Everyone always knows that it is easier to make a video game when more people and more tools are involved. Some of our favorite games were made by big publishers with big budgets for big studios. While we have blockbuster franchises like Call of Duty and Madden, a fair amount games that we think back on or are critically acclaimed within the community also seem to be from smaller teams or Individuals. From the early works in the 80s from the house of Mario, to some of the efforts seen within the indie space now, a fair amount of intriguing, sometimes innovative games, have been built by a small group of people with a push to create something with their own hands. Throughout the history of games, a lot of games that remain close to people's hearts, were dreams that almost never came true, due to limitation in hardware and software that developers ran into. But while it isn’t always the case, can a point be made that those limitations that developers ran into helped to make their games even more memorable and fun to play?
push it to the limit
A good starting point to look at may be with the original Star Fox on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The development on the game began between Nintendo and Argonaut during the Nintendo Entertainment System days. Initially, it was just an on-rails glider simulator, but after discussing with Nintendo, Argonaut games were allowed to bring in chip designers to improve the SNES with a custom coprocessor on the graphics support unit in the cartridge. This chip is known as the Super FX chip, and it was used to render 3D polygons and advanced 2D effects. Ultimately, ten games were developed using this chip, but only five made it to full release. The entire purpose of being able to get a chip like this made was to increase performance while getting around the hardware limitations of the console they were designing for. Running into the original limitations of the SNES hardware allowed the two companies to realize that there were ways to push the console further without having to design and build an entire new console generation to create more technically advanced games. Later on in the life cycle of the SNES, Capcom was given the same ability to bring in chip designers to keep the system competitive against an arguably more powerful series of competitors.
The team behind the original two Pokémon games and their sequels only had four programmers. The hardware they were developing for had a processor running at 4.19 MHz with 8 KB of Ram. Think about that: in our modern world where our computers regularly are above 2.0 GHz for the processor clock speed, the GameFreak empire of one of children’s most beloved game series was built by a small group with barely any hardware resources. There were no lines of recorded dialogue and the text was all on screen. All audio was four-bit and the music was written and composed by one man, Junichi Masuda, on a Commodore Amiga computer. The art was monochromatic to keep things simple on the Game Boy display. Knowing the kind of resources we have at our disposal currently voice acting and massive orchestral soundtracks are easily handled by the hardware where we barely had room on the cartridge for the 4-bit audio. Then add all one hundred and fifty one Pokemon and human character sprites you are left with very little room for anything else in the 256 KB - 8 MB of storage the cartridge can hold. The art assets in a modern game can top a few gigabytes of space easily. Given the hurdles and years spent in development, the game series has come to be collectively known as the greatest selling Role Playing Game series of all time. But with the resources the team had, how did they achieve this goal? Did the restrictions put onto them by the hardware help them think outside the box on how to handle the game?
Few and Far between
In the case of Stardew Valley, we have a one-man band named Eric Barone. This man spent four years working every aspect of the game. Be it the pixel art, music composition, game design, or programming. He did have help from Chucklefish Games with the publishing and the game wiki, but he scrapped and remade the game multiple times, all while aiming for immersion in this small farming community. This game is more a labor of love than anything else and it comes through while experiencing this world he has made. Considering Eric was fresh out of college with no prior game development experience, it is impressive what he was able to learn and create in this short span of time. I understand four years can sound like a long time, but some blockbuster games take three years or less depending on complexity and developer of course, and seeing the results of Eric’s work really shows that sometimes it doesn’t matter if you have the money and resources to make a game, just the passion to see your vision through to the end.
Hyper Light Drifter, from the Indie game developer Heart Machine, is an interesting mashup of the styles from two famous games The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo. The development studio got it’s name after the health issue the director of the game has been experiencing before and during production. They were able to get enough funding through Kickstarter to expand past their original scope of the game, and while this and the game director’s health issue did extend the development time beyond the original 2014 launch window to the second quarter of 2016, the game was released to generally positive reviews The time and dedication this small team has put into this game has come through with significant critical acclaim. I’ve mentioned small team throughout this piece, but for perspective Heart Machine has a total of nine team members, which is still small by today's standards. Some of those big open world games we have seen from last year can have two to six hundred team members. Despite health issues, and an expanding scope with just a handful of people working together, they were able to take this game from concept to reality in less than three years, and that is an impressive feat.
LESS is more
There may be a way to find out if the developers above were just simply gifted, or if they just had the resolve to not give up and look at their issues they came across during development in creative enough ways to come out on top in the long run. Personally, I believe that scarcity will breed creativity. There are those that may disagree, and there are some examples that may say otherwise, but one thing most of us can agree on, are the results these amazing game developers have achieved. With limited hardware, finances, or issues brought on by health, it helped these creators think outside the box and create something truly memorable, and in some cases, things that had never been seen before or thought to be impossible, and that is quite amazing. If developers can continue to think of creative ways around some of the limitations they face, and focus on this out-of-the-box thinking mentality, I cannot wait to see the fruits of their labor that is grown from it.