Don’t remake an old game

I’ve seen this way too often. A flashy trailer, some assets, a community project, a feverish dream at reclaiming the glory of games when they seemed new to you. I have made this tragic mistake, but you don’t have to. No matter how much you want to, do not pick up a 20+ year old video game and start trying to make a remake (in Unity! In Unreal! In Godot!) I’m not saying that you will fail, but I’m saying that you probably won’t get what you want.

You won’t get the IP

In order to use the name “Your Favorite Game” you will need to purchase it from the existing owners. If nobody is producing sequels it’s probably because the IP holder has chosen not to. You will not be able to contact the IP holder and if you manage to, they will not sell it to you. If they do offer to sell it, it will be at a price way outside of your price range. If you wanted to purchase it at that price, you’d need to take out a loan, you’d need a business plan, and the project would very quickly not be fun anymore. You could also just sort of not quite use it and hope that the IP holder does not decide to shut you down. But getting the name is extremely important, because the path is littered with other semi-remakes that didn’t use the name, and you didn’t like any of them. Somehow, none of them had “it” because you’re still looking at remaking the old one, not playing someone else’s remake. Will you fare better?

The myth of fans

But I have a ready-made audience! You cry. Except you don’t. Videogames are massively more popular now than they were when Your Favorite came out. The audience for games has increased in size but the number of fans of Your Favorite has remained constant. It might be because genres have moved on. It might be because other franchises took up the banner. But the number of people who potentially enjoy The Remake is actually much smaller than the original fanbase was. Some people will have drifted away and don’t care anymore, some have probably moved on from gaming. Some may never have existed, because you don’t know what the sales figures are for Your Favorite and it was released before social media and steam statistics so you can’t really be sure what the size of your audience is. What about the number of active posters on the discord/reddit/forum where people desperately wish someone would finally come out with The Remake? That seems like a reasonable proxy. Go find this number (I bet it’s less than 100, but you may have better luck.) This is likely to be the maximum number of people who will care about The Remake. If you still want to embark knowing that you’re working for that audience exclusively, read on.

The myth of memory

So your intended audience is the people who are still online right now clamoring for The Remake as they have been since Your Favorite didn’t get the sequel it so richly deserved. But these will also be your harshest critics. Like you, each individual who played Your Favorite had an idea of what the game was, but they’ve each had twenty plus years to elaborate on that idea, and these imagined games have diverged. There will be a multitude of conflicting expectations which will mean that you cannot possibly satisfy them all, or even most of them. Indeed, because they (and you) have had years to embellish this imagined sequel and for their expectations to diverge, it’s possible that no game will satisfy them-no game will ever live up to what they want. The Remake may not have a ready-made audience, but it does have its first and harshest critics. But surely new technology will allow you to wow them, right?

The myth of progress

Making games is so much easier now! Surely if I take modern tools such as Unity, Unreal, Godot, Source, Lumberyard, etc, I will be able to rebuild this old obsolete game with minimal fuss. This may be true for arcade games like Space Invaders or Asteroids, but Your Favorite is only about 20 years old, so this is a misguided attitude. The tools of game creation are very good at making modern games. If you are building a sophisticated but off-the-beaten-path project, you are as much on your own as the original creators of Your Favorite where. Which is not to say that you can’t create original titles with modern tools-just that by constraining yourself to an archaic design, you may not be winning yourself any saved effort. You’re not a wizard from the future, coming back to build a castle with magic spells… you’re pounding in nails with a cordless drill. Modern game engines have primitives for things like “guy walking around” and “wheeled vehicle.” Trying to mimic the behavior of weird bespoke setups from the time before physics engines will result in very little off-the-shelf stuff to use. Same goes for a million other quirky modes of interaction with games that have ultimately been replaced with stuff like “reasonable defaults” and “realistic physics.” You’ll be reinventing the wheel constantly. You might be able to make it look nice, but many (most?) such projects stop there.

The Right Move

What should I do? If you really want to share the joy that Your Favorite brought you, you need to figure out what it is about the game that you found enjoyable. Consider the cargo cult; to recapture the bounty of cargo drops, people (so the story goes) built elaborate fake airstrips, thinking that if they created the right conditions, cargo would appear. I see the same in remakes – “if we take the art assets (or clone them, or redo them but off-brand-enough that we don’t get sued” and keep the gameplay exactly the same, it’ll be awesome!” Don’t do this. What you need to do is break down the design of Your Favorite, and figure out what it was that made the game compelling. “Everything” is not an acceptable answer, you need to be critical. You need to think about what you can reproduce in $CURRENT YEAR and what’s an artifact of its time, like compromises due to affordances of the platform, or time constraints. You must translate those compelling aspects into your future projects, and discard the anachronisms and sacred cows and genre conventions that belong to the past. Make your own game.

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