Recently I stumbled over the phrase it didn`t age well here on Gamasutra. It´s a term commonly used to describe something, which was considered great or extraordinary at some point in time, but when we look now upon it, we can´t really understand what the contemporaries of the artist/creator saw in it, or heard in it or –considering games- found so engaging about it.
There`s also a relatively new trend in the games industry –which it borrowed from Hollywood-to “Remake” some of their most successful Franchises. “Tomb Raider Anniversary”, “Halo: Combat evolved Anniversary” or “Half Life:Black Mesa” are examples that come to mind. Is that a trend, and if yes, what do we make of it?
1. The Lifecyle of cultural Products under the aspect of Longevity
I want to start this essay with some general inspections how other artforms/disciplines are dealing with the fact, that when a “Product” is released into the “Market”, it can develop a life of its own. If it does and if it does well, it can become a “Brand”, if it even inspires a religious-like devotion from fans/followers it can mutate into a “Phenomenon”. For that to happen one of the main features of any product –I will argue- to achieve such a status, which is considered a money-printing device, one of the main ingredients will be not “eternal youth” but “aging well”. I will also look at some “Phenomena” in the games-industry and questioning the means they are using to milk their cash-cows.
The verdict of the contemporaries about the “long-term” quality –the longevity- of a product is not always the most reliable. Bach sen. vs. Bach jun., Mozart vs. Salieri , Beethoven vs. Clementi… especially in music there are many examples, where we have on one side music that didn`t age well but was very popular at its time and on the other hand music, that got only mediocre reception at the time it was released, but nowadays (300 years later and 9071 km away from its origin) you could find a Choir in Tokyo singing Bach`s “Te Deum” right now.
The above examples may seem a bit beside the point, after all, we are working in the commercial games industry, we try to deliver entertainment, not ephiphany. But guess what – Mozart would probably have considered himself as more of an entertainer than an artist- so even if we don`t consider our products as artform, the posterity might nevertheless.
2. Testing Longevity – some Experiments
So with this little Prelude in mind, I want you to go back in time with me. Take any “product” from your past for which you hold a special place in your heart and revisit it. It might be song from your youth, a movie you took your first date to and put it to the test. Did it age well?
I made the test with the movie “Highlander”(1986), a flick I loved back in the days, and with the tv-series that it had as a spin-off, an upcoming remake on the horizon and multiple sequels, can surely counted towards the iconic/phenomenal category.
The results were interesting: I barely made it through the movie. The dialogue was horrible, the plot a mess, the special effects not so special, the combat scenes amateurish etc., the only part of the movie –astonishingly- that passed the test, was the soundtrack from Queen.
The test may seem unfair, wouldn`t it always be the fact that technical limited products would fail to “age well” with technology evolving ever faster by the minute? Wouldn`t everybody, who has watched the fighting scenes of “the Matrix” or “Crouching Tiger…” always find fighting scenes from decades ago laughable?
To get that argument out of the way I did two additional tests with other movies, heavily dependend on the technical achievements of their origin time: Alien (1979) and Toy Story (1995). In Short: Both movies passed the test with flying colors, no bad aging to be found there.
3. The Test of Time (paying particular attention to games)
With the games industry probably evolving at the fastest technical rate in entertainment, what does that mean for the Longevity of a game/franchise/brand/phenomenon?
Do the test from above with a game you loved back in the old days. It`s probably easier said than done, you will notice. I chose: Tomb Raider(1996) and Thief (1998) and had all sorts of problems to get every component working on my current computer. Thanks God, someone created youtube. You can watch some gameplay there and see for yourself. My immediate reaction was like: “This looks really ugly”, in fact I found the graphics of my favourite game of all time (Thief) so bad, I immediately researched if someone had done a HD-mod or something for it and I found this: http://www.thedarkmod.com . Fans had completely converted the Spirit of the Game to another engine, complete with mission editor and the community was sprawling. I downloaded, played it and was hooked: the team perfectly nailed the style, stealth and essence of the game. I would not shy away to call the “recreated” Thief experience a better “Thief” than the original one. The wonders of technology!
There is an ongoing controversy among film-enthusiasts how far moviemakers should be allowed to go to update/patch their movies. George Lucas is well known to tweak/technically enhance his movies years after release and surely got some bashing for this. Disney would maybe get into serious trouble if they would try to convert the original jungle book into 3D Animation.
It`s interesting that I can`t think of a parallel case in the game industry: no one bashed Kojima when he tweaked MGS with a HD-Edition.
My guess is: for games it will always be harder to age well, than for any other artform, because they are so dependent on the devices they can run on, the performance and quality of their presentation environment, the ever evolving technical standards. That is, if they don`t get further treatment from their developers. So for every gamer it is clear that a patch/texture enhancement/addon will almost for sure elevate the quality of a game.
In the film industry it always never happens that a Remake tops the Original in terms of Quality, because most remakers don`t have the passion of the makers. They lack the original vision (Carpenters “Thing” could be the exception to the rule).
In the games industry it could turn out different. The Big Players (Activision, Bioware, Ubisoft) are often criticized that every new chapter of their most successful franchises (i.e. branded Phenomenons) seem to be only a slight variation of the prequel to cash out without too great a risk. I don`t really know if COD, Assassin`s Creed or Mass Effect will age well, if gamers 20 years from now can still enjoy the gameplay but I´m sure most of the contemporary console titles will look old when the new generation arrives. So it´s crystal clear for me, that many of the current games will and should in my opinion get a “Refresh-treatment” in the future.
To optimize this process you surely need a robust asset-pipeline and hindsight in your projects. Every big studio that cares about their longevity should probably right now start to build up a Recreate-Division, that will only be concerned with preparing all the game-assets for a future Remake. Games are cultural goods, too, it should go without saying, that they don`t belong into a museum to be looked upon or listened to, they should aspire to stay playable. (It doesn`t hurt that you can make lot more money from this procedure, than letting it happen that steam sells it off for 2$)
At this point you may have noticed, that I really didn`t spoil “the secret formula” to age well. I can`t really explain why “Alien” works for me and “Highlander” doesn`t. My guess is, that many things have to come together to create something like a lasting “Phenomenon”: Zeitgeist, Luck, Right Place at the right time, Marketing, Quality-Assurance, Innovation, Secret Ingredients, Critical reception, Awards, Fans etc. And at first you often can´t distinguish between a “Hype/One Hit Wonder” and a “Phenomenon”, only time will tell.
(It would surely be interesting which timeframe you had to consider to be surely “out of the woods”, to make an educated guess about that.)
In my opinion it`s actually a good thing that we are getting “Remakes” of Games that would otherwise vanish into the collective unconscious or being hidden in the ebony tower of erstwhile excellence. Chances are good, that they could actually be better than the original.