Always Check the Mirror
It was about six weeks ago or so that my family hopped a plane from the Sacramento to San Diego for a couple of days. It was a trip we had promised our son for years. -- Actually for about three years now. -- At twelve, Kyle, was very much into skateboarding and inline skating. When we finally connected cable television to the house, it seemed whenever Kyle was not outside our house devising new tricks with his skateboard, he was inside watching the pro-skaters compete in ESPN2 X-treme game competitions.
I dont know if you have watched a lot of the X-treme games like my son has, but Kyle has learned two major lessons in life by watching professional skateboard competitions. First, there are desirable careers to be had in that sport. Secondly, all the nations skateboard pros live in San Diego, California. Hence, he has had an eager desire to visit that city. Kyle just knew that professional skaters were all over the streets in San Diego and he just had to see and mingle with them.
So now Kyle is fifteen. He is in his early years of high school and a trip to San Diego is an opportunity to tour San Diego State University, a renowned venue for a respectable college education. Of course, now, Kyle isnt into skateboarding any more it's definitely BMX trick cycling.
We hit San Diego during a very warm, but still pleasant weekend. We visited the Zoo on a Sunday and toured the SDSU campus on the Monday before flying back home. On the evening of that Sunday, we were touring the area in our rental car and comparing differences between San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. At some point, Kyle told Lynn and me, "One thing is for sure There arent all the professional skaters on every street corner like I thought there would be!"
How nice it was to see my son mature and get a better grasp of what the world is really like. Just as I was about to congratulate him on his astute observation, he added, "They must all be on tour."
I guess he still has a little more maturing yet. <g>
Good morning. My name is Don Thomas. I worked at Tramiel's Atari between November 1989 through August 1996. Many Atari users once knew me as a spokesperson for Atari offering feedback and support on CompuServe and the Genie online services. I have been an Atari computer user and game player since the early eighties and founded a small software publishing company I called Artisan Software in the late eighties. I have been profiled in publications such as Start Magazine and have had my articles printed in many prominent trade journals and throughout the Internet over the years. I currently work in the video game industry and am responsible for the Web Domain of "I.C.When.COM". "I.C. When" is a comprehensive chronological history of video games and home computers.
In a few minutes I will offer an opportunity to answer questions you may have about me, my experiences at Atari or in the industry. But first, Id like to share some thoughts I have with regard to the impact classic gaming and computing SHOULD have on us all . . . particularly the decision makers and the trend setters.
So my son, Kyle, is convinced that he understands the skateboard industry. Hell be the first to admit that he doesnt know everything, but that is not really the point. The point is more related to the integrity of the information he does know. For instance, he is convinced that skateboarders and BMX riders and inline skaters can earn a respectable living by touring the country and winning competitions. "All it takes is finding the right sponsors," he says.
In most respects, Kyle is simply wrong and he is in for an awakening when he learns that life is most probably going to be made up of flipping hamburgers, going to school and landing a series of traditional jobs throughout his career. On the other hand, Kyle may very well become the Ralph Baer or Nolan Bushnell in some aspect of the X-Games industry. His determination may well persevere and he could be in the right place at the right time as the world adopts a new billion-dollar devotion to world league network of skateboard teams and competitions. If Nolan had listened to his critics, then he may well be an unknown engineer at Lockheed and the world may have never known the same "Pong" that we now know.
But, while we popularize the stories that beat the odds, we often forget to check the mirror in life and see all the mistakes to avoid new failures. The gambles that lost. The bets that may have won if the gamblers looked at all the angles and examined all the risks before starting the machine that failed so unceremoniously.
Now, let's fast-forward away from Baers Odyssey and Bushnells "Pong" to a world of PlayStation, Dreamcast, N64 and Color Game Boy. Dare I forget to mention Project X? I think we can all agree that the video game industry has changed in a quarter century. Companies make systems that are MIPS ahead of a time that power was evaluated by how many sprites and colors could be on a screen simultaneously. Technology includes terms related to texture mapping and full motion video instead of bank switching and vertical blanks. Gaming magazines tend to allocate more space to well endowed polygons named Lara. Publishers select games that spatter oceans of blood-red pixels across the screen and replay digitized screams of real-time animated monsters being ripped apart to terrorize more than just our imaginations.
This weekends World of Atari 98 show is indicative of an old trend that is re-emerging. It is one that explores the value of updating and republishing classic video games. Most recent examples include Activisions libraries of Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 compilations for the PC, Hasbros release of "Frogger", Namcos series of "Namco Museum" titles for PlayStation, other releases such as "Centipede", "Asteroids" and so many more. I think it is exciting that companies are putting back in to my hands easy access to the games we loved playing so fondly in years gone by.
In my opinion, this trend is not a step backward by any stretch of the imagination and I feel it has been way too slow in coming. I believe that the video game industry has successfully established a new market of game players in the last decade. By doing so, they have abandoned the original phenomenon that built the industry twenty years ago and, thus they have abandoned those who loved it so. I guess it could be similar as if the music industry gave up on classical, swing, blues or jazz just because most of the world seems to appreciate some form of rock.
So what is it exactly that built the industry? What is this phenomenon that differentiates the games of the nineties from those introduced in the seventies and eighties?
Many of us at Atari had a name for the formula that makes classic games so great. I don't know if anyone else ever tried to define it like I have, but it is three simple words "The. Fun. Factor.".
I define the fun factor as a phenomenon that includes five primary components: I can remember them more easily because the parts spell out the word PRESS as in "Press the Fire Button".
1. high score Potential
All games, past and present, have to have some mixture of these components to survive very long on the marketplace. But only the original classic games consistently maintain a balance of all of them.
