The New Generation – Part One: Design

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part One: Design”

Touch Generations

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “FEATURE: A Short History of Touch”.

A few years ago, Nintendo launched the DS with a vaguely unsettling catch phrase: “Touching is Good”. Their PR team sent disembodied plastic hands to everyone on their mailing list, in the process creeping out Penny Arcade. As creepy and forward as the campaign was, it had a point. Touching historically has been good, for the game industry.

On a whole, videogames are an awfully lonely set of affairs. They paint an alluring well, then give the player rocks to throw, to see what ripples. From Spacewar! to Pong, you’re always shooting or batting or throwing some kind of projectile, to prod the environment. Even in some of the most exploration-heavy games, like Metroid, the only way to progress is to shoot every surface in sight, with multiple weapons. Little wonder art games like Rez are based on the shooter template: it’s about as basic a videogame as you can get. See things, shoot things, you win. If things touch you, you lose. Except for food or possessions, generally you can only touch by proxy; toss coins into the well; ping things, to see how they respond. To see if they break. Continue reading “Touch Generations”

A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part twelve of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “OPINION: Yuji Horii was Right to Opt for DS”.

You’ve probably heard this Dragon Quest business; in a move surprising to professional analysts everywhere, producer Yuji Horii has decided to go with the most popular piece of dedicated gaming hardware in generations for the next installment of the most important videogame franchise in Japan. If people are bewildered, it’s not due to the apparent rejection of Sony (whose hardware was home to the previous two chapters). After the mediocre performance of the PSP and the bad press regarding the PS3 launch, Sony has become a bit of a punching bag for the industry’s frustrations. Fair or not, losing one more series – however important – hardly seems like news anymore.

So no, what’s confounding isn’t that Horii has changed faction; it’s that he appears to have changed class, abandoning home consoles – in particular, the sure and sanctified ground of the no-longer-next generation systems – for a handheld, commonly seen as the lowest caste of dedicated game hardware. Continue reading “A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism”

Mostly for my own later reference:

Curious. I’ve been, for a while, bewildered about the way people in The Industry classify their audience — namely as “casual”, “hardcore”, and “non-gamers”. Marketing people and the mainstream media tend to consider anyone who buys Madden or Halo, or who bought the Xbox 360 around its launch date, a “hardcore” gamer. Recently and more vaguely, the term “core” gamer has arisen — a gamer with any kind of a core at all! Even when you step back that far, it’s like calling anyone who buys a DVD of Spider-Man a movie buff. It’s… sort of a strange way to do things. I can’t imagine it’s much help from a business perspective.

Though I’m not certain this is absolutely better, it’s not a bad go.

  • Power gamers — the obsessive few who buy everything
  • Social gamers — what it says; people who play for companionship
  • Leisure gamers — people who play a lot of Tetris and Bejewelled; passively interested
  • Dormant gamers — people who don’t really get much chance to play anymore
  • Incidental gamers — people who play games out of boredom
  • Occasional gamers — the sudoku/solitaire crowd

I like the idea that this system is based on personal motivation rather than money; that’s a hell of a lot more useful. I wonder what the exact theory is, though. And I assume the theory goes more in terms of percentage than a binary yes/no value. That is, a person might be both a strong social gamer and dormant gamer, yet also have a bit of power gamer in that he buys a bunch of junk he never gets around to playing because he doesn’t have the time and nobody’s ever around to play with.

One problem is that this scheme doesn’t seem to account qualitatively for what the players are looking for in a videogame. The focus is still… off. It’s more about when people are interested in playing than what people expect to get out of the experience. How would you classify the target audience for Gradius V? Shadow of the Colossus? Katamari Damacy? OutRun2? Would you lump most of these in with “power gamers”? How about people who can’t name a single game that sells less than 500,000 copies or that was released more than four years ago, yet who shell out money for the newest system and all the latest mainstream hits? Are those also “power gamers”? If so, that’s not very helpful!

Neither would it do much good to get into literal specifics — “retro” gamers or “indie” gamers or “sports” gamers. Don’t even want to go down that road.

There’s got to be a simple theory out there to roughly account for all three significant factors — buying trends, the role that games play in a person’s life, and what they’re looking for in a videogame. EDIT: Perhaps how informed they are?

And Then There Were None

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part three of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “Culture: Five that Fell”.

For all its immaturity, you can tell the videogame industry is getting on in years. With increasing, even alarming, frequency, the faces of our youth have begun to disappear – forced from the market, absorbed into conglomerates, restructured into oblivion, or simply retired from the grind.

The first big wave hit back in the mid ’90s, when increased development costs, the demise of the American arcade, and the shift from 2D development left dozens of small and mid-sized developers – from Toaplan to Technos – out in the cold. Those that didn’t die completely – Sunsoft, Vic Tokai – often pulled out of the US market, or even out of the videogame business. Western outfits braced for the storm by merging with larger and ever larger publishing conglomerates, rationalizing that it was the only way to survive in an uncertain market.

The second wave came only a few years ago, after the burst of the tech bubble. In effort to streamline costs, parent companies began to dump their holdings left and right, regardless of the legacy or talent involved. Those that didn’t often went bankrupt, pulling all of their precious acquisitions down with them. Sometimes the talent moved on and regrouped under a new game; still, when an era’s over, it’s over. Continue reading “And Then There Were None”