron: Evolution game, which (being a movie spin-off) I expected to be mediocre, but was actually really well done.

But I don't play a lot of games, so I'm sure there are even better ones with deeper gameplay, that I'm simply not aware of.

I do worry, though, about whether the freemium model that has taken over most of the industry has eroded the potential for this sort of thing. Like @GargarathSunman says, it's easy to spend three years and put so much care & fine-tuning into a design when your game sells for $30 in a field with only a few dozen other games on the shelves. But when there are literally hundreds of thousands of other games, almost all of them "free," it's hard to afford that kind of development cycle.


Thanks for contributing to the thread! Great points guys.

@JoeStrout I definitely realize there were some terrible games and many mediocre games back then. However, the ratio of the good/great games to the others seems like it was much higher back then.

I don’t know really how to put it. It is almost like creativity has degraded somewhere along the way. For creature design modeling and so forth today creativity is excellent. Graphics are certainly outstanding in most cases. I just don’t see anywhere close to that same level of creativity and effort put into the actual games themselves. The level design, the mechanics, secrets and so forth.

Maybe it is because the presentation just takes so much effort and time these days? Like back then they could add in a secret area because it was only a half dozen or so tile images, some collectibles and maybe a sprite enemy or whatever to create? And today to do that same secret area they would hire an orchestra to play some incredible tune, voice actors to announce WHAT IS THAT CRAZY VINE GROWING UP INTO THE SKY? and of course modeling the vine itself may be a day or three. And then actually make the secret level could be a week or more.

I’m just trying to put my finger on what exactly caused the change. It is kind of funny in a way because today people will talk about the programming that was done for some games and how advanced it is. And yet in some ways the game were far better programmed back then. Just for a game like Mario think of how much is being tracked. Every little thing that was programmed for and they fit it all inside a tiny amount of space. Sometimes I think people see games like Flappy Bird and think that is about the same level of programming and detail that went into games like SMB, Castlevania, Battle Toads, Gradius, Adventure Island, Blaster Master and so forth. :stuck_out_tongue:

Mainly I just wonder what caused the change? Even on the PS2 games commonly had secret areas, things to find and so forth. It seems to be around the time of the PS3 & 360 there was a big shift in how games were designed. And I think it has a lot to do with the graphics as @GargerathSunman mentioned. I get customers expected some better graphics. I think they also expected there would be more secret levels to find. More gear to find. More techniques and mechanics available and so forth. At least I know that I did. :wink:

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

The thing is graphics have always been a major focus, or to be pedantic, the graphical techniques. On the NES it was scrolling and today it's physically based rendering. How hardware is pushed to its limits has always been graphically. The major difference is there is plenty more room for asset creation today then there ever was in the olden days. When you only had the memory to make a handful of sprites, most of your effort went to other avenues like rendering the sprites.

I think you just play a bunch of shitty games and think that's the state of the industry. If you want secrets, go play Dark Souls. Seriously, do it and don't come back until you're grossly incandescent.


I ordered Dark Souls tonight. Will check it out next week.

Maybe I have been playing too many Indy games over the past year or two. lol All I know is when I see popular games people are talking about they look like the same ole crap that has been churned out for the past 5 to 6 years. I am sure there are some great games out there if a person can just wade through all of the FPS and other crap.

This looks like it is packed full of cool game-play:

This has fantastic graphics but from what I can see in the video the game-play is pretty basic:

This looks kinda cool:

I find most 3D games to be quite lame anymore. For PS3, the early games such as God of War, Castlevania, Viking, Darksiders and several others were cool. They all had a pretty distinct play style and presentation.

Maybe I am just burnt out on 3D games having played and seen so many over the past decade or so that maybe they are boring to me. It is possible I suppose although I think that probably has more to do with the games basically being the same thing over and over with different skins and different titles.

I’ll definitely give Dark Souls a go and see how it plays.

Try Dark Souls. On console if you can get it. The port to PC was done poorly. Input is broken, and all of the prints still say "press A to open door". If it wasn't for all the design hype it's got I would have walked away. It is playable once you get used to it, but you have to be pretty determined to play to get used to it on a PC.

The game seems to fit most of your general requirements. No hand holding at all. Secrets all over the show. No cut scenes I interrupting play. Game play that require hour of gaming to get good. And interesting enough level design that you don't object to playing the same level over and over again while you are building up your player skills, instead of grinding to build up in game stats.


I ordered it for my PS3. Will definitely try it out. I heard the game was good and also that it was another RPG game. I have Oblivion, Skyrim, Dragon Age 2, Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning and the best one of all Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen… so didn’t want yet another FRPG. I have not even opened KoA yet. lol

Anyway I think this thread is going off topic it seems to have focused on ME again and the games I am playing. lol I am trying to get a discussion going on the bigger picture. There are millions of retro gamers. Masses of people who wonder why they can’t make games as good as they used too despite having access to far better hardware. I mean truthfully the AAA game devs can make ANYTHING they want these days. Yet they seem to make the same things and focus on presentation far more than anything else.

