Thursday, September 19, 2013

Back to Basics

This week my PopMatters column is about getting back to basics.

Allow me to adjust my spectacles, hitch up my waist-high plaid trousers, and declare that games are damn complicated these days. It seems like most games have at least some combination of mechanics that have traditionally been mutually exclusive. I find this usually comes in the form of RPG aspects (character upgrades, different item abilities, etc.), but it is also applicable to aesthetics. Mashups are in high demand.

Far be it from me to call this a bad thing; more complexity often means the potential for more interesting decisions. But in an environment where games borrow a little bit from many different base styles, it's nice to have some games with a narrow focus on doing one thing extremely well.

I use Thomas Was Alone, Divekick, and Saint's Row: The Third as examples, but I wanted to expand a little on Divekick. Divekick is especially interesting because it distills the essence of a competitive game. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the wild combos and huge rosters in modern fighting games. Combos and be memorized and practiced; it's the positioning, contextual decisions, and meta game that constitute the core experience. Divekick takes a genre that has grown very baroque and distills it into its essence, which in turn makes it easier to understand the more complicated varieties. Basically, it helps you get your head around the fundamentals.c

It's always hard to understand highly competitive games as a relative newcomer, so I wonder if this philosophy could be applied to other genres? Is it possible to make some basic MOBA game that makes DotA less of an overwhelming mess? Is there some way to make a paired down version of StarCraft
This sort of thing doesn't happen often, but when it does, I think it helps us understand what exactly makes some games truly great.


  1. Have you played Awesomenauts? It's not as stripped-down as something like Divekick but it's a "MOBA lite." Way more approachable than Dota.

    It's a shame that Spore was such a mess because it was kind of doing what you're describing for a few different genres.

  2. This was a great point; one that I believe I stole without crediting you on a recent stream. I really like awesomenauts for exactly this reasons; MOBA strategies still apply, but the number of characters and items you have to learn is way more manageable.