The Computer Games Of Tomorrow
Tom R. Halfhill Features Editor
Listen to what Scott Adams, Chris Crawford, and other experts have to say about computer games of the future. You're in for some surprises.
Harry Buttondown left the office promptly at 5:05 p.m., walked two blocks to the subway stop, dutifully deposited his token in the turnstile, and stepped onto the train.
It was already pretty crowded. Harry decided to squeeze himself next to a seat-hog who was inconsiderately sprawled across two spots, staring obliviously out the window with his back turned. Harry leaned toward the stranger. "Excuse me, sir," said Harry, with the assuming poise of a supervisory executive. "Please move aside."
Slowly the man turned his head. Harry froze in terror as he stared into the stranger's glowing red eyes – all five of them. Foam drooled from laser-sharp fangs and dribbled down a fur-covered chest. Growling like a timber wolf with acid indigestion, the thing reached toward Harry with a pair of six-inch claws.
Harry screamed. All poise forgotten, he hurled his Gucci briefcase at the horrible monster and stumbled over an obstacle course of ankles and feet in his mad scramble down the aisle for the exit.
Suddenly, Harry became aware that people were laughing at him. Were they insane? He turned around, panting, and saw that the creature had mysteriously disappeared. Then Harry noticed a huddle of snickering teen-agers in the back of the train. They were holding one of those newfangled portable holographic computer game machines. (Snicker, snicker.)
Harry sheepishly recovered his briefcase and found another seat. How he yearned for the good old days when kids used to board the subways with nothing more than boom boxes.
Forces Shaping The Future
Sounds pretty fantastic, doesn't it? But when you think about it, Harry Buttondown's encounter with the subway creature is a logical extension of two trends in game and entertainment technology : the trend toward games which more and more closely simulate reality(or unreality), and the trend of miniaturizing entertainment devices until they are portable enough to be carried around almost anywhere. Both of these trends are highly visible today.
On the one hand, technology is making possible increasingly vivid video games, and on the other, it is shrinking stereos and televisions – and computers and electronic games – down to personal size. Appliances that used to occupy immovable living room cabinets can now be carried while jogging. Would anybody have imagined 25 years ago that radio-tape stereos, the "boom boxes," would be toted by kids on subways? Or, even ten years ago, that video games could be worn on your wrist?
Still, it's too easy to get carried away with the possibilities of future technology. Sure, almost anything is possible in 20 or 30 years. The moon landings and other technological feats of the past two decades have pretty much silenced the doubters and nay-sayers. You can get away with predicting practically anything these days, and almost nobody is now willing to go on record saying, "Impossible!"
So what are the possibilities? What can we realistically expect in the near, and not-so-near, future? Three-dimensional, high-resolution computer graphics on home video game machines? NASA flight simulators in the arcades? Videodisc adventures? Wraparound screens and "smellavision"? Will the teen-agers of tomorrow really carry portable holographic computer game machines onto subways?
Even the experts – the programmers and software producers who will make the future happen – don't agree. What's more, some warn against a narrow vision of the future that considers only technological advances as a vehicle of change. Don't forget, they point out, that psychological factors, fads, styles, marketing considerations, and economics are equally important.
"Five years ago I could never have predicted where things are today," says Scott Adams of Adventure International. "I've been totally amazed. So there's no way I could anticipate what's going to happen five years from now."
Scott Adams, Adventure International.
Predicting the future – as many a crystal ballgazer busted by the fraud squad has discovered – is a risky business.
Are Video Games A Fad?
One thing virtually everyone agrees on is that computer games are here to stay. Individual games will pass on after short lifespans, and certain general types of games may fade in and out of style, but we've only begun to exploit the possibilities of computerized gaming.
"If people today are becoming bored with electronic games, it's because they're becoming too sophisticated for the games," says Michael Tomczyk, product marketing manager for Commodore International. "The whole question is whether the game players will outstrip the technology, or whether the technology will outstrip the players. If the players grow more sophisticated than the games, then the games will fall off for awhile until the technology catches up. On the other hand, if the technology outstrips the game players, we'll see games that only a very few highly skilled people can play."
