The State of Gaming
I’ve been an ardent gamer since the Atari 2600 broke onto the scene. Before that, I was an avid pinball and arcade attendee. Suffice it to say, I’m a gamer. So, let’s explore what’s changed about gaming.
In the earliest stages of gaming, experimentation was commonplace. This is not as much true in early pinball games as the physics were pretty much set, but in video games the bounds are endless. Though, the pinball technologists would definitely surprise me over what they could do with a table and with digital displays. I digress. In the beginning, games like Pong (1972) set the stage as to what could be done. A simple table tennis game seemed a good first step. It was a game everyone already recognized, but now it’s on a screen with no need to carry around real rackets. Now you just moved your finger and the paddle moved. No more physical exertion. What was born was couch entertainment.
However, you couldn’t take the arcade home with you. At least, not for a while yet. We wouldn’t see video games become true couch entertainment until after the Atari 2600 is born five years after Pong’s release to the arcades in 1977.
I loved visiting the arcades during the early 70s. The ambience, the music and the machines (oh so many to choose) all beckoned for that quarter. One quarter, the fuel that drove your gaming satisfaction. Of course, at the time, I was too young to have a job, so I was at the mercy of my parents to give me some money. When we visited the mall, my mother would always give us (my brother and I) a couple of bucks and off to the arcade we’d run. For her the cost was a shopping experience without a couple annoying kids constantly making trouble. For us, we got to explore the latest video games in the arcade like Atari’s Pong or US Billiard’s Shark (where you play as the shark eating the swimmer) or some of those old-style pinball games with the wheels for numbers. No digital numbers on these pinball games. Digital displays would come later.
This particular arcade (my first) was always fun and had unique games. It sat right across from a five and dime store. Some of the games even had some quirky behaviors born from carpet static. One of the pinball games would add a free game just by rubbing your feet on the carpet and zapping the coin slot. Unfortunately, living in humid Texas meant you could only do this at certain times of the year. The way-too-humid rest of the time you had to pay. That is, until the arcade owners figured out the trick.
Throughout the 70s and early 80s, I’ve visited many different arcades in malls, strip malls, at bowling alleys, at batting cages, amusement parks, convenience marts, standalone arcades, at mini-golf and at Malibu racing tracks. They all had their own ambiance and games that made each experience unique and left a lasting impression on each visit. I never tire of visiting a new arcade.
One of the arcades I would occasionally visit had a mammoth pinball machine that used what looked like a white cue ball as the pinball. This pinball game was ginormous. Though it was big, it really wasn’t one of the most exciting pinball games. Its uniqueness was in its size, not in its game board mechanics. I always thought that it played like everything was in slow motion. I always preferred the smaller pinball games. This particular arcade had a cave-like quality that made it seem like you were the only one in there.
Video Game Experimentation
During the early years of video games, many different companies experimented with video game ideas. There were even hybrid pinball and video games combined, though none of these really successfully married the two technologies.
The earliest games were flat single color games. The earliest video games also used black and white CRT screens. When color was needed, flat gel color panels were applied to top of the black and white screen. It wouldn’t been until later that color CRTs would be added to video games.
This was a great time to watch as video games progressed from being simple flat shapes on black and white screens to more complex pixel drawn characters in later games like Mortal Kombat.
Arcade Video Games
As we moved into the era of video gaming, games became increasingly more complex graphically and sonically, but the games themselves remained relatively simple. Games like Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids and Shark moved into games like Donkey Kong, Centipede, Venture, Burgertime, Dig-Dug, Mr. Do and Galaxian. All of these games had a simple level based premise. Do something to ‘win’ the level and move onto the next level. The win-the-level premise really had its roots back to pinball and simply carried over into video games. However with pinball, it was less about winning the level and more about keeping the ball in play as long as possible. With pinball, you were typically given 5 turns or balls to play. Once you used up all 5 turns, the game was over.
