NYT: Video games are where movies were in the 'Thirties

From the Magazine this Sunday:

Has there ever been a cultural sea change as stealthy as the one represented by the rise of interactive entertainment? To anyone who came of age after, say, the introduction of the first Sony Playstation in 1995, video gaming is every bit as central to the pop-entertainment universe as movies or music, while to anyone older than that, it seems like one of those strange customs indigenous to the country of the young, in which the revenge fantasies of lonely teenage geeks are harmlessly siphoned off in some vaguely Dungeons-and-Dragons-like fantasy setting. No one would think of denying that video games are big, but few grown-ups outside the business have an understanding of just how big they’ve become.

A lot of it is about Bruno Bonnell of Atari. Long article. I assume it’s the cover story.

This begs the question: does the NYT not know where movies were in the '30s, or do they not know where video games are today?

Probably both.

This is actually kind of true.

In the 30s and 40s, movies were primarily exercises in advancing technology. Sure there were works of great art, but what sold was new advances in filmmaking. Oh, we can actually move a camera on a track now next to a car for a little while? Let’s make a movie where the plot is nothing more than a thin excuse to go from one car chase to the next. What, we found some new ways to do stunts like falling off buildings and jumping through fake glass? Let’s make a movie that’s almost nothing but. Every time they figured out some new filmmaking trick, they made a movie that exsisted pretty much only to exploit it (and the other recent advances).

Sound like anything you know?

Movies up until the late 50s and the 60s sold often by their ability to show the moviegoer something they’ve never seen before, technically. Recorded sound. STEREO sound. Color. Car crashes. Tracking shots. In fact the technology of films was often written bigger than the name of the movie or the stars… “IN TECHNICOLOR!!” Of course, people didn’t really call it “technology” back then.

Then it sort of leveled off and became more about writing and story and acting and cinematography. Granted, tech always did and still does play a big part in getting people to the movies (witness LOTR, Star Wars, etc). But just as popular are things like Ace Ventura, Last Samurai, Elf, and other vehicles that nobody goes to see because it’s incredible new technology.

Games are still in a state of technical one-upsmanship. Who can have prettier graphics, more sophisticated combat AI, more detailed facial animation, more impressive scripted events, a more robust physics system… Think about Deus Ex: Invisible War. All of the complaints were technical in nature - small maps, bad framerate, AI wackiness, etc.

And the game industry knows this. What do they show in TV commercials? What sells games? Is there even one iota of actual gameplay footage in that Final Fantasy X-2 commercial, or is it all far more technically impressive prerendered stuff?

Note that I’m not complaining. I think it has to be this way. Our computers and consoles aren’t even close to being powerful enough to really take the limits off game designers. And while there are games out there that sell very well without being the most technically impressive games around, there’s a reason that GTA3 sold like crazy and GTA2, which is almost the same game, didn’t. One had technology sophisticated enough for the mass market to “get it.”

The good news is that progress in the games industry is happening at the speed of Moore’s Law, and we won’t have to wait decades for games to move out of the 30s movie paradigm.

god I hope you were kidding

Cool – so in about 20 NYT years, I can finally be the Ed Wood of PC games.

There are more problems than this for the industry to overcome.

Another major problem is the idea that the market is comprised of kids. The film industry never had to worry about that… it was marketed at adults from the very beginning. Game design has always focused on gaming for children, teens, or at most young adults. The average age of the video game player will continue to rise, but when developers look to the past for design inspiration they won’t find a lot of adult material.

I fully disagree with the assessment that technology will flatten out in the fairly near future. There is no proof that even the input technology will be stable (mouse and keyboard will give way to more virtual reality inputs eventually). Monitors could easily give way to linked projectors, etc. It is likely to take decades for the technology to flatten out. It is possible that a flat period will occur… perhaps a 3-5 year period of relative flatness before the next technological breakthrough develops.

The biggest problem in game design is not that design is dwarfed by technology, but that game design is stuck in “kid mode”. We loved Doom and the FPS genre (with cascade effects upon other genres) was radically altered forever. Unfortunately, Doom is a very simple design. If it moves shoot and kill it. Even Thief… if it moves hide from it. Doom is for kids. Hey, Romero is STILL a kid. Even now game developers seem like a cloistered, juvenile lot. Overgrown adolescents with a love for guns or D&D. But the average age of developers too is rising all the time…

There are whole new genres waiting to be created. Physics can certainly be used for more than just bullet trajectories, breast movement, glass fragment rotation, and rag-doll corpses. The First Person viewpoint need not be dominated by limitless movement and shooting. I wonder sometimes what “adult genres” would mean with respect to design. More detail, perhaps. More complexity. More realism. I suspect it will take more than an Overgrown Adolescent to begin such a thing.

Derek Smart beat you to it…

Absolutely agreed. And for what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily see it as a problem. It’s the best way to entertain people with what we have now.

I fully disagree with the assessment that technology will flatten out in the fairly near future.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that it would. It’s not really flat in the movie business either (if you have 100 million to make a movie, you can afford a lot better technology than if you have 5 million). I meant to say that even the best game technology still imposes some really serious limitations on what game makers can make. I meant to say that technology will, in the next 10 years, reach a point where the limitations it imposes on game designers is secondary to artistic limitations (acting quality, music/audio creation quality, script quality, and obviously moment-to-moment gameplay design).

There are whole new genres waiting to be created. Physics can certainly be used for more than just bullet trajectories, breast movement, glass fragment rotation, and rag-doll corpses.

This is a good example of what I’m talking about. The “smoke and mirrors” nature of game creation at this point has made physics too expensive for other tasks. That’s why we had a little tiny view window in Ultima Underworld. That’s why Ultima 9 had nifty physics until you pulled a crate out from beneath another one, and the top crate didn’t fall, because they had to “turn off” physics for objects once they came to rest or the game would run even MORE slowly. Only now are we seeing technology advance to the point where we can have fairly realistic world-level physics (ala Deus Ex 2) without totally compromizing other areas of the game (like quarter-screen graphics). And even then, the worlds are really sparse.

Some of the reason new genres aren’t always created is because they’re not as possible as we think they are. Game makers cut more corners than we can imagine in order to make these things even WORK, and once technology makes that corner-cutting less necessary - once games start actually doing what we always got the impression they were - the horizons broaden for game developers.

Naturally, it’s all far more complex than this, and technology isn’t the only influence on the game industry - not by a long shot. But then, neither was it the only influence on 30s movies.

I think this is a little optimistic. Graphics and Physics and representing pretty large worlds might all be nailed down by then. But I will be amazed if AI is a solved problem in 10 years, and that is one of the major barriers to making interesting games – believable characters. Hell, I will be amazed if AI 10 years from now is more than a polished version of what we have now.

I think difficulty lies in two areas:

  • Designing a game is hard. It’s hard to come up with new gameplay mechanics that are fun, have a real-world metaphor, and simple enough for most gamers to grasp. It’s so very easy to dream up game designs in your head and completely delude yourself into thinking they’d work out. But until you’ve implemented it and played it first-hand, there’s almost no guarantee that it’ll turn out good. Things like “adding physics” or “providing tons of interactivity” are two often-cited design features that don’t necessarily do anything for a game in and of itself. Neither are “large open landscapes” or “non-linear player freedom.” Unless those features are solidly designed and integrated into core gameplay, they are gimmicks which the player won’t care about in the long run.

  • Developers are at the mercy of gamer’s tastes, current trends, marketing departments, the entitlement attitude of gaming culture, and the target audience’s sophistication level. Those things seem far more constraining on game design than technology.