The “dumbing down”of the games industry

Technology has moved on in the games industry, that’s for certain. Hardware, programming languages and business processes have all improved i’m sure many would agree, but does the Nth fold increase in technology also translate 1-to-1 to game play and design?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question and I’d first like to set some context by going back to a time before PC gaming was conceived or even the first 90’s era consoles were around to change the demographic of the average games consumer forever. The days of the Commodore Amiga in fact is what I want to go back to, an era that few under the age of 25 will have ever experienced during it’s peak. The Amiga i’m confident in saying was massively ahead of it’s time in terms of hardware and gaming innovation, and not just a little bit. Built on top of the great success of it’s precursor the Commodore 64, it’s perhaps unsurprising why the system has such a mythical “stuff of dreams” status now, like did it really happen or was it just my imagination?

A Past Era:

Launched in 1985 (Amiga 1000), specs wise it featured an 8-bit 4 channel stereo sound chip, CPU co-processors (unheard of at the time) and graphics capable of up to 4096 colours at a max resolution of 640×512. These specs were incredible and it took other systems such as the NES or PC DOS gaming over 7 years to get on par with the Amiga. Now it’s all good listing specs but lets put that into perspective by comparing with another system of the day:

Shadow of the Beast – Amiga – 1989

Ninja Gaiden 2 – 1990 – NES

For reasons like the comparison above, it’s startling to me that so few gamers today have perhaps even heard of the Amiga, and strange how the NES and Sega Master System shook the world of gaming forever when they arrived despite being hugely inferior. To me as a kid in the early 90’s, I looked at the NES and thought…whats the big deal, I’ve been playing better looking and sounding games then that for years!  Shrugged my shoulders and went back to playing my dads Amiga 500. I guess looking back I was lucky to have access to an Amiga and be part of the game hobbyist scene back in the day when your average person just didn’t play computer games.

Ultimately hardware isn’t everything and the reason why the consoles made such an impact boils down to price and the fact that children could have one in their bedroom (myself included). Gaming wasn’t just for powerful multimedia systems anymore, consoles brought relatively cheap systems that every family could afford to have and thus marked the final death knell of the Amiga platform by the mid 90’s. Commodore had squandered a huge technological advantage for years and it’s failure to react to rising competition brought it to it’s knees. It’s also worth noting that as a games platform the Amiga was massively successful in the UK and across Europe, but did less successfully in the US primarily due to a larger interest in the Japanese arcade gaming culture rather then home computing. Thus the majority of Amiga games (of which there are literally thousands) were made in Europe and in fact the UK pioneered much of the games programming advances of the age that led to some greatly successful games. British studios like Sensible Software and the Bitmap Brothers, and publishers like Psygnosis are legendary and we owe them a lot for what they achieved back in the day, much of which is taken for granted now and forgotten as the fast moving games industry moves ever on like a enraged bull, never stopping to look back at lessons already learned decades ago.

Chaos Engine – Amiga – Bitmap Brothers – Subtle complexities to a simple game

The Stifling of Innovation and Creativity:

To the topic at hand and the question I started the article with. Has game play and design regressed since those days and if so why? Bluntly and unequivocally yes in my opinion,  but the why of it will take some explanation. To understand why you have to look into the past of gaming hence my above context on the Amiga, it’s unavoidable and not simply nostalgic musings. It’s the logical thing to do when analyzing something that has been great in the past, and has become less great over time. As admitted, graphically things have improved, but the root of problem is something that has caused a stifling of innovation leading to regurgitation of the same copy-cat game over and over with different artwork for years on end. The end of the 90’s was perhaps the last true great period of games innovation and creative freedom that professional games developers had. You only have to look at the quality titles released on the PC between 95 and 99 to realise this.

I’ve researched various articles and read interviews featuring leading people who worked in the earlier days and you see similarities in how they view the industry and how it has changed for developers. The core of it seems to be due to the refusal of the increasingly powerful publishers to fund games that at not a 100% safe bet (Call of Duty, Halo etc) and this has led to a massive drop in innovation that is only now perhaps being turned around by the injection of new creative blood by the Indie developer scene. Fueling the increasingly tight and controlling grip of publishers is the increasing vast sums of money that the industry now generates. Many people ARE aware of the lack of innovation but perhaps feel that there’s just no ideas left? Well there’s plenty of ideas around, the problem is that no large publisher would touch it unless it’s proven and that’s the crux of it.

Populous 2 - Amiga - Bullfrog

Populous 2 – Amiga – Bullfrog

John Hare, a founder of Sensible Software (one of the biggest and most successful games company’s of the 80’s and early 90’s) gave a frank and interesting interview on You Tube where he discusses that during those days, publishers were happy to have talented people on board and they pretty much left you to make what you were passionate about and encourage you to push your creativity. It’s not surprising then that if you were ever motivated to go back and play Amiga games now and get over the aging visuals, you’d find a myriad of game genres, some still today undefinable such was the creative freedom back then. This issue of publishers forcing developers to copy existing games, adding just a new paint job is paramount to what is holding back the games industry in my opinion. Yes there’s Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight and they are all well and good, but I feel that the large publishers need to have a dramatic culture change if were are ever truly going to return to a golden age of innovation in game play concepts, design and execution. Perhaps the Indie scene will be the catalyst that fuels the publishers to change and allow more freedom to professional studios?

