Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Game Crash of 2013?

Shamus Young | 6 Aug 2013 15:00
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I've often used this space to complain about the way this industry is being run, about how publishers have a narrow view that's driving them to stagnation and making the hobby less fun for everyone. They're missing out on profits and we're missing out on an experience with less hassle and more variety. Whenever I bring this up, people point to the videogame crash of 1983 and wonder if we're heading for another bust.

But before I speculate about a videogame bust, let's back up for a history lesson.

The crash of 1983 was an extraordinarily destructive business conflagration, the likes of which you might see once in a lifetime. Sure, the dot-com bubble was a big deal, but that was the result of everyone speculating a market was about to grow, and then it didn't. That's very different from 1983, when an existing and thriving market basically vanished. Sales dropped 97% over the course of two years. Outside of war, I can't find a historical example of any single industry falling that fast. What's even more amazing is that they weren't really being replaced by anything. This wasn't like when people stopped buying cassette tapes and started buying compact discs. People suddenly stopped buying videogames and there wasn't really a major contender on the field for their entertainment dollars. Nothing else pushed games aside. People just stopped buying them.

I loved my Atari 2600. My favorites were the arcade adaptations: Asteroids, Space Invaders, Defender, and Missile Command. But here's the thing: The games were a shocking $40. (That's about $100 in today's dollars.) At that price, I couldn't get more than a few games a year, and that was with sustained pestering and haranguing of the adults in my life.

I was twelve years old when the crash happened, although like a lot of kids I didn't really register that something had happened until a year or so later when I saw all those $40 games sitting in giant bins with $3 price tags. What was amazing to me wasn't the low price, but the fact that I didn't want any of them. Not even for $3. That moment - the moment where I realized I didn't want anything they were selling - was when the crash really hit home. It used to be that new games were the only thing I ever wanted, and now I didn't care.

The conventional wisdom was that Atari ruled the industry, and they killed their own market by shoveling out mountains of low-quality titles. On one hand they were squeezing their developers by asking them to produce games under ridiculous conditions and then denying them credit or royalties on the games they produced, and on the other hand they were squeezing consumers by keeping prices high and not caring about quality. The most infamous example is the case of E.T., the supposedly "worst videogame ever made" which was made by one guy in five weeks. The development budget was probably less than ten thousand dollars, and their marketing campaign was millions.

This is where people will usually draw parallels between 1983 and 2013. All the developers have collapsed into one of the small number of publishers, and those publishers will work their employees 80 hours a week to turn out a bland and derivative games and then charge $60 for them. They spend more on marketing than they do on the game itself, they don't care about quality, and they don't care about the consumer. It's just like 1983, right?

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