Video games have become too unfocused and need to simplify

There is a problem with modern games that only becomes apparent if you do some recreational time travelling. As a keen retro enthusiast, that's exactly how I spend my gaming time. I'll go from FIFA 14 to Virtua Striker 2 (pictured), from Watch Dogs to Crazy Taxi and from GRID Autosport to Super Monaco GP 2. And even GTA5 to Magicland Dizzy. And the one thing that becomes obvious when you do this is the difference in approach, specifically regarding complexity and sprawling scale.

Generally, games made before 2002 are self-contained nuggets of gaming that deliver one idea, or perhaps merge two styles into one. After that, it all gets a bit blurry and that's the reason we're not seeing as many all-time classics as we should. I mean, the modern consoles have enough power to realise any idea a developer could have. So why have the past 12 months given us so few memorable titles? End-of-gen doesn’t explain it, as traditionally that’s when we get some of a system’s best titles. And launch day classics are normally commonplace...

Sure, Watch Dogs is a good game, but the driving isn't brilliant, the shooting isn't brilliant and the damage you can cause to vehicles and pedestrians (you guessed it) isn't brilliant either. The overall experience is one where you come away feeling that you've played a good game, yes, but have you really enjoyed every minute along the way? Probably not. It's just a massive swathe of well-made content to play through and complete. And while this may sound odd, I don't think that's good enough.

Let me give you four examples of modern games that embrace the old way of approaching game design. Tellingly, they all reviewed extremely well here on GamesRadar and the reasons are obvious. Mind your head, the first one's coming in like a…

Titanfall. I'm risking over-simplify things, but Titanfall is a fun game to play. Everyone knows how shooter controls work by now and it's not exactly difficult to make the leap (mentally and literally) when the Titan emerges and a big flashing X symbol appears on the screen urging you to get in. You push X and then you have a freakin' great time. It's fun to play for 5 minutes or 5 hours because the marriage of control and environmental design is wonderful. It's intuitive for beginners yet deep if you want to learn its intricacies, rewarding skilful play with spectacular conflagrations, which you can then share with the world at large. Brilliant! Where do I sign up? And, crucially, it may as well contain one environment and one mech, with one weapon loadout. All the rest is just trimmings and you'd probably have just as much fun for just as much time if the game were demo-sized.

Example 2: Dark Souls. A sprawling quest, and lengthy challenge, certainly, but one that never loses its ultra-sharp focus on combat and survival. It’s a polished, AAA-quality game that has plenty of depth in terms of tactics and character configurations, but it’s essentially all about you and how you deal with combat situations on your journey. It’s like it was designed 20 years ago, only it’s delivered in a modern way. It spawns countless conversations among its players, full of anecdotes and tips, because people feel the need to tell others about this amazing experience. It's no accident. Everything in Dark Souls has a purpose. A reason for being there. A reason better than 'because more stuff is what people want'. And anything that isn't necessary in the creation of that experience simply isn't in the game.

Example 3: Towerfall: Ascension. You might not know what this game actually is because, frankly, the name is about as explanatory as a piece of white paper with jam on it. Might as well have called it 'game game'. But the beauty of Towerfall is that it can actually be described very concisely. Up to four players shoot arrows at each other in a single screen of 2D platforms. Done. And you know what? It's brilliant because of that. Retro-styled, aesthetically, yes, but the frame-rate and 1080p resolution are sufficiently modern, not to mention the pixel-sharp collision detection that lets you actually shoot someone's tiny hat off. I don't consider it a retro throwback--it's just a great video game.

Example 4: Resogun. Specifically, the Resogun Heroes DLC. Because, after receiving a patch that fixed the few problems in the original game’s Arcade mode, the first DLC pack has added Survival Mode. Sure, there's more in there, but Survival Mode is so good, it may as well be the only mode in the game. In fact, it could even be the only game on PS4 and I would still tell everyone to buy the machine to play it. Again, you can see the entire game world on the screen at any time, occasionally allowing you to enjoy one of the most sensationally joyous power-ups in all gaming and offering ultra-responsive and precise shooting/rescuing gameplay. There's zero fluff and zero padding.

The reason these four modern games are so good is because they all make full use of the new generation's capabilities (if subtly in the case of Towerfall), and deliver sensational gameplay. Gameplay that is refined, condensed and packaged up so neatly, you can put the whole game-shaped cookie in your mouth and enjoy the taste as soon as it hits your tongue. Microsoft can sell a 'Titanfall bundle' because it is a perfect package that everyone can make sense of when they see it. It's a great game off which systems are being sold.

