Memory Lane

(…is in my ears, and in my eyes)

This delightful rant by Nicodemus over at KTR got my failing brain cells firing. I was sure I had written something in the same vein a while back, but couldn’t find it. Well, after braving ars’ search for a while, it came up. Well, here you go, reposted three years later in its entirety. I don’t know much about these things, but it seems to be as valid today as it was back then. Not much has changed at all.

The Craft and the Industry

This is a post about everything and nothing. You don’t have to be old (>30), but it helps because you know where we came from. You don’t have to be young (<16), but it helps because you’ll decide where we’re going.

In the beginning, there was Pong? Wrong. I’d bet my left nut–the heavier one, no less–that in the real beginning it was just two guys. Maybe they were hunters and maybe they were scouring the veldt looking for something to sink their teeth into. At some point, one of the guys must have bet to the other that he could hit that rock at 30 paces. Or that he could beat the other guy to that tree in the distance. The bet–the game–doesn’t matter. What matters is that there was one. Sure, later on this thing got co-opted. Hijacked, as it were, and we eventually ended up with Mayans playing pelota as a pre-sacrificial family activity, Romans with their circus and copious amounts of bread and Vandals getting together to see who could stick a spear in a hole on a tree while riding a horse in assless leather pants.

Even in our electronic age, Pong was not the beginning. Summer of ’66. Ralph Baer is waiting for a coworker at a bus stop and, to kill some time, writes down some notes on how to use home TV sets to play games. Take a look at this little blurb. It’s from Baer’s eventual original patent:

“The present invention pertains to an apparatus [and method], in conjunction with monochrome and color television receivers, for the generation, display, manipulation, and use of symbols or geometric figures upon the screen of the television receivers for the purpose of [training simulation, for] playing games [and for engaging in other activities] by one or more participants. The invention comprises in one embodiment a control unit, an apparatus connecting the control unit to the television receiver and in some applications a television screen overlay mask utilized in conjunction with a standard television receiver. The control unit includes the control, circuitry, switches and other electronic circuitry for the generation, manipulation and control of video signals which are to be displayed on the television screen. The connecting apparatus selectively couples the video signals to the receiver antenna terminals thereby using existing electronic circuits within the receiver to process and display the signals generated by the control unit in a first state of the coupling apparatus and to receive broadcast television signals in a second state of the coupling apparatus. An overlay mask which may be removably attached to the television screen may determine the nature of the game to be played or the training simulated. Control units may be provided for each of the participants. Alternatively, games [training simulations and other activities] may be carried out in conjunction with background and other pictorial information originated in the television receiver by commercial TV, closed-circuit TV or a CATV station.”

But, as well as that description may apply to the systems of today, it’s history. For the purposes of this issue, Pong is a starting point as good as any other. That’s our higher-order beginning as gamers, an arbitrary zero point in the timeline of electronic entertainment.

Pong was created by Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell in 1972 merely because it was a simple game to program. Later on that same year, Bushnell founded Atari. The rest is history.
Space Invaders was Toshihiro Nishikado’s child for Taito in 1978. It ended up causing a coin shortage in Japan due to its popularity.
Pac-Man? Namco designer Tohru Iwatani went out for the evening with some friends and saw a pizza with a slice missing. Pac-Man went to become the best-selling coin-operated game in history (over $100 million in 20 years @ 25 cents a pop).
Elite? Bell and Braben were 19 years old. Teenagers that taught themselves asm. Programmed the game half in their spare time, half under Acornsoft’s tutelage. Elite turned out to be an icon of gaming, still never surpassed after 20 years.
Shigeru Miyamoto was 27 in 1982 when he created Donkey Kong, without ever creating a video game before and without knowing how to program. He got the idea from travelling puppet shows during his childhood.
John Carmack thought Wolf 3D’s engine could be better (how surprising of him). DOOM launches at the end of 1993. An estimated fifteen million copies have been downloaded or passed from player to player on disk or online. It kickstarts the 3D era and changes the face of gaming from that point on.

Where am I going with all this? It was a craft. It wasn’t the cranking of the hype machine via websites, misleading press releases and dubious previews. Games and genres were not created according to market projections or needs. Instead, games and genres created their new markets themselves. It was one or two guys, talented or not, with a good idea and the drive to realize it. Maybe in a basement, maybe in an apartment, maybe between classes at school, maybe in an office. The ideas came from the creator’s minds and not from the need to satisfy the particular and fleeting hunger of the market. There wasn’t an area that you could point to and say “Oops, there’s a niche market. Stay away”. They were all niche markets. Considering the limitations of the hardware during those times, content was all you really had, and it was created accordingly. Mechanics were simple, but groundbreaking and refined. Since neither graphics nor sound could take the player to the level of the experience envisioned by the creators, it had to be done with content. It had to be done with originality. It had to be done with solid and innovative mechanics and concepts. With such severe and asphyxiating medium limitations, the intangibles, the meta-elements were what defined the experience.

But I’m not seeing the past with rose-colored glasses. All that doesn’t mean that there were no stinkers. All that doesn’t mean that every game was a classic. All that doesn’t mean that all games were better.

