We compose this post today in memory of Masaya Nakamura, (1925-2017), R.I.P., founder of Namco, the pioneering Japanese video game company which gave the world iconic video game titles Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, and so many other arcade classics. We’ve already waxed nostalgic over the arcade video game era.
But you still need a break from political news, and we are here to talk about another golden age of video game innovation: This one right now! Yes, don’t look now, but we have a renaissance on our hands, and it’s all thanks to the tablet and mobile phone platforms. And here’s what makes it so special…
The 1990s Desktop Revolution
The Great Video Game Market Crash of the 1980s marked at least a pause in the development of the home console market. Like many market bubbles in technology history, it was fired off by the novelty of home video game consoles which built into a massive market frenzy before hitting critical burn-out. But what almost nobody mentions is that a new market was just around the corner…
Home computers were coming into robust vogue in the mid-1980s. While before the market had been a huddle of unimpressive dumb terminals that were barely better than a game console with a keyboard and a BASIC interpreter bolted on, the mid-80s home computer market saw the first IBM and Apple desktops. And with them, came the software. Apple’s market seemed determined to give the cold shoulder to gaming, however, the IBM PC was practically begging for it. Between its cheap upgrade capabilities and the legion of IBM clones in its wake, the home desktop computer revolution promised that you could have your spreadsheets and still play video games too – and they were getting to be leaps and bounds better than anything to be found on a console, and even better than anything you could spend a quarter on in an arcade. By 1990, Microsoft Windows and DOS on IBM beige boxes ruled the world.
But the chief distinguishing feature of the early PC gaming market was that, for the first time, it was accessible to anyone. Before, to author a game, you either had to supply your own hardware to launch an arcade video game, or participate in a very closed market for the narrow console gaming world. But the home PC lowered the bar and subsequently blessed the gaming world with the indie market. For the first time, if you could code a game and post it on a BBS, congratulations, you were a game distributor – just like Atari and Nintendo.
Shareware, Freeware, and the Indie Market
The concept of shareware was to supply part of a game for free, and players could pay the price to receive the rest of it. Either the title was restricted from a certain feature until its fee was paid, or a few demo levels were given away to entice players to buy the whole game. In short, the early business model of the home PC indie gaming market matched pretty closely to our modern app market now.
The most notable company to get their start in this era was ID Software. Originally starting out as Apogee and Gamer’s Edge, ID Software would go on to give the world Catacomb 3-D, Wolfenstein, Doom, Heretic, Hexxen, and Quake. To this day, even the latest first-person shooter you can buy for a console or PC at Gamestop owes its very existence to ID Software’s shareware titles. As you can see from Catacomb 3-D, not much has changed, just better engines and better graphics.
The amazing boom in video game innovation in the 1990s gave us much more than shoot-em-ups. Platform games modeled after the arcade’s Mario Brothers’ franchise came out, including Commander Keen, the first Duke Nukem, Jazz Jackrabbit, Xargon, and countless others. In fact, just about any serious game franchise you’ve heard of started here, including Sim City for the Sims franchise and Warcraft for Blizzard’s still-running cash cow.
To obtain these, you’d either download them over the primitive Internet and the emerging World Wide Web, or you bought a floppy disk full of shovelware at the mall. Like any indie scene, a lot of the titles were hot garbage, but in 1996 you were willing to wade through some duds to find the occasional Quake. Every year of the last decade of the 20th century brought something amazing and new in gaming.
The Mobile Gaming Renaissance Today
Today’s mobile app ecosystem most closely resembles the PC shareware era. Apps that are offered free to download can carry an ad-supported income model, paid extended content, or simply bonus features to make the game easier to beat. The bar to entry is as low as it’s ever been too; if you can code Java and upload your craft onto the Android marketplace, you’re now a game developer. Where before shareware games were launched from garage startups, now you don’t even need a garage.
One sure sign that you’re in a video game golden age is when individual games become famous far outside gamer culture. Just as Pac-Man spawned the hit single “Pac-Man Fever” and Doom spawned an epidemic moral panic led by Jack Thompson, games on the mobile and tablet platform make their own cultural waves. Games such as Pokemon Go and Angry Birds have spawned everything from media frenzy to film spin-offs.
But there’s two more aspects in common between the mobile game market and the shareware PC games of yore. For one thing, the hardware expectations are rock bottom. Gaming on any platform inevitably follows the curve of requiring new models, as games come out demanding more and more resources. Mobile games have, for the most part, kept their graphic demands modest. This has inspired the “Flat 2.0“ design aesthetic, and other games have stuck to simple pixelated or isometric style graphics. Even most 3-D games have stayed to the level of Minecraft rather than burden your tablet with flashy OpenGL effects. Of course, this can be expected to change as more generations of mobile devices come out.
The other aspect that the mobile gaming ecosphere shares with the shareware past is the unfettered, boundless creativity! When gaming culture favors proprietary platforms, games become expensive to develop; as a result, they take fewer chances and stick to tried and true formulas. But when game development and distribution is wide open, you see constant fresh innovation. Anybody is free to put whatever quirky idea they want out there, and it can sink or swim as the market demands.
It’s a great time to be a game developer, and a great time to be a gamer. But hark, here’s the end of the article, and we once again have to turn you back over to the news of the day.