1st November 2006

I just got back from a seminar at the Computer Laboratory by David Braben, CEO of Frontier and famously a co-author of the classic Elite. He was talking about the games industry, and although he made a token attempt to give a broad overview of the state of the industry, most of the talk consisted of impressive demos and some exaltation of the unceasing march of technology. Unfortunately, on the few occasions when he did touch on more interesting questions, I disagreed with almost everything he said.

Throughout, he tried to draw a parallel between the game and film industries, claiming that games now are at the same stage as film in the 1930s. He claimed that games have yet to achieve any emotional depth, that the "Hitchcock era" was yet to arrive, and that games have so far relied on technology as their main attraction. Here was when my alarm bells started ringing: surely emotional depth in games really started appearing during the age of interactive fiction and, in some cases, the graphical adventure? Certainly the stables of LucasArts, Origin, Infocom and occasionally Sierra put out many works that could claim emotional depth. Now that the mainstream can't cater for either of those genres, is anyone even really looking to find emotional depth in the latest FPS, RTS or RPG?

He didn't completely ignore this issue: during the questioning session, he mentioned that mainstream games have now embraced the blockbuster phenomenon. They target a large audience who want something spectacular -- not only spectacular but, so it seems to me, unchallenging (emotionally, intellectually or in a number of other senses). In some ways this mirrors the music and film industries, which depend on their independent scenes to generate the bulk of their quality output. We can only hope that enough of an independent game scene develops for quality games to continue being produced. So far there is considerable enthusiasm for amateur IF and graphical adventures, but little else; most supposedly "independent" game studios are targeting audiences and budgets comparable to their big-name rivals, and are correspondingly few in number. The independent scene will only truly have arrived when it outstrips the mainstream in both quality and quantity, and when these independent offerings are being sold and reviewed alongside mainstream products.

Games aren't really like film. This debate first surfaced during the mid- to late-1990s, when a spate of CD-ROM graphical adventures with minimal interactivity arrived. They called themselves "interactive movies". It sounds appealing, but few were actually enjoyable games. (Under a Killing Moon is an oft-cited counterexample.) Meanwhile, consider id software's iconic series of first-person shooters: Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake. They all have token stories, but nobody played them for that. They are nothing like films. (That didn't stop some fools from trying to make a film out of Doom, but thankfully it bombed.) The fact that these games aspire to increasingly realistic imagery is irrelevant. Perhaps the technical challenges of creating visually-realistic games have much in common with motion picture special effects, but that's incidental. There's no recipe for a great game which would yield a great film, nor vice-versa -- and visual realism is a fair way down the list in both cases.

It's ironic also that the kinds of game which are most like films in nature, namely graphical adventures, have been forgotten by the mainstream. Characters, dialogue, narrative, imagination, suspense, drama and humour are all common ingredients of both. Yet perhaps the unpopularity of graphical adventures with the mainstream market is precisely because these ingredients -- the ones that are literary, intellectual and emotional -- seldom contribute the kind of instant gratification demanded by the blockbuster phenomenon. It's not surprising that the line between "independent" and "mainstream" in the world of literature is far more blurred than that of film. Producing a book which is both marketable and great is not expensive: indeed many beginning authors write in their spare time. What's more, any book requires some amount of effort from the reader, so instant gratification is not an option.

[Revisiting this article in January 2007, I realised that the words "Da Vinci Code" are enough to induce some doubt over that last point. Certainly, the blockbuster phenomenon occurs in fiction. Nevertheless, I think there's at least a shred of truth in the idea that fiction is less susceptible to the tendency of the mass-market to squeeze the more unusual and challenging works out of the mainstream.]

This is true for some kinds of game too: even a committed technophile would agree that ever-prettier graphics do not make management or strategy games significantly more enjoyable, and Frontier's own Rollercoaster Tycoon series is a great example. Marketability, however, dictates that these games also have flashy graphics. Perhaps this would be no bad thing if competent graphics could be produced comparatively cheaply, just as a low-budget film need not look visually deficient with modern technology. It remains to be seen whether the technological playing field will level out sufficiently for low-budget independents to compete in the visual stakes.

All this appears to show that the late 1990s' shift towards wholesale 3-D -- when 2-D games ceased to be marketable, whatever the genre -- is not yet complete. In the mid-1990s, it was sufficiently cheap to produce acceptable graphics for a strategy game that there was still room for innovation in the gameplay department. Braben himself namechecked Chris Sawyer, who made Transport Tycoon and Rollercoaster Tycoon with a very small team of helpers. Those games weren't held back by their 2-D graphics, but there is no hope for such an effort in the 3-D era. Consequently, it seems there's no room for independents to gain even a small amount of public exposure.

A few final thoughts: as anyone who's played Alone In The Dark (or even Doom) will know, 2-D and 3-D are complementary: there are many effective and economical uses of 2-D. I'd be interested to know if any independent game developers have been, or will be, able to exploit similar ideas to produce inexpensive but impressive results. As for Braben himself: given that a game developer of his era was primarily a technologist, rather than an artist, perhaps it's unsurprising that he's preoccupied with visuals, rather than with artistic or gameplay qualities. On superficial inspection of games during the last ten years, I'm usually amazed with how little graphics appear to have advanced, compared with the enormous advances of the previous ten years.

Having finished this article, I can't quite shake the feeling that I'm just a grumpy old twentysomething, romanticising about the games of my youth and crabbily dismissing whatever came afterwards. Perhaps I'm just too old and miserable to remember the thrill of seeing the latest and greatest graphics coming out of my newly-upgraded PC. Though now I think about it, that wasn't so long ago....

Content updated at Thu 11 Jan 21:33:42 GMT 2007.
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