Tomczyk foresees a general trend of increasing technological sophistication filtering down from the coin arcades to the home. Right now, he says, there's a crying need at the home level for more powerful game machines and better game controllers. Within a year, he predicts, home games will start incorporating simulated three-dimensional graphics, remote-control joysticks, voice-actuated joysticks, and wider use of voice synthesis. "The next big step will be graphics that look just like cartoon animation on TV - I mean very much like it."
Others believe the popularity of computer games does not depend on new technology, that computers are flexible enough already to sustain long-term interest. "I think people always will be fascinated by [computer] games. They'll never tire of those fantasy worlds," says Ernie Brock, product manager for Sirius Software, a top game producer for the Apple. "People still watch TV, don't they? People have hi-fis and stereos and continue to buy new records and don't tire of them. I think the same thing is true of computers and game software…. If you tire of one world on the computer, you can stick in a new disk and create another one."
This principle of escapism has not been lost on software designers, any more than it has on today's Hollywood filmmakers. That's why space and fantasy themes are so prevalent in both entertainment fields. What better way to escape the day's troubles than to leave the planet altogether, or even the universe? But although escapism will endure, certain methods of achieving it may not. Some already think the "shoot-'em-up" space games have peaked.
"The key is that the computer can temporarily make you into something you are not," notes Ken Williams of On-Line Systems, a major game software producer. "But even being a spaceship commander gets boring if that's all you do. The games where he just shoots up screens of aliens, and which only give him more aliens when he's done, are going to die. They're OK for now, but they won't be soon."
Several top game designers predict more different types of simulations in the very near future. Chris Crawford, a programmer with Atari, Inc.'s Research and Development Group who has written such games as Eastern Front, refers to the "movement of computer games into larger realms of reality," and "broadening our base of fantasies instead of expanding our hardware." He says the current glut of space/fantasy games will be supplanted in part by computer simulations of soap operas, Westerns, detective mysteries, cops and robbers stories, and even gothic romances. In other words, all the escapist paths of pop culture in modern America.
Harlequin romances on disk? Heaven help us.
The Psychology Of Computer Games
But the fear of fading fads is certainly not the only reason why game producers are moving toward wider varieties of simulations. Another reason might be even more important: they want computer games to attract wider audiences.
Think about it. The audience (read: market) for computer games today is really quite narrow - mainly, children and young adults with excellent reflexes and an almost insatiable appetite for space/ fantasy themes. Too many people (read: consumers) are left out. For example, millions are addicted to soap operas. What if they could be hooked on a computer-adventure simulation that transports them into All My Children? Or if the thousands of True Detective readers could be transformed into cops by an interactive adventure game, so they themselves could heroically rescue the innocent victim from the cult-killers? It takes no marketing genius to realize that software sales would skyrocket.
This possibility - the concept of redesigning the psychology of computer games to attract a wider audience - is now under close scrutiny by many game designers. If they weren't already thinking about it, something stupendous happened last year which opened their eyes:
You see, Pac-Man was more than just a hugely successful video game that managed to gobble more money in 1981 than the entire Hollywood film industry combined. Pac-Man also turned out to be an equal opportunity employer.
Before Pac-Man, you saw very few young women playing video games. When you did, they usually were with their boyfriends. But Pac-Man was different. Women liked Pac-Man. So much, in fact, that although no one has done a formal study, women are believed to have been a major factor in the immense Pac-Man phenomenon.
That's exactly why a new version of Pac-Man hit the arcades and cafes this summer: Ms. Pac-Man, complete with different graphics and colors. The lesson was not lost on other game designers, either. Computer games are no different than any other form of popular entertainment—specific audiences can be psychologically targeted.
"Pac-Man is classified as a ‘cartoon’ game," says Gary Carlston, marketing director and cofounder of Brøderbund Software, a leading game house. "If you're planning a game to appeal to women, you've got to be consistent in your concepts. For example, you couldn't put together Pac-Man and Space Invaders and expect a game about space warfare and killing aliens to attract women."
