by [name redacted]
Originally published by Next Generation.
Videogames are finally finding their way. They’re moving in small steps, yet whether by need or inspiration change is in the air – a whole generational shift, an inevitable one. It’s the kind of shift that happened to film when the studio system broke down, or painting broke out of academia and… well, the studio again. In short, people are starting to get over videogames for their own sake and starting to look at them constructively – which first means breaking them down, apart from and within their cultural, historical, and personal context. When you strip out all the clutter and find a conceptual focus, you can put the pieces back together around that focus, to magnify it and take advantage of its expressive potential.
Over the previous two installments we discussed some of the voices heralding the change, and some of the works that exemplify it. In this third and final chapter, we will cast our net wider, and examine some of the cultural or circumstantial elements that either led to this shift, reflect it, help to sustain and promulgate it, or promise to, should all go well. This is, in short, the state of the world in which a generational shift can occur.
Part Three: Infrastructure
Of the three chapters, this is the most abstract and thereby least conducive to a preamble. Over the next fifteen to twenty paragraphs I will discuss hardware, online services, industry get-togethers, virtual communities, and what your mom does in her spare time. If you can see the common threads, you may already have won.
The important picture I am trying to paint – more in this chapter than in the previous two – is that nothing happens in a vacuum. An idea is useful only it is expressed, and then only if people are listening, and then only if those people are in a position to respond. It takes certain circumstances to inspire ideas; other circumstances to facilitate their communication; others to act upon them; and others to disseminate any practical results. Impressionism is inexorably tied to pre-war Germany; art deco to industrial-age America. Romanticism only makes sense in the context of classicism, which came about in part due to the fall of Byzantium.
This movement is not just a list of (mostly low-budget and unassuming) games or a bunch of over-hyped celebrity developers and executives. It is a part of the current culture of, and around, videogame development, study, and discussion. Things are happening now that are bigger than any of us, and we are all involved. And frankly, it’s exciting as hell.
By hardware, I really mean Nintendo hardware – since aside from the memory card, the DS and the Wii present the first real conceptual shake-up since the NES, over twenty years ago. Or perhaps the introduction of the Game Boy (again by Nintendo, almost twenty years ago), though that’s a different story. By no means are they perfect; both could use a few revisions and endless tinkering, and – like their first generation of software, Wii Sports and Brain Age – they are no answer in themselves; just a blinking neon sign, pointing down the right path.
These two systems basically do to portable and home console design the same that Pac-Man CE does to its predecessor or Rez does to game design in a broader sense. They deconstruct their respective forms, divorce them of the trappings and clutter of the various contexts of their creation and our historical and contemporary interpretation of them, to locate and either bring out or build upon and thematically overload their fundamentally distinct principles. In smaller words, they get to the heart of the potential that defines a home or portable console – potential which for the last two decades everyone else has just been burying.
Portable systems are personal effects that you tote around with you, cradle in your personal space, and pore over during an idle moment in your active life. Like a novel or a cell phone or a Walkman, they are an accessory for temporary withdrawal from the world when the world doesn’t need you. To use that moment well, personal, mind-oriented tasks are best; to get involved quickly, direct, tactile input is vital. When the world comes knocking again, you snap the lid, shove it in your pocket, and get on with life. The living room is a more bombastic, more extraverted scene. The television is open territory, visible to and meant to amuse everyone. It makes noise, it lights the room. It suggests a more visceral, body-oriented experience: grand gestures, strong language, big payoff.
Both consoles take advantage of the experiences people expect from their relative environments. They allow more intuitive communication; more nuance, with less abstraction and clutter. The Wii may even pick up on player psychology through body language (as in Excite Truck). Fortunately, for systems that demand such a leap of design sense, they are both also cheap to develop for. Satoru Iwata has even convinced his programmers to share their code with outsiders, to help them make that leap.
Ideally, over the next half decade or so, these systems will encourage developers to produce games that are less convoluted to play, that allow more subtlety of interaction, and that take better advantage of the end user’s play environment – both making videogames more vibrant, appealing, and conceptually accessible, and opening up another chunk of their expressive potential. If videogames are ever to approach mass acceptance as a mature medium, these are the two big steps they need to take.
