Dungeons & Dollars

Dungeons & Dollars
Gaming at the Margins, Part 4

Warren Spector | 11 Apr 2006 08:02
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I'll cop to owning part of the problem, sure. But on reflection, I really do believe there's a level at which games just aren't as cool, innovative, unique or daring as they once were.

I don't want to paint too rosy a picture of the past. (Well, I do, but I'll try to fight it and remain rational.) There was a lot of junk produced in the '80s, just as there is today. But the medium was so young back then, no one knew what they were doing. So you had everybody trying stuff, just to see what worked.

Of course, everyone had his or her own idea of "what worked" (or might work). And that meant you had people doing things that were personally meaningful. And it didn't hurt that teams were smaller, making personal style, and personal statements, much easier.

To personalize the argument, let's turn the clock back to Origin back in the late '80s. Most people who were there at the time remember the Richard and Chris show:

  • Richard Garriott was busy creating virtual worlds on an Apple II in the Ultima games (and 10 years later, championing the idea that became the MMOG craze).
  • Chris Roberts was trying to merge movies and games when most people were still trying to figure out how to make a PC speaker go "bwoop."

But just to complete the old Origin picture, we had a host of guys doing some crazy stuff:

  • Paul Neurath was combining flight sims, arcade games and roleplaying games in a single package.
  • Todd Porter was trying to tell stories episodically while recreating the experience of a tabletop RPG.
  • Greg Malone was combining traditional roleplaying and arcade-style combat - with the first mocapp'ed stuff I ever saw.
  • Stuart Marks turned programming into a game, putting players in the role of AI coders, trying to create AI-driven tanks you could pit against other players' tanks.

Elsewhere, things were just as exciting, innovative and daring: You had Sierra and Lucas creating a crazy variety of adventure games - I'm stunned they didn't do a musical comedy game. (Actually, maybe, in Loom, they even did that!) People were inventing new genres all the time - Dune 2, SimCity, Civilization, Myst, Tetris, Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstein and Doom...

Games had style. Developers had style. You could tell who made a game within seconds of beginning to play. There was variety in form, technique, genre, style - you name it.

Nowadays, there are a handful of Japanese developers who take chances. And let's all, once again, thank God for Will Wright. The rest of us struggle to innovate in even the smallest of ways. Yes, at the end of the day, I do think games are fundamentally less interesting than they were, less interesting than they need to be to survive and thrive in the future.

If we're going to secure that future, we must:

  • Find alternative funding and distribution models that encourage innovation, that allow for "narrowcasting" to a (perhaps) smaller but highly motivated audience.
  • We have to embrace the experimental rather than squash it.
  • We have to allow more people with more varied interests to participate in game creation.
  • We have to broaden the range of acceptable game content.

If we do all that, we might just find ourselves appealing to a larger, more diverse audience than ever before. If we do all that, we just might succeed.

But, it seems to me we really do stand at a crossroads. Right now. We're on the cusp of something. Can't you feel it?

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