Thursday, March 31, 2005

Cases of Refinement

I got my first
chance to play World of Warcraft yesterday.

Let me share something with those few who may not have gotten a chance to play yet: There is nothing drastically different or novel in this game to distinguish it from other MMORPGs.

That said, let me make another point: The game takes all the elements of other MMORPGs that are notoriously boring, broken, counterintuitive or just plain stupid, boils it all down and distills a system that is fun, easy to use and gorgeous and then wraps it all up in a Warcraft shell.

What the game does best is not innovate new gameplay elements. It doesn't completely redefine the genre.

It just removes most of the bullshit that infests MMORPGs.

Which brings me to the next game - Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30.

Again, there are so many familiar elements in this game that will be instantly recognizable to anyone that's played at least one other World War II-themed game. There's the parachute insertion, the AA-gun destruction, the tough-talking sergeants and authentic weapons.

But the things that make it different make it feel very different.

The weapons are highly inaccurate. The atmosphere is constantly alive, it feels more like a war is raging than any previous game of its kind. The graphics have their own polish to them, almost a hyperrealism. The ability to survey the battlefield layout adds another element to the gameplay, as does the squad commands (not a new idea, but implemented with such ease).

In other words, it refines the entire genre, taking old cliches and new tricks and wrapping them up into a cinematic and visceral experience.

Refinement, I think, is more important to videogames than novelty. There are always new and interesting gameplay elements to discover and explore, and that quest drives much of the industry forward. But new ideas are not necessarily better ideas. Sports games are very much up on the refinement idea, though sometimes they phone in the improvements.

And I am not just talking about sequelitis, churning out the same game with minimal additions. I'm talking about taking gameplay elements that work and carrying them forward into new settings, mixing and matching proven gameplay.

We see this in platformers. Ratchet and Clank changed very little since the first game, but the third game took everything that went right and cut out everything that wasn't good and made a great game.

What I'm trying to get at is that sometimes a lot of little changes to a system do a better job of innovating the game than overhauling the entire thing.

The problem with little changes is that the criticism can be brutal. Sonic has been tweaking its formula for years and got bashed each time for never being as good as the original, or at least the first sequel.

So what has that led to? Now they're trying to re-create the whole freaking game.

I like what I saw of Shadow the Hedgehog. But I'm one of very few.

See what happens when people can't accept little refinements.

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