Video games in their current state are not at all representative of video games as they were in their nascent form. The evolution of video games to where they are now shows unprecedented growth in production values and the quantity of creative people required to build almost any game that has a chance to survive the retail marketplace. Only a percentage of games these days are made in a way similar to the days when the roles of producer, designer and programmer were often relegated to a single person. Even the process of selling games has changed from when people – called gamers – purchased computer programs at local stores wrapped in plastic bags.
As game consoles and personal computers evolved, the “band of brothers” video game cottage industry became obsolete as the demands of game making morphed to require what are truly large-scale production efforts. Various levels of the game design production process became more specialized at each level and various game genres began to develop. In modern production studios, game designers, programmers, marketers and executives all serve different roles – each mutually distinct, with often no apparent overlap besides their common passion for the games they are producing. Even so, it is new platforms such as Web browser-based games and iPhone and Android app stores that are opening up possibilities for a new generation of bedroom game developers.
Games’ popularity in the late ’70s and renaissance in mid-’80s brought an influx of new ideas to engage audiences, which became realized through ongoing advances in computer technology. The rule of games spawned from arcade machines like Pong and Space Invaders were soon over, though. What emerged were genres: A diverse group of games in classifications like adventure, fighting, puzzle, role-playing (RPG) and racing; categories that spoke to the theme of the game or the play mechanic it employed. Collectively, these genres became a showcase for video games’ potential as a popular and significant entertainment medium.
Although many individual titles during this period received critical and commercial success, it was during the first decade of the new millenium where the phrase Hollywood blockbuster was finally applied to games. Grand Theft Auto, Halo 2, Halo 3, GTA IV, and from this past year Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 all generated commercial success that outstrips most box office figures. Why? Certainly, it’s because these games possess complex storylines and gorgeous game aesthetics that immerse audiences in a way similar to film and showcase the maturation of this interactive medium. The entertainment world seems to have finally begun to see games as a relevant and compelling experience, just as their own audiences discovered that interactive games offered something compelling yet different from movies or TV.
Video games have experienced a life cycle like any other industry. Does this mean that the video games industry has peaked? This is a question that really has no place in a conversation about the state of interactive entertainment today and its near-unlimited future.
Games that were released earlier this year as well as titles that saw their preview during the E3 industry tradeshow should give even a casual observer of entertainment every indication that the creative community is not standing still, but moving forward at an even faster pace. Similarly, the experienced (or jaded) video game audience is always hungry to engage in worlds that will surprise them. Because in the end, it’s the high expectations of the expanding audience of players that drives and challenge game makers to create new experiences.
The explosive acceptance of what we now call casual and social games have successfully expanded the audience for games into segments of the population that core games had failed to sufficiently penetrate. Titles like FarmVille and Mafia Wars are but two examples of how the connected game experience has increased the overall size of the market for interactive entertainment in general.
It is so natural to compare our interactive entertainment industry with film because there are so many similarities. Both are visual mediums that require an audience’s involvement to be successful. Film in its earliest iterations did not start out as the artistic medium we enjoy today; similarly, games began as a commercially-focused form of entertainment in its beginnings. The evolution of technology has benefitted both mediums. An Avatar or Lord of the Rings was no more likely to have been created than a Red Dead Redemption or Uncharted 2 without the wholesale leaps in visual technology and cheap computing power.
Video games are still so relatively young, especially when compared to other entertainment media. The creation of moving images goes back hundreds of years, the zoetrope being one example, but it was not until celluloid was coupled to the photographic process that the birth of modern film took off. Recorded performance through the invention of the phonograph, telegraph and audio via radio waves dates back nearly 150 years. It is not an unreasonable assumption to say that much like photography, film, radio, recorded music and certainly television that games’ starting point gave no indication as to the field’s potential impact or direction as a medium. As interactive entertainment matures (and as much because of the multi-generational nature of its creative leaders) the discussions regarding the merits of the medium take on greater importance and significance. Much like these other now-accepted forms of culture, it is a time for interactive entertainment to battle issues regarding freedom of expression and regulatory policies and politics. The decision of the United States Supreme Court to review the California and Federal appellate courts’ rejection of the Yee Bill to dictate how video games can be sold may be the most important decision that interactive entertainment businesses, pros and players will ever face in our lifetimes.
Much like marking the growth of one’s child on a door frame, it is difficult to measure where games will grow solely based on where we are today. There is so much more to be discovered relative to what we know about our craft. And much like film, the experiences of the creative community will lead to new discoveries – but none of us can say exactly how or what or when. However, I imagine that there is consensus among everyone who has a stake in this dynamic form of culture to know that the best is yet to come. If there is anything to be learned from the history of traditional cultural media, it is to teach us to see that there are no limits within the human spirit in our quest for knowledge, meaning and sharing. The games of today and most certainly the games of tomorrow will reflect these traits.