So… is it because gamers these days don’t appreciate games like Castlevania, Metroid, SMB, Maximo GtG and AoZ, Jak and Daxter etc? What I mean is there seems to be a whole breed of game style that has been forgotten. Or are they still being made and just buried in all of the noise of the latest CoD and Halo clones?

Too be honest I never played most of these retro games you listed, and I am a 90s born kid. I was more hooked into the Zelda, Final Fantasy, RPG style games. But as much as I hate the Halo series, it contained a serious amount of "secrets" like easter eggs, super jumps, etc. Even Halo 3 made you look for secret "skulls" contained anywhere on their maps during campaign. But as far as newer games go, Dark Souls is exactly what you are looking for and shows that these type of games are still being made, Dark souls series is actually the only real games I have enjoyed in many years.

I think the problem lies with "secrets" and amount of work/creativity goes into it and it only satisfies die hard fans or a niche of people. Most people don't have time, or care, or look for these why bother putting so much work into it. Especially with so many 2D platformer games, no one will ever find them and if they do they would probably get confused and report it as a bug lol. And yeah no developers have time/money to do it anymore...

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Okay cool. It sounds like you understand what I am talking about. And you know maybe you hit the nail on the head! Maybe it is just us older retro gamers who wonder what in hell happened to that stuff! The serious gamers or maybe a better term is simply longtime gamers. I have been playing these games since the very first ones I stumbled upon as a very young kid in the mid to late 70s. Mechanical shooting galleries at that time.

Now that I think about it… while there definitely are some modern day teenagers who are in the retro gaming crowd… most of us are probably in age range of early 30s to early 50s. It is a big group though for sure. With retro gaming conventions (kind of like a mini E3) going on throughout the year and devices such as the Retron which is now at version 5 selling very well on Amazon. People want to play those kind of games even if that means buying the original hardware and game cartridges or getting something like a Retron 5 and then slowly building up their library of game cartridges. I have about 40 NES and 10 Genesis carts now. Still have my PS2 and about 50 games.

I think your explanation basically nails it. It is a niche group of maybe just a million or two retro gamers. Hopefully in time more good games will be made for this group. So far the games that seem to be targeting us have missed the mark. Things like Fez and Super Meat Boy. I was expecting retro style games and basically got the same ole kind of “fake retro” games made for today’s teens and casual gamers yet again.

Adding in the other replies I think we can call this case closed.

Oh! I am glad you mentioned the Dark Souls series being about the only modern games you enjoy anymore. That sounds more and more like it will be just what we are looking for.

On a final note, I am not too sure who your target audience is but my brother's (8-10 years younger) never played these games and know nothing about 90s game or what they are. Heck they don't even like them when I tried to get them to play it! We are talking about final fantasy 7-10, Zelda series, etc they refuse to touch or care about. If your target audience is the 2000-2015 kids, what they want appears to be totally different to the 90s kids.

But I feel like the 90s kids enjoy the same games as the older generations and more willing to play "retro" games or even go back to playing much older games and enjoy it for what they are. On a weird note, my dad and step mom (50-60 year old) play mobile apps now like random strategy games, puzzles games, collecting style games and they are insanely addicted to them. Everyone in my house is addicted to a game called "Summoners War", so something they did targeted all audiences properly. So maybe older generations are starting to try something new? Apps appear to be pulling in the older generations, because its easier to obtain with a click of a button while they are not willing to get PS4 etc and play the console games they use to love.

Just my input on the younger and new generations and what I noticed.

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The fact you are thinking in terms of retro and modern is probably a good indicator you’re nostalgia blind. Hell, you’ve framed the entire topic as “how could people have forgotten what game design was” and you assume the reason is just because of graphics. You’re argument is effectively “these games are superficial, because all I do is look at their superficial elements.” Even the secrets you’re touting are superficial. Their actual effects on gameplay were minimal, if they had any effect, and so long as they didn’t gate progression (a la Simon’s Quest grade bullshit), then it was a quaint curiosity most of the time. As far as curiosities go, games still have them in spades, but you have to stop and make out the reference.
If you just raced through the level, you won’t notice it. No effect on gameplay, but neither did coins in SMB.

If you were actually criticizing the design of modern game, you would have some legs to stand on, but you aren’t. There are some valid criticisms like how all games today are effectively Skinner boxes because of the use of RPG elements, or are aiming for a more casual experience (not necessarily targeting the casual market, but targeting people who actually have a job and can’t dedicate eight straight hours a day to playing a game).