Let's look at them quickly. First, I mentioned "high score Potential". (I am cheating a little bit to steal the P from potential to make the anagram, but it is a very serious component.)
You might remember "Pong" had scoring. It had to. It was the only measure of how one did when playing the game. A higher score than your opponent meant that you won the game. A higher score than the computer player meant that you beat the game. But, by today's standard, the scores were awfully unimpressive. A good game might conclude with a score of 11, maybe 15 depending on the version of "Pong" being played.
Then there were games like "Warlords", "Breakout" and "Missile Command". Suddenly games allowed players to score as high into the hundreds, maybe thousands. Then along came "Galaxian" and "Phoenix" which doused players with scores in the tens and hundreds of thousands.
Eventually, next generation games took over and high scores have been fading fast. Games are too complicated to score anymore. Racing games give lap times. R.P.G.s reward players with new levels and fulfilled objectives. Arcades no longer publish player high scores over each machine and we never hear about a game that revealed something unusual simply because a determined player hit a new high score.
There is an article I found in the most recent September 1998 issue of Next Generation magazine. The article starts on page 10 and is titled: "When was the last time you scored?" The piece concludes and I quote, "Will score ever come back? Probably not. As technology evolves, games will become even more complex, and current titles that still employ a high score, such as 'N20', 'Einhander', and 'Incoming', are in an ever-smaller minority."
The article sheds some rays of hope however and I quote further, "But classic games are making something of a comeback; titles like 'Centipede' and 'Asteroids' are being retrofitted for the 90's, with score intact."
Sadly the author concludes, "Still, it's safe to say that score will never play the pivotal role it once did in gaming history."
If nothing else, I am not the only one that believes that high score potential is an elementary difference between games of today and yesterday.
Let's look at the second element of the fun factor Repetition.
When I say Repetition, I am describing the ability to identify a way that a game is played within the first few seconds of pressing the start button and depend on that overall premise to stay the same throughout the game. "Pitfall" is a game that includes climbing, swinging and jumping in a horizontal scrolling format. The obstacles may change their positions, the ladders may not always be on the left or on the right, but the game never ends up being different than how it started. Each new wave, each new level predictably resembles the one prior.
Someone might say, ah, but "Gorf" deviated from that formula and "Donkey Kong" had a series of different virtual game venues that had a lot of changes from one level to the next. Well, not really. It may have taken more than a few seconds to learn the new looks of each level, but they eventually recycled and the series of levels fit the definition of repetition that I am describing here.
Okay, let's look at ease of learning the E in the anagram that defines the fun factor.
Many people tell me that ease of learning is not at all missing from games today. They bring up games like "Unreal", "Gran Turismo" or "Crash Bandicoot". Yes, those are relatively easy games to learn, but are still far more complex than walking up to a machine, dropping a quarter and driving a circle through a maze to eat dots and avoid ghosts. Ive played "Unreal". Its fun, but there are a lot complexities too. A lot of passages to discover. A lot of items to recover. A very difficult game to sit down and compete against your previous high score.
I have played "Gran Turismo". It is undeniably a phenomenal racing game. Of course I have to be concerned with a lot more than I did when I played "Night Driver" or even "Pole Position". Theres tire tread, engine capabilities, car handling. Not much instant plug-and-play here.
I have enjoyed many hours of "Crash Bandicoot" and "Crash Bandicoot 2". I know I will rush out and buy "Crash Bandicoot 3". But it is more complex of a game to learn and accomplish than "Space Invaders" or "Missile Command".
Games from yesteryear, games that were filled with the fun factor, were never hard to learn. Often hard to master, but never hard to learn.
All games require the gamer to learn and apply a strategy to master the gameplay. Whether it is "Checkers" or "Othello", "Boxing" or "Street Fighter", there are one or more strategic moves that enable competitors to score better with experience.
Finally, the fun factor is unleashed in any specific game when there are Secrets in or about the game to be discovered. A secret may be a hidden level or character. Maybe it is a code to add lives or weapons. Maybe it is a way to see the programmer's initials such in Atari's "Adventure" or "Yar's Revenge". Or, perhaps it is a fascinating story on how the game was developed or marketed.
So why does an understanding of the fun factor and the appealing aspects of video games from yesterday have significance to you and me today?
Because we are approaching a new fork in the road. An opportunity to go in new directions. New generations of video game systems such as Dreamcast and Project X as well as whatever competing products designed to knock the socks off of the mass market. And before we embark on a journey to new next-next-generation technology, lets check the rear view mirror. Let us begin to recognize the market that wants to play classic favorites or new games that instill the fun factor into them. Lets put high score back into the game.
I applaud what companies such as Hasbro for what they appear to be doing. Their focus on reintroducing some of the worlds greatest software titles on up-to-date platforms is cutting edge. Hasbro has tasted the success with "Frogger" selling over a million copies in less than six months since its launch last November. "Centipede" will undoubtedly do similarly as well. I believe that they will do equally as well with each new title as long as they look back and enhance them using the same formula that made them great in the first place.
Thankfully, companies like Hasbro and Activision and Namco and nYko are beginning to adjust the mirror before moving forward on new projects. They may not always make the greatest decisions based on what they have seen behind them, but they are pulling out into the proverbial traffic of progress while being more informed.
Id like to suggest to forward thinking companies in this business two things Its wise to check the mirror and apply the good things from the past into the things they do in our future. And, secondly, it would be smart to look for more ways to work together to solidify a plan to help legitimize the gaming industry completely. Lets find more opportunities to recognize all the better games and to put the people who create them in the spotlight.
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