A Million Good Ideas, Just Waiting to be Stolen


#1

Northgard isn’t easy to pigeonhole as an RTS, mainly because the ways we tend to define “RTS” games are way too narrow and owe way too much to the ways the genre was defined by Westwood’s Command & Conquer games, and by Blizzard’s Warcraft series. Northgard doesn’t play like any of those: Instead, it’s a game of slow, meticulous expansion and resource management where your worst enemies are greed and impatience. You don’t build massive armies, backed by cityscapes jammed with barracks and factories. Instead, you mostly try to keep your little Viking expeditions from starving or freezing to death, and use what little surplus you have to fuel your next expansion or support a single additional warrior for your clan.

It feels a lot like the board games that I’ve seen sweep through my social circle from time to time: Pandemic, or Agricola, or Scythe, games that have you chasing victory while also trying to fend off disaster from poor planning and bad luck. I’m in love with it.

The RTS genre's history is full of these tantalizing convention-defying designs. The go-to example is Rise of Nations and its fantasy offshoot, Rise of Legends, both of which introduced some really interesting wrinkles from wargaming and grand strategy games to the RTS format. Armies could run into supply problems outside their home territory, and a shift in technological era could completely overturn power dynamics as a Gunpower Age superpower found itself starved of oil in the Industrial Age.

'Kohan: Ahriman's Gift' screenshot courtesy of TimeGate Studios

But my favorite “might have been” direction for the RTS remains Kohan. This was an RTS that basically cast aside most of the genre’s most beloved conventions and invented fascinating new ones. Base-building? Out the window, replaced by a settlement management interface similar to the Civ games. Unit micro? Replaced by the radical idea of not controlling units at all.

Kohan invented a way that both reduced the managerial workload on its players while also forcing some difficult choices on them. You could create hero-led armies that had units attached to them, but there were only so many slots for units, so composition mattered a great deal. Likewise, armies moved in formations that roughly corresponded to a “speed vs. safety” tradeoff. You could rush reinforcements across the map to an imperiled fort in a column formation… but if that column got ambushed, they’d fight at a massive combat penalty for the duration of the battle. Armies could not really change their stance once the fighting began.

But most of these ideas never really found traction in the wider gaming world, which always bothers me a bit. I always have this suspicion that these near-forgotten ideas from long-ago cult hits could be repurposed and adapted to new games, maybe even new genres. But instead they remain locked in the past, the subject of countless “Do you remember that one game…?” conversations between old-timers.

What’s your favorite evolutionary dead-end in games? What’s an idea from a game that you’ve hardly ever seen anywhere else that you think deserves to be resurrected, and what problems do you think it would solve?

Let me know in today’s open thread!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/43bap9/a-million-good-ideas-just-waiting-to-be-stolen

#2

Also in the RTS world: rate based economies.

I want to be able to start laying plans. Grand plans for construction and infinite queues. Then I want those orders to be executed with the best effort given the resources I can gather and produce. I want my tech curve to include various storage facilities for these resources so I can deal with the need to plough energy into something or slowly build up a reserve in an early build order to spend later on to kickstart the next tier of production.

Every time an interface tells me I can’t do any planning or organising until I can already totally pay off the price then I become sad that Total Annihilation create this sub-genre pocket rather than changing how RTS resources typically work.


#3

What is your favorite evolutionary dead-end in games?

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Everyone agrees the nemesis system is at the very least an interesting idea if not a really good one. Understandably it probably isn’t easy to implement, but I’d love to see some developers take it as a foundation and tweak it or build on it!

As for problems it could solve, I think it would add a structure to games that could use just a tiny amount more. During my BotW playthrough I kept thinking about how something like the nemesis system could have given me more incentive to get into fights. Playing Sea of Thieves I think about how some sort of nemesis system could be implemented in establishing more story and drive for players though I have no clue how that would be implemented. Obviously that’s so so so much easier said than done, but it has been on my mind!


#4

Here’s some 80s examples, because I’m old and that’s what I know best:

• Hybrid board-computer/console multiplayer, like Quest For The Ring, Fooblitzky, Robot Rascals, or the insanely ambitious Star Saga games. There’s Beasts of Balance/XCom boardgame hybrids, and boardgames-with-audio-tracks like Space Alert and Escape From the Temple, but nothing quite in this peculiar, engaging niche.