4) Distribution and Accessibility
There are so many logistical problems that contribute to ensuring that videogames as bloated, overextended, familiar, and generally lame as possible. To boil them down, the real problem is that within the industry, the press, and the buying public, videogames are broadly seen as product of the moment. You pay a lot of money for something you know you like, which will give you a lot for your money, which you will then play through once and put on the shelf. On to the next big thing.
This problem becomes a little less overwhelming and factual if you break it down – deconstruct it, if you will – into a handful of gripelets, any of which might be easier to chew on. There’s the problem of scale: people just expect things to be too damned big. There’s the problem of contemporary bias, in which works are felt to have a sell-by date: play them now, or you’ve missed your chance. Either they’re dated or they’ll no longer be available. Which leads into the problem of scarcity and obscurity, whereby any game which is not loudly promoted and readily available might as well be invisible, and thereby barely even warrants release, much less stocking in the local game shop, much less a reprint when the run is up. Then if you find something neat and out of print, and it’s for an unsupported older format, what will you do?
Which leads into yet another problem: how do you find this stuff, even if you want it? If you could turn on your Xbox now and download Panzer Dragoon Saga for ten or fifteen bucks, and play it immediately, would you be more or less likely to give it a shot? That’s assuming you’ve even heard of the game, because outside of word-of-mouth, where do you ever hear about games that are more than six months old?
Really, there are three main problems with non-standard software: archiving, promotion, and distribution. This is where Xbox Live comes in. It, and Steam. And, to some extent, the Wii Virtual Console and Unnamed Sony Downloading Service. As with the Wii and DS, none of them are perfect, yet they all shine a Bat signal in the right direction. What I am vociferously not saying is that physical media are dead, and that downloading is the way of the future. What I’m trying to point out is the profound infrastructural value of these services: for the user, as an educational and informational resource; for the developer, as an infinitely variable canvas; for the publisher, as a market equalizer.
Imagine if you will the next generation Xbox Live/Steam/Virtual Console gestalt, where most of the significant or interesting games of the last thirty years are archived in some readily accessible form, organized by platform, developer, publisher, year, or similarity. Using a system somewhere between Amazon’s recommendations and Liveplasma’s groupings, you browse around to find other games that match your interests or search criteria. You can look up all the games in a series or all the games with which Yuzo Koshiro was involved – then trade in a few tokens and download them. Once you’ve played a game, you can give feedback: thumbs up or down. If you really like it, you can list it amongst your favorites, so anyone who looks at your profile will see it and just maybe be inspired to check it out him or herself.
On the developer’s end, sidestepping the content expectations of a commercial product is maybe the greatest prospect on Earth. Services such as these encourage smaller-scale, more experimental, more personal game design. With an outlet, a testing ground, for ideas of any size, there is no need to shoot down ideas because they’re too small or strange, or try to pad them out or dilute them so they’re large or familiar enough to sell. There is no need for focus groups. Ideas which do need to be expansive, which need a big budget, can still make the argument for that scale and be granted it, and probably a physical retail release. Other ideas can still be expressed, and find their audience, and gather and build into grander and more important ideas. Publishers should be happy, as they can profit from what would otherwise be nonsense doodles and get a better idea of what people actually respond to.
Again, we’re not there yet – but hell, can you imagine Braid or Everyday Shooter coming to current-gen consoles any other way? And will you play any two more inspirational games next year? For that matter, how many games I listed in episode one are either available for download, or will be soon? And before it went up on the Virtual Console, how many of you actually heard of or played Solomon’s Key? Or half the Turbografx games? These are important questions.
3) Game Developers Conference
I’m singling out this event because it’s the one I go to every year, and it’s the one game show – hell, convention of any sort – that I’ve ever been to that makes me feel more alive for attending, instead of more dead. I’m not sure that it’s even this conference in and of itself that I’m discussing as the whole idea behind it, the cross section of people who attend, and its overwhelming success as a venture. I’m waving it around as a symbol, not as a tour guide. Just keep that in mind.
The important thing is that, more and more, developers are talking, and in a free yet institutionalized capacity. People come from Japan, Europe, Korea, all over the US, to congregate, catch up with each other, trade notes, give and listen to lectures on topics that have been bugging them. This isn’t about promotion, or showing the latest builds, or preening for the press; it’s just about showing up and talking, and listening, and walking a week later with a notebook and a head full of ideas and questions and solutions you didn’t have when you walked in. And there’s a whole infrastructure in place now, to not only facilitate but to encourage this kind of networking, this communication.