With video games, the premise changed from ‘playing as long as possible’ to ‘playing as short as possible’ so that arcades could maximize their profits. You really didn’t want the same kid playing the game on the same quarter for hours on end. This could easily happen with certain pinball games, but with video games that was not a goal. As we moved into video gaming, it became less about skill and more about defeating the ‘enemies’ (whatever they happened to be). Video game creators quickly learned that ‘enemies’ were the motivator for play. At the same time, the enemies got more and more complex, ingenious and harder to beat. In centipede, it happened to be a big segmented centipede squirming its way down the screen towards your ‘gun’. If you managed to destroy all of its parts of the centipede, the level was over.
Many games adopted the ‘Centipede’ approach to levels and began building more and more complex ‘waves’ of enemies, such as Galaga. So, from where did Galaga descend? From Galaxian, of course. And, Galaxian descended from Space Invaders. Space Invaders was an early somewhat higher res game depicting ‘ufo invaders’ at the top of the screen that you had to shoot until you destroyed them all. From this game alone descended a bunch of other games, some direct clones like Galaxian, Galaga and Gorf, some indirect clones like Defender (a side scroller). From Defender came some sonically similar games like Joust. Note, there are plenty of games I could reminisce over games from this time period, but I’ll move on to get to my point.
As we progressed, game designers continued to push the boundaries with newer and more interesting ideas with higher res and more compelling gameplay like Paperboy, Marble Madness and Pole Position. There were also a number of vector based games like Battlezone, Tempest and Star Wars which also pushed the boundaries using vector graphics which would ultimately die as a technology. At the time, though, vector games were some of the first games to depict objects in 3D space (even though they were just wireframe drawings). The vector technology did offer, at least for me, more compelling gameplay due to the pseudo-3D experience. Unfortunately, the vector drawing method would only become a stop-gap technology to getting us to the 3D shooters of today. Though, the games that utilized vector technology were definitely one-of-a-kind and would also see produced a home arcade cartridge driven version named Vectrex in 1982. I always wanted one of these.
In among all of the flat 2D sprite based games, I applaud Atari for pushing the vector boundaries at that time. Without these innovative arcade games to keep us interested in plopping more quarters into the machines, we wouldn’t have kept playing.
Moving on, innovation continued with games like Gauntlet which took the arcades by storm. The Tron games didn’t do so bad either. Even Journey (the rock band) got in on the gaming action with the mostly horrible Journey arcade game set to Journey music from the Frontiers album. An earlier Atari 2600 console game was also released based on the Escape album. We would even see video game innovation in the form of laserdisc based games such as Don Bluth’s animated Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace titles. I have no idea how many quarters I plopped into these machines. There were even controversial video games based on movies, like Exidy’s Deathrace 2000 (1976) where you ran people over which turned into a grave.
All during this period, game designers were pushing the envelope on game ideas without much thought to the idea of game genres. That would come later. So while there were fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street fighter and racing games like Manaco GP and Pole Position, these games would become a staple at most arcades. There would also be a few sports titles like Punch-Out! and these would introduce the idea of sports games, but the Maddens and FIFAs of the world would have to wait until consoles improved. Specifically, the later linked racing games where 4-8 players were linked and could race in unison in sit-down driving arcade cabinets. Other than racing, no other arcade games braved linking their cabinets for multiuser play. That wouldn’t happen until the dawn of home networking and later Xbox Live.
Arcade Gaming End
So, while arcade gaming has never really ended specifically, it is greatly diminished as a result of the introduction of the Atari 2600 and later the Nintendo NES and the Sega Genesis. It’s funny, Atari, Nintendo and Sega were all huge builders of arcade games. Yet they all introduced home gaming consoles that would ultimately more-or-less kill the arcade as the place to game. I guess you might say that it was inevitable looking back now, but it is interesting to consider this fact.
Keep in mind that all during the later home console period (mid 90s), home gaming on the PC would become stronger and stronger with games like Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein. Thanks to iD software, Doom would actually usher in the era of first and third person shooters and, thus, bring this genre front and center. It would be a bit later that consoles would steal the PC thunder and introduce games like Halo.
Anyway, as home gaming consoles improved from the Atari 2600 through the to Atari 5200 and then later from the Sega Genesis to the Sega Dreamcast, from the Nintendo NES to the Nintendo Gamecube and to Sony Playstation 1, this ensured that home gaming would continue to prosper and that arcades would lose ground. However, even up until the Sega Dreamcast, we continued to see innovative titles arriving at home from games like Blue Stinger to Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue series. With Shenmue being one of the first open-world free roaming games that allowed you to interact with much of the world including real-time season changes.
