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.

PAX East 2020

On the eve of the Covid-19 Pandemic, with the stock market tumbling, hundreds (thousands?) of game fans breezed into a convention center to try some new stuff, purchase apparel, and frequently use hand sanitizer. It was everywhere.

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There’s something sinister about the rise of Discord, but I can’t explain why yet

Thursday was far better than Saturday, so definitely go then if you can. I was able to play far more games, and the boardgame tables where much easier to navigate.

Exciting New Games

While speaking to the creator of BlazeSky, I name-checked Escape Velocity and he knew what I was talking about. But the more I look at it, the more it looks like Empty Epsilon/Artemis. The different styles of play (rescuing people, combat, exploration, etc) are represented by different characters who give you quests, which is a neat approach to writing storylines. I found the banking camera made it difficult to reason about where my shots where going, and I hope that at launch there’s an option to keep the camera steady while the ship turns, but even if there isn’t I’ll probably play the hell out of it.

Another game that was physically demanding just due to its camera was Sludge Life. After you fight through its extremely elaborate recreation of a 90s desktop interface you’re dropped in a colorful, heavily distorted 3d environment. Very Getter: Headsplitter. The distortion (I think the vertical FOV was unusually high or low or whatever) was jarring and slightly dizzying. I predict that this game will be a stoner-hit of Rez proportions. Devolver is playing in the same space as Adult Swim here.

Watched some people play Dunk Lords. The world is ready for strawberry-headed athletes. You could dismiss it as Space Jam: The Videogame but stripped of its bizzare branding, the concept of cartoony basketball feels pretty novel. Sports games that attempt to simulate a sport (like EA’s catalog) or Be a sport (like Rocket League) aren’t my jam, but using the basic rules of a sport to do something unique or new definitely is.

Watched some Panzer Paladin play. There was an enormous reproduction of the cover art, standing out against the crowd. Makes me wonder what the differentiator is. It looks like a Gameboy Advance game (specifically, it looked like Metroid) to me, and though the mechanics where cool and smooth, I wonder who’s buying enough copies of this to justify an enormous booth at PAX. What’s the differentiator. Are they just striking at the right moment? Is it the great Anime art? Am I not enough of a sidescroller fan to understand what the difference between it and AVGN Adventure (which we also demo’d) is.

A radically different sidescroller with very clear differentiation was Carrion, a game where the avatar resembles the blob monster from The Thing. I’m not sure what the gameplay is besides sliding and swinging around an industrial environment and eating (?) the little NPCs that run from you.

If you’re itching to play Star Citizen but don’t like social interaction or having to hire an entire clan to operate your large spaceship or pass flight training to join an org, and also want a game that’s finished, I unfortunately can’t recommend Everspace II yet, because it isn’t finished either. But what I did play compared favorably to Star Citizen, and I venture to say that it’ll be done far sooner. The vision of space was colorful and dense with things to explore and tractor beam into your ship.

I also got a chance to demo Brigador Killers. In addition to the stompy robots seen in Brigador, you get to play as an infantry suit or a giant floating wrecking ball. The controls are also slightly different – rather than absolute direction, your WASD controls are now relative to the mouse. It took some getting used to, especially with the wrecking ball.

Parting Thoughts

Check out the screen attached to this expensive of a gaming PC. I’m not sure words will do it justice, but if you’ve been here, you know.

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The dreaded launcher update.

I also demo’d a Cookie Clicker clone which I won’t name to protect the guilty. It pitched itself as being about the development of life from molecules to technological singularity. However, in reality it is a cookie clicker clone, the meta of a game (buy stuff on a tech tree to augment your abilities) without the actual gameplay (you score by just tapping the screen. Anywhere on the screen. I wondered again what the filter was between successful games and trivial games. Was presence at PAX a marker of success or a desperate gambit? I told myself I was done with the game, but then I reached down to the tablet and tapped it a few more times.

Unrelated image of a book that was on sale at the convention