Some Thoughts Toward a Non-Linear Game History

warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/buckman/public_html/neo/modules/advanced_forum/advanced_forum.module on line 492.
Matt Barton's picture

Over the past few weeks, I've been toying with an idea that sounds downright preposterous at first. I pose it as a Twilight Zone-esque "What if?" scenario: What if games haven't really "advanced" at all, but only changed, similar to how clothing fashions change over time? Let's explore some alternatives to the technological determinism so ubiquitous in our field.

For instance, would we say that someone dressed in a modern style is somehow more advanced than someone decked out in 50s duds? Assuming the person has dressed in such a way deliberately (rather than just emerging from a fallout shelter somewhere), we might even think he was amazingly cool looking. Indeed, we often find out that "vintage" fashions suddenly reappear, albeit slightly altered. What happens is that the trendsetters go out to Goodwill or wherever and buy the old clothes; once they are popular, popular brands began manufacturing new clothes based on that style. The short of it is that whatever "way uncool" things are sitting on the racks right now at your local Goodwill may one day be the basis of a new fashion.

None of this is really new when we're talking about clothes, but once you apply it to games people insist that we have a linear progression--games from 1980 are vastly inferior to games from 1990, and those are vastly inferior to games from 2000. However, I claim that this "linear progression" is simply an illusion (or ideology) brought on by the industry to keep selling us new hardware. It's rather like car companies; they need you to buy the new model, so they pretend that it's somehow way more advanced than last year's. Yet there is still something very cool about a '66 Corvette.

So what I'd like to propose is a thought exercise. Let's place an Atari 2600 next to a Sony PlayStation 3 and play games for each system. While doing so, pretend that both are brand new systems of roughly equal popularity and cost. Now compare the games not by which one has "better" graphics or whatever, but merely by style--the same way you'd compare a pair of vintage jeans from 1970 with another pair you just bought from the store. I think if you're willing to indulge in this kind of thought for an extended period, you'll begin to see what I'm talking about. The PS3 games are no more "advanced" than the jeans--it's just a different style of gameplay.

Now people outside the ideology (say, many grandparents) don't have a problem with this line of thought. You show my grandfather an NES game, and he would probably not even realize it was an "old" game. He certainly wouldn't understand that it wasn't as much fun as a Wii game just because it's old. For him, a game is either fun or it's not. Why do we feel differently?

 Obsolete, or just unfashionable?Oregon Trail: Obsolete, or just unfashionable?Again, I'd argue it's part marketing and part indoctrination. I don't know about you, but I was raised and educated with the idea that technology has steadily progressed, and it's important to stay on the "cutting edge" and decry older tech as obsolete. This seems to serve the interest of science, surely, but also the market. I particularly point at hardware companies here, because they're the ones that have the most to gain when we all rush out to buy the "next generation" of consoles and accessories. Software developers, on the other hand, seem mostly to prefer innovating with existing technology; they like stability and the challenges of overcoming technological limitations. Give software developers ten years with a given platform, and you'll see an amazing amount of diversity. Indeed, you probably wouldn't recognize that the games made in the last year were for the same system as the first ones. We have a few examples of this with the NES, Commodore 64, etc.

Sadly, the hardware companies are so hellbent on pushing us to "upgrade" that we often have to reclaim whole swaths of games ourselves, often illegally via emulation, roms, etc. Still, we're already starting to see more and more "classic" and "retro" games re-branded and re-introduced for modern systems, much as bell bottoms come into and out of fashion. My theory is that eventually we simply won't see games in the same linear way we do now, but will simply enjoy the games that fit whatever style and mood we want to employ that day.

So, with this in mind, what are some take-away points for gamers and developers?

1. Think of console "generations" less in terms of better and faster technologies, and more in terms of what the "kids these days" are wearing. Games will come into and out of fashion like shoes and shirts.
2. Consider making more new games based on old styles. We're already seeing this on the fringes with homebrew, but more will come.
3. The "walled gardens" of consoles are a temporary and unstable situation of the market; the walls will come down. This will require developers to think more than ever in terms of styles rather than technologies. You can make a new NES-style game for browser-based play on modern PCs, for instance. Again, only the market wants you to think in terms of distinct "platforms." Everyone else should be content with distinct styles and fashions.
4. Even if you believe we have made huge strides in game development, consider that chasing after the "cutting edge" really does more harm than good. Particularly, it removes many of the constraints that make development fun and rewarding in the first place. It's rather like reading the back covers of a bunch of different books rather than sitting down to really enjoy one (which could well require many re-readings).
5. A focus on style and fashion opens up many wonderful opportunities for development without requiring "originality." There is something refreshing about seriously looking at Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 games without the distorting lens of technological determinism, to use a fancy word. If that word describes you, consider exploring some other views and perspectives.

