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

8 thoughts on “The “dumbing down”of the games industry

  1. An excellent and entertaining article, Alex. And I agree with everything… except perhaps your main point. But I’ll come on to that — I started to write a reply but it ended up being three pages long, so here’s the short(er) version instead.

    Firstly, you’re spot on about the Amiga, and I’m glad that someone else still remembers it fondly. I know what you mean about it being almost mythical — it made most of its competitors look like dinosaurs. It still amazes me that Commodore somehow managed to squander such a tremendous lead.

    That whole era was one of amazing creativity, though, and I think it was in large part down to the ready access to cheap microcomputers that were easy to program in the early 1980s, such as the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum, which gave rise to the legendary generation of the “bedroom programmers”. Sure, there were a lot of terrible games too, but I think the stark technological limitations also forced developers to be more imaginative and seek ingenious ways to make good games with limited resources. The original ‘Elite’ is perhaps the prime example: whole galaxies packed into just a few kilobytes of memory. Then because games developers had learnt to do so much with so little, when they were finally given access to machines that were so much more powerful, the results were almost magical.

    But anyway, on to your main point: has the massive growth in technological capability been matched by a corresponding growth in creativity and originality in games, or has it stagnated or perhaps even regressed? Like you, this is a topic that I often ponder, and ultimately I have concluded that it is both true and not true.

    Firstly, while I would agree that the 1990s were perhaps a true golden age of games (though I say that with rose-tinted glasses firmly in place), it’s also the time when I think publishers first started to emphasise less risky types of games over riskier ones, and that led to a period of “genrefication”. There were genres before then, of course, but many (and perhaps most) games of the 80s and early 90s defied any attempt to classify them into genres. What genre exactly is ‘Lemmings’? Or ‘Cannon Fodder’?

    But in the later 1990s certain genres were beginning to dominate to the extent that publishers began to get reluctant to publish anything else. Sports & racing games were always going to be a safe bet, but this was the era that saw the rise of the FPS and the RTS, and it was the heyday of the RPG and the point & click adventure game. And at that point it seemed like if a new game couldn’t be summed up by a handful of keywords (like “3rd/1st-person”, “puzzle”, “strategy”, or “shooter”), then it probably wouldn’t get published. And even then, the weaker genres continued to die off.

    So in many ways I think the 90s was a transitional decade in gaming, where it began to transform from a smaller hobbyist market to much wider mainstream market. The games industry was beginning to mature and enter mainstream public consciousness in a way that it hadn’t done before, probably because the first generation of gamers from the 1970s and early 80s were now adults (and therefore consumers) and there was a rapidly growing market for games. It also coincided with the growth in 3D graphics, as you point out, and that suddenly raised the bar for entry much higher as the resources it took to make a competitive game had expanded enormously. Games were costing a lot more to produce, and as the costs rose, the publishers at the heart of the traditional publishing model were less and less inclined to take risks on new, untested games.

    And so this is where I agree with you: that same aversion to risk has arguably caused a publisher-driven tendency to avoid originality in games development, which has been particularly noticeable over the last 10 years or so. As a result, there probably is some truth in saying that the AAA game industry has stagnated a bit, choosing to focus on improving graphics rather than develop new gameplay.

    However, here’s also where I’d disagree with you: I’d argue that some of the best and most creative games ever made have been released since 2000, and the last couple of years or so in particular have demonstrated signs of changes that may yet completely revitalise games design. The interesting thing is that those new changes tend to be coming from smaller publishers and indie developers, usually targeting mobile platforms or PC rather than consoles. As you point out yourself, indie games have repeatedly shown that you do not need photo-realistic graphics and massive budgets to be successful.

    However, I would say that the most significant factor has been the steady transition from high street retail to online downloads. This has lowered the bar for publishing, enabling less popular and more specialist types of games — which are often more daring and original — to still find and connect with their audiences. And those audiences haven’t gone away, they’ve just been joined by a lot of new gamers with different tastes. So while they may not always get the same attention (or sales) as their big name brethren, genres that are assumed to be dead in the higher echelons of the industry still live on and even thrive in the murkier lower levels, where you can still find space sims, RTS games, grand strategies, and point & click adventures, like a lost colony of dodos still wandering around oblivious to the extinction of the rest of their kind. It is also interesting that many of these games are produced by studios from places like Scandinavia, eastern Europe, or Russia.