The Era of Home Gaming
With the introduction of the Xbox and PS2, the whole course of gaming changed. Once these consoles were introduced, the gaming landscape began to be shaped primarily by Microsoft and Sony. At this point, we began losing a lot of innovative titles. Sure, we might see one every now and then like Rez, but these were an anomaly and not the norm. Still, with the Xbox and PS2, the genres were solidified into basically a handful of names like ‘shooter’ or ‘racing’ or ‘fighting’ or ‘multiplayer’ or you get the picture. With these new branded titles, it was easy for developers to create and drop games into the slots and people would understand exactly what they meant.
Still, while the genres were pretty much set by the Xbox and PS2, there were still a few developers willing to go outside of these and produce something new and different, but rarely.
As we move forward to the introduction of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, we see undefinable genre titles diminish further and the standard genre become defined. Basically, if your game didn’t fall inside a genre, it likely wouldn’t be released. Or, it would be released as a low priced digital download game. The only real exception to this was Valve who seemed to be able to get a games like Portal released onto consoles. Still, Portal could be considered a first person shooter even though that wasn’t the primary objective of the game.
With games like Halo 3 and Gears of War on the Xbox 360 and God of War on the PS3, this era saw primarily genre based titles released. Few developers ventured outside of these tried-and-true genres, but the rule was that they could if the developer chose to and these still might happen occasionally. In fact, by the Xbox 360 and PS3, there were effectively no titles that fell outside of the genre labels.
Era of the Home Console
With the 2013 introduction of the PS4 and the Xbox One, the era of home gaming is likely coming to an end. With what I consider to be an incremental update to these consoles (Moore’s law no longer applies), these hardware updates are only minimal updates to their predecessors. There was a much bigger leap in quality from the Xbox to the Xbox 360 (moving from 480p 4:3 aspect and component video to 16:9 1080p HDMI output). Changing the video standard between the Xbox and Xbox 360 and between the PS2 ad PS3 was a huge leap. Not to mention, the cell multiprocessor system that Sony put into the PS3. At this point, the 2013 consoles are at the point of diminishing returns.
Both the PS4 and the Xbox One are simply mid-priced PCs with standard Intel processors and standard ATI graphics cards. They’re effectively mid-grade PCs running proprietary operating systems. In fact, I’d actually say the Xbox One is likely running a modified form of Windows 8 with greatly reduced features from the Xbox 360. The PS4, however, is running Sony’s own proprietary operating system similar in looks to was on the PS3, but also with greatly reduced features. Though, the Ustream/Twitch live streaming features of the PS4 are a much welcomed improvement.
Yet for the cost factor of the units, the games haven’t dramatically improved. Let’s observe the problems. With the new consoles, the genres are pretty well set in stone. At this point, no developer would be willing to stray outside of the standard defined genres: shooter, fighting, sports, real-time RPG (which is slowly being combined with shooter), turn-based RPG, puzzle, simulation, strategy, party (encapsulates dance and other party games) and creative. While there may be some sub-genres such as ‘horror’ or ‘mystery’ or ‘period’ which can apply to each of the genres, these are the top genres that are used. Sports encapsulates all forms of sports including baseball, football, racing, skiing, skateboarding, etc.
In fact, most games fall into one of the following: shooter, fighting, sports or RPG. The rest of the genres are lesser used.
The End of the Console?
As the PS4 and the Xbox One are now available, it’s becoming more and more clear. It’s expensive to create a game title on these consoles. To create a game that looks like Ryse, you need to outlay a hefty sum of cash to license the Crytek game engine. And that’s just to get the engine you need to drive the hardware. Still, once you’ve spent your wad obtaining a CryEngine license, you still need to hire a slew of programmers, artists and writers to develop a compelling story and then work to make that into some kind of a compelling play.
From concept to completion, you’re likely talking at least 3-5 years depending on the size of your staff. Of course, the more people you throw at the problem, the faster you can get it done. But, speed isn’t your only enemy here. For the example I mentioned earlier, Ryse, this game is absolutely gorgeous. The environments are amazing, the characters and armor are outstanding. So then what’s the problem?
