Hard Project: Tech games
Hydrophobia: Prophecy is not a very good game overall, but it sure is an amazing tech demo for water physics. The way that water behaves in that game is absolutely amazing. It flows believably, moves your character around like water ought to, and generally serves as a clear indicator that the majority of work was on creating the best damn water simulation ever. Actual gameplay and stuff like that was a secondary concern at best. Which is fine; it joins a long list of tech games that aren’t very good.
Tech games are exactly what they sound like, demonstrations of technology that have a game wrapped around them. They are also almost universally terrible. In fact, there’s only one company out there which has managed to produce good tech games with any consistency – Nintendo. And there’s a good reason why, wince that ties into both why tech games are a hard project and why it’s so difficult for third-party developers to make a good game for a Nintendo console released in the past twenty-ish years.
Their first function is showing off the technology
A tech demo isn’t always the best way to show off certain technology, because they’re built around showing off tools without context. You can show a group of primitive humans a screwdriver, but it’s just a sort of pointy stick unless you have screws and show how screws can be used to craft something. Tech demos are tools without context.
Tech games, on the other hand, show exactly how these tools can be used. Hydrophobia demonstrates how water can affect an environment, push the characters around, move through spaces and create interesting environments. Pilotwings showed how Mode 7 could be turned into a simulation of depth and create the sense of really hurtling through the air. Kinect Adventures showed off what was possible with a game that used the Kinect as its sole control interface. EVE Valkyrie wants you to be in love with the simple idea of a space shooter on a VR headset. You get the idea.
Nintendo is usually able to make good games to serve in these roles simply because Nintendo’s tech design process is backwards – rather than making the technology and then making games, the company comes up with games and then designs technology around making those games work. This is why you get games like Wii Sports that make perfect use of the Wii’s controllers… then you get a whole bunch of games that clumsily fumble about and try to figure out how they can use this setup, because it was built to make a handful of games. Or you have things like Hey You, Pikachu! which exist for a peripheral whilst also creating that peripheral just for itself, a perfect eternal loop.
Yet Nintendo’s process at least allows the game to be a game first and foremost. The usual process means that the designer’s goal is to put technology through its paces and then, if there’s time left over, make a game out of it. Which is partly a symptom of the fact that…
They’re aimed at the wrong audience
I read an article years ago by a Magic: the Gathering designer who figured out how to break the game’s rules in such a way that you could have a card in play without any card type. It wasn’t in service to any larger point, it didn’t win the game or even affect the game state except that, by performing an odd series of actions for no reason other than creating this state, you could create this weird rule hiccup. Sometimes, the tech in tech games is the same sort of invention.
A tech game is, functionally, a playable game showing off some new innovation. But unlike a game that shows off innovation because it was necessary for the game that was under development, it’s a game that’s intended to show off this innovation. It’s a stunt showing off what the system can do, an answer to a problem nobody had. Even if I get that tribe of primitive humans to understand how a screwdriver works, unless they have a problem that can only be solved by using a screwdriver, there’s no real advantage for them. Sure, they understand that it’s a tool, but it’s a tool made to fix a problem that doesn’t exist yet.
Kinect Star Wars is a game designed to solve the problem of making you not feel like you’re really in one of the Star Wars films by… not really addressing the problem at all, except by making the controls unusable. Instead of working with a designer who had a problem like “how do I immerse the player within this environment,” Kinect Star Wars is a game that exists because there is a Kinect and Star Wars exists and maybe the two could work together in some way. It’s trying to sell the technology to you while you’re playing it, when by definition you already own this. That’s kind of backwards.
All this is problematic enough. Yet the bigger problem is when you realize…
Time is unkind
F-Zero no longer looks like a vision straight to the future. The Virtual Boy looked dated about two minutes after it launched. In the unlikely event that you have a pressing desire to play one of the eight games that was compatible with the Menacer for the Sega Genesis, you’re potentially out of your mind and definitely out of luck, because light gun peripherals have not been a thing for quite some time.
As technology marches on, these sorts of games run into the same two fates. The first possibility is that they were tech games for very specific hardware, instantly making any porting issues an absolute nightmare when the rest of the world has no interest in that hardware. Even if that’s not the problem, though, you quickly wind up with a game that has some great technology on display at the time which looks incredibly dated as soon as newer technology shows up.
Both of these work together to diminish any hope of tech games really holding up over the long term. What few good games did exist for the Virtual Boy entirely rely upon a piece of technology that is currently making a bit of noise before fading back into obscurity once again, ensuring that a port of those games would take as much effort as just making a totally brand-new game with none of the benefits. Meanwhile, Vortex sits in the dustbin of history not because it was necessarily a bad game, but because the whole selling point of “it’s a shooter in 3D” no longer serves as a selling point.
In order to overcome that, you have to make a tech game that’s a particularly solid game first and foremost, and you only achieve that by largely ignoring the technology and focusing on making a good game on its own while still showing off what the technology can do. And so long as the tech is just made and then left searching for a game, that’s unlikely to happen.
So the pack-in for whatever next new bit of tech you get is probably going to suck, yes. But at least now you know why.
Hey look at this water! Oh wait, there is something even more amazing over here, the rest of the game! Guess what? It’s awful.