Everybody who's been gaming or awhile is well aware of the Videogame Crash of 1983, a period that saw the collapse of the American console market and a strange period when many people thought the videogame was dead. The causes are numerous and hotly contested, but it's likely just an unexciting story of a bubble that popped. One strain of the story I've always found interesting as it is improbable, is that two games are primarily responsible for the crash: Howard Scott Warshaw's E.T. and Tod Frye's Pac-Man, both for the 2600. In both cases, we're talking about massively hyped games that sold tremendously well, but then got returned to stores in droves. My thought for today is whether something like this could happen again--could a rapid-fire succession of massively disappointing games topple the industry like it did in the 80s?
We've recently seen five games that by all rights "should" have been great--expectations were high, fanboys numerous, and, for the most part, very talented people were in control. However, in each case, the major critics either dismissed them as mediocre or blasted them as if they were almost personally offended by their perceived lack of quality:
Duke Nukem Forever. Metacritic score: 55.
Alpha Protocol Metacritic: 72 (Gamespot: 60, IGN: 63).
Hunted: The Demon's Forge. Metacritic score: 63.
Alice: Madness Returns. Metacritic score: 75 (IGN: 65).
Dungeon Siege 3. Metacritic: 73 (IGN: 65, Gamespot: 60).
Even Nintendo seems to be having problems. Despite the waves of hype the 3DS is currently receiving over the re-release (yawn) of Ocarina of Time, I still see the whole thing as another Virtual Boy with a much better marketing campaign. I see an upcoming backlash, though, as more purchasers find that they aren't getting full refunds when they try to return the devices that give them headaches. That's the kind of episode and bad publicity that can make anyone think twice about buying a game. As for Nintendo's new console, it sure looks like that "U" stands for "Useless." Sony, of course, is unlikely to ever recover from the PSN nightmare, and Microsoft doesn't seem far behind. Even if the new console is great, who can justify it in this economy?
Well, the timing couldn't be worse (have to work on critical book and documentary stuff this weekend)--my main computer, my Gateway Tablet PC, died some time after 4:30PM today. Not the hard drive, but something to do with the system, so it's fully shot. After a frantic run to the stores in the evening right up until they all closed around 9PM, no suitable replacement was found (seems like the stores are pretty much cleared out until after the 22nd, when they'll all mostly no doubt be Windows 7-based; I could have gotten an iMac, but I did not want to pay the Apple premium).
I just wanted to comment quick on “The Great Videogame Crash” (my personal official designation, along with my preferred use of "videogame" over "video game", just like "bodybuilding" over "body building") and sort of vet my thought process for public discussion and potential disagreement. After spending ~3 years writing the other book on American videogame and computer systems, I came to the conclusion that it has to refer to the year 1984 if a single year needs to be chosen. This was based on a combination of research and personal experience. To put it simply, in 1983, consumers had no real concept that there was something going on behind the scenes. All the consumer saw was increasing stock and lowered prices. Behind the scenes was a different story, with retailers having excess of unsold inventory and diminishing or non-existent profit margins for even good publishers in light of cut-price dreck from their competitors. The classic supply outstripping demand. It wasn’t until 1984 that consumers started to realistically notice there was a problem when less and less new product started appearing on store shelves. That’s why to me, 1984 has to be the year.
Obviously videogames never fully went away in retail or sales channels, but there was a definite slowdown 1984 – 1985. It wasn’t until the limited release of the NES in late 1985 and its wide release in 1986 that retailers started to want to get back full force into videogames and lots of different companies again wanted to cash in. So really, The Great Videogame Crash can be considered from 1983 – 1986 if you want to get technical, but the years where it was felt the most by consumers - who to me are the most important part of the equation - would actually be 1985 and 1986. At least that’s my theory and one I plan on sticking with. And obviously this only applies to North America and specifically the US, as market conditions were very different elsewhere. Also, we can't mention The Great Videogame Crash without also mentioning that the thinking in that 1984 - 85 time period was that low cost computers like the Commodore 64 would more than fill the function or need of consoles that "just" played games. Obviously that wasn't the case and both markets peacefully co-existed for some time. So, what do YOU think?