And yes, all that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an industry surrounding the craft, working pretty much as it does today. Bell and Braben pitched Elite first to Thorn EMI, which in turn sent them a rejection later which said, quote: “‘The game needs three lives, it needs to play through in no more than about 10 minutes, users will not be prepared to play for night after night to get anywhere, people won’t understand the trading, they don’t understand 3D, the technology’s all very impressive but it’s not very colourful'”. Can I get a truckload of rolleyes, please? It’s cheaper in bulk.

Sure enough, almost inevitably, the industry grew alongside the craft. However, at some point–I’m gonna place it in the early/mid 90’s–, something happened: The industry began to replace the craft. Until that point, the industry was necessary to move, sell and promote the creations of the craft. After that point, the industry replaced the craft as creators. Fewer and fewer games were created from original individual ideas, while more and more games were created in meeting rooms in response to market estimates. With the industry beginning to finance the creations, it began to hold direct control over them. Ideas that may have started as one thing ended up being quite different. Deadlines began to be enforced–regardless of the actual state of the product–because time is money.

As the complexity and capabilities of the hardware continued its relentless advance, so did the games’. Suddenly, games need to be made by small armies of people if they were to be finished (hopefully, at least) on time. Gone were the care and the refinement that the creators imprinted their creations with. Individuality and originality began to be viewed as an investment risk, and who wants to take a risk with games beginning to cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to create? To meet financial deadlines, creation was relabeled as production and the product had to be out of the door no matter its state. Games began to be killed even before seeing the light of day.

Is this a rant against the industry? Not at all. The industry is a necessity. It always was. It serves an essential role. But what I contend is that, just as the craft can’t sell as effectively as the industry, the industry can’t create as effectively as the craft. Ideally, the relationship should be symbiotic: The craft creates, the industry sells. Dandy. But at some point, the industry overstepped its bounds. At some point, the industry overtook the creation. You wanna know who facilitated that?

We did.

We’re a fickle lot by nature. Our collective attention span can be measured in angstroms. We just have to have the next best thing. Now. No, not when it’s done. Now. The next best thing needs to have better graphics than the old one, otherwise it’s crap. It needs to have better and more music, otherwise it’s crap. We literally can’t wait until it’s done. We have to have it. More, more, more. And since less, less, less doesn’t sell, the industry reacts accordingly. And screw gameplay. Sure, we go on and on with the “gameplay over graphics” bit, but if it doesn’t come glitzier than the old one it’s crap. We can’t possibly demand fifty AAA titles per year and not expect that many of them will turn up crap. And then we bitch. Our demands have a lot to do with games costing millions of dollars to make. Our demands have a lot to do with games being killed or maimed while stillborn. Our demands have a lot to do with the release of unfinished games.

This is really not an attack on the industry. It’s an attack on what the situation has become and what the situation is doing to gaming. Current and future gaming. There is a difference between making money by creating games and creating games to make money. It’s subtle, but it’s situated at the root of the problem.

So, if we want better games, how do we get out of this pickle? This is something that, I think, can be solved by everybody. Craft, industry and gamers. We all make what we call gaming. As such, everybody can do things to improve the state of affairs.
The craft? Be honest. To yourselves, to your creation and to the gamers. Stay true to your vision and defend it at all costs. Originality should always trump convenience. Innovation shouldn’t be done for its own sake.
The industry? Respect the creation. Do what you do best: Selling, not creating. Advising, not controlling. Support the craft, do not attempt to replace it. Allow time. Allow originality. Allow refinement. Stand by what you sell. Take risks.
The gamers? Value quality over quantity. Vote with your money, not in an onscreen forum poll. Do not be afraid to try new things. Support the craft and the industry. Learn to wait. Learn that enjoying does not mean consuming.

The industry is not all bad, the craft is not all good and the gamers are not all fickle. But most are. I am most definitely not yet another old fart, longing for greener and older pastures of gaming. What interests me is the future. And the future that I see is, unfortunately, a little bit sad unless we change things in each of our own areas. I see a future without a possible new Donkey Kong because the possible new Miyamoto was forced to churn clone game after clone game. I see a future without a possible new Elite because the possible Bells and Brabens are told that complicated games without 3 lives are a risk. I see a future without a possible new Doom because the possible new Carmack spends his time feeding a market need instead of creating a breakthrough.

And I better stop here before I get into another Jerry Maguire-ish moment. Discuss. Give me ideas. Give me solutions. Give me comments.


(original here)


5 Responses to “Memory Lane”

  1. 1 Ethic March 17, 2007 at 12:46 am

    Wonderful commentary!

  2. 3 Heartless_ May 6, 2007 at 5:37 am

    Just a note. Back “in the day”, gaming was not a niche market. There were actually MORE gamers than there is currently prior to the market crash in the 80s. However, crappy games (ala ET) killed interest in the hobby and even with multi-millions of units in homes, games just didn’t sell.

  3. 4 Valerusd December 1, 2007 at 3:00 am

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  1. 1 Kill Ten Rats » Blog Archive » Git a job az a Gayme Diviloper! Trackback on March 17, 2007 at 1:12 am

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