Probably the biggest aspect of modern design is how all modern genres are amalgamations of the simpler genres from ten/twenty years ago. Every game is an adventure game. Every game is an RPG. Calling a game a shooter is about as meaningful as saying the game is in color, as it does nothing to describe what the game is actually like. Now we’ve got survival shooters, stealth shooters, open-world shooters, RPG shooters, whiskey shooters; and most of them have little relation to CoD or Halo. They might use similar, if not the same, control scheme, but the actual number of outright clones of CoD and Halo are fewer than there ever were of Doom and Wolfenstein. Genrebenders are something that is done better today than it ever was in the past, and it has to be done to appeal to as many people as possible. AAA has no say in it. When your budget is FUCKING HUGE (the technical term), you have to appeal to as many people as possible to recoup any of the cost.


Good points. I definitely can see I am in a tiny minority within this community as far as understanding the appeal of retro games. And it makes a lot of sense because it is a niche market and is probably fairly likely that many of the retro gaming group are not actually developing games in the first place. Some are for sure. But most are probably not.

I think the appeal of the mobile games to this group is because at first glance they look to be the same kind of games even though they are usually ultra simplistic. That is some of the appeal of retro games in the first place. Being able to quickly get into a game without a bunch of crap to go through first. Also a lot of people even in the early 30s and older range are not retro gamers anyway. It is just a niche group of people.

Also I realize there are a lot of people who will never understand what I am talking about. I think it is really one of those things where you are either in that niche group and “get it” or you do not. Again that also makes perfect sense.

It’s like the games I work on. I always know they will be for only a tiny niche market. Like that shmup I am now working on (and my bigger game project) I think many people simply cannot understand and relate to what I am doing with them. The tendency is always to suggest ways to pull them into a sort of mass market appeal which is completely the opposite of what I am after.

With your input and the others I finally get it now. There is a tiny % of gamers who actually see the things I am talking about. We can all relate to each other fine. However, we cannot really get it across to people outside of the group.

Thanks for dropping into the thread!

I know a lot of people who don’t care that much about the fidelity of the graphics, and are perfectly fine with decent art as opposed to complicated graphical rendering.

At the same time, I’ve met a few people who are very much into the high-end graphics, and openly shun anything with primary colors. They demand as much realism as can be squeezed into their graphics, and are disappointed in anything that leans toward the stylized. This same type of gamer is mainly only interested in big-name, big-brand games with lots of explosions. It is the same type of consumer who likes Michael Bay films.

The good news is that the first crowd is considerably larger than the second. The bad news is that the second crowd is commonly referred to as the “core” gaming demographic. In general, it is a much better idea to make games for the first crowd. They are larger, and have much more diverse interests. They are also not nearly as well served by the current gaming industry, so there is a lot of opportunity for making inroads into those varied demographics.


if your looking for cool games.

Transistor is a great game, it actually has a unique combat mechanic – where you can actually queue up your commands (3 seconds worth) and execute them in realtime and the whole things narrated by the sword, for $5 you really cant go wrong especially with steams refund policy.

If you watch this video and dont buy snakebird well ill be surprised.

And if your looking at AAA and havent played the Batman Arkham trilogy I dont know what youve been doing. I would love if rocksteady did a proper Evil Dead game

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@Aiursrage2k :
The game I am most looking forward to at this point is: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It is by Koji Igarashi one of the key people who brought us the Castlevania games from Konami. Like many of us he is tired of the direction modern games are going. He left Konami last year to start his own company. The kickstarter for his new Metroidvania game successfuly completed last week setting a new record generating over $5.5 million in funding. The campaign was only seeking $500k. I may be completely wrong here but to me this is a strong indication of the gamers out there who want to see more of those “old school” games. Maybe if we (retro gamers) are lucky more and more of these awesome designers / producers from those excellent games of old will get fed up with modern games and follow the same path.

Transistor looks cool! Thanks. Hadn’t seen that one before. I stumbled across Snakebird on youtube just last weekend (I’m always looking around trying to find cool games to try). Not my kind of game. Looks like it would be a good one for mobile gamers.

Oh yeah my friend showed me that kickstarter, looked like absolute robbery to me and “older” generations not having the real experience that they should. With all the kickstarter’s out there and people not delivering and asking for too much, that kickstarter was a prime example that show’s NO gameplay, random bs art, random bs funding goals (wii u, to vita to blah blah) which most companies never successfully accomplish the porting over, nothing in their main video of actual gameplay…an obvious money grab and showing no product.

I’ve seen too many kickstarters over the few years, wayyyyy tooooo mannnny and the majority of them fail…I have seen a lot of “older” generations not being able to live up to their titles and deliver properly like they think they can lately. Too many red flags popping up with that one, it just blows my mind the no actual gameplay part and asking for 500k.

I don’t know if I’d say the “older” generations have a lack of experience as generally the exact opposite is true. I think it more accurately shows how much desire there is for a new Castlevania style game.

Although there are definitely too many Kickstarter game projects in general I’d have at least as much, if not more, faith in IGA actually delivering than any of the random completely inexperienced people we see throwing up Kickstarters day after day.

Or alternatively we simply have more money to throw around by virtue of having fewer products we enjoy to throw it at. :wink:


Sorry you are correct I did not mean to target that one group, all groups have this problem.

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