Posted by: seanmalstrom | July 21, 2009

Email: On the Gamer from 1994

I read your post about how the gamer from 1994 would feel a bit lost or confused by today’s gaming population.  It was a great read, and you hit it right on the head when you stated that gaming was a movement back then, not a business (or did I incorrectly paraphrase your statements?).

So I was flipping through my old Nintendo Power issues, and I came across an old interview with Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln back in 1995.  Nintendo Power asked “Is there anything you would change about the video game industry?”

Lincoln replied: “Maybe the perception that video games are just toys.  This is pervasive in the general media and it does a disservice to the people who play video games as well as the people who make them.”

Imagine that!  Here we are, arguing today over who is a “hardcore” gamer and who is a “casual” gamer, when back then, we were simply trying to get acknowledgment that games were a medium too!  Just like movies, books and television.  Oh how the times have changed.

What amazes me is that today, within the Core “Games Industry”, there seems to be tons of self-shame about gaming. All these attempts to make gaming be more like ‘movies’ and be more like Hollywood to me suggests that the “Games Industry” does not believe in the ‘gaming movement’.

There are MANY game developers who can work in movie production and all. I recall one developer, prior to the Wii coming out, said that if the Wii becomes a success, he and his buddies were going to go work for movie studios!

Ironically, the reactions to the Wii are making me ask, “Does the ‘Games Industry’ like games?” It is an absurd question, but we are in absurd times.

This “industry” is full of ‘guilt’. I think the ‘stigma’ has really bothered some people. When a young lovely lady asks, “So, what do you do?” and you say, “I am a video game developer!” she probably hears, “I am a leper.” “Ewww….” she would go, “Not a video game developer! Ewwww!” Then she runs away, screaming.

Now, if the gentleman said, “My dear, I work in the movie industry.” “Ooohhhh,” she would purr. So I think the stigma was making many in the “industry” want to be like an entertainment form that is ‘revered’ like Hollywood.

Hollywood used to be cool. It used to love the classics. Shakespearan references were not uncommon in the earlier 20th century films. It used to love heroes and heroism. The ‘golden age of Hollwood’ with its insane epic movies like ‘Spartacus’ and all were great stuff.  Today, you don’t find that in Hollywood. You just get Michael Bay ‘EXPLOSIONS!!!!’ and directors attempting to do social commentary which is not entertaining.

When movies that embrace masculine heroism and all like 300 or even the Dark Knight, Hollywood actually sneers that they are ‘movies like a video game’!!! It shows that the ‘heroism’ and all that was part of the Golden Age of Movies is now within video-games.

In the 1970s, many of the movies were ‘dark’, were ‘gritty’, and were doing ‘brilliant social commentary’ (according to themselves, that is). And then movies were ‘destroyed’ by the release of ‘Star Wars’. I kid you not! They actually thought Star Wars killed the movies! In the audience’s mind, Star Wars saved the movies. Star Wars was good natured fun. It had heroism. It was fantastical. Reggie cites Stars Wars and special effects as a disruptive technology that revitalized movie making.

You know why people originally made video-games, of why highly skilled and intelligent people would work, for very low wages, to make the first video-games? They did not want to fight in Vietnam. They would rather make games, not bombs. At that time period, there was the fear of nuclear war with the Cold War with Russia and all. This is why Tetris, with its Russian themes and all, meant far more than just an ‘innovative puzzle game’ back when it was released. It is why games like ‘Missile Command’ were made. Back then, game developers were seen as not having ‘real jobs’. Their dream was to do what they loved for a living. Iwata, when he went to work at HAL, disapointed his parents. They thought he was such a bright young man. Of course, now he is president of one of the most successful companies of Japan.

It has been my observation that game developers, who started gaming, (I call them Generation Zero developers) have a sense of humility and down to earth quality about them. They know what it is like to have been nothing. Remember, most of the original game companies started off in people’s garages when they were living with Mom and Dad. And they weren’t getting much money at all.

Today, I see two types of game developers. Ones who are somewhat sick of the corporate nature the business has become. To them, it is no longer as fun as it used to be. They advise young people to seriously not consider going into the “Games Industry”. But then there are those, who came after the groundwork was placed by the Generation Zero developers, those who even grew up with gaming, who believe it is time for gaming to ‘mature’. And what does ‘mature’ mean? It means Genius Vision from the developer! These guys seemed to have grown up with the myth of the ‘Game God’ like Miyamoto and Wright and wish to become ‘Game Gods’ themselves.

My problem with the modern “Games Industry” is that customers are no longer at the center of things. What is at the center of things? Why, the developers’ genius! “This game should be made to reflect my genius,” seems to be the way things are now instead of “This game should be made to make customers.”

Can you imagine an interview with Stephen King or Orson Scott Card and all they did was blather on about business models? You’d be, “What the hell!” Yet, this is how game developer interviews go on these days. I get the impression that they keep looking for these business models so they can make games to illustrate to us just how ‘brilliant’ they believe they are. I suppose this is why they aren’t interested in making games for children, for women, or for older people. (Ironically, it was Miyamoto’s success with games for children that turned him into such an icon.)

Crazy game developers aside, the response to the Wii from experienced gamers is interesting to say the least. Those who think gaming began with PS1 hate the Wii. Nintendo fans who adore the N64 games and Gamecube games, I have noticed, seem to dislike the Wii. And, of course, Xbox gamers don’t like the Wii. So what experienced gamers do like the Wii?

PC gamers only tend to like the Wii. Why? They know that there is a difference between a game console and a computer. They look at the Wii and see that it is trying to be a game console, trying to differentiate itself from the computer. They tend to look down on PS3 and Xbox 360 since they are emulating PC gaming.

Atari Era and NES Era gamers really like the Wii. They like how the games are not trying to be movies. They like how the Wii has family friendly gaming that reminds them of their golden memories of the Atari 2600 and NES.

SNES gamers it depends. The ones who liked the SNES in its later years are more like the N64 gamers and dislike the Wii. But those who liked the SNES’s early days with their exploratory gaming (from Pilotwings to F-Zero to Mario Paint) tend to appreciate the Wii.

Ironically, Sega gamers tend to be warm toward the Wii. They obviously see the value of the Virtual Console with all its classic titles. But Sega and Nintendo had more in common than they did in differences. Like Nintendo, Sega was an integrated hardware and software developer. Like Nintendo, Sega knew how to make arcade games. The Wii is the most ‘arcade like’ game console in decades. The vast, low action, long game time of N64 type games would never, ever, work in an arcade. Sega gamers, I’ve noticed, seem to grasp that these ‘Expanded Market’ games are really like arcade games. In other words, something like Wii Sports seems like a blast to the past with its arcade like gameplay.

The different reactions to the Wii, from various gamers and from various parts of the “Games Industry”, will make fascinating reading in the history books.

One big change I have noticed is the insane narcissism of third party companies. They literally believe the console business revolves around them. They certainly matter, but not in the way they think. All these third party companies ‘demanding’ that Sony drop the price on the PS3 is hilarious. Console business is extremely expensive, and it is insanely high risk. Why should Sony risk losing another billion dollars just because some non-console companies demand it? It is so hard to be a hardware manufacturer that these third party companies forget their place.

It is the console companies who are creating the market for these third parties to thrive, not the other way around. Wii, of course, is illustrating this old truth.

With the NES demands on third parties, Yamauchi defended this by saying, (paraphrasing) “We made the risk, we made the cost, we created this market.” And he was absolutely right. Of course, competitors entered that forced console manufacturers to not do whatever they want. But this is all typical market stuff wtih competiton.

We’ve seen Sony humbled. Next up is seeing third parties humbled. Like the president of Activision, they are spewing out stuff as if they were in a Console War. “Cut the price, or no games for you!” Such arrogance. They don’t have the sheer, massive, and gigantic hardware costs to deal with. The entire idea that one company is insisting that another company go financially in the red for THEIR benefit is arrogant, stupid, and insane. It is the same as those who said that Nintendo should have made the Wii to what third parties wanted. Well, what third parties wanted would have collapsed the system. “You need high definition visuals, Nintendo. Yeah, and stop that motion controller thing. No one would want that!” This is why it is proper and good for console companies to ignore these petty third party demands.

No third party would ever talk the smack they do twenty years ago. No way. Today, they think they sit on thrones and console companies are their lowly servants!!! Their true place is going to be in the middle of these extremes.


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