The New Generation – Part Three: Infrastructure

  • Reading time:20 mins read

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.

The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

  • Reading time:23 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

Something is happening to game design. It’s been creeping up for a decade, yet only now is it striding into the mainstream, riding on the coattails of new infrastructure, emboldened by the rhetoric of the trendy. A new generation of design has begun to emerge – a generation raised on the language of videogames, eager to use that fluency to describe what previously could not be described.

First, though, it must build up its vocabulary. To build it, this generation looks to the past – to the fundamental ideas that make up the current architecture of videogames – and deconstructs it for its raw theoretical materials, such that it may be recontextualized: rebuilt better, stronger, more elegantly, more deliberately.

In the earlier part of this series, we discussed several games that exemplify this approach; we then tossed around a few more that give it a healthy nod. Some boil down and refocus a well-known design (Pac-Man CE, New Super Mario Bros.); some put a new perspective on genre (Ikaruga, Braid); some just want to break down game design itself (Rez, Dead Rising). In this chapter, we will highlight a few of the key voices guiding the change. Some are more persuasive than others. Some have been been making their point for longer. All are on the cusp of redefining what a videogame can be.

The New Generation – Part One: Design

  • Reading time:15 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”.

The Wii that Wasn’t

  • Reading time:6 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

Market analysts call the Wii a return to form after the relative flop of the GameCube. Design analysts call it a potential return to form after the relative rut of the previous fifteen years. Whatever the spin, when people look at Nintendo’s recent misadventures, generally the Gamecube sits right on top, doe-eyed and chirping. Its failure to do more than turn a profit has made its dissection an industry-wide pastime. Everything comes under the microscope, from its dainty size and handle to its purpleness to the storage capacity of its mini-DVDs. The controller, though, has perplexed all from the start.

Touch Generations

  • Reading time:13 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “FEATURE: A Short History of Touch”.

A few years ago, Nintendo launched the DS with a vaguely unsettling catch phrase: “Touching is Good”. Their PR team sent disembodied plastic hands to everyone on their mailing list, in the process creeping out Penny Arcade. As creepy and forward as the campaign was, it had a point. Touching historically has been good, for the game industry.

On a whole, videogames are an awfully lonely set of affairs. They paint an alluring well, then give the player rocks to throw, to see what ripples. From Spacewar! to Pong, you’re always shooting or batting or throwing some kind of projectile, to prod the environment. Even in some of the most exploration-heavy games, like Metroid, the only way to progress is to shoot every surface in sight, with multiple weapons. Little wonder art games like Rez are based on the shooter template: it’s about as basic a videogame as you can get. See things, shoot things, you win. If things touch you, you lose. Except for food or possessions, generally you can only touch by proxy; toss coins into the well; ping things, to see how they respond. To see if they break.

The Pathology of Game Design

  • Reading time:18 mins read

Originally published by Next Generation.

As I entered adolescence, my mother decided in her wisdom that I was destined to be an actor. That I showed no particular enthusiasm or indeed talent did not dampen this enterprise for years to follow. One summer, between calls for music videos and hypothetical summer blockbusters, I chanced into a tryout for a hypothetical Blockbuster ad. To the best I can recollect, the company was adding Genesis and Super Nintendo games to its rental library, and to demonstrate the premise was sending out a net for the archetypal game-playing teenager.

Thus I found myself lost across a desk from a pockmarked man with a mustache. When the man asked me to show him my “videogame” acting, I hunched over and concentrated at a spot a few yards ahead of me, miming my button presses with an imagined precision. I knotted my brow, maybe gritted my teeth or moved my lips as if to mutter. You can imagine where the scene goes from here. The director keeps asking for “more”, growing frustrated in proportion to my unease. He wants me to thrash in my chair, slam the buttons like a jackhammer, contort my face, and show him my best Beverly Hills orgasm. I am amazed; he patronizes me; I get to go home. Later I met the man they cast as the teenager; he was in his late twenties and had a habit of performing rude gestures to passers-by.

Fifteen years later, despite what seem obvious advances in technology and design, people don’t really see videogames any differently.