So why isn't everyone doing this?! Why do we still have games that attempt to be all things to all people? Expansive design for the sake of scale is rife throughout modern gaming. Look at fighting games. When Soul Blade/Soul Edge (pictured) came out on PSone, it had a roster of 10 characters to choose from. By comparison, Soulcalibur 5 has 28. Is that necessary? No. If SoulCalibur 6 gets announced as a remake of the original Soul Edge, it would be incredible. Imagine a 10-character fighting game where every character had clear personality, lifelike animation and facial expressions, and each of the 10 fighting styles are unique, all wrapped up in 10 backgrounds of jaw-dropping, cinematic quality. It would be *the* 3D fighting game to play on new-gen. Keep SC1's 8-way run and then leave the gameplay nice and simple. Simplicity is king.

Stripped-back games are becoming the ones that stand out, at least to me. It's why CoD 4 is still my favourite entry in that series. GRID Autosport took a knife to all its extraneous sprigs and the remaining branches of its career mode offer wonderfully accessible gaming, to the point where if you're looking for a track-based racing game, it's essential.

Now, I appreciate some will point to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and GTA5 and argue that they have a ton of content and are essential too, so I'm talking nonsense. But these games are actually equally good examples for this argument is because they still package up one idea and deliver it brilliantly. That one idea just happens to be exploration and discovery on a massive scale. The swathes of missions and gameplay variations are not just there to pad out the experience from 8 hours to 60 – they are every bit as deep and important as everything else. Bethesda and Rockstar have the resources and creative talent to be able to realise each facet with aplomb.

If we're to see shelves full of classic new-gen games, developers need to just set out the boundaries for what they want each title to be (and can feasibly be), then fill in everything inside those markers with dazzling creativity and depth. And 9 times out of 10, that should mean targeted, narrower design. Package it up, sell it on a disc or on the download stores and let the money come flooding in. Do one thing and do it brilliantly. Make a game that is so undeniably awesome at what it does that it is essential. Then we might actually see some more timeless classics like Mario 64, Sonic 2, GoldenEye, and SoulCalibur. You'll notice that everything I've said above can be applied to those games. What an amazing coincidence.

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  • Locohero - August 7, 2014 4:21 a.m.

    Modern games are putting a lot of gamers off, myself included. The constant need to add complexity to each new game release means the game is too hard to learn for some people. Add in that even if you like a game and get good at it, they shut the servers down after a while. You needs the dexterity of a brain surgeon to play NHL 14! Give me NHL 93 any day of the week: tackle, pass, shoot. Good basic fun. Hopefully one day all the old games will have servers you can access via a games console. I'd be happy to pay extra for it.
  • rxb - July 25, 2014 5:58 a.m.

    I expected to disagree with this article before I read it. I totally agree with ol Towelly, sometimes less is more.
  • Uncompetative - July 13, 2014 6:49 p.m.

    I think you could have an experience with virtually unlimited scope and be happy to just potter around in some small part of it. Once we have one multigenre game that does everything we might find in multiple artificially separated games (i.e. can't get out of a racing car in Project Gotham to go shopping), provided it has a unified control scheme that proves to sufficiently articulate to properly express ourselves dynamically in each milieu, it doesn't matter if we don't complete all of its arbitrarily defined immersion breaking "achievements" it in a single weekend so we can trade it in at the shop on the Monday, as we won't be looking to get the next game as we can always change what aspect we engage with of the experience we already rent.
  • Germaximus - July 12, 2014 10:35 a.m.

    I think Watch Dogs is amazing and have enjoyed every second of it. Nice article, though.
  • Divine Paladin - July 11, 2014 2:52 p.m.

    I don't see the logic in using the "past 12 months" argument when that time frame deliberately avoids at least two of the more memorable experiences of 2013. Many of GR's most praised games of last year came out in the first half, such as Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and The Last of Us. Personally, I think 2013 was one of if not the best year in gaming, period. You also neglect to account for the Wii U effect in your argument. The Wii U launched a year earlier than it should have, to get the jump on the competition. The result was an unfinished console, and it pushed Sony into a 2013 launch. That in turn pushed Microsoft into a 2013 launch. Nobody was truly ready for the gen ti start; one look at Microsoft's E3 2013 shows that they were prepping for 2014, and the whole DDR4 RAM issue likely would've been avoided had the console not entered full production so soon. Sony happened to have been prepping the PS4 since the PS3's launch and we're able to wrap everything up with a bow nicely. But even with them you can see the shades of a 2014 launch; why else do we get so many rushed port jobs of several PS3 games to fill gaps? (Don't try saying anything about helping non-PS3 owners because A) PSNow, and B) Beyond was not requested for a port by ANYBODY). The simple answer for your question about why we've had no memorable titles recently is that we're in a filler year, something practically unseen in gaming; a year when NOBODY was ready on time. The unfocused comment? I can agree to an extent. But distractions are nice if done right; your first example of Watch Dogs did not do them right. TL;DR: Selective word choice and a unique year in gaming don't solidify your comments about the past year in gaming.
  • adam-noah - July 11, 2014 10:53 a.m.

