Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
18 February 2006
Orson Scott Card's 1983 videogame commentary still relevant
Other than using them to poke the world's biggest game company in the eye, I think Orson Scott Card's 1983 comments on how videogames were "growing up" are fascinatingly relevant to videogames today, over 22 years later. When you can write the same article two decades later and just change the names of the players, has anything really changed?

Let's take Card's requirements for a game one at a time:
A home computer game should not be designed to minimize playtime - it should not be designed to take away quarters by making the game impossible to beat.
At the time, Card saw an industry still dominated by the arcade. Some of the defining games of that year were Joust, Dig Dug, Moon Patrol, Mr. Do, Q*Bert, Robotron: 2084, Sinistar, Time Pilot, and Zaxxon. Not one of them had a story or an ending, yet they ate quarter after quarter. Later were ported to home systems, retaining intact those same quarter-eating mechanics. From our seat 20 years hence, it's easy to see that Card might wish for something more substantial, with a story and a resolution.

What I think is interesting is that today we struggle with this same question turned on its head. Today's games are often chastised for being too short and not providing enough entertainment to be considered replayable. Granted, this essentially compares Donkey Kong Junior to Ico, which isn't horribly apt, but there is an important shift: infinitely challenging games playable for small prices to finitely playable games playable for much larger prices.
It should use the full power of the computer - it should do things that only the computer can do well, and it should use all the appropriate resources the computer provides.
It's hard for me to guess precisely what Card had in mind as he looked at the home computers of the time -- those from Apple and Atari and Commodore -- but the videogame industry is still littered with half-fulfilled promises of unique technology. The i-Link (Firewire) and USB ports on the PlayStation 2 went practically unused by developers and the former was dropped from later hardware revisions. [Previous sentence corrected. Thanks, Doug.] The Xbox hard drive never lived up to its full potential. (Blinx doesn't count. No one played it.) Nintendo, interestingly, seems to make use of its gimmicks, like GameBoy-to-console links.
It should be an excellent game, not just excellent programming - the play itself should be exciting and not serve merely as an excuse to show off the programmer's expertise.
What Card said in 1983 we know today as graphics vs. gameplay. Take the Xbox 360 game Perfect Dark Zero: it's a beautiful looking game, but is it fun to play? Card appears to think that we were finally turning the corner over 20 years ago, and yet here we are still kvetching about the same problem. The hardware and the games have changed, but the issue still remains.
Above all, the game should be designed so the player controls and, to some degree, creates the game as he plays - I have little patience with games that play me, forcing me to follow only one possible track or learn one mechanical skill if I hope to win.
Of all the things Card said, I think I find this one the most interesting. While at one level he's saying "I want games deeper than Pac-Man", it goes deeper than that. Ruffin and others have talked about players as co-authors alongside the developers, creating the game as they play through it. In my rudimentary understanding, developing your World of Warcraft character, earning different endings in Silent Hill, or taking advantage of the various ways of developing Carl in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are some ways of co-authoring a game. I think this is at least close to what Card had in mind when he said "the player ... creates the game as he plays".

The final desire that Card has is for creativity, for new types of games:
The software firm Electronic Arts has added a fifth requirement for itself: The game must be truly original. No Donkey Kong or Pac-Man clones in this group, of games. Even though each of their games has roots in gaming traditions, the object has not been to recreate a favorite board game, or duplicate a sport, or translate an arcade game.
Even 20 years ago the commentators were complaining about the tendency of the industry to pump out rehashes of existing games. Whereas 1983 had Donkey Kong and Pac-Man clones and the late 1990s had fighting games, today we have first-person shooters (especially those with a World War II theme) and MMORPGs.

And while games back then had sequels, what we have today really does seem different and worse. We've got Virtua Fighter 5 coming out someday soon, along with the seventh iteration of Tony Hawk, and don't forget to pick up Final Fantasy XII when it finally hits store shelves. What we have today are not just companies copying each other, but companies tweaking their own games and releasing them as something new.

I think Card's hope that things were getting better in these specific areas was a tad too optimistic. Developers still struggle to make games whose depth justify the cost. Interesting hardware capabilities still go unused. A focus on graphics can still trump the development of a game. And we are overrun with clones and sequels.

But there have been advances in the past 20 years. Games like Silent Hill or World of Warcraft just couldn't have even been imagined back then, much less implemented. Except in the sense that WoW players pay every month, we're all the richer for having these advanced games. Now, if we could just work on some of those other issues...
--Matt Matthews at 00:03
Comment [ 6 ]

Comments on this post:

Finally, somebody wrote something interesting about the video game industry for the week of February 12th- February 18th. Thanks.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 18 February, 2006 18:03  

Minor point of clarification.

The PS2 has had only two versions of the hardware, and both of them kept their USB ports. The only port that disappeared was the i.Link port (well, and the hard disk expansion slot). The current version of the PS2's specs can be seen here.

Or did I miss something?

By Anonymous Doug Weathers, at 18 February, 2006 19:30  

Doug, you're right. The iLink disappeared, not the USB. Thanks!

By Blogger jvm, at 18 February, 2006 19:32  

You mention Nintendo using its things like the GBA-GC link.

Nintendo supposedly forces such support from developers, and of course pushes it themselves until/unless it rather visibly dies (like GBA-GC linking.) I'd argue that they do so sometimes even to the detriment of the games themselves.

Tingle Tuner doesn't really add anything worthwhile to Wind Waker. It mostly makes an already easy game even easier. The Tuner isn't well integrated into the game, because Nintendo wanted the game to be fully playable without it (for obvious financial reasons.) Yet Nintendo had to spend some of their programming and design resources just to do the Tingle Tuner part of the game. Resources that could have been spent on making Wind Waker itself a better game, particularly since WW is pretty much accepted to be cut short of what it should have been.

Gamecube Splinter Cell tried to justify the lack of online support (which the Gamecube actually does support even if no developer bothers) with a GBA-GC link feature. In an effort to make the feature appealing, it again makes the game even easier. The game wasn't built for the things the GBA link added, nor did they spend the time rebalancing and redesigning the game for play with the extra GBA features (because they obviously realized it was appealing only to a fraction of an already small market.) Not a case of the game actually being worse for the support (as it wouldn't have had online anyway,) but at least an example of why such tactics often don't work.

By Anonymous Baines, at 18 February, 2006 20:44  

Welll, even back then EA did (er, published) "clones", though they usually did them with gusto.

"Demon Stalkers" on the C64 is basically Gauntlet, but done in a way that makes a lot more in the "not guzzling quarters" context.

"Legacy of the Ancients" was done by the same guys who did "Questron", and basically rehashed the story (not that it's much different from most contemporary RPG stories.)

Then there's "Axis Assassin", a not-as-fun Tempest clone.

- Adam V.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 07 March, 2006 12:07  

AdamV, with Demon Stalkers you have a good point. It even provided the then-common editor feature so you could create your own levels. That's certainly going beyond a Gauntlet clone.

I wasn't aware that Legacy of the Ancients was so similar to Questron. LotA is one of those games I plan to revisit, right after I get done with Pool of Radiance, et al.

I've never heard of Axis Assassin. I'll check into it, since I like Tempest a good bit and I'd like to see what a clone is like.

By Blogger jvm, at 07 March, 2006 12:27  

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