How to Make the DS Better

  • Reading time:6 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

That the DS is a sensation is both indisputable and deserved. That it has helped to change the industry should by now be reasonably obvious. All the more shame, then, that the system is not really built for success.

The DS was an experiment – a cautious stab in the dark, introduced almost with an apology in Nintendo’s early assurance that it was not replacing the Game Boy. Instead, Nintendo insisted, the DS was meant as a “third rung” in the company’s strategy in addition to its traditional handheld and console systems. Judging by how long it took the industry and its followers to “get” the system and its improved follow-up, the Wii, Nintendo’s caution was probably well-advised.

To Nintendo’s credit, it wasted little time.

Setting the Standard

  • Reading time:5 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part thirteen of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “The Road to a Universal Platform”. Now, despite my wittering most of these title and spin changes have a minor effect on the article. This one was… regrettable, though, as the article sort of makes the opposite point: though a universal format may be our inevitable destination, the notion is terribly premature. And yet because of the title and the spin, most people jerked their knees in response without actually reading the article. Oh well. Here it all is, as originally framed.

David Jaffe recently came under some criticism for a few statements to consumer website 1UP about his future visions of the game industry. The big headline, repeated across the Internet for a day or two, was “Ten years from now there will be one console”. It was an unguarded comment, following his own nostalgia for the days of rampant console exclusivity. Jaffe expressed annoyance at the current standard of cross-platform development, and wondered if it was coming to the point where the only distinguishing factor from one console to the next would be its first-party software. From there he made the leap that this small distinction might not be enough justification for multiple consoles – therefore, he figured, perhaps we’re on a road to a single universal platform.

There was much tittering in the aisles; a few people made comparisons to Trip Hawkins’ dreams for the 3D0 – a console standard that, much like a VCR or other piece of home electronics, would be licensed out to any manufacturer with the initiative. In fact, that comparison is pretty appropriate in that both Trip and Mr. Jaffe have the same reasonable – and actually rather clever – idea, with the same understandable flaw.

A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism

  • Reading time:12 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part twelve of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “OPINION: Yuji Horii was Right to Opt for DS”.

You’ve probably heard this Dragon Quest business; in a move surprising to professional analysts everywhere, producer Yuji Horii has decided to go with the most popular piece of dedicated gaming hardware in generations for the next installment of the most important videogame franchise in Japan. If people are bewildered, it’s not due to the apparent rejection of Sony (whose hardware was home to the previous two chapters). After the mediocre performance of the PSP and the bad press regarding the PS3 launch, Sony has become a bit of a punching bag for the industry’s frustrations. Fair or not, losing one more series – however important – hardly seems like news anymore.

So no, what’s confounding isn’t that Horii has changed faction; it’s that he appears to have changed class, abandoning home consoles – in particular, the sure and sanctified ground of the no-longer-next generation systems – for a handheld, commonly seen as the lowest caste of dedicated game hardware.

Gestures and Measures

  • Reading time:8 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part eleven of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation.

About a year ago NextGen published an article in which I groused about the early speculation about the Wii. The point, I said, wasn’t that we could now have real-time lightsaber duels; it was the extra layer of nuance that the Wiimote added on top of our familiar grammar – kind of the way analog control made 3D movement a hair less awkward. The point of motion control, I said, wasn’t to replace current control systems; it was to augment them, thereby to make them more flexible. A little more powerful, a little more intuitive.

Well, I was half right.

Defining the Next Generation

  • Reading time:28 mins read

by [name redacted]

This article was originally intended as a conclusion to NextGen’s 2006 TGS coverage. Then it got held back for two months as an event piece. By the time it saw publication its window had sort of expired, so a significantly edited version went up under the title “What The New Consoles Really Mean”.

So we’re practically there. TGS is well over, the pre-orders have begun; Microsoft’s system has already been out for a year (and is now graced with a few excellent or important games). The generation is right on the verge of turning, and all those expensive electronics you’ve been monitoring for the last few years, half dreading out of thriftiness and secret knowledge that there won’t be anything good on them for a year anyway, will become the new status quo. Immediately the needle will jump and point at a new horizon, set around 2011, and everyone will start twiddling his thumbs again. By the time the drama and dreams resume, I’ll be in my early thirties, another American president will have served nearly a full term – and for the first time in my life I really can’t predict what videogames will be like.