• Any Bill Williams game—Alleycat, Necromancer, Sinbad, Knights of the Crystallion. They’re crushingly difficult, which I think actually diminishes their value a little given how much that pulls against their ecumenical appeal. But they’re totally sui generis.

• Stuart Smith’s RPGs — Return of Heracles, Ali Baba, Rivers of Light, are all bonkers fun where you can have, like, 20 simultaneous characters, there’s no ontological distinction between NPCs and PCs, characters get wantonly killed off by gods like Zeus is the Computer in Paranoia, and it’s pretty easy to complete by just bashing your way through but what you’re really doing is going for a high score. In one sense, they’re also totally sui generis—but he also made Adventure Construction Set (and Rivers of Light within it), for which Ken St. Andre created his first published computer adventure game. St. Andre later helped make Wasteland, and I think it’d be fair to trace at least a little of the loosey-goosey DNA of Bethesda games ultimately back to Smith’s eccentric, wonderful work.

• Bruce Lee, a pretty good Datasoft brawler/platformer with one absolutely genius hook: If you were playing two-player, when it wasn’t your turn to be Bruce Lee, you got to control the Green Yamo, one of the two antagonists who keep trying to beat up Lee and kick him into traps and such (and who are easy to kill, but also respawn pretty quickly). Honestly this game has made me a little disappointed in pretty much every platformer with a hotseat two-player mode since.

• Warrior/The Bilestoad’s top-down fighting-game melee combat. I mean, sure, there’s a reason most fighting games aren’t top-down. But I bet some indie could figure out something clever to do with it…probably has already and I just don’t know about it.

• Games where you program your avatar in a language, and then they fight each other or cope with puzzles/unpredictable spaces—Robotwar, Chipwits, Omega. Carnage Heart did this on the PS1, but I can’t think of another one since. It’d always be a tiny niche, but I feel like Zachtronics games hit this niche, but have sort of flipped the equation around where you program the system instead of the avatar.

• Last but not least, anything played with the late lamented paddle, still the greatest game controller of all time if you only care about one dimension. Even a steering wheel can’t compete. I played a bunch of Jeff Minter’s recent VR game Polybius when it came out, and although I enjoyed it, it was really screaming out for the precision of a paddle—just like Tempest 2000 did on the Jaguar. Make them bring back the paddle, Rob.


#5

Burnout 2 was different from the Burnout games that followed it, in that you were only allowed to start using the burnout meter if it was completely full. Additionally, if you managed to completely drain your burnout meter, you received an instant refill, allowing you to chain consecutive ‘burnouts’. Do you use your burnout now? Do you think you’ll be able to drain it? And if so, how long are you gonna try and burnout before you chicken out or crash? This risk/reward setup created an extremely tense dynamic that, when engaged, only became more intense the longer you held out.

The Burnout series would become more and more forgiving, allowing you to hit NPC traffic and use your burnout meter at will. Though the successive games were inarguably better games all-around, Burnout 2’s boost mechanic created some of the most spine-tingling, breathless tension this side of horror games.


#6

There was an early PS2 game called Sky Odyssey that was a more arcade-y take on a flight simulator, where you explore an uncharted archipelago. It was kind of like a more modern pilotwings, I guess? The way it was designed and presented though, gave it this really wonderful sense of adventure. It captured what I loved as a kid, reading about stories of the Golden Age of Aviation and the daring feats of pilots like Amelia Earhart.

There’s one level in particular that comes to mind where you have to fly over a huge mountain range to get to the next part of the island, but because you only have enough fuel to just barely make it, you have to jettison the fuel tank at just the right time so –with your reduced weight– you can glide the rest of the way. There was no dogfighting, or explosions, or enemies, just you, your plane, the mountain, and the wind and snow, but it was still one of the most intensely gripping missions I’ve ever played in a game. The majestic orchestral score by Shadow of the Colossus’ Kow Otani was a big contributor to that feeling too.

I think modern game technology could really make a game like that something special, but mostly I want more games that use non-violent scenarios to as great effect as Sky Odyssey did. I feel like people usually think of non-violent games as slower, more relaxing, or less mechanically focused (racing games and sports games aside of course) but I think with the right ingredients you could make a game as intense as your Bayonettas or your Dark Souls’ or what have you but without any fighting at all.


