Watching video games evolve as a medium has been one truly fascinating thing to watch throughout the years. We’ve seen games grow from the simple games of the Atari era, gradually increasing in size and complexity, until the current generation, where we’ve seen games that legitimately last more than 20 hours, without any cheap tricks to extend play. Unfortunately, as games have evolved, their budgets have skyrocketed as well. Massive games are the exception, not the rules. In fact, many modern games have single-player campaigns shorter than the average from the sixth generation. It’s disgusting. While not every game needs to be long, there have been many times where I’ve felt that games should have been longer, but the reality is that those games just can’t justify a large enough budget to extend the game to my desired length. If only there were some cheap way to add content to video games without greatly expanding development costs…
Of course, the easiest way to fix this problem would be to recycle and remix existing content in new forms, which can add both replay value and extend the length of the game. I’ve never really understood the bad rap recycling existing assets in video games has gotten from gamers. Of course, I can understand their reasoning: recycling in any form of media is generally considered cheap and “soulless”, but above all lazy. It’s also probable that many gamers have been burned in the past when games decide to take a cheaper or easier route to extend gameplay. Hell, I complain about stuff like that on a regular basis. I guess recycling just feels like a better route to me because it’s at least giving you more of the content you’re already enjoying in the game itself. Isn’t that why we want longer games in the first place?
Recycling and remixing content is beneficial for several reasons. As I mentioned before, game development has gotten significantly more expensive in the past two generations, especially after the proliferation of high-definition TVs. Recycling content, through things like level packs or repurposing non-playable characters into playable ones, allows developers to extend the length of the game itself and add replay value at minimal additional cost. These aren’t the only potential benefits remixing existing content could have. Increasing the use of any assets that would have otherwise have been used sporadically could also lead to their further refinement, leading to a more polished game overall. If we take that potential benefit even further, we could even see additional single-player campaigns with new play-styles that could increase the game’s replay value significantly, among other benefits. I’m sure UbiSoft knows what I’m talking about there.
Speaking of Ubisoft, they’ve actually already experimented with one form of remixing content that appears to be fairly well received among games: spinoff games. Ubisoft recycled the engines from the third installments of FarCry and Assassin’s Creed respectively to give us two self-contained spinoffs: the downloadable FarCry 3: Blood Dragon and the initially Vita-exclusive (before getting ported to HD consoles and PC) Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. The reception to both of these games were fairly good, but what else could you call them but recycling? Were they really different than the countless onslaught of MegaMan games during the 8-bit era, in anything besides sheer number? Regardless, my point has been made: recycling, under the right circumstances can be considered a net positive to game development, if done correctly.
Of course, that’s not the only form remixing existing content can take in video games. Here are some other examples of recycling in video games, both good and bad, to illustrate a few do’s and don’ts when remixing existing content. First off, the extra mission levels in Sonic Generations. Sure, to some degree, they were more or less the game’s spin on grinding (you had to complete at least one from each zone to continue on), but frankly, it was filler done right. Taking the existing art assets of the game and revamping them to create entirely new scenarios not seen in-game. You could interact with characters otherwise relegated to overworld props, perform time trials against ghost Sonics and even navigate stages with giant enemies. Sure, it might have been cooler to see some of this stuff in the main campaign’s stages, but that would’ve cluttered the stage design quite a bit.
Similarly, there’s the concept of “Endless Mode”. The one that springs to mind immediately for me would be the version found in the retro revivals MegaMan 9 and 10. Basically, taking stage fragments from existing stages from the main game and stringing them together in an endless tapestry of gameplay, challenging players to see how far they can make it before finally dying, throwing in a boss fight every 30 rooms. All-in-all, a pretty fun mode. My only real criticism of it would be the fact that it was paid DLC in both games. Kind of a scummy move on Capcom’s part, but that’s not exactly out of character these days. If it were free, it would’ve been a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about.