Cultivating Fear

  • Reading time:12 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “How to Make Fear“.

With Halloween at hand, surely there must be some way to warp the festive energy to our own analytical ends. Just see what happens when you invite us to a party! Don’t fret, though – though full of long words, our museum of terror takes the well-oiled form of a top ten list. We know how you like your information, and it’s in bite-sized individually wrapped treats. Please… be our guest.

Pongism, or: What’s the Point of Videogames, Anyway?

  • Reading time:10 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part ten of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation.

We play them, we critique them, sometimes we enjoy them, sometimes we make them. To what end, exactly? Outside of screwing around in search of that elusive “wheeee!”, what exactly do we mean to accomplish? Why videogames? Why do we even bother? It stands to reason that whatever keeps drawing us back to the darned things, it’s got something to do with their basic nature; something that appeals to our own.

Five That Didn’t Fall

  • Reading time:53 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part nine of my ongoing culture column for Next Generation. After the popularity of my earlier article, I pitched a companion piece about companies that had lived past their remit, yet technically were still with us. On publication we lost the framing conceit and the article was split into five pieces, each spun as a simple bottled history. In turn, some of those were picked up by BusinessWeek Online. Here’s the whole thing, in context.

A few weeks ago we published a list of five developers that made a difference, helped to shape the game industry, then, one way or another (usually at the hands of their parent companies), ceased to exist. One theme I touched on there, that I got called on by a few readers, is that although in practical terms all the listed companies were indeed defunct, several continued on in name (Atari, Sierra, and Origin), living a sort of strange afterlife as a brand detached from its body.

This was an deliberate choice; although Infogrames has been going around lately with a nametag saying “HELLO my name is Atari” – and hey, why not; it’s a good name – that doesn’t make Infogrames the historical Atari any more than the creep in the purple spandex with the bowling ball is the historical Jesus. (Not that I’m relating Infogrames to a fictional sex offender – though he is a pretty cool character.) The question arises, though – what about those companies which live on in both name and body, yet which we don’t really recognize anymore? You know who I’m talking about; the cool rebels you used to know in high school, who you see ten years later working a desk job, or in charge of a bank. You try to joke with them, and they don’t get a word you’re saying. You leave, feeling a mix of fear and relief that (as far as you know) you managed to come out of society with your personality intact.

The same thing happens in the videogame world – hey, videogames are people; all our sins are handed down. This article is a document of five great companies – that started off so well, ready to change the world – that… somehow we’ve lost, even as they trundle on through the successful afterlife of our corporate culture. And somehow that just makes us miss them all the more.

The Nose Before Your Face

  • Reading time:12 mins read

by [name redacted]

Part eight of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “The Value of Simplicity”.

So lately we’ve been swinging back toward thinking about games as a medium of expression. It’s not a new concept; way back in the early ’80s, companies like Activision and EA put all their energy behind publicizing game designers like rock stars – or better yet, like book authors – and their games as unique works by your favorite authors. This all happened just after figures like Ed Logg and Toshihiro Nishikado started to extrapolate Pong and SpaceWar!, incorporating more overt narrative frameworks and exploring more elaborate ways of interacting with the gameworld. From this initial explosion of creativity came Steve Wozniak and the Apple II, providing an easy platform for all of the early Richard Garriotts and Roberta Williamses and Dan Buntens to come.

Then stuff happened, particularly though not specifically the crash; the industry changed in focus. On the one hand we had ultra-secretive Japanese companies that – like Atari before them – usually didn’t credit their staff for fear of sniping and for the benefit of greater brand identity; on the other, what US companies remained tended to inflate beyond the point where small, expressive, intimate games were economically feasible. And then there’s just the issue that, as technology grew more complex, design teams grew larger and larger, making it harder for any one voice to stand out, leading to more of a committee-driven approach.