WHO'S GAME FOR FUTURE GAMING?
by DANIEL SILVESTRI
If we play electronic games, we assure the publishers that we will wear the games out, that our appetite will demand more sophisticated games in the future, and that the publisher can have a long-term profitable business if they listen to us, the consumers, and respond to technological changes. Here's to the electronic games, past, present and future! And here's to Atari who I know will outpace the competition with their machines!
The history of electronic gaming is riddled with a myriad of games that have been No. 1 sellers and No. 1 losers. Occasionally, games will withstand the test of time (the true test of greatness in most things), but often they fall prey to advancing technology. Electronic gaming, more than anything else, is independent of most generic tests or ways of measuring greatness. Why? Because emerging technology dictates that we, as human beings questing for knowledge and for betterment, want to keep up with the times. Alter all, that has been how the human race has advanced over millions of years....
Illustration by John Berado
Technological stream flows one way
We have all played great board games, and perhaps still play board games, for amusement and challenge. Board games exist in every category imaginable. The difference between great board games and great electronic games is that we do not expect the great board game to get better or to be replaced with a better version. So, some board games have the luxury of enjoying prosperity literally for decades upon decades. Games like Monopoly and Clue from Parker Brothers sold well 20 years ago and sell well today. Their packages have changed, but the games remain the same, intact, for years and years.
Electronic games are very different. How many of us would run out and buy a Pong-like game today? An electronic hit just five years ago, Pong has been sold and resold in garage sales over the last several years! Why? We read, understand and demand more! We are, for the most part, educated electronic consumers who understand that technology has advanced around and past those games. We do not want to play with old technology; that's the beauty of technology, isn't it? We want manufacturers to push their development teams to discover newer, faster, better ways of doing things. When they do, the new is old, and on we go.
We have gone from Pong to Pirates (by MicroProse), and technology is a moving, changing stream that flows only one way: upward and forward.
The teeming stream off gaming
As game fanatics, we have probably played every type of electronic game we can think of. Basically, outside of recreating electronic versions of board games, electronic games are divided into four categories: (1) Arcade games which demand heavy hand-eye coordination; (2) arcade/action games which demand hand-eye skills plus some strategic thinking to complete the games; (3) historical or simulation games, much like the games published by Strategic Simulations; and finally, (4) adventure games that are either text-only games or those which combine text and graphics, which combine text and graphics, which can include role-playing games as well.
Arcade games are still extremely popular because they afford long hours of playing time, new challenges with increasingly hard "levels" of play, and so on. Games like Pac-man, Space Invaders and hundreds of similar games have been extremely successful because of this. These games have a decent life expectancy, but oftentimes, you will find them in a dusty drawer or in some disk case that has not seen the light of day for quite some time.
The movement towards combining arcade/action games with some strategy has met with success as well and appeals to a wider target market: those who like arcade/action games have this available to them here, and those who like to have to think out some strategy have that option as well. The life of these games is generally shorter than that of arcade/action games because there is a sense of accomplishment when we "complete" the game, and often we feel it necessary to move on to something else.
Historical or simulation games stretch the strategy portion of the game and stress thoughtful play, while any type of arcade/action takes a backseat. These games have a long life expectancy, as we do not expect the "Battle of Shiloh" to be any different two years from now than it was over 100 years ago. It is a simulation and as such, we expect less of it over time and are therefore more tolerable of it later on. We might play these games over and over again, and over a period of many years, with huge gaps in between.
Finally, the adventure game is perhaps the most popular and most disposable game to hit the market. There are a variety of types of adventure games: text-only, text mixed with graphics, and animated graphics with text (covers a broad range of topics). All of them allow the player to "solve" the game, and once solved, the player will probably not go back to play that game again. These games have a life expectancy of several months, at which point they are generally solved and stored in your library of software.
A quick docking at the software library
How many of us have a software library? I do. Now how many of us have a library or section where we keep all of our books? Most of us, like me, do. The fundamental difference between our book library and our software library is technology. We have low expectations of our books. We know that they will not change over time, and that a good book, like a good board game, can be picked up again after five or ten years and reread without offending our level of expectancy.
Not so with our software library. I have many, many games in my software library, but I always want to play new ones which exploit new technologies. Forget the adventure games which I have solved; they're solved, and as such, they are like a final exam: When its over, you don't look back! For the most part, my software library card does not have very many entries for old technology. Check yours out. My software librarian has been released due to lack of interest. We want new technology, or we'd still predominantly be playing board games, which are in a safe harbor from technological waves. This just further supports my opening paragraph: If publishers will listen to us and technology, they will do well, and we will get what we demand.
What lies up ahead on the software stream
From what I see, the biggest changes are going to take place in the adventure gaming portion of the business. Arcade/action games and simulations will get better, as will arcade/strategy games; but the advancement will not be as monumental, since the nature of these games does not demand monumental leaps.
Several concepts will be addressed in future electronic games: (1) Games will become more realistic, that is, they will reflect how things are done in the real world, and similar actions, strategies, experiences will become more and more apparent on our terminal screens; (2) they will become more feature-rich as memory expands and graphic capabilities continue to grow; this will lend itself to the realism discussed above; (3) story lines will be expanded to match the capabilities of our new technology; the trend to write stories by teams of writers, graphic artists and programmers will continue and expand; the new games will be massive, detailed and rich; and (4) enhanced graphics will become an integral part of solving the game, not just an unacceptable substitution for your imagination.
Demand for text-only games will begin to soften, as all of the above begins and continues to happen. Personally, I have had tremendous fun with text-only games, and I plan to continue purchasing them. However, I think as we enhance our systems more and more, we will demand greater satisfaction. Major game publishers like Infocom, who have traditionally said that they will not do graphic-oriented games because graphics, no matter how good, are no match for the imagination, have announced that they will produce games within the year that take advantage of graphics. Wow! This is a far cry from "sticking our graphics where the sun don't shine," which was their banner! I fully expect them to implement graphics in creatively new ways and to make the graphic games be as close a match to their fantastic imaginations as possible.
The trend towards enhanced graphics is clear not only in gaming software but in business software as well. Graphics are now a large part of all business-application software sold. If it's getting bigger in business, you know it will get bigger in the gaming world, where graphic creativity can run amuck!
Look for it, it will happen!
What I would like to see on the stream
Well, I am all for advancing civilization and for pushing the envelope of technology. Now that my humanitarian statement is completed, I would like to say that I am all for seeing our gaming world change.
It must change, because electronic gaming is only part of our technological revolution. Advancing computer science demands that segments of this industry change or become history. I am surprised in a way at Infocom, yet in another way, very happy to see that it is responding to the technological environment, rather than reacting. Reacting generally implies it's too late, while responding implies thoughtful planning. It, like many other companies, is positioning itself for the future. Bravo! I have always admired bright, creative, innovative companies like Info-com, and I respect the attempt to move up the technological stream!
I have made a wish list of some ideas that, given the changing technology itself we have been discussing, might be implemented into future games.
(1). How about documentation that really enhances the game, and sets the tone and mood for the game? So much more can be done on this level, that any move in this direction would be fantastic. By creating a detailed background story, for example, the game, when played, becomes even more enhanced. We understand where we begin in the game, what has "happened" in the past, why the adventure is necessary and so on. Creating the right ambiance can add new vim and vigor to the games. Naturally, the greater our technological achievement, the more detailed the story line can be. Documentation should keep pace.
(2). Let me know what you think, but I would like to play games, and not write novelettes of notes or become a cartographer because I need to make more maps than Rand-McNally. I think the increased capacity of machines in memory and graphics ought to steer the publishers in the right direction. Write these routines in the games; if we have to take notes, give us electronic notebooks in the game; if we need a map because the terrain is confusing, draw it for us! Infocom's Beyond Zork draws the maps for you and that has been my absolute favorite game from it; after all, map-making is not a strategic talent for electronic games—please, do it for us!
(3). Role-playing games, or games where you spend a good deal of time developing a character or a band of characters have tremendous entertainment value. A couple of years ago I got my two nephews started off on an adventure that lasted a good year for them. The bottom line is, these games are fun, but require a great deal of time and creative energy to develop such characters. What about being able to move these characters from adventure to adventure, even from publisher to publisher? So many games have similar story lines that it would be natural for my Ultima characters to take off on an adventure in another realm–perhaps into space! I think through enhanced import/export capabilities, this can be accomplished among a variety of publishers.
(4). Finally, I would like to see more games that employ support materials that are pertinent to the play of the game. Infocom has always been great at this, and they are getting better. Other publishers have begun using these techniques as well. This approach accomplishes two things: It embellishes and enhances the story line and game playability; and it affords some protection to uncopyprotected games in that it discourages the software piracy which hurts us all.
As we move up the stream of technology, we will see many of these things implemented, and many more that minds more creative than mine will dream up. High-tech advances on the hardware side will always drive the software market harder and harder. That means great opportunities for us. Publishers can listen to their dedicated consumers and respond to technology, and we can play more sophisticated and advanced games.
So as you all look through your software library one more time, make sure that you clear enough space on the shelves for what is certain to come: electronic gaming software that now can only be dreamed of. Soon we will all wake up to this new reality!