Commodore's Tomczyk says his company has gone so far as to informally study the matter. "Men tend to like games that have you destroying aliens and running away from robots and landing landers without crashing them. Women tend to like games which are, well, let's not say nonviolent, but not as grotesque, not involving destruction of animate objects or human life. Like, the ghosts in Pac-Man never really die, they just get recycled."
Jim Wylde, vice president-sales for United Microware, Inc., has also noticed these characteristics. "There doesn't seem to be much ‘femaleness’ in computer games today. They seem to be left out of computer games. I've talked to many, many young women in my own organization and elsewhere, and I always ask them, ‘What would you like to see in a computer game?’ And I always get a blank stare."
Joanne Lee, a consultant for Tensor Technology Ltd. and a freelance game programmer for United Microware, explains why: "I don't like violence and I am not into science fiction, so I don't like space games. I don't like the little aliens running around on the screen. The only game I really liked was Pac-Man…."
Jim Wylde, United Microware, Inc.
The bottom line is that game designers no longer will ignore the female market, and will scramble to tap other new markets as well. Does this mean we'll see a sharp decline in space/fantasy shoot-'em-ups? No way. The young males still dominate the market. As Lee explains, "Sure, I would prefer to write a more nonviolent type of game, but I have to think about what is marketable."
The forecast: more diversified computer games, each catering to its own audience.
So. Now that we have some idea where computer gaming is headed, what technological form will it take? This is the sort of pie-in-the-sky dreaming that everyone likes to indulge in, but there's a difference between imagination and extrapolation. We can imagine anything–well, quite a lot–but what seems likely to happen, based on current trends?
Practically all the experts agree that computer games will continue to grow increasingly sophisticated, and that sophistication will come in the form of better simulations of environments. That is, the games of tomorrow will seem incredibly real.
Videodiscs are most commonly mentioned. As consumer items, today they're pretty much limited to playing back movies, like videotapes. But videotapes, like computer tape drives, are only sequential access devices. Videodiscs, like minifloppy computer disks, allow random access. Under computer control, an image (or sequence of images) stored anywhere on a videodisc can be searched out and displayed within seconds. Consider the possibilities of a videodisc interactive adventure game. Instead of watching crude computer drawings of dungeons and caverns on the screen–or text descriptions–the player can see actual film footage of the scene unfold. In fact, filmed motion can be stored on the videodisc and recalled in response to joystick commands. Move the stick forward, and you walk deeper into the cavern. Move it left, and your "eyes" pan left.
Not only is all this possible: it's being done right now in highly advanced flight simulators and trainers. There are even projects underway in which film crews are filming all the streets of entire cities, making every possible turn at every intersection. When the images are stored on high-density videodiscs, they will be linked to computerized driving simulators to train truckers and cabbies.
The chief limitations are speed and cost. "We've fooled with that here," says Williams of On-Line Systems, "but the access time just isn't fast enough yet. No one wants to wait four or five seconds for a videodisc to go search out an image. Also, there aren't enough of those [videodisc] units out there yet."
But he is excited over the possibilities of three-dimensional video games. "I've already seen some prototypes of arcade machines which use the same type of 3-D effects as the movies, the red-blue technique. We'll probably see this and also polaroid 3-D, at least in the arcades."
Fred D'Ignazio, author and COMPUTE! columnist, thinks realism will be achieved by isolating the player from extraneous stimuli–of which there is plenty in most arcades–by "immersion" in the game environment. Arcade games would look something like those automatic booths in which people have their pictures taken, and players might even don helmets, headsets, and goggles. "All you would see visually would be your game screen, maybe wraparound," he says. "And you'd have a better environment for sound effects, too, and especially voice synthesis. You could even have voice-responsive commands, which even today's technology would support to a degree. And you'd need more controls, foot pedals and everything."
Nor would you be limited to playing a lifeless computer. D'Ignazio says arcade games could be hooked up to each other so people could play against other humans –maybe in another part of the city, or even another state –absolutely anonymously. "A lot of people play these games–at least, I know I do–because you don't have to compete with another human face-to-face. You can play the computer. But if you could play another person anonymously without having to confront them face-to-face, it would be a new challenge for a lot of gamers."
