The Game Archaeologist: Going forward by looking back at the past

Have you noticed? I'm sure you've noticed. It seems as though ever since this Kickstarter fad flared up, the avalanche of retro-themed game projects has exploded. And it's not just on Kickstarter, either. One of Guild Wars 2's most popular content additions over the past year was a tongue-in-cheek recreation of 8-bit games. And now we've got Trove, which above its controversy is definitely appealing to the glory days of gaming past.

The Game Archaeologist has always advocated that the past can influence our present and future in surprising ways. It sometimes irks me that current developers have shown a lot of ignorance for past ideas when coming up with new content, although that irritation has lessened recently now that I'm seeing a growing movement to embrace and incorporate what's come before, both ideologically and aesthetically.

So what does the past have to offer the future of MMOs and how can game developers capitalize on it? As usual, I have all of the answers.

1. Pulling from the past inspires new approaches

There was an episode of the Simpsons where Maggie is locked in the bathroom and Homer tries a coat hanger to get her out. He fails, but Lisa picks the hanger up and manages to do it, saying, "I don't get why we only try things once."

That's how I feel about game development. Sometimes the push for progress ignores the fact that there were a lot of great ideas in the past, some of which failed but could be successful if reexamined and retuned for today's games. We've looked back at scores of classic games in this column, and big or small, all of them had at least one cool idea that could inspire a feature in today's MMOs.

So instead of progress always pushing forward, ever forward, look at it like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book. If you read them like I did, you kept your finger in the pages where crucial decisions were made so that you could easily backtrack and try a different approach. There's no law saying that studios have to slavishly adhere to the current "standard" (whatever that is) instead of looking back at a cool idea and developing a new approach from there.

2. Appealing to the past capitalizes on gamer nostalgia

I was reading an article that made the observation about how many of the fully funded Kickstarter game projects (not to mention some movie ones) were almost unanimously nostalgia-related. Star Citizen, Shroud of the Avatar, and Camelot Unchained, for just three well-known examples, all banked on gamers plunking down money based on nostalgia for the developers' past games. If nothing else, Kickstarter has proven that nostalgia is the magic key that opens gamers' wallets.

This is not a bad thing, as I'm just as susceptible to nostalgia as anyone else. I actually play and blog about retro gaming a lot these days, seeing how my fond memories match up to the sometimes-harsh reality. But MMOs don't have to be (spiritual) successors to invoke that nostalgia; they can simply apply the veneer of it. Retro-style graphics, music, and gameplay can give a feel of "the good old days" while still retaining the advancements and game development knowledge that we've attained over the years.

This is why, for example, Trove has my full attention. The deliberate use of a 3-D pixelated world and characters that look like they're straight out of an old Nintendo game creates an atmosphere that links directly to happy memories of my gaming youth. That it's combining the nostalgia with more modern sandbox elements gives me hope that there's substance past the looks.

3. Developing from past ideas improves on lessons learned

With just about every classic MMO I've examined in this column, I ask the question, "What is this game's legacy?" What did this title pass on, either in direct development inspiration or in ideas? Failed or successful or somewhere in the middle, every MMO has generated lessons that could serve future projects well if studios would take note.

You can learn a lot from failure, such as overhyping a game or promising features you can't deliver. You can learn a lot from timing, in the case of MMOs that got steamrolled by launching too near another game or releasing too soon. You can see what worked, what didn't, and what might be worth trying again.

A lot of times when I hear MMO gamers lament how much better games used to be, what I'm hearing isn't so much that they want to go back to playing those games again but that they wish that the feel, the environment, the mechanics, or the social bonding would be recreated in a more modern title. There's a yearning for what they perceived as something that "worked" and is now lost -- but it doesn't have to be lost forever if a developer feels the same and can improve upon that old lesson.

There have been too many important lessons that studios have learned, many painful and expensive, for the industry to ignore in a blind attempt to clone whatever hit game or genre is out today. Learn the past and use the past, and it will be a great ally.

4. Resurrecting the past unites gamer groups

I'm not one of those geeks who gets incredibly possessive of something I liked "before it was cool" with the mainstream. I thought it was great how the Lord of the Rings films ushered in a new generation of Tolkien fans who instantly had comrades with the older set. The resurrection of Doctor Who in 2005 did much the same to that franchise, strengthening and growing the community on the whole. There's every reason to believe that going to the past for inspiration could indeed unite different gamer groups.

I've never liked the attitude that the glory days of MMOs are long past and if you weren't one of the people playing these games way back when, well, you missed out and now you have to hear the vets prattle on endlessly about how awesome they were. What I like is the attitude that there is good fun to be had back then and here and now, and MMOs that resurrect the past in a new fashion could combine the two to generate a stronger community than before.

For example, we've heard the love that some gamers had for Star Wars Galaxies. That's dead and gone now, but SOE is promising somewhat of a sandbox spiritual successor in EverQuest Next. I'm watching the development of this title with keen interest because there's a great opportunity here to unite sandbox fans from SWG, EverQuest fanchise loyalists, and a completely new crowd that might not have found those previous titles appealing but could be introduced to those games' cultures with this new one.

Any good historian will look for trends and connections from the past to the present, which is why I believe in the mission statement of this column. It's not just a collection of dusty stories but a possible treasure trove of ideas for our gaming future.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.