    And in the past few years, with the rise of the Indie scene and resurrection of the bedroom programmer, some of the most creative games ever made have been released — and what is more, they have taken full advantage of (and in most cases only been made possible by) the improvements in computer technology. Games like Minecraft or DayZ would simply not have been possible 15 years ago, even during the height of the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1990s. And the increasing public awareness of Indie games and new avenues for distribution, like Steam Greenlight, Desura, and Kickstarter etc, have led to a string of amazing Indie-developed games that have had substantial commercial success. This has made it possible to create weird and wonderful games like ‘Kerbal Space Program’, ‘Journey’, ‘Hotline Miami’, or ‘Miasmata’, that hark back to the genre-defying oddities of the 1980s and which no sane AAA publisher would have touched with a long, pointy stick.

    So I disagree with John Hare that the solution is fewer developers; quantity is not the issue, and there have always been lots of bad games (even in the 90s). As long as there are a few dedicated programmers willing to put together a labour of love, then a bottom-up approach where good, risk-taking games find an audience and do well and then get noticed by the bigger publishers is more likely to result in positive change, because it proves there is still a market for novel, creative new games.

    And the most marvellous thing of all is that these days you can have the best of all worlds. Not only are many games multi-platform, but the increasing number of good emulators for old systems and the presence of places like GOG.com mean that the old classics of the 80s and 90s can still be played by their old fans and perhaps even find a new audience amongst those who never got to experience them the first time around.

    These are exciting times…

    • Thanks Martin for a great comment, I’m glad to see there’s someone else to backup my feelings on the Amiga since I really was starting to think I was imagining it! We should probably have an “Amiga chat” some day, I’d love to share tales :)

      You raise good points about the “genrefication” and pigeonholing that has creeped up on the industry since the 90’s and I agree with everything you say. I wrote the article focusing predominantly on creativity in the AAA development sector and absolutely, the Indie scene is currently a breath of fresh-air, many games released only recently reminding me of the past era’s of gaming. Dear Esther, a game I purchased for a pittance in a steam sale is one of the most original I’ve played recently that although hard to class as a game, is more an exotic experience then anything. A strikingly beautiful game that stays with you long after it’s extremely brief completion time.

      I guess the AAA studios of the old eras are today’s Indie (bedroom) developers and that’s why perhaps it’s comparing apples and oranges when analyzing how things have changed. However, that Amiga era certainly inspired me and I think the strange thing about the games industry is how fast it moves on compared to other entertainment mediums. Going back to Tom Hare, he mentioned how with David Bowie’s classic albums, people are still today playing them all around the world. With games, a classic from the 80’s is pretty much left to gather dust and the same will be of many games made now in a decade. That obviously causes problems with regards to lifetime earnings of developers, but more profoundly, it means new generations of people often miss classic genre defining games that would inspire new generations of innovation.

      GOG is a great thing for that reason but I strongly believe if younger and future generations went back and played some of the classic titles, the quality, creativity and expectations of new games would be strongly improved. Philosophically I think the games industry could do well to reflect on itself a little and look back at innovative titles that were left behind and never expanded upon. Yes you have to be careful not to have “rose-tinted spectacles” and accept times move on but I think it would surprise many a modern game designer to find that perhaps their “original” idea they are brain storming has already been made on a dead platform but they never bothered to look and perhaps take some experience from it.

      Now take Baldurs Gate 2 for example, in my opinion perhaps the finest RPG ever made (alongside Planescape: Torment). That recently got an Indie HD remake and you probably think I’d be pleased about that? Well no, actually I think it tells a lot about the current market. We shouldn’t need to remake these games, they are perfect as they are, what should happen is people are inspired by those games and in turn make new games that strive for the same quality. But after 13 years we’ve got nothing else like it and just a HD remake. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great RPG’s (see my Mass Effect series review I previously blogged about) but nothing approaching the scale of Baldurs Gate and it’s sad that a landmark game that should have inspired and spawned many comparable RPG experiences will one day perhaps die off with nothing to top it and that’s the important aspect I feel, that no matter how good a game is there should be a new game that takes inspiration from that past game and era and then blow the original out of the water. The fact that this doesn’t seem to be happening very much since the 90’s is a little worrying :)

      Having said all that, I’m very excited about the future of the games industry and hopefully we’ll have a lot to look forward to. The indie development scene is crucial now to it’s success.