The gameplay in Ryse is absolute trash. They could have taken the game mechanics straight from a 1990s Mortal Kombat game and plopped into to Ryse for all I know. The characters move in unrealistic ways, the game forces pauses at the most inopportune times and the gameplay is just overall bad. So, this issue is firmly the enemy of the PS4 and the Xbox One. A developer spends years and loads of cash creating a title only to produce something that plays like Ryse. In fact, Ryse is a firm example of what NOT to do on a next generation console. It is the low bar by which to make sure your game is above. Sure, it’s pretty, but that’s where Ryse all ends.
Limited Games, Longer Create Cycle
This will be the continual battle of the PS4 and the Xbox One throughout their console lifespan. Consider that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 have both been on the market for at least 8 years now. That’s 8 years of back catalog of games. Now, go look at these titles. Many of these games took less than 2 years to produce. And, of course, some of them show it (i.e., Two Worlds).
With these new console generations, the bar has now been raised again. Specifically for the graphics. To produce the graphics needed to look great at 1080p, this is not just a small amount of work. Not only does it require high res textures, it requires high res models. Producing such models and textures is not a quick process. Where the textures may have been half the size on the Xbox 360, they are now twice the size on the Xbox One. That simply takes longer time to produce.
This means that instead of the 2 year time it took for the Xbox 360, it might take 3-4 years to produce a title on the PS4 and the Xbox One. So, that means in 8 years, we’re likely to have half the number of big name titles we have on the Xbox 360. That also means it will take perhaps twice as long to produce titles for the Xbox One and the PS4. Further, this means there will also be a lot of engine reuse with new graphics dropped under the hood. In fact, I expect a lot of texture reuse across many games.
For the game studios that can afford the time it takes, these will continue. For those that can’t afford the time it takes to produce that level of a title, they will likely fold, stop producing or move to a different market.
The State of Games
Unfortunately, today we are seeing a convergence of genres. No longer do we see the new innovative titles, other than in digital downloads as small diversions. Occasionally a Japanese developer will produce a title geared toward the Asian market that will cross-over to the US market. But, that’s rare. Most titles produced today fall into one of the predetermined genres. It’s just too risky for game studios to gamble on an experiment. Game studios want to know their title is a guaranteed success. The only way that can happen is by making sure they stay within the trappings of the genres.
When games were like Pong or Shark might take a few people a several months up to a year to produce the game, it now takes many years to produce something like Halo 4. It’s too risky and expensive to gamble on experimentation. Game studios, therefore, won’t risk this. This is why we are firmly seeing more and more repetitive, trite and cliche games. Basically, we are effectively seeing games that you’ve already played at least twice already. Game studios believes having that level of familiarity with the subject matter will make it more likely to succeed. If it’s similar to a game you’ve already played, they assume, that familiarity will keep the gamers happy.
Unfortunately, the only thing this does is make the game crappy and annoying. Game studios don’t want to see or know this, but it is most definitely true. If you make your game feel like some other game or a game that you’ve played before, then it is that other game. It’s then not new or innovative and becomes an exercise in futility.
Predictions and Mobile Devices
I expect we will continue to see the smaller game studios close or be bought out. The larger game studios may continue to weather the longer cycle, but not forever. They have to see a return on their investment or they will also stop producing.
Overall, I expect that we will see less and less studios producing games for consoles. I also see this as the likely end of the ‘epic’ game. Game developers will begin go move back into smaller more easily built titles like ‘Farmville’ and move away from the epic titles like ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Halo’. The only game studios producing such titles will be those that are subsidized by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.
Those game studios not being subsidized to produce such ambitious titles will move away from the consoles and begin developing titles for mobile devices. Since mobile computing is pretty much taking over, there’s really no need to own a living room console. It’s easier to play games on devices you are already carrying. Eventually, game studios will realize that it’s far more lucrative to produce games to play on what’s in your pocket than what’s in your living room. Especially considering how many devices are sitting in people’s pockets untapped.
Just a few compelling titles on iOS or Android, like Angry Birds, and you’re pretty well set. Angry Birds has already paved the way, it’s just a matter of time before studios wake up and realize what they are missing.