Talking is good. Feeling appreciated is good. Having mission goals is good. Between the conference and the Developer Choice awards – where people like Gunpei Yokoi can finally be celebrated, if posthumously – and the Independent Games Festival, where talented up-and-comings can get the support and recognition that would otherwise elude them, we’re fostering a confident, curious, and clued-in development culture, setting up the meeting of like and unlike minds, and overall encouraging dedicated analysis of the form in favor of rote application. In short, it is in part thanks to the culture nurtured by such events that we are learning and growing at the rate that we are, just these past few years. And so long as the networking continues, that maturation is just going to keep happening faster and faster.
2) Internet forums & blogs
As networking goes on behind the scenes, so it explodes in the open – thanks in large part to Web 2.0-optimized blog blitzing and countless fractured communities, each with its own focus and tone. Although the Internet certainly does its part in spreading idiocy, hysteria, and rumor, it can also lead to substantive and lasting discussion and to the broad exposure of obscure works or concepts, that would otherwise not be shared so widely, so quickly, and so refined by further and immediate response. The trick is just finding the right places to hang out, and whose observations to lend the most weight.
There are a few aspects to this situation. For one, communities exist in which talking about videogames is almost more interesting than playing them. People gather to discuss obscurities and seldom-explored personal reactions to their gaming experiences; they are inspired by each other’s comments and observations and search for patterns and themes in other games. Through their mutual personal and intellectual appreciation of videogames, they learn analysis; they learn to look at the works more critically, and gradually to identify and place some criteria – in particular, the emotional or rational impact of a game upon them, as human beings – higher than others. It doesn’t matter how big or hyped or legendary or popular a game is; it matters how fruitful it is to discuss.
Another big element is that developers, the press, and the public, all have an opportunity to mingle on even territory. Many of the more high-profile developers have blogs, in which they express their ideas and observations, and people can either fawn over them or abuse them. Developers can lurk in dedicated forums, or search Technorati, to find out what people are saying. If a journalist says something patently bizarre, it is now much more likely someone will catch him on it. If a game has problems, at least someone will provide feedback. If a game is patently wonderful, word will spread.
Through their thoughts and writing, people become involved; invested with the medium as an idea – or better yet, an exchange of ideas – more than a pastime. And gradually, they learn to demand more, both of the medium and of themselves.
1) The So-Called Casual Game Market
Where the DS and Wii, Xbox Live Arcade and Wii Virtual Console, succeed is in a space that many marketing people have gone to a lot of effort over the last few years to define as the “casual game” sphere. The assumption is that people who are not particularly interested in videogames as such, or at least don’t think they are, can be lured into playing less demanding games, and paying a small amount for the experience. This distinction is positioned against the “core” gamer; the dedicated fan who will buy and play anything simply because it’s a videogame. Although it’s these people, who like real, demanding videogames, who really drive the medium, they’re such a small segment of the population. Imagine if you could market and sell videogames to everyone! Five bucks from a hundred people is just as good as fifty from ten.
And all right. That’s a little patronizing and backward, like saying that since kids have short attention spans there’s no use crafting layered, fulfilling stories for them. But fair enough: there’s an untapped market. And it’s not like videogames have to put people off. In blind taste tests, most people preferred New Coke. Then when they were told what they had picked, they flipped out and didn’t believe it. The product’s reputation was so bad that they simply could not imagine themselves enjoying it.
The real problem occurs when the categories bleed over from demographics to design. It’s one thing to say that Tetris or Pac-Man or Katamari Damacy has a “casual” appeal (meaning that people who do not regularly play videogames can pick them up and enjoy them). It’s another to draw lines in the sand and deliberately solicit one or the other audience: casual games for casual gamers, and core games for core gamers. Not only is this not addressing the underlying problems; it’s helping to further entrench and divide the industry – and often along bizarre lines.
To go back to Kenta Cho, he defined (for his own purposes) three categories of game design: “classic hardcore”, “modern hardcore” and “casual” games. Classic hardcore games have a low barrier to entry, and a high threshold of mastery – meaning you can learn the game and start playing immediately, yet it takes a long time to get good at it. Modern hardcore games have a high barrier to entry and a high threshold of mastery. Casual games have a low barrier to entry and a low threshold of mastery. Presumably there’s a fourth category – “mainstream games” or something – with a high barrier to entry and a low threshold of mastery. That would be something like a Japanese RPG, which takes forever to get into and learn yet never really demands anything from the player.
