|On Game Consoles and Development
The video game console is a strange animal. On the one hand, it is the hallmark of consumer friendliness when it comes to video game play. The buyer has the peace of mind of knowing (with very few exceptions) that the hardware and games they purchase will work together without any hidden system performance or compatibility issues. At least, if there is something wrong, the entire user community feels their pain. On the other hand, a developer has to take on a considerable cost and jump through many hoops (including dealing with what usually is vastly different hardware when taking on a new system) before even thinking about collecting a return on the product. Undeniably, the console world has seen success many degrees of magnitude over that of the more flexible and research-oriented personal computer gaming scene, so how do these issues affect the evolution of video game design?
Constructing a video game often involves pulling several disciplines into a melting pot and boiling it a little, until either the flavor is just right or the concoction has simmered down to the point where it is just tossed or served to the unsuspecting audience with an evil grin. The latter possibility spelled certain doom for the earliest of video games, such as the text adventure a la Zork, and the blissful simplicity of graphic games like Breakout or Pong. Each part of these games HAD to be done right, if the developers had any hope of luring in customers. What little market there was for video games at the time was essentially split between graphical and non-graphical games. The non-graphical games typically ran on a PC and relied on good writing and the player's imagination to craft the experience. They enjoyed a simple interface and had very little impact to the system hardware. There was a lot of room for creativity, but the genre's potential for growth was one-dimensional. The graphical video games at the time either appeared on PC or in the arcades. Arcade systems were much more lucrative, since video game development was very expensive, and the industry didn't get enough attention from consumers to profit from a wider distribution. You could say the arcade machines were akin to the first game consoles, being a machine constructed specifically for gaming. Also similar to consoles was the fact that a developer jumped through many hoops to get their titles into an arcade. The result mainly was a lack of variety in the gaming experience, but the novelty of gaming overshadowed this problem.
From that point on, the gap widened between the way games were being designed for PC and the way they were designed for more specialized hardware. Part of the reason for this was that gamers of each platform were somewhat different breeds, but the biggest reason was the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the hardware. On the programming side, it *seems* like the industry has seen vast improvement since its beginning, but when gauging its contributions to the knowledge pool of computer science or software engineering or even entertainment, there is less to say for our video game makers. Perhaps the most basic reason for this is that our video games on the whole are not designed by the programmers; instead a design is given to them by the powers that be. Being higher up on the political food chain, the designers have a tendency toward conservatism, being that including features that have proven effective is more likely to generate a favorable response with both the boss and the customers. A conservative design leads (not surprisingly) to a conservative program. In the console world, having a quick turnaround between products is desirable, and consumers just eat it up. Where did this ability to rapidly produce a game come from?
Part of the answer is: the PC world. It is home to many advances in design, despite the relative lack of "quality" games. Parts of early graphic adventures showed up later in RPGs. Descent started the 3D revolution, which eventually resulted in Sony getting a ton of money. And so on. The knowledge base is large enough that a game can be assembled with little thought toward how it will be accomplished. How tight the schedule is determines how many improvements can be made to existing features.
The console market had a fairly slow beginning, but ended up being a giant corporate money machine. Schedules and bottom lines control the market now, instead of ideas. From a system-level perspective, the market is dangerously close to becoming stale. In order for things to freshen up a bit, perhaps it is time to give the *programmers* more freedom to create.
The political hierarchy of video game companies is of course only part of the picture. My next edition of The Progress Police will look into how programmers use our machines to bring us video games. Also, we'll take a look at a few success stories in the console world that had marvelous design despite corporate pressure. Until next time...
Iím a big fan of video game history and historiography, so Iím interested to see where Angelo will go with this examination. However, one thing I have to disagree with was the console marketís slow beginning. On the contrary, it boomed from the days of the Odyssey, Fairchild Channel F, Atari and Intellivision. In fact, in those days sales of console video games were approaching the revenue of the motion picture industry. The problem was the eventual over saturation of the market with consoles and more cookie-cutter games, knock-offs, and ports, all of which led to the crash of Ď83. Itís the reason why todayís market is dominated by two or three consoles rather than the dozen or so of the early 80s.
Still, I agree about hierarchy issue, and I eagerly await Angeloís further exploration of the problems surrounding progress.