While the Amiga had it’s day, its fair to say that it was a very 2D orientated  platform and with the coming of 3D and it’s dominance in professional studios it’s not surprising that small man teams of maybe 3 or 4 can no longer produce the par standard graphical expectations in games expected for modern AAA title publishers, whom require dozens of developers and artists and millions invested to produce some of the photo realistic wizardry modern shelf titles feature. But are the incredible graphics and animation a fair trade for the disadvantages it brings?

Level design is something that has most certainly suffered from the introduction of vastly detailed environments now expected in any FPS game. It’s a simple matter of complexity, the more you introduce into a scene, the longer it takes to produce. The longer it takes the less time you have to make complicated and intelligent level design. Thus many “on rails” shooters are just that, a monorail ride with the occasional dead end to “confuse” said player and following satellite navigation way points that show up on your automap, even if the game is set in a medieval fantasy universe *cough* Skyrim.

Personally speaking photo real graphics are not a fair trade and ultimately it’s the game play that keeps you playing a game long after you’ve become desensitized to the pretty visuals. Many hugely successful Indie titles have shown this, surely it’s time for the big AAA studios and publishers to say “let’s strip down the cluttered visual complexity, take a risk and focus on game play “. Wouldn’t that be something? That and actually playing games rather then spending 30% of your time watching dialogue cut scenes. At times I think games have forgotten their roots in the arcade, and have borrowed far to heavily from Hollywood.

A change in audience & social gaming:

Another key factor in the the evolution of the games industry is tied with in turn the evolution of it’s audience. Back in the Hobbyist days of gaming, a period i’d widely class from 1980-1999, most people who sat indoors playing video games were looked at a bit strangely. They were geeks, nerds, predominantly male and it most certainly wasn’t a cool thing to do. They were probably above average at school and i’d be as bold to say statistically more intelligent or at least have an intrigue in things they didn’t understand. This would manifest itself in a way that if you presented a challenging game to a geek, they would be much more likely to try and figure it out and spend time trying to overcome the complexities, like a piece of homework or a maths question. A less motivated individual with less intrigue would put the game down, upset about it being too hard and never play it again. Therefore the audience in a nutshell back then was more mature and forgiving about games and it allowed a degree of freedom to developers to really go to town on sophisticated game play elements that would take time to master and learn, but ultimately paid off long term over simple repetitive games.

Now as pretty much most are aware, nowadays games on the whole are streamlined and simplified for the new average audience demographic, whom is not a geek, nerd or in fact *shock* actually male. Social gaming has brought women into the gaming consumer audience and rightly so, women should be part of it. Men too have lapped up the new social gaming phenomenon but irrespective of gender which is irrelevant, the key point is that the “nerd gamer” is no longer the average demographic and thus games are now being effectively aimed at less patient, casual orientated “non-gamers”. Social games are not games in their truest purest sense, they are not escapism, or adrenaline pumping or a visual feast or inspiring, they are simply a feedback-response stimulus loop that passes time for the bored individual. Engineered game play featuring staggeringly simple repetitive tasks with a carrot style reward at the end. Real games ARE more then that aren’t they? I think so.

Conclusion:

The whole evolution of the industry is a double-edged sword. It’s not all bad certainly, there’s never been an easier time to get into the games industry and there’s certainly a lot more jobs around with better pay then there used to be, however along with vast sums of money has come the bureaucracy that is rife within what is essentially a creative industry and there are startling parallels with the movie industry. Like with games, the increasingly powerful few have begun to control too much of what directors make and the many unneeded remake movies are effectively synonymous with the copy-cat games made today in the games industry. But, I wont lay the blame just on publishers. John Hare mentioned something regarding the fact that the industry is saturated with content and most of it not good or to a high enough quality. This waters down the expectation of what a good game actually is, and with more and more game developers coming into the mix this could spiral further. His solution? Less developers/designers and who are to a higher standard. Is that the answer? I’m not sure but poor games will in-turn inspire more poor games, it’s a vicious circle that we must break and ultimately in my opinion it should start from the top AAA studios and work it’s way down, not the bottom up.

It’s a topic I feel passionate about and there’s no easy answers but that’s my take on it and an opinion from someone who has played far too many games over the past 29 years and hope to influence the games industry in some way (even if just a nano) by making games myself. I hope that in time, developer creativity will flow however it wants wherever it wants and only our imagination will limit where games can take us.

Lemmings – Amiga – DMA Design