  2. I look forward to an Amiga nostalgia chat at some point!

    Going back to the main issue though, I think the root cause is simply that AAA games cost an awful lot of money to develop these days, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that publishers aren’t willing to take many risks on untested ideas. It’s also a shame that often the publishers that were willing to take such risks have often folded (like THQ, for example), which only serves to reinforce their fears. But if they see there is still a market for other types of games — whether building on old classics or completely new concepts altogether — then hopefully that will begin to change a bit.

    Still, you make a very good point about the short lifetime of games compared to other media; I’d not really thought of it that way before, and you’re right that it means that some of the older classics have never been played or even heard of by the latest generations of gamers. That’s particularly unfortunate considering that some of the older 90s classics (Baldurs Gate being a good example, but I can think of others too) have probably still not been matched even 20 years later. Though there may be a hint of rose-tinted glasses here again on our part; one downside of GOG is that it sometimes demonstrates that not all of the old classics withstand the test of time so well.

    But regardless, the point still stands that there are a ton of amazing classic games that could be informing and enhancing the design of contemporary games if only more people were willing to learn from them (or even still played them). I think you’re spot on when you say that the games industry could do well to reflect on its past a bit more.

    The risk here though — and I’m especially reminded of the sudden flurry last year of Kickstarter-funded remakes and sequels to 90s-era games, in many cases to be developed by the same people — is that the wrong conclusion gets drawn: that nostalgia is fuelling a market which can only be accessed by making (or remaking) more 90s-style games. We don’t want publishers to go backwards and start pumping out old-fashioned games again just because they think they’re a safe bet and that they’ll sell well. Like you say, the key lesson to be learnt instead is that we should be taking those games as a starting point and seeing how they can be built upon and evolved further — producing games inspired by the classics, but not cloning them.

    Anyway, I think it will work itself out in the end, because things do seem to be starting to change a lot at the moment. The old publishing model is no longer the only road to town, and I think the rise of mobile platforms, new online distribution outlets, crowd-funding sources, and most importantly the highly visible success of many indie games are all driving something of a revolution. So ultimately I’m more optimistic about it all now than I have been at any previous point in the last ten years. :)

    • While I remember, have you seen the new “Another World 20th anniversary” release on steam? A prime example of such innovative design from that era. I remember been blown away by the animations on it at the time. Can’t believe it’s been 20 years and by all accounts it is still amazing to play though. (Flashback was also great, Fade to Black on PC-Dos not so :) )

      Link: http://store.steampowered.com/app/233550/

      • Never managed to play Another World! Maybe now I finally can, so thanks for the link.

        I did like Flashback a lot (and the animation was incredible), but I never managed to actually win it…

  3. I read the main article, which was great. I would point out a couple of things though. Apologies if they’ve already been covered and I missed them.

    Triple A games that are funded by publishers are expensive. Really, really expensive. On top of that they don’t make much money. If they turn a profit at all then you’re lucky. That’s why publisher have to insist on something they know is going to sell. If they take a risk and are wrong they could ruin the company. That’s just how the industry has developed.

    I also don’t see it as being sustainable. I think that in the future we’ll see some publishers turn to smaller games with shorter development cycles rather than putting all their eggs in one basket. Hopefully that will lead to more innovation in the future, by making innovation in small, less expensive games less of a risk. That way publishers can gamble on a few games with longer odds over backing a sure thing.

    • Hi Simon, that’s good point, I guess you hear a lot about the COD, Halo and World of Warcraft commercial successes but I’ve really no idea how much the average AAA game earns a publisher in terms of profit.

      I did actually manage to think of a recent AAA game that was innovative and that’s Mirrors Edge by Dice/EA, however i’m pretty sure it didn’t do very well commercially (at least not on release). Why didn’t it do very well? I’d guess because it was different and didn’t have a guy totting a gun or sword on the box art, that and the fact it was at AAA price and I think that sums it up currently. If you want to be innovative and different, you have to market your game at a lower “indie” price (you can pickup mirrors edge now for £3 on steam). There really is just no justification for publishers to make innovative large AAA titles when you think of it, from a commercial point of view it makes no sense hence why like you say, they’ll probably spread their bets thinly on smaller titles.

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