#7

For games with evolutionary dead-ends, the Homeworld series comes to mind.

First, the concept of an RTS in a 3D-space appears to have been entirely abandoned. It rarely came up in the campaign, but it could be incredibly useful in multiplayer matches. The ability to hide part of your fleet above or below where your opponent usually operated could be devastating when used correctly. You’d engage them on their plane with one group and then surprise them with a large group of reinforcements that were lurking just out of view.

Second, the ability to put ships in specific formations that had pros and cons allowed you options to try to compensate when an engagement wasn’t going well. If you were mismatched on capital ships for instance, you could put your fighters in Claw Formation to effectively increase their DPS. The fighters would take greater losses, but they might take out an extra capital ship or two in the process.

I definitely recognize how difficult these are to implement, especially formations in an era when pathfinding and coordinated movement is still hard to nail down, but it’s a shame they haven’t been picked up and adapted for other strategy games.


#8

How has no one stolen Suikoden III’s method of telling stories—multiple protagonists that let you see the story from different viewpoints as it goes along.


#9

Titanfall should steal Modern Warfare 2’s spec ops mode because titanfall is better.


#10

Too Human’s take (only instance of?) on the twin stick brawler. The sheer immediacy of having one stick for movement, and another stick for “charge toward that thing and hit it” cut out a level of fiddliness that so many brawlers (I’m looking at you, Capcom) have, and made Diablo scale monster bashing fantastic on a controller.

There were things that didn’t quite work in Too Human, but I felt like a generation or two were all that was needed to really make it sing. To some extent, Diablo 3’s console controls are an evolution of Too Human’s take, but without the kinetic action, so maybe it didn’t die out entirely.


#11

There’s a small handful of games that use Majora’s Mask’s time-repeating mechanic to good effect but certainly not enough of them.


#12

There’s a feature in Earthbound where if you get strong enough the game will automatically make you win battles against extremely weak enemies if you get into an encounter with them. That and the HP rollback feature where you can continue to fight when you technically have 0 HP are brilliant game design. The latter can lead to some really tense moments where you have to rapidly go through the menu to activate a healing item or spell before your health rolls down to 0.

The estus flask system in Dark Souls is such an elegantly designed healing mechanic. It wouldn’t be half the game it is without it. The tension and resource management from it adds so much to the game. It allows each individual enemy encounter to have incredibly high stakes, the enemies are able to deal out massive amounts of damage and kill the player in only a few hits because the player will easily be able to heal fully as long as they have the flasks and an opening to do so. There’s a real strategy to knowing when you should and shouldn’t heal and it creates a big sense of risk and reward. I remember going immediately from Dark Souls to Skyrim and being so underwhelmed by the healing system in Skyrim by comparison. You can take an absolute beating in Skyrim without really worrying about strategy or positioning as long as you have 100 potatoes in your pocket.


#13

I recently got my hands on Panzer Dragoon Saga having only just before enjoyed Panzer Dragoon and it’s weird fantasy world. While the game’s artistic direction is very striking and unusual even now, the way it adapted an RPG formula in 1998 specifically through the lens of it’s railgun shooter mechanics is really fascinating.

In the original Panzer Dragoon you have two main abilities - the ability to freely shoot with a pistol and your dragon’s homing laser that locks onto enemies before shooting them, alongside the ability to rotate the camera in 90 degree increments to cover all angles.

In Panzer Dragoon Saga these abilities are contextualised to an RPG perfectly, and the creators never felt the need to add the baggage of long ability menus and messy selection prompts that slow other RPGs down. You can use your gun to precisely shoot one target or use the homing laser to randomly lock onto a number of hit points in the battle, and they turned the camera rotation into a dragon movement system where you can rotate in 90 degree increments around your enemy to find weak points or enter blind spots to reduce the damage you receive.

They throw in some extra abilities and items through two other menus, but all the main things you need are directly mapped to buttons on the controller. This simple interface makes your actions in combat feel more connected, fluid and action-like while still retaining a lot of strategic depth as they get a lot out of these systems.

I think it’s really fascinating how they designed an RPG that both makes it feel like you’re playing an action game from the same series while existing in a different genre AND improving on the experience that genre typically delivered at the time by not borrowing the same conventions. There’s plenty more fascinating things about Panzer Dragoon Saga that no other game has touched since, but this is arguably the most striking.