Cho saw the classic hardcore model as the ideal basis for a videogame: it easily draws you in, then it keeps challenging you to apply what you have learned. By this definition, Tetris is a perfect example of a classic hardcore game. You can learn it in a few seconds, you always feel like you’re accomplishing something, and however often you play it you will never be so good that you can’t get better. You can say the same for Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command – yet in the current market, these hardcore games, which in the past people would have slaved over, pumped in quarters until they mastered, would be labeled “casual”, and quaint, because they take no serious investment to pick up and enjoy.
The problem is, people only seem to notice or measure the barrier to entry, leading to accessibility being perceived as a sort of a stigma. If your mom can play it, then it’s a casual game – meaning it’s insubstantial. If she furrows her brow at it, then it’s a real, serious game. Either you’re dedicated or you’re not, and if you’re not then you’re just a bit of fluff. There’s a prejudice and fear bordering on homophobia toward anything that might be construed as casual. The current trend of “non-games” is even worse; they’re so casual that they’re not even videogames anymore. Brain Age is a brilliant, engaging, and legitimately useful game with universal appeal. Yet how is it like Halo? GAY. WE ARE THREATENED.
It would be one thing if it were just the vocal moronity making these distinctions; what is worrisome is the tendency in the press and the industry to use the “casual game” ghetto as a dumping ground for anything that does not target the entrenched and familiar consumer. Not flashy and awesome? Eh, it’s a casual game; not worthy of attention. The whole concept has been a way of avoiding the real problems facing the industry. Partially as a result of this mindset, many have been quick to label the DS and Wii “casual” game systems, as a result of their more intuitive interfaces and their painstaking attempts at relevance to people outside the hardcore niche. You can see some of the consequences in the early Wii catalog: a few really neat games and a lot of dross. Hell, nobody who matters is going to be playing these systems anyway. Luckily the system has reached a point where it’s kind of impossible for publishers to write off. We’ll see how long it takes them to get the point, though.
Now that I’ve said all that, the identification of the casual market is one of the most important revelations to hit the industry in years. In fact, the average videogame player is an adult. That doesn’t mean they expect less from games. It’s just that most people who might be interested in videogames have lives of their own, which must take priority. They only have so much time. If they are to play videogames, they need a good reason to do so, and the game had better not waste any more time, demand any more investment, than it needs to get across its point.
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. It is no longer reasonable to expect people to mold their lives around videogames – especially not with the bloated direction that games have gone in, where quality is judged in hours of play rather than eloquence of experience. Videogames have to bend over backwards to hold an audience’s attention, to fit into the corners of his life not already blocked out as important. As a result, more games are coming out that are more tailored to non-traditional environments and circumstances.
That was part of the great appeal to videogames in the ’80s and early ’90s, before the advent of the memory card: by and large, they didn’t require so much damned investment; what they did require, they only demanded in short bursts. Yet the more time you put into them, the more value you got. These are the same ideas that Inafune is tapping into: creating something you can play over and over, in relatively short bursts, rather than play once for a million hours then put back on the shelf.
Half-inadvertently, this market has helped to alter perceptions of the role of videogames in people’s lives, and how to speak to that. The age of novelty is long over, and if videogames are ever to mature, first they have to get over themselves.
So there we have it. Thanks to the awareness of a broader market suggested by casual games; hardware like the DS and Wii that gets to the heart of what videogames have to offer; services like Xbox Live and Steam that free development from all concerns of scale and allow consumers unprecedented access to works from all over the development spectrum; an environment where developers are actually communicating and trading notes on a worldwide basis and so is the public, figures like Kenta Cho, Hiroshi Iuchi, Hideo Kojima, Keiji Inafune, and Satoru Iwata are provided the opportunity to challenge themselves, their audience, and their industry with skin-shedding productions like Gradius V, OutRun2, Ikaruga, Rez, and Pac-Man Championship Edition.
And this is just the start. 2008 and 2009 are going to be when the real consequences start to manifest, when the new generation – one born of analysis and introspection in place of rote craft – is going to come into its own. You can feel lucky: we’re all getting in on it early, so we’ll be in a position to watch history as it unfurls around us, and videogames finally grow up. It’s always more fun when you’ve a box seat.