Friday, