Once, game design was very constrained. More was not an option. So instead of ‘more’, we delivered something else. That something else was fun, which had nothing to do with quantity: number of colours, number of pixels, number of levels, number of megabytes, frames per second, market awareness of a license. Fun was the focus, fun was everything. This was the first age of video games. It lasted from the late 70’s until around 1994.
The second age started with the arrival of the Playstation and DOOM, and the demise of non PC home computers such as the Amiga. As the industry became bigger and more ‘serious’, the focus shifted away from that hard to measure thing ‘Fun’, to concepts that accountants and marketing people could understand. Technology was the driving force behind this ‘more’: more cycles, more polygons, more colours, more memory, and also of course higher barriers to entry (who had a spare 20,000 dollars for a PS dev kit?) and editorial control (Dear Sony, please approve my football game even though you have a football game of your own and your certainly would not want me making something that is more fun with less marketing spend, lower development costs). Industry figures sky rocketed, and initially in this second age, many people and companies did well. Innovation and fun still happened, but gradually what we think of as Indie development went away. The old idea that someone could author a game by themselves and have their name on the box became just a memory. Instead largely anonymous teams would work on rehashes of licenses or milking a successful original title by adding ‘more’ until the brand was destroyed. Employees at companies were not credited for fear that they would be head hunted. In this second age, the rule became “Never mind the quality, feel the width”. It is in the first age that Lemmings were born; it was the second age that they become largely extinct. This second age lasted until around 2008.
We are now in the third age of video games. After 15 years of decadence, high barriers, large budgets, unsustainable production budgets, the ‘mainstream’ industry has started to falter. How else could it have turned out? If the creative heart of an industry is cut out, sidelined, silenced, marginalised and bullied out, then all the ‘more’ in the world will just become ‘more of the same’. If the costs of development were one hundred times higher but sales only marginally better for most games, how could the industry survive? Could we really expect to be pushing blindly for more without a thought for the actual art of video game development and get away with it? LA Noire may have really good facial capture, but can really good facial capture sustain our industry?
It was something I had been predicting for a long time. Of course, back then (around 2002) things like blogs and Twitter were, well, not there. I would search for people to talk to online about these things, and the only place I found was that infamous industry forum The Chaos Engine. Yes, exactly. It sounds ridiculous now, but back then there was nothing else. Oh the fights I had on that subject. “The industry can’t sustain itself” I’d say. “Oh go away with your stupid ideas, you’re a has been” the forum (well some people on it) would say. Well, things are different now. Somehow now we *do* have intelligent debate on the Internet. Not through forums, but through blogging and Twitter (micro-blogging). The very success of Twitter is that you can only send short messages. Which brings me back to the point.
More is often Less, because if you focus on ‘more’ indiscriminately that’s what you get. More of things that ere easy to measure. More development budget, more technology, more licenses, more marketing spends more titles more more more…. until in the end you forget why wanted ‘more’ in the first place. The industry forgot why it is here: it is here to create more fun. But no one has figured out how to put that in a spreadsheet, so instead we have been chasing other ‘mores’.
In this third age we see the return of the Indie developer, and as part of that we naturally return to less. But as Minecraft and Angry Birds demonstrated beautifully, less is more when that less allows the creative freedom to invent new ways of entertaining, and create more fun.
Sometimes veterans (including myself) wonder why some really simple games are so successful when we have seen them before. Angry Birds is just a crude version of Worms. Minecraft is simply NetHack (or Rogue) in 3D. There’s no major technological challenge to these games. Yet, they are hits. Perhaps the reason for this is simple: the second age of video games did such a great job of ignoring the true art of video game development that now when a game comes along that actually shows that art people are desperate for more. I have no idea if I am right, but I am going to believe in it anyway… because that way there may still be hope for my own comeback.