Comments

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
I will buy the first part of

I will buy the first part of the theory, that game development has not evolved notably from at least the early 80s, and, when platform and location (home) is cast aside - with PLATO as a good example - far earlier than that. With that said, I'd just say that concepts peaked early and it's not really the fault of the developers. After all, one can argue the same thing in other forms of media, like movies, that the format really came into its own fairly early on and only the technology improved, creating the illusion of progression.

As for the part about "walled gardens", I think it's crumbled. In my opinion, today's development possibilities are better than they've ever been, meaning that there are far fewer barriers to entry to creation and far more opportunities for your creations to reach other people. I'm not saying anyone can make a AAA or even B- title, but I am saying given sufficient talent and time, most people can create something more than competent and relatively easily for more than one platform.

n/a
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
I agree with your points,

I agree with your points, Bill (I'm not actually sure what you're disagreeing with about the post, if anything). I was thinking about it some more and decided I would offer a few caveats. For one thing, I think that at certain junctures it became possible to create new kinds of games, not just the same games with better graphics and so on. For instance, I'd argue that we saw a real surge of creativity after the introduction of the CD-ROM. Sure, some people were content just to play the same old games with synthesized speech and FMV cutscenes and so on, but others were doing radical (if not always successful or advisable) new kinds of games. I'd also argue the same thing about 3D graphics; you just couldn't have a game like Tomb Raider without those developments in hardware. So, my point isn't really that there have been no important steps; it's just that there's nothing necessarily better about the games that utilize them. I'm sure I could find plenty of people, for instance, who would much rather play Super Mario Bros. on the NES than Mario 64 or Mario Galaxy. Likewise, we all know people who enjoy "classic" or "vintage" genres, such as text adventures, shmups, and casual games, that clearly don't require souped up PCs or the latest gen consoles to be quite enjoyable. Are these people just ignorant or nostalgic? Nope. They just prefer that style, just as some of us prefer tweed or denim or whatever.

Again I find examples in clothing fashions. Certain industrial developments enabled whole new fashion industries, such as polyester. It enabled new styles that simply weren't possible before. However, it's not true that those styles were "better," although there were certainly considered quite cool for a time. In the same way, games like Myst were very popular for awhile, and they may very well be again in the future. But it's the people playing and purchasing the games who will make them possible, not anything inherent in the technology. I think what we've seen with the hardware industry is the classic tail wagging the dog problem--nobody with any sense is really demanding faster processors or more polygons or whatever. What we're asking for is new kinds of experiences which *may or may not* require such things. The only people who would insist that we need the new hardware are -gasp- the people manufacturing and selling it.

n/a
Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Innovation versus Iteration
Matt Barton wrote:

I agree with your points, Bill (I'm not actually sure what you're disagreeing with about the post, if anything). I was thinking about it some more and decided I would offer a few caveats. For one thing, I think that at certain junctures it became possible to create new kinds of games, not just the same games with better graphics and so on. For instance, I'd argue that we saw a real surge of creativity after the introduction of the CD-ROM. Sure, some people were content just to play the same old games with synthesized speech and FMV cutscenes and so on, but others were doing radical (if not always successful or advisable) new kinds of games. I'd also argue the same thing about 3D graphics; you just couldn't have a game like Tomb Raider without those developments in hardware. So, my point isn't really that there have been no important steps; it's just that there's nothing necessarily better about the games that utilize them. I'm sure I could find plenty of people, for instance, who would much rather play Super Mario Bros. on the NES than Mario 64 or Mario Galaxy. Likewise, we all know people who enjoy "classic" or "vintage" genres, such as text adventures, shmups, and casual games, that clearly don't require souped up PCs or the latest gen consoles to be quite enjoyable. Are these people just ignorant or nostalgic? Nope. They just prefer that style, just as some of us prefer tweed or denim or whatever.

