What makes some games resemble 1990s designs?

I’ve been thinking about this after playing games such as Shadow Empire and Highfleet – what makes them feel like throwbacks to the 1990s?

For me, three interlinked factors stand out about classic 1990s games: originality, difficulty, and their attitude to game balance.

Originality: The 1990s classics tended to either pioneer their genres, or blend genres in a way that’s rare in newer titles.

Difficulty: They demanded skill from their players, and were unforgiving on learners.

Balance: The flip side is that they also let skilled players break or exploit the game, in ways that would be rapidly patched away in the modern era of multiplayer, GameFAQs, discussion boards, and digital distribution.

So for instance:

  • The Master of… games pioneered the space and fantasy 4X genre — and half the fun was coming up with overpowered custom races, and creative uses for magic spells (casting “flight” on warships to produce heavily armed galleys that could fly over land).
  • The Gollop brothers’ original X-COM (UFO: Enemy Unknown) defined the combination of squad-based strategy and strategic-level management; it was extremely tough for a beginner, but experienced players could trivialise the difficulty by using psionic operatives: make the first alien spotted drop its weapons, turn around, and scout for the second alien; mind control the second alien; and repeat. (That’s even before getting into outright exploits, such as generating infinite money by manufacturing items for sale.)
The Spartacus-class – my workhorse in Highfleet. I customised the Gladiator-class frigate to add extra armour, fuel, engines, and anti-missile defences.

Looking at the games I mentioned earlier, Highfleet perhaps comes closest. It mixes arcade, sim, strategy, and roguelite elements, and while difficult, it becomes much easier once players master the rules or learn the intricacies of custom ship design. Its community is marked by an thriving exchange of custom ships — from min-maxed flying cubes of armour to themed collections with their own backstory.

Shadow Empire stands out for its originality: it blends a 4X game, a wargame, and a logistics or resource management game. It also can be challenging, especially at first — I remember how quickly my first game went from “how do logistics work?” to a desperate struggle against a gigantic empire.

An interesting question would be how many of these elements it takes before a game feels like a throwback to the 1990s. Are some more important than others? In the early 2010s, the Souls games, Firaxis’ XCOM reboot, and roguelites such as FTL made difficulty fashionable again. They are all great, they have influenced design to the present, and FTL’s retro pixel-art graphics wouldn’t have been out of place in the ‘90s. Do they feel like 1990s games? Would I say they felt like ‘90s games, if I were playing them now? One to consider, next time a difficult, genre-blurring game comes along…

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Video Games and the Law of Conservation of Complexity

While replaying Imperialism II recently, I realised how it illustrates the role of complexity within strategy game design. For every game there is a “right” amount of complexity, and it’s up to the developer how to allocate it.

Resources near my capital in Imperialism II. They are connected by road or rail and I don’t need to use my limited shipping capacity to bring them in. Overseas resources must be connected to a port and then shipped in.

The key is that simplifying one aspect of the game frees up complexity to be used elsewhere. Imperialism and Imperialism II exemplify this. On one hand, they make city management much simpler than in other 4X games: there is only one to manage, the capital. On the other hand, their resource model is much more detailed. Instead of generic “production”, every unit needs specific resources, such as steel, bronze, and cloth for uniforms. Every one of these has its own inputs, and every input resource (coal, iron, timber, wool, multiple types of food…) is represented on the map. They need to be discovered, exploited, and connected to transport; and then there have to be enough ships to bring the resources back  home. Going to war has a real opportunity cost; every ship carrying troops or participating in a blockade is one ship that can’t feed the capital.

This principle can be seen elsewhere. Civilization famously has no tactical battles, because they would interrupt the broader flow of the game. Master of Magic and the Age of Wonders series look very similar at first glance, but playing them back-to-back reveals the extent to which Age of Wonders streamlines city-building in exchange for much more detailed combat.

Even Sid Meier had to watch out for this. As recounted by Soren Johnson, he realised “it’s better to have one good game than two great ones” after falling victim to this when developing Covert Action, a spy game whose management and action layers distracted from one another.

Ultimately, just as the player has to manage finite resources within the game, complexity is a finite resource that the designer must manage outside the game. And as with other types of resource management, the benefits are substantial when done well.

Further reading

Soren Johnsons elaboration of why “one good game is better than two great ones” — and when mini-games can succeed.        

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