Why Another Crash Isn’t Coming – Yet

Why Another Crash Isn’t Coming – Yet

Well, the video games industry managed to pull through another year. Whereas self-proclaimed prophets in the real world like to yell about life coming to an end tomorrow (“No, I meant next week–no, next month–all right, next year”), the games community likes to buzz about the inevitable coming of the next video game crash. What seems less certain is when it will happen, and what exactly will cause it, so it stands to reason it probably won’t happen at all–and certainly not the way it happened in 1983.

For one thing, the downturn of 1983 was very significant, but “crash” is a dramatic word. It implies that everyone, everywhere, completely lost interest in games. Truthfully, the crash primarily affected home consoles, most notably those made by Atari, and only in America. The gaming market endured in most countries outside of the United States, and arcades and computers remained in good health worldwide.

Moving beyond the hyperbole, when the console industry of the past is held up against the present, there are a few vague similarities that make it easy to pen scare pieces about The End. There’s a lot of talk about “over-saturation:” Too many games available at retail and not enough innovation. There is some truth to this. We’re seeing more remakes and sequels than new IPs. but most of those sequels take pains to offer significant improvement over their predecessors. In fact, the games industry offers an interesting change from movies, which usually see a massive decrease in quality from sequel to sequel.

Moreover, the games industry isn’t just about big-name titles and big-name sequels. There is an indie scene that is growing and allowing developers to test and distribute new ideas.

When the industry crashed in 1983, the whole “home gaming” thing was still pretty new. Atari and other console developers had little idea of what they were actually doing, which resulted in some pretty nutty decisions. Frankly, it’s a wonder there were even any ashes left for the industry to resurrect itself from.

Atari’s wretched port of Pac-Man and the infamously awful E.T. are still cited as the two main reasons for the industry crash. Some would argue that the colossal failure of E.T. on its own was enough to kneecap Atari. Either way, the history behind both games carry important lessons about overconfidence. Most longtime game players know the story: Atari ordered 12 million copies of its poor Pac-Man port for the Atari 2600 because it assumed the game would sell one copy for every one of the ten million 2600’s in living rooms across America. Additionally, Atari was counting on the game to sell two million more 2600’s. Ultimately, about seven million copies of the game were sold, though it’s not known how many dissatisfied customers catapulted their copies back to Atari.

As for E.T., the story of its development and failure is a suitable replacement for light bedtime horror. Atari spent a ridiculous sum of money on the license for E.T., and gave developers six weeks to create, package, and distribute the game in time for Christmas. Anyone with even a slight interest in game history can relay how that one ended. Hint: Landfill, New Mexico, steamroller, cement. Nobody has forgotten, least of all the console manufacturers who command the industry today.

But the industry crash can’t be credited exclusively to aliens and Pac-Men. There was a tremendous influx of home consoles, and most of them had nothing to offer. Watch ElderGeek’s “Insane Console History Video” and count how many systems were released between the late ’70s and 1983. How many offered even one game worth owning? How many even offered a functional controller? Suddenly, choosing between Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft doesn’t seem all that daunting.

Game development in the early ’80s was something of a wild frontier, besides. Third-party developers could produce whatever they wanted for the Atari 2600 without ever clearing it with Atari. Everybody wanted in on the video game boom, and the loose copyright laws in place at the time made it easy for console manufacturers and game developers to swap a few pieces and/or sprites and market the end result as a whole new system or game. It’s no wonder retailers lost interest in stocking video games.

These days, the industry still faces its own set of challenges–but the landscape has been cultivated, and longtime companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have had lots of time to lay down deep roots and learn lessons. It’s not incorrect to assume that certain aspects of the games industry will come and go–social games, for instance, or motion controls. They might endure, and they might not. But it’s unlikely that everybody in the world will throw down the controller at once and walk away. The games industry is pretty healthy right this second, and it will continue to find ways to delight us. Isn’t that a more comforting prospect to dwell on instead of agonizing over the supposed coming of a digital megadeath?

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

1 Comments

  1. “but most of those sequels take pains to offer significant improvement over their predecessors. In fact, the games industry offers an interesting change from movies, which usually see a massive decrease in quality from sequel to sequel.”

    Couldn’t disagree with you more on that, Nadia. Everyone assumes, fallaciously, that more is better. More is not better; better is better, more is just more and it can and often does mean WORSE. I think video games are quite like films in the sense that sequels are something to be extremely concerned about.

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