Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
03 December 2005
The Addled Old Father of Videogames
Was reading Kotaku talking about some speech that Nolan Bushnell gave. I'll give the man some credit for doing ok with Atari back in the 1970s. But let's be honest: fathers are rarely responsible for the accomplishments of their enterprising kids. And like lots of old folks, fathers will frequently look fondly to the past, longing for the good ol' days.

And so, we find Bushnell talking about how the games market today is a mere wisp of its former self:
In 1982, he tells us, there were 44 million gamers. Today, there are 18 million. Where'd they all go? "Complexity lost the casual gamer," he says. "Violence lost the woman gamer."
What's he talking about? Does he mean just in the U.S.? That can't be right. Sony just reported that they'd sold 100 million PlayStation 2 systems, and 40 million of those were in the U.S. That doesn't count the millions of GameCubes and Xboxes that people have, and the millions more GameBoy Advances and Nintendo DSes and Sony PSPs. And then there's the whole PC market.

Complexity? With games like Tetris and Lumines and Bejeweled so popular, I understand his point. But then you've got 1.5 million subscribers to World of Warcraft. I'm sorry, I'm just not buying it.

I know the Atari 2600 was great and arcades were wonderful back in the early 1980s. But 44 million gamers then and only 18 million today? That's grandpa telling us how great things were back when he wore an onion on his belt, because it was the fashion at the time...

He goes on:
"The 3D controller that Nintendo is on to is a very good idea," he says. "If you look at today's controller with triangles, Xs, squares and circles, it's scary. It's like a keyboard. People are interface phobic."
You know what else people are scared of? Looking like total idiots in front of their friends and family by waving a white wand at the TV to make a plumber chase a monkey or a sword-toting boy in green chat with his fairy friend, Tingle. That's what the Revolution is all about, people.

Whereas Sony has now put out three hardware platforms with similar controllers (PSOne, PS2, and PSP) and actually overcome interface phobia, Nintendo has come up with a new controller for every console: NES, SNES, N64, and now GameCube. (I could toss the Virtual Boy in there, but why kick them while they're down?) Just because they've got something new this time doesn't mean it's easier to use, if history is any guide.

Then there's this:
All I could read was "machinma." Bushnell skips the slide before I even have a chance to register the rest of it. "This isn't very interesting," he says. Instead, he finishes up his speech with a slide of his latest business venture: uWink. The Father of Gaming is getting in the dating industry. ... "I guarantee you if I can help guys meet girls, I will make a lot of money," he says.
So he skips right past machinima and pimps his dating bar business? According to Wikipedia he's started over 20 businesses. Other than Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, who remembers any of the others? That's what I thought.

Why are people listening to this guy again?


--Matt Matthews at 00:59
Comment [ 2 ]

Comments on this post:

Your point rests on the assumption that number of units sold can be used to determine the number of people who own systems, which is then presumed to match the number who game avidly, and then compare that figure to the potential size of the audience (according to, in the U.S. that's almost 300 million). Of course, that ratio still isn't perfect, since some households may have more than one PS2, and some others may have multiple people sharing one.

Further, the 100M/40M figure was units SHIPPED TO RETAILERS, not SOLD. Replacement systems and unsold units raise the figure a bit, though we don't know how much. Considering the (anecdotal but considerable) failure rate of PS2 media drives it could be considerable, but again, we don't know.

Sony also claimed, in that same press release, to have sold 1.8 BILLION pieces of Playstation hardware throughout the brand's history, but at best that includes everything from systems to memory cards to AV cables. (At worst, it'd be a lie.)

Ancedotally, I have to say that I've seen the attitudes about the complexity of games expressed by Bushnell (which mirror those often given by Miyamoto) in many people. In parents and grandparents, sure. But there's also many young people who have no interest in these games, and I think Bushnell's statements on that point are right on the mark. People who grow up around them are much more able to understand them, but the older you get, the harder it seems to be to pick up the kind of internal language needed to operate video games at a minimal level of competence.

As for being scared off by a controller (Xs and Os and triangles and squares) versus being scared off by content (bah), both your and Bushnell's examples are rather spurious, to be frank. I'd think you'd have come up with a better counter than you did. Dissing Nintendo over Tingle, c'mon now, you can do better than that. There are certainly plenty of other things you can rightfully rip Nintendo a new one over. (Psst: dozens of Pokemon games!)

But I hate to take the role of defending Nintendo, yet again, again. I'll just say, like I have before I'm sure, that I got much more play out of my N64 than I ever did out of my Playstation, my Gamecube still sees play once in a while now while I sold my X-box without looking back, and according to the stats screen of my copy of Advance Wars DS we've now clocked over eighty total hours on the game with no end in sight (and we must have spent many hundreds on the GBA's AW2) while I STILL haven't found a game interesting enough for me to plunk down the cash for a PSP.

In response to your question on why we're listening to Nolan Bushness after all these years: I'm not honestly sure either. He *is* out of touch with contemporary gaming culture. But on the other hand he also founded Atari, and not the lame version we're stuck with now: Infogrammes under another name. He founded the COOL Atari, the Atari I admired more than I admire Nintendo these days. Two greatly successful businesses out of 20 is a better ratio than you or I've racked up. Yeah, he didn't develop the games, but he did hire the people who did, the people who, starting from scratch, had a cleaner sense of gameplay and balance than most "designers" these days who've spent their entire lives around video gaming. To say whatever said is right because he said it, of course, is textbook Appeal to Authority, and his newest scheme looks more likely to join the ranks of the 18 than the two. But have a little respect for your elders, if you're lucky you'll be one yourself someday.

Finally, on machinima: it's a cool thing, sure, but if you don't read a lot of blogs you'd be forgiven for not knowing it existed.

By Blogger JohnH, at 03 December, 2005 16:18  

From what I can tell we have no idea where Bushnell's number of 18M came from. I'd argue that we've got some reasonable evidence that there are significantly more than 18M gamers around, based on PS2 + Xbox + GC + PC + handheld sales alone.

The casual gamer is a problem. Either you need games that are accessible and widespread to get lots of casual gamers on board, or you need games which act as gateways to grow the pool of heavy users. There appear to be plenty of the former (see Popcap Games), perhaps not so many of the latter.

If we were talking about a 1980s population, then Nintendo's controller might seem obviously better than Sony's or Microsoft's controllers. But much of the population is using a mouse and keyboard every day, and doing ok at it. By comparison, people today are well-prepared to understand new interfaces. Might a spatial controller be picked up more quickly by someone who's never used a keyboard and mouse? Maybe. But console controllers are not nearly as foreign as Bushnell might have us believe.

I give Bushnell credit for what he did 20 years ago. But when he gives a speech in 2005 that has ideas that strike me was misguided and/or misinformed, what he did back then doesn't matter a whit.

By Blogger jvm, at 03 December, 2005 16:59  

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