Are New Games Better?
When debating what games are great, it is commonly agreed or assumed that we should judge games based on their quality at time of release. If compared without that lens, it is considered unfair to the older game. It therefore follows that games releasing in the modern day are by-and-large thought of as better than games released in the past. This mentality, at least to me, seems inordinately strong in the gaming world. I don’t often hear people saying that books or paintings made in the past have to be considered “when they came out” because otherwise newer books are obviously better. What makes games special?
The obvious explanation for this is technology, and I think that does play a large role. As time marches on, we get progressively better tech. In earlier generations of gaming this led to massive increases in graphical quality with each new system that was released. One glance at a PS1 game compared to a SNES will make that obvious, and then again with PS2 to PS1, PS3 to PS2, and so on. This constant graphical blitz towards the future isn’t the only benefit of advanced tech either. Computational power improvements have made things possible that just weren’t back in the day, not to mention cutting down on load times and other incidental annoyances. That let developers open their imaginations up that much more when developing. These technical points are ones that can’t be argued. They are the strongest points for the idea that games are just objectively getting better over time.
A perhaps lesser appreciated quality of games that lends them to this New > Old mindset is their tendency to iterate upon themselves. More so than any other medium, games are all about iteration. Rarely does a game nail it on their first outing. Sometimes they do pretty well, which warrants them for a sequel. That sequel takes the ideas of the first game and iterates on them. And this happens again and again and again. For some of the bigger franchises, dozens of times. People love it, too. The idea of getting more of the same, but better, is wildly popular in the industry. The secret sauce here is that this doesn’t just occur within a franchise. Oftentimes a highly successful game’s strategies, design principles, and mechanics will spill over into the wider game development collective subconscious for people to analyze, pick apart, and implement themselves in their own ways. Over time, this leads people to really crack the nut on why things like the first level of Super Mario Bros. was so effective and how these ideas can be used for the future. This allows developers to pull from a much greater collective understanding of design than what was available years ago when making their games.
The past two points would make it seem that newer games have the edge both technically and design-wise. However, while the technical point is hard to argue, the design point is the real McGee. While a game’s technical standing inevitably gets worse as time goes on, a well-designed game is evergreen. Someone playing something because it is the hottest new tech and it looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before is extremely novel and interesting. But that novelty is like a wee little snowman, sure to melt away in due time. Playing a game because it is well-designed, on the other hand? Because it’s mechanics and aesthetics and story all work together beautifully to craft a unique experience? It doesn’t matter what technology it runs on, people will keep coming back for years on end. The key point here is that just because newer games have a bigger compendium of design knowledge to pull from, that doesn’t mean they will be better designed games. Or even as-well-designed games. Principles and ideas don’t always translate into a cohesive experience. In fact, they rarely do. It takes serious talent to effectively design and implement a video game. This cohesion of game design, I think, is a large part of what makes classics classic. They may not have all the latest bells and whistles, but what’s there is perfectly crafted.
That all being said, it’s a bit of a toss up. It is easy to make the point that, yes, newer games are without a doubt superior in many aspects, mostly technical. That point is clear because we can do anything that could’ve been done before and more. But what’s more important is how well we can use the tools available to us to design an engaging game. The same pitfalls will always exist in game design, no matter the tech used. That’s why a well-designed game will always stand out, regardless of age. Newer games have so much more going for them, and that will be the case forever, but in a way, we’re still playing in the same game design ballfield as we were back in the 70’s.