    I think the author needs to try some of the Nintendo games on Wii-U. These are good games and deliver exactly what the author is talking about. For whatever reason, people think the Wii-U is a failure, but I see it as having WAY more memorable games at this stage than either PS4 or XBOX One. I recommend giving it a try.
  • runner - July 11, 2014 9:57 a.m.

    Marketing, that's why. Creative or someone in this line of works usually start with a concept, established a target group and expand from that. But for the marketing team, especially on expensive project, they won't be happy with that and will try make the project appeals to as much people as they can, even though it will delude the concept and, in the end, make the final product so bland. It's not just video games. Movies, TV programs, comics etc are all affected by this.
  • Lurkero - July 11, 2014 9 a.m.

    Unfocused is definitely a better word. Lucky for me, most of the games I have been interested in are indie games that don't bother to have a grandiose list of tasks and abilities for players.
  • mafyooz - July 11, 2014 6:41 a.m.

    One of these days I'm going to print off all Justin's articles, get a bottle of tequila, do a shot every time I find a reference to (the absolute classic) Dizzy and see how long it takes me to get shit-faced/dead. I'm guessing not long ;)
  • GR_JustinTowell - July 12, 2014 4:37 a.m.

    I can't be held responsible for any injury or loss of life caused by massive alcohol poisoning if you do actually try that...
  • BladedFalcon - July 11, 2014 5:43 a.m.

    I agree with the idea of this article, though I think that "Complex" is the wrong word to use here. After all, one of the games Justin uses as an example, (Dark Souls) is a very damn complex game in terms of level design, combat mechanics, and several inner working game-play systems. I think "unfocused" is a more appropriate term to describe what Justin is talking about here. Games like Watch Dogs aren't so much complex as they are unfocused, because instead of focusing on one main idea or concept (which is Justin's entire point) it tries to deliver on many without really knowing what it is, or wants to be. Again, this isn't being "too complex", this is being too unfocused.
  • TanookiMan - July 11, 2014 6:33 a.m.

    I thought I disagreed with the article until I read your comment. Unfocused does sound like what Justin has in mind, particularly in his last paragraph. It does concern me that none of the examples of good, simple games in the article are story driven. Sometimes, in order to tell an interesting story, you need to change the game mechanics up from time to time to match. I think as long as you can have an interesting story "set the boundaries" and not just one particular design or mechanic, then I'm totally on board here.
  • BladedFalcon - July 11, 2014 10:06 a.m.

    Well, in that case, if a story driven game changes up the mechanics in service of the story, if the unified goal is the story, then it IS a focused effort still. Though in such cases, said mechanics should remain simple because otherwise it could become too much, or too jarring. I guess the other reason why story driven games aren't mentioned here is because... Well, not meaning offense, but from what I know of Justin and his personal tastes, he's never really been big on story driven games to begin with :P Gameplay and frames per second seem to be his main priorities in a game XD
  • TanookiMan - July 14, 2014 3:48 p.m.

    You're totally right about Justin. You don't get a Sonic speed run world record by sitting around reading stories. ;) His joy of speed and racing is infectious... until I try a racing sim and remember I suck at them. Damn you Justin and making me feel inadequate!
  • mafyooz - July 11, 2014 6:37 a.m.

    I also don't think "regress" is the right word in this context either. I've been gaming since the very early 80s and for me the best games have always been ones that take one clear concept and make it razor sharp rather than shoehorning loads of crap in just because they can. I don't think it would exactly be a regressive step for more companies to do that :)
  • GR_AndyHartup - July 11, 2014 7:38 a.m.

    Just for you - I changed the headline to 'unfocused'. Shhh... don't tell Justin.
  • BladedFalcon - July 11, 2014 10:02 a.m.

    Woah, didn't think I'd have that much impact XD Thanks though, Andy! And yeah, reads much better and more in line with what the article means, because the first title made it sound as if games should become simpler in their game mechanics just because XD