Speaking of Capcom, this brings me to a negative example of remixing assets, specifically in their fighting games. Especially during the 2D era, recycling character graphics was always considered a lazy way to pad out a fighting game’s roster. Hell, even Ken Master was just a palette-swapped version of his sparring buddy Ryu in his first few appearances. Evil Ryu, the hundreds of Mortal Kombat ninjas, Yun and Yang in the third Street Fighter, it all made sense back then, with memory limitations. The biggest controversy of all involving clone characters in fighting games, however, is also one of the most recent examples of it, Ultra Street Fighter IV’s sole original character, Decapre.
What made Decapre so controversial? Well, it’s actually pretty simple when you look at it. When Ultra Street Fighter IV was first announced, Capcom mentioned that there would be 5 new characters added to the game. 4 were reused assets from the failed spinoff Street Fighter x Tekken, but the fifth was a mystery, to be announced. As the months went on, Capcom started leaking hints: the character was going to be a character that had never before made a playable appearance in a fighting game. Basically, Capcom slathered on the hype and waiting more than half a year to reveal the identity of the new character. So it’s kind of surprising that the negative response to Decapre, a budget character that used Cammy as her obvious base, took Capcom entirely by surprise. Well, actually, that’s not fair: Yoshihiro Ono predicted that fans would be disappointed by the initial reveal, but hoped that she would eventually grow on fans. Honestly, I thought Decapre was an interesting character once I was able to use her in-game, but I was definitely wary when she was first announced.
By contrast, a similar character was met with a much more decidedly positive reaction. I am, of course, referring to Fukua, a surprise bonus DLC character in the moderately-popular indie fighting game Skullgirls. Fukua, like Decapre, used an existing character as a base and retained of that character’s moves and assets. So why was Fukua better received than her fellow clone? Honestly, there are several reasons. First and foremost, there were entirely different circumstances involving their announcements: while fans waited the better part of a year for Decapre, Fukua was announced and released on the same day, April Fools’ Day 2014. Her announcement trailer even poked fun at Decapre’s own reveal. Another important difference between the two is their respective dev time: Fukua’s initial build was plotted out in a mere 3 days and was further refined into her final form over the next month. One last major difference: Fukua was added to the base game, entirely free of charge for both new and existing owners of Skullgirls. Decapre is offered as either part of a paid upgrade to the earlier versions of SF4 or by buying the latest revision of the disc.
There are two other reasons that I find even more important to Fukua’s comparatively positive reaction. First, Lab Zero is a much smaller company than Capcom and by extension, Skullgirls itself has a far smaller roster. Therefore, LZ’s situation better resembles those of companies like Capcom and Midway (or Netherrealm Studios) when they had to resort to palette swaps. There’s also the fact that Fukua was said to be a test for another upcoming “palette-swap” character, Robo-Fortune, who was a fifth “bonus” character financed by their crowdfunding campaign. However, it appears that Robo-Fortune’s redesign has evolved from mere palette swap to a redesign on par with Decapre’s, which is far more impressive given Skullgirls’ hand-drawn 2D graphics, which will result in all of the reused frames being redrawn to some degree, in addition to new ones. Fukua was originally meant to be a temporary experiment, but fan response to her was so overwhelmingly positive, Lab Zero kept her in the game as a full character.
So, I guess the last major question is what genres would be best suited to recycling and remixing existing content to extend gameplay? Platformers are an obvious choice, as I mentioned before. In the same vein, one could argue that action games would benefit from recycling content. The best way to approach remixing content, however, would likely be in a way that has no effect on the game’s storyline. So arcade-style games, regardless of their genre, would likely be the best choices for remixed content due to their both their commonly short length and lack of emphasis on canon. Taking that into account, genres like first-person shooters would also benefit recycling content, in the form of creating entirely new maps from existing art assets. Fighting games commonly use this tactic as well, even modern games, but it should only be used sparingly, due to old controversies. Games that rely more heavily on story, like RPGs, should definitely avoid recycling content to extend gameplay, unless you rely on the old “alternate universe” trope. Regardless, the last thing to remember is that if you’re going to recycle content, unless it’s been significantly changed or expanded upon with new material, it should probably be implemented as free DLC rather than paid. Forcing people to pay for content they already bought is one of the lowest things I’ve seen companies do in the past, and frankly, I want it to stop.