The gaming globe; different cultures play different games. Or do they? (The Brave New World of Electronic Games)
by Bob Lindstron
Let's hear it for Mom, apple pie, and joysticks. The video game and computer game are uniquely American inventions. And today, nearly 30 percent of American households own video games. In 1990 Americans bought $5 billion of video game systems and cartridges. Much of this video game excitement must be credited to Japan-based Nintendo. The company's domestic subsidiary has sold 25 million Nintendo Entertainment Systems (NES) to American homes.
Interestingly enough, 50 percent of those games are being purchased by adults, and not just to keep the kids quiet. "There is a change in awareness about video games among adults," says Nintendo Gamemaster Howard Phillips. "Just as cartoons used to be just for children, animation is now seen as entertainment for adults as well as kids. Video games also used to be considered ~kid stuff,' but video entertainment is for everybody."
The computer game precursors of video entertainment have always targeted adults. It's one of the reasons that American game designers remain the international champs of computer simulation software such as flight simulators, urban simulations, and other "you are vicariously there" illusion makers.
"In Europe the computer game industry was much more youth oriented than in the United States. In the States the disc-based IBM PC market attracted a much more mature audience looking for more mature games," explains Sid Meier, vice president and cofounder of MicroProse Software, Inc.
Meier notes that the next generation of video game systems may well be a growing source of adult entertainment in the future. And older gamers seem poised and ready to confirm Meier's theory.
"There is an opening for a standard game machine with the power to do simulations and the household penetration to be a commercial force," Meier says. "Then you'll see cartridge-based simulations with a lot more sophistication."
Japanese students stand in line up to five hours to be the first to buy new games for the Nintendo Entertainment System (called the Famicom in Japan). Stores are asked to sell cartridges only during after-school hours in order to stem the waves of school absenteeism accompanying the release of popular games. Role-playing enthusiasts snapped up 1.3 million copies of the latest installment of the Dragon Quest series in a single day in early 1990. And Japanese fans of the American-born Ultima game series clamor for Ultima comic books, compact discs, and a cartoon series appearing on Japanese TV.
There is a virtual video game mania in Japan, according to Corey Sandler, coauthor of Bantam Books' The Ultimate Unauthorized Nintendo Game Strategies series. Last year in Tokyo's Akihabara district, which has a concentration of consumer electronics stores, Sandler found "lines of children aged ten to fifteen that went on two deep for about four blocks. In the Japanese style, it was completely orderly. When I got to the front, I found it was kids waiting to buy Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers 3."
Children don't have a monopoly on video game compulsion, though. "Adults are also involved with video games in Japan," Sandler notes. Japanese players can download new products directly from the manufacturer to their home systems. All that is needed is a telephone connection and a credit card.
Which games are most popular? "The video games we get here reflect what's been successful in Japan," says Sandler. "But the most popular game categories are role playing, baseball games, and, of course, the classic arcade action games."
As in the United States, Nintendo reigns in Japan as the most popular video game system. In 1990, NEC's TurboGrafx-16 (known as the PC Engine in Japan) approached NES's sales. Nintendo will counterattack with its powerful next-generation Super Famicom, and the video game system "wars" will intensify throughout 1991.
Industry observers believe that the pitched battle will rage in the United States in late 1991 with Nintendo, NEC, and Sega's Genesis as the principal combatants.
Depending on their generation, Americans perceive the United Kingdom and Europe as the birthplace of the enduring popularity of the Beatles, or the cradle of profound Western art and literature. Just don't look for much that is enduring or deep in British and European video game culture. "It's a lot of sizzle and no meat," explains game designer Chris Roberts, a Briton who is director of new technology for Origin Systems in Austin, Texas, and designer of Origin's Wing Commander spaceflight simulator. "In the United Kingdom and Europe, we don't go for great strategy games, or deep and complex games. It's very flashy graphics, great sound, and arcade action," says Roberts.
In the hit-driven European marketplace, a game for the popular Commodore Amiga or Atari ST computer may sell 100,000 copies during its first month of release; "then it will be dead," says Roberts. As a result, European designers favor arcade games that are fast to create and provide the maximum in "quick, instant gratification."
In the quest for buyer gratification, however, the Europeans have become the masters of breathtaking computer game spectacles. Products such as Britain-based Psygnosis' Shadow of the Beast I and II boast exotically detailed artwork, stunning animation, and ear-torching Euro-rock musical scores.
Unlike the United States, Europe has not taken cartridge-based game systems like the NES to its Old World heart.
"Since the Europeans are very sensitive to the quality of sound and graphics, not that many people want to buy Nintendo-looking games," comments Roberts. Game players who have fried their eyes on the sizzling graphics of the Amiga or Atari aren't interested in the less colorful visuals of the NES.
"But the new sixteen-bit machines may make inroads in the United Kingdom and Europe," says Roberts. The graphic quality and competitive pricing of these systems, compared with computer system price and performance, may attract Europeans, who traditionally have limited disposable income.