I'd be curious what you thought was so radically new with the introduction of the CD-ROM? It was just more storage space, not any radically new types of games that I can think of (games like Myst were just home versions of laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair and Thayer's Quest, really). Same thing with the rise of 3D. While Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 were technical achievements, they really didn't achieve anything that wasn't done much earlier (I, Robot and Super Mario World being two examples). I'm not saying that these later games didn't REQUIRE the presence of these improved technologies, but I think your original point stands, that it's very hard to argue for true innovation rather than progressive iteration of game types and play styles already well worn.

n/a
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Ah! Yes, I see now what you

Ah! Yes, I see now what you mean. There are always predecessors and precedents no matter what the marketing says about a new game. I experienced that when researching D&D. It proved impossible to firmly identify which game had done something first. No matter how far back I went, it seemed somebody somewhere had already done it, and of course if you went far enough back there was no longer proof (just hearsay and testimony).

I'd argue that the CD-ROM (or just the explosion in storage space in general) did allow for new types of games, not just iterations. Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time are simply different games than the SMB and Zelda games that came before. The whole gameplay dynamic changed. That's why I don't like claims that 3D is "better" than 2D or that every classic needs a 3D remake--it's not a remake! It's a completely different style of game that just happens to share some "IP." That's why I was so happy to see Super Mario Bros. Wii. Finally, we had a new update to the classics (the 2D style was returned and made new again). But that doesn't mean I don't like the games that were born for 3D, such as Tomb Raider and Doom. Furthermore, as we know, even if there were X, Y, and Z obscure predecessors to everything, there are certain games that not only do something first, but do it so brilliantly that it becomes a staple.

To make a different kind of comparison, who do you think of when someone mentions guitar tapping? Van Halen, although he certainly wasn't the first nor the last, and has much less "skill" than plenty of other guitarists. Yet he was the one who really made it important.

n/a
Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Milestones
Matt Barton wrote:

Ah! Yes, I see now what you mean. There are always predecessors and precedents no matter what the marketing says about a new game. I experienced that when researching D&D. It proved impossible to firmly identify which game had done something first. No matter how far back I went, it seemed somebody somewhere had already done it, and of course if you went far enough back there was no longer proof (just hearsay and testimony).

Agreed, yes, and I guess that was the ultimate point of our book, Vintage Games, not necessarily who was first, but who was the most important. I'm thinking based on this conversation, a similar, but no less interesting book would be one on technological milestones and the games that resulted from them. For instance, network connectivity and PLATO games, disks and multi-load games, CD-ROM and games like Myst, touch screens and those games, etc.

n/a
Robyrt (not verified)
Some people prefer vinyl

Some people prefer vinyl records to audio CDs or mp3s. This doesn't mean media storage comes in and out of fashion - rather, it means that some people are counter-fashionable. The same is true for games. Rock Band doesn't date to the 1980s, nor does The Sims. Even within the same genre, Mario 64 is a fundamentally different kind of game than Super Mario World, although some prefer old style to new style.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Not exactly
Robyrt wrote:

Some people prefer vinyl records to audio CDs or mp3s. This doesn't mean media storage comes in and out of fashion - rather, it means that some people are counter-fashionable. The same is true for games. Rock Band doesn't date to the 1980s, nor does The Sims. Even within the same genre, Mario 64 is a fundamentally different kind of game than Super Mario World, although some prefer old style to new style.

Actually, for all of those examples you gave: Rock Band, The Sims, and Mario 64, there are clear predecessors for their primary game elements from the 80's (and before), so it's easy enough to argue that they were really nothing new. We go into quite a bit of detail regarding that in Vintage Games, http://www.armchairarcade.com/vintagegames. With that said, it doesn't diminish the fact that each of those games pulled their respective gameplay elements together in a generally more compelling way than their predecessors, and one only has to look at both the contemporary reviews and sales history of each to see proof of that. There's nothing wrong with building on the foundation of your predecessors. It's what makes good things great, i.e., you don't have to focus completely on breaking new ground or implementing new techniques, you can put more energy into "optimization".

n/a
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Some discussion of this post

Some discussion of this post over at Rampant Coyote's blog.