Fred D'Ignazio. CREDIT:Karen Tam, Raleigh News And Observer
What's more, the hook-ups could serve another function: "You could have news bulletins. ‘Joe Smith just got a high score on Galaxians in Cincinnati.’"
This kind of telecomputing, or "telegaming," is already here in a simpler form. Although communications over phone lines between personal computers are still too slow to permit realtime, multi-player, arcade-style games, a few games are available which allow several players to compete head-to-head using phone modems. CompuServe, a leading information utility, offers two space warfare games, Megawars and Decwars. Up to ten people can simultaneously play either–a CompuServe subscriber merely signs onto the system and joins the game in progress. Although the game processing is handled by a large PDP-11 computer at CompuServe's base in Columbus, Ohio, the players are pitted against each other, communicating through their keyboards. Both games are text-only (no graphics).
Scott Adams's Adventure International sells a telecomputing game called Commbat. Commbat is a bit different than Megawars or Decwars; it allows only two players, but bypasses the need for a central computer. Instead, the players compete against each other using their own computers, linked over the phone lines by modems. Also, the game has graphics. The graphics are very simple, though, since Commbat allows Apple, Atari, and TRS-80 users to compete interchangeably, and those computers' graphics systems are normally incompatible.
Still, all of these games allow the sort of anonymous telegaming that D'Ignazio says could someday immerse the gamer in an elaborate environment of sight, sound, and sensation.
On the other hand, if you're the nervous type who would react to this "total immersion" by degrading into a screaming meemie, you might prefer computer games as a spectator sport. You know, Sunday afternoons on NBC. "I think there'd be a great audience for watching world-class video game players," says D'Ignazio. "You could have instant replays, slow-motion, and commentators going over their moves."
What's that, you say the video combat on TV got your adrenalin pumping? Anyone who wanted to work off a little "displacement aggression," as psychologists call it, could take up boxing at the local amusement park. "Instead of driving bump'em cars or riding roller coasters or shooting at ducks in a shooting gallery," suggests D'Ignazio, "you'll be able to have robot wars by controlling your own little robots."
D'Ignazio also says video games will be found in unusual places, not just arcades. They'll be built into the backseats of cars to keep rowdy tots occupied; implanted in the ceilings of bedrooms; reduced to book-size and placed in dentist waiting rooms next to the National Geographies; installed in hospital rooms and nursing homes to entertain the bedridden; loaned by public libraries, and, of course, carried by teen-agers onto subways. He thinks they might even be built into eyeglasses, so the true addict can throw a switch and see video games on the inside of the lenses.
Commodore's Tomczyk carries it one step further: "The concept of TRON, when you are really the computer – and the computer is you –is definitely going to happen. That's the ultimate. The trends of the pricing and power and technology indicate that is really going to happen. The physics of the fantasy expressed in that movie are probably impossible, but we are moving in that direction. We are moving toward the ultimate TRON."
The Future Or Fantasy?
But not everyone agrees with this fantastic view of the future. Crawford, the respected Atari expert, says the role of technology in future computer games is constantly overblown. "All these people predict that in coming years we'll be able to plug into our computers, and be surrounded by colorful 3-D images, and wonderful sound, and we'll just be able to think and all these things will appear, and it'll be just a gas…. I reject all that. I don't think it's going to happen, and I don't think it has to happen.
"A lot of people mention new technologies as the engine of change in computer games," explains Crawford. "But I don't see technological developments as the driving force in computer games. I don't even see technology as the limiting constraint in creating computer games. I think the main constraint is lack of creativity and imagination."
Just as the technology of the automobile has not changed drastically over the past 50 years, neither must the technology of computer games, he argues. Technology remains fairly static if it is perceived as adequate, and Crawford believes most people are satisfied with the current state of computer games. "The development of cars since 1932 has been more in the way of polish than the way of new technology…. Although I believe the technology of new hardware will be forced upon us, I don't believe we'll need it to develop the computer games of the future."
Crawford's theory, though apparently the minority viewpoint, might come as welcome relief to those who are less than thrilled with the concepts of "total immersion" and "the ultimate TRON." Maybe you won't have to worry about running into a monster on the subway after all.