Over the years, game design has calcified. If I were to pick a turning point, I might point at the SNES — a system of broadly appealing games that delivered exactly what people expected of a videogame, challenged few perceptions, and established the status quo for 2D console-style game design. Since then it’s been hard to get past the old standards — the prettied-up enhancements of Super Mario 3, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid that added little new in terms of expression or design language, yet that refined the hell out of some proven favorites.
You could say that the SNES was the epitome of Miyamoto-styled design (even in games by other developers), and you’d have a reason for saying that. Namely, it was the Miyamoto Box: Nintendo’s reward to Miyamoto for the broad appeal of his NES catalog. Meanwhile Miyamoto’s opposing force, in Gunpei Yokoi, was rewarded for his invention of the Game Boy by having his studio removed from mainstream console development to support his brainchild. The message was clear: Miyamoto’s way was the successful one, so he would be in charge of everything important from here on.
The thing is, Miyamoto is just one voice. He had a few brilliant ideas in the mid-1980s, all born out of a particular context and in response to particular problems. And then by the turn of the ’90s he was pretty much dry. All that was left was to codify his ideas, turn them into a near law of proper design — regardless of context — and then sit back to admire his work, while new generations carefully followed his example as if manufacturing chairs or earthenware pots. A videogame was a videogame, much as a chair was a chair. It was a thing, an object, with particular qualities and laws.
Thing is, videogames aren’t things; they’re ideas.
Part nine of my ongoing culture column for Next Generation. After the popularity of my earlier article, I pitched a companion piece about companies that had lived past their remit, yet technically were still with us. On publication we lost the framing conceit and the article was split into five pieces, each spun as a simple bottled history. In turn, some of those were picked up by BusinessWeek Online. Here’s the whole thing, in context.
A few weeks ago we published a list of five developers that made a difference, helped to shape the game industry, then, one way or another (usually at the hands of their parent companies), ceased to exist. One theme I touched on there, that I got called on by a few readers, is that although in practical terms all the listed companies were indeed defunct, several continued on in name (Atari, Sierra, and Origin), living a sort of strange afterlife as a brand detached from its body.
This was an deliberate choice; although Infogrames has been going around lately with a nametag saying “HELLO my name is Atari” – and hey, why not; it’s a good name – that doesn’t make Infogrames the historical Atari any more than the creep in the purple spandex with the bowling ball is the historical Jesus. (Not that I’m relating Infogrames to a fictional sex offender – though he is a pretty cool character.) The question arises, though – what about those companies which live on in both name and body, yet which we don’t really recognize anymore? You know who I’m talking about; the cool rebels you used to know in high school, who you see ten years later working a desk job, or in charge of a bank. You try to joke with them, and they don’t get a word you’re saying. You leave, feeling a mix of fear and relief that (as far as you know) you managed to come out of society with your personality intact.
The same thing happens in the videogame world – hey, videogames are people; all our sins are handed down. This article is a document of five great companies – that started off so well, ready to change the world – that… somehow we’ve lost, even as they trundle on through the successful afterlife of our corporate culture. And somehow that just makes us miss them all the more. Continue reading “Five That Didn’t Fall”
Part two of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation.
So Nintendo’s at the top of its game again – or near enough to clap, anyway. The DS is one of the bigger success stories in recent hardware history. People are starting to buy into the Wii hype; even Sony and Microsoft’s chiefs have gone on record with how the system impresses them. Japan is mincing no words; 73% of Famitsu readers polled expect the Wii to “win” the next “console war”, whatever that means. And these people aren’t even Nintendo’s target audience.
Satoru Iwata has done a swell job, the last couple of years, taking a company that was coasting on past success, whose reputation had devolved to schoolyard snickers – that even posted a loss for the first time in its century-plus history – and making it both vital and trendy again.
So what happened to Nintendo, anyway? How is it that gaming’s superstar was such a dud, for so many years? What’s the white elephant in the room, that everyone has taken such pains to rationalize? It is, of course, the same man credited for most of Nintendo’s success: Shigeru Miyamoto. Continue reading “The Nintendo Syndrome”