Just to reiterate, since it seems some people aren't getting what I'm saying, I'm not claiming that there have been no advances. That'd just be silly. However, I'm saying that these advances serve mainly to make new styles of gameplay available, not necessarily better styles. There are still people out there who would rather play PONG than the latest Call of Duty, and there are still more who'd rather drive a '66 Corvette than a new model. We can consider such people dumb, but that's wrong. They merely have certain styles that they prefer, and I'm glad that at least with gaming we can pretty much choose to play any style we want (MAME, MESS, etc.)

n/a
Chris Kennedy
Chris Kennedy's picture
Offline
Joined: 08/31/2008
Gaming goes beyond the games

Hey Matt -

I am late to this one, but Armchair topics certainly don't die after they have left page 1!

Several points have been made here already, but I wanted to say that I agree about innovation being pushed early in the industry. If you take videogames for what they really and truly are at a figuratively "atomic level," they are lines of code. Programs. One of the greatest things about programming is that the only true limitation to software is the hardware. It is only natural for developers to push the limits of said hardware. New hardware allows expansion toward new ideas for software.

I certainly do not believe that any given game released in 2010 is automatically superior to a game released in 1980. It is almost guaranteed to at least be a different "style" of game. That is where I pretty much stand in regard to games - the games and their genres will "evolve" in how they are presented (via hardware), but the fundamental gameplay and idea behind the games are always the same. Some games don't hold up well, but many of them do. When I play old games, I play them because they are fun. There is certainly some nostalgia involved in many of them, but what about games from many years ago that I *never* played during their original release? What if I find those to be fun? Again, I say that they are essentially a style from several years ago. Just as one might wear 70s style clothes today might be considered "hip," so also do we see developers churning out old games for a new platform - many of them consist of the original code wrapped in an emulator. Retro gaming is no longer just a fun thing for a certain niche group to do - It is *in style* of all things!

Another note (also already touched upon) is the marketing/indoctrination part. While all of us here have an appreciation of the past, several traits about the gaming world (paralleled in many other things besides gaming) are given:

1: Companies have to find new ways to motivate people to buy their product.
2: People get tired of things and are always looking for something new.
3: There is *always* a sense of status felt by & given to someone that has acquired a new console.
4: The natural hardware evolution of consoles is the videogame's world of clothing designers telling society what is in style.
5: People like what is popular. Period.

We could all argue that for any given subject, we are "rebels" - those that don't "follow the masses" and buy the latest iPod, clothing, product, ...dog.. whatever. But you know what - there is no point to this. You end up with two groups - those that will "me too" your sense of being a rebel, and those that go with the masses and don't care about your opinion one bit.

Companies know to latch onto what the masses want, and catering to niche crowds generally results in a loss of money.

Why are we so lucky (debatable list coming up...) with recent releases of things such as games on virtual console, Microsoft Game Room, new releases/incarnations of classic games (Bionic Commando, for instance), new games that *look* like old games (Megaman 9, Megaman 10), and games that imitate and parody old games (3D Dot Game Heroes).

Companies aren't finally throwing us a bone - retro gaming has become popular, and we are just reaping the benefits.

I do feel that we are reaching (have reached) a critical point in the gaming world. We may even be at a set of infinite crossroads. How will gaming evolve, where will the hardware go, etc...but that is not my main point here, and I am probably WAY off Matt's original topic by now.

n/a
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Not at all, Chris, I think

Not at all, Chris, I think we're on the same page entirely here. The key is not to think of games as a linear progression--i.e., things are just getting better with each generation. A more accurate (I think) way to look at it is that newer and better hardware does *not* and *never will* automatically result in better games. Indeed, the new games will likely just be the same old games with better trappings (audio visuals). These are important, but definitely not a fundamentally new kind of game. I'd argue that the step from Super Mario World on the SNES to Mario 64 on the N64 was to a new kind of game, not with just "better" graphics but with a different style of gameplay. Note that I'm not saying Mario 64 was better--just different. Also note that I'm not saying the N64 caused or made it inevitable that there'd be a bunch of 3D games on the platform. People had to choose to make them and others to buy them (and make them popular). Indeed, I think the N64 is a good example of what I'm talking about, since it was at least partially designed specifically for Mario 64--in other words, a very conscious design.

The view I'm reacting against here posits that technology just continues to evolve, and games will just inevitably get better. The other view is that these things take place in societal and cultural contexts. Furthermore, unlike natural selection, there's nothing intrinsically "better" about a 360 than an original Xbox (or even an Atari 2600). We all know people who would argue that each of those platforms is superior. The one that is the "best" depends on personal tastes, such as preferred gameplay style, preferred aesthetic, nostalgia, consciousness of budget, etc.

n/a

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.