This Year Has Been All About Improving On An Idea

Image: Respawn/EA

Spend enough time around the Australian indie development scene and you'll hear a story. It's one often told by Defiant Development's Morgan Jaffit, the studio responsible for Hand of Fate. It's a story about an idea, or rather, what happens when a developer gets to keep working on one.

As Jaffit once told me, great games are built by great teams. But the reality is that even great teams need time to evolve, to iterate, to learn.

Enter stage right, Hulk: The Movie Game.

Movie tie-in games have been almost unanimously awful (Chronicles of Riddick aside) since the beginning of time. The Hulk tie-in in 2003 wasn't that bad, but it didn't set the world alight either. There were some cringeworthy stealth sequences, frustrating fixed camera angles, and a weird quirk where you were actually better off avoiding enemies rather than fighting them.

But there were some good ideas, particularly with the combat. So when Radical Entertainment developed a second Hulk game in 2005, they took the good ideas and continued to build upon them. The crappy stealth sequences were gone. The action was buffed by an open world designed to crumble under the Hulk's fist — including the buildings — and the studio doubled down on the combo moves, complete with a Devil May Cry-esque purchase menu for upgrades.

It was excellent. But it also formed the basis for a much more well-known game that Radical would release four years later.


Image: Steam

But perhaps the ultimate example, at least as far as Jaffit was concerned, was the old Call of Duty team. "It's been my contention since I've been in the industry really, but really coming to a head in about 2005, that great games are built by great teams and great teams arrive from having the ability to chew on the same set of ideas over time," the Queensland-based developer said.

"The definitive example of this is the [original] Medal of Honor team, who did a good Medal of Honor game, then a great Medal of Honor game, then left to go over to Infinity Ward, did some good Call of Duty games, some great Call of Duty games and then to [Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare], which is really a defining point in the industry. The truth is the matter is that they got to work on that game over the course over five years and the same is true of Relic; I watched them successfully build [real time strategy games] and learn the craft of RTSes and get into what makes an RTS great while at the same time stumbling."

Of course, the Infinity Ward team isn't the same. No team would be after such an acrimonious split. But they haven't been resting on their laurels.

They've been busy making Titanfall.

Image: Respawn/EA

With the benefit of context, it's not a surprise that people have been gushing about Titanfall 2's campaign. Respawn has been doing shooter campaigns for more than 15 years. Vince Zampella and Jason West helped set the benchmark for storming the beaches in a video game. They helped set a benchmark for what good video game guns should feel like: the level of recoil, how much stopping power they should have, what they sound like, how a body should animate when it gets hit.

They've had a lot of practice.

So it shouldn't really have come as any surprise that Titanfall 2's campaign was filled with things that, had you wound the clock back five years, would have been characteristically Call of Duty. Moments spent lying on the floor looking at comrades. Individual missions that are the equal of, if not superior to, any single-player mission released this year. Wallrunning that feels fluid, instead of feeling stiff.

But nailing all those little elements, like how much recoil a gun should have, how long an enemy should be highlighted after being spotted, how long players should have before Titans enter the fray, how often abilities will recharge, doesn't come naturally.

It takes time and experience. And even then, good teams - or great teams - still get it wrong.

After finishing the five-hour campaign, I still felt the story was a series of moments varying in quality rather than a wholesome, coherent experience. The multiplayer clearly needed a good deal of tweaking.

But Respawn took the public response on board. And even though the game might be squeezed out of relevance as a result of launching between two much larger franchises, it won't be because the game wasn't good enough.

Titanfall was always a good idea, made better by time.

Another idea that got way better this year: Harvest Moon. Or at least the principle of it did, thanks to a very neatly designed indie game called Stardew Valley.

I've still not played a lick of Stardew Valley myself, but I've sat and watched my partner play for at least 20 or so hours. It used to be a regular occurrence on a Saturday morning: I'd wake up, and hear the sound of feet running across dirt. It was like a gentle, very soothing alarm clock. As for my partner, she's racked up around 140 hours since launch, most of it wrapped in a blanket while she tends to her little farm.

And then there's the tweaks that take the Harvest Moon idea further: optional quests. Same-sex romances. Extensive character customisations. Additional locations. Divorce. Multiplayer (eventually). And, don't forget, some very cool mods.

No wonder the game sold more than a million copies.

Image: Kotaku

Sometimes ideas come around in much smaller ways, ways that people don't recognise.

Take the Battlefield 1 campaign, for instance. It's gotten a lot of praise simply for existing, given how annoyed gamers were last year at the content-light experience that was Star Wars: Battlefront. But it's also been welcomed for trying to at least treat World War 1 with a little more reverence than blockbuster shooters typically do.

That's not to say previous games have been flippant about the horrors of war. In many ways, FPS campaigns tried to illustrate the devastation wrought through various missions and set pieces. The original Call of Duty had the opening mission to save Stalingrad. Modern Warfare 2 let you shoot up an airport, or skip it entirely. And if we're allowed to stretch the scope a tad, then Spec Ops: The Line would surely be worth a mention.

But Battlefield 1 did something that hasn't gotten a lot of attention.

Image: Battlefield 1 / Kotaku

Battlefield Hardline isn't a game most people are liable to remember. But while the experience might have been a largely forgettable tale of cops and robbers, which really only served to remind people that the Battlefield 4 servers were working properly again, the developers tried some ideas that have stuck around.

One of those ideas was the lure, and by extension the stealth system.

It wasn't necessary in Battlefield Hardline. With silenced snipers and plenty of buildings and long grass to skulk through, it's almost redundant in Battlefield 1. Enemies die with a single shot to the face; your health regenerates after a few seconds in cover. Being stealthy isn't smart. It's inefficient. It's deliberately challenging yourself.

But it's nice to see the mechanic wasn't wasted, and it'll probably be available to other developers using the Frostbite engine.

One of those developers happens to be Visceral Games, the makers of Battlefield Hardline. Who hired the lead writer of Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 for a Star Wars game.

Imagine what they're doing with the lure and stealth mechanics right now.

It's all about improving an idea.

Update: Meant to say Radical Entertainment instead of Radiant. Thanks to Wormguts on Twitter for pointing it out.


    True...we get better at doing things with experience, go figure.

    Too right, my costume-making's leveled up this year too :p

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