#14

The LEGO Rock Raiders PC game is an RTS from the late 90s based on a short lived Lego line where you play as miners trying to gather fuel to send their spaceship home. You order individual workers around to collect materials, construct buildings and operate vehicles. Its mostly free of violence, with most of the difficulty coming from dwindling air or encroaching lava.

I’m sure that going back to it now would show how shallow it is compared to the kinds of games I play today, but it is still one of a kind in its managerial nature. Its a game where you run a work site, not command an army.


#15

For rhythm games: a practice mode that lets you loop arbitrary sections of a song, as slow as you want. For a genre that’s supposedly based off of music, the lack of acknowledgement that nobody learns hard solos by playing the entire song at full speed is a bit confusing – though on the Asian side, a lot of those games come out of arcades, or are based on arcade-like designs.

I skipped all the Rock Band games (lack of space and angry neighbors), but I’ve heard that the 3rd game has something close to this. Project DIVA Future Tone lets you set loop points anywhere in a song, but doesn’t let you slow it down; still better than nothing.


#16

I think this goes hand in hand with the only real punishment for failure being a loss of time invested; so you can bash your head against that wall as many times as you need to until you learn when to heal by instinct (or, don’t as DSP shows)


#17

Despite all the love and attention it gets, I still think of Chrono Trigger as an evolutionary dead end for JRPGs. Mechanically and narratively snubbed by its own sequel Chrono Cross, even games like Radiant Historia and I am Setsuna that are supposedly love letters crafted by those osessed with Chrono Trigger largely seem to misunderstand what made it work.

As a kid I distinctly recall thinking, “Well this changes everything. From here on out JRPGs will never pull you out of environments to separate recycled battle scenes. Tuning won’t treat XP like a gating mechanic, and instead of being self-contained units, party members will forever have team-up abilities that mechanically reflect their growing relationships!”

Flash forward to the current timeline where the best thing I can say about modern JRPGs is that they tend to be graphically impressive and willing to experiment with stylish UI.


#18

I want to be able to start laying plans. Grand plans for construction and infinite queues. Then I want those orders to be executed with the best effort given the resources I can gather and produce. I want my tech curve to include various storage facilities for these resources so I can deal with the need to plough energy into something or slowly build up a reserve in an early build order to spend later on to kickstart the next tier of production.

Planetary Annihilation obviously does some of this stuff well and I have the same feeling of frustration that other games don’t implement similar systems.


#19

I’ve always thought more JRPGs should take notes from the way The World Ends With You handles random battles and grinding for loot. The game will never force a fight on you while you’re wandering around, instead letting you “scan” for enemy encounters and taking them on at your convenience. What’s really cool about this is that it gives you the option to select multiple encounters at once, meaning you’ll fight up to 4 groups of enemies in a row (with no breaks for healing) in exchange for a better chance of rare item drops.

On top of this, you can temporarily lower your character level from the menu, which further increases your drop chance depending on how much weaker you make yourself. What this adds up to in practice is basically the complete opposite of grinding in classical JRPGs, removing the tedium of walking in circles to trigger a fight and giving the option to find your ideal balance between repetition and challenge. All of this, combined with on-the-fly difficulty options that each come with their own set of item drops, turns grinding from a slog into a test of your skills with the battle system and how creative you can get with your builds.

Chaining a bunch of tough fights together at a low level will give you a high chance of getting the item you want, but odds are you’ll go down in only a couple hits. Do you focus on evasion and not getting hit at all? Or maybe sacrifice a few of your ability slots for a healing item that will automatically activate when you’re low on health? Or you could just double down on offense, fine-tuning your combos to the point where enemies don’t even have the chance to attack.

I’m the type of person that normally couldn’t care less about grinding or optimization of any kind in games, but I spent maybe 20-30 extra hours trying to go for 100% item completion in TWEWY just because of how fun it was to take on near-impossible fights for a super rare pin.


#20

I still think that the active reload system from Gears of War is super cool and turns something relatively tedious into a mini-game you are frantically trying to complete in the middle of a heated firefight. The way it changed and was more difficult for certain weapons, and the penalty for trying and failing made for some tense moments in multiplayer when your gun jammed.