Capturing the Magic of an Old School Game

Yesterday I posted about how old game mechanics often don’t translate to new games in a post called Up Your Butt and Around the Corner. I mentioned that I would talk a little bit more about capturing the magic of a game and replicating it, and this is me fulfilling that promise.

There are really two steps, both of which are extremely nebulous and require more than a little voodoo and luck to accomplish correctly. The first step is identifying what made a game so great. Was it the mechanics, or was it something else? If it was something else, or a combination of the two, you can probably find and reproduce that magic. If it was the mechanics, you can still probably identify what made them so great and reproduce them in some way.

We’ll briefly examine a couple of old school massively multiplayer games.

What made Ultima Online so wonderful? It was a world of limitless possibilities. Players were given dozens of seemingly benign tools that could be used in unexpected ways. They could put houses in the world and really take ownership of the lands. They could form micro-communities all over the map of only dozens of people rather than dealing with hundreds or more at a time.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Can you take anything from even that short list and put it in a modern massively multiplayer game? Certainly. You can give players tools for emergent gameplay, you can put some form of player housing physically in the world, and you can even work to keep players concentrated in more specific areas to help them develop micro-communities.

What made EverQuest so wonderful? It was a world full of rich history and lore. Each race had a very distinct identity and piece of the puzzle all its own. The world itself was varied and rich and wonderful, with environments from dark forests to icy mountains to underwater dungeons. And you could get lots and lots of really cool items.

Again, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Can you take anything from even that short list and put it in a modern massively multiplayer game? Certainly. You can give races their own starting areas and cities, give them unique visuals, and fill them out with deep histories of their own. You can create a world of varied and distinct environments. And, you can give players a lot of unique item looks (and stats) that they can earn.

So, there’s quite a bit you can do to reproduce elements of the magic of old school MMOs. But, the truth is, there is that nostalgia element there still that is impossible to reproduce for people who have played other massively multiplayer games. After they’ve played one, they are no longer an MMO virgin, and you’ll never make an MMO the same as their first love. What you can do is make your MMO their great love; the one they will marry.

When it comes down to it, it’s more important to elicit the same kinds of emotions and responses to your game, not to duplicate anything from an old MMO precisely. And, as I mentioned in my last post, it may very well be a bad idea to clone mechanics from older games rather than evolving them to something better (and more current).

In the end, identifying and replicating the magic of an old school game is probably more about magic and luck than it is about applying the right process.

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