Computer Game History Analysed

I really am too busy to blog much right now, on the account of having to put together a rough test version of Karta Machiton. But I do have the time for a short observation, inspired by Ville Vuorela, who graciously gave me some rather interesting pointers on computer game types as a comment on my earlier post about the games I consider significant. He outlines a solid model of how conforming to audience expectations is a key to commercial success in computer games. (Perhaps not the only key, but I’m ready to believe that it is a commonly followed and routinely successful principle in making games that sell.) The idea of tug-of-war between the publisher’s and designer’s intents is outright fascinating, I’ll have to think about that in more depth; as both principles A and B are obviously important, there might be some merit to having both defended separatively, even if I’m usually suspicious of compromise as a design tool.

Ville’s comments jogged on something that’s been bothering me ever since I made that list of significant games. It’s a bit orthogonal to that topic, but perhaps significant nonetheless: while Ville’s model of commercial success gives great weight to the idea of following a game type template, an abnormally high percent of the games on my list are cross-type or multitype games! Games like Star Control II or Merchant Prince are quite clearly amalgams of game types, and where I list games solidly within a game type, they are often ones that defined the genre, like Herzog Zwei or Dune II. The few games that sit within established game types are highly innovative and demanding in terms of… oh, I just realized that I haven’t included Loom on my list yet! That’s an exact example of the kind of in-type game that I can appreciate, with efforts at writing and visualization much above it’s peers at the time. Incidentally, also the only adventure game on my list that doesn’t include significant action sequences.

What does this mean? That observation is not so much in conflict with Ville, but it does point to an important fact, namely that it might well be that my personal preferences in games are not exactly in harmony with the model Ville supplied. Because these same games tend to be critical successes and cherished classics for others as well, it’s not a given that you can’t find some manner of success making them. I’m not exactly alone in enjoying… oh my, I just realized that I don’t have Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon on my list, either, even though it’s also one of the very, very rare enjoyable and well-written trad-style (well, more or less) adventure games. It’s also, coincidentally, game number 70 on my list. Perhaps I should stop thinking about good games of history, I have enough to do without going on a nostalgia binge with old games.

To close off: looking with a critical eye at the short history of computer gaming, it seems that the most memorable examples of the craft are rarely made by affirming existing templates; as one might expect, the outstanding successes are mostly games that mix up genres or do old things otherwise differently. There are some examples of a game type honed to perfection in small steps, certainly, but they are few and perhaps not so influential when designers continue towards the future. (I might argue that Loom very well could be the best you can do with the slightly idiotic genre of adventure puzzle game, despite dozens and hundreds of games that were made in the sub-genre afterwards.) I might also hazard that while few of the games on my list achieved the humongous revenue streams games boast today, there are many other factors to success than design, both in achieving it and gauging it. While I don’t fully control my destiny in this regard, I would certainly choose to make an innovative game loved for its artistry and new ideas over a calculated replay of Doom. Going by Ville’s tug-of-war model it seems that this sentiment might very well be part of my job description as a designer; let others worry about making the game agreeable with the expectations of the target market segment.

Also: I forgot to add Warioware and Wizards and Warriors on my list earlier. Fuck it, I obviously need to stop trying to list all significant games, or something. Would be easier if I were as oblivious to early designs as I am to modern console games… damn, I can’t believe I forgot Tetris… no, actually, that I already had there. Whew.


3 Responses to “Computer Game History Analysed”

  1. Burgeri Says:

    Yep, I was talking strictly about AAA-releases which you referred to as “mess”. I tried to analyze the “mess” for you, because understanding it is relevant to anything done in this sphere. Since you’re not doing an AAA-title you have considerably more freedom than e.g. I or my fellow designers at Recoil have. The trade-off is that it will be harder for your studio to find VC money or an affluent publisher, so *you* have to design your game to be feasible as a low-budget project from the start. Then again, our game has to sell over 2 million retail copies to count as a hit. You guys can probably cope with 5000 subscribers and anything on top of that is sheer profit.

    I would love the industry as a whole to break out of those templates even in the big productions and I like the way how Nintendo Wii has already thrown a wrench in the works of traditional big-budget publishers.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Yeah, I appreciate your analysis, I find it interesting. And Nintendo is great, I absolutely adore Wii as a concept. The only game console I could imagine getting nowadays, actually. Going all fanboyish, the retro titles alone are worth it for anybody who doesn’t have the originals or a honed emulation theatre. And it’s the only console that’s actually trying to redefine the activity of console gaming anymore. I’m almost keen to have it deprecated in a couple of years. (At which point it’s pretty trivial to have an old machine and game collection end up in my possession, thanks to friends who are a bit more keen to keep up with current gaming.) I genuinely hope that Wii will find designers able to match the machine concept and the challenging control schemes available. Heck, Wii is probably my dream machine to make games on, now that I think about it.

  3. Burgeri Says:

    My sentiments exactly. And I’m not a goth girl.

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