Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Invention from adversity

It seems that great things are created when you don't have the tools that you think you need to accomplish them.

Take, for example, the obvious example of Star Wars. Created on a very limited budget, but introducing a whole new vision of science fiction. Then have a look at The Phantom Menace with a, pretty much, unlimited budget and then look away, quickly.
The film Shrek was made by Dreamworks on the brink of bankruptcy driven by a need to parody their previous employers, whereas the sequels were made in financial security and found themselves drifting into diminishing returns.
Citizen Kane was made with a young Orson Welles bound by the limits of the current technology but making something that had never been seen before. The sequel "Son of Rosebud - Ski-mobile of Power" made purely in CGI never reached the same heights despite the modern technology available. Although, thinking back, this might have just been a bad dream after some dodgy fish cakes.
Diverging from sequels, Aliens by James Cameron was made in the adversity of the British tea breaks and 5pm clocking off and a budget limiting him to 6 Aliens for the whole shoot. Skip forward to the financial and chronological extravagance of Titanic, the carbuncle on the backside of cinematic history.

But what of the games? What are you actually trying to put across?

This is simply a long, twisted path to try and work out why the brilliance of some games can never be recreated. Modern versions and rewrites of Battlezone, for example, have never had the impact of, nor been as played as much as, the original - which was written in a few KB of memory but with a real passion to create something that had never been done before.

As another example - take the classic Robotron 2084 that introduced the twin joystick control. An addictive, fast paced and difficult game that is everything a classic should be. Robotron X was created many years later in a 3d environment with more memory available than a very wealthy person of good stock could have bought back in 1982. But it just didn't work particularly well. It wasn't a bad game, but it certainly wasn't a great game.

As a completely different example, the many iterations of Defender (the original game was written, co-coincidently, by the same person as the above Robotron 2084) never captured the feel or playability of the original, despite the advanced technology available in the more modern versions.

3D Monster Maze and Mazogs were written with no colour, sound or pixel graphics available. Deathchase 3D and Jetpac were written with 16KB available (as were the previous two games) and only a 2 colour per character square palette. Knight Lore with the first isometric 3D puzzle game and crammed into 48KB. Or the great Elite written originally in 32KB, containing 8 galaxies of 256 planets each with trading, 3D combat, missions and many late nights trying to get a better rating than Mostly Harmless.

In summary, it appears that it is the limitations placed upon older games that made them as great as they were, or are. Would Tir Na Nog have had any place in a free roaming 3d environment as opposed to the fixed camera and paths? These very restrictions gave the game the puzzles and originality that defined it. Mike Singleton saw a friend playing The Hobbit and decided there was no reason it needed to be that slow drawing the graphics and sat down to create a massive strategy adventure game called Lords of Midnight on the same hardware. The work that went into the C64 music prodded and poked into a small area of memory still manages to surpass the mood and feel of some of the orchestral scores around in some modern AAA titles. Restrictions have to lead to innovation if you want to rise above them; you don't spend time on something unless it is something that needs to be done. To revive a well worn expression, necessity is the mother of invention and conversely if you have everything you need in front of you, you have no need to innovate.

As a final, very deep conclusive thought, if Steven Spielberg had had CGI available and could have put the shark in when the model consistently didn't work; would Jaws have been the major impact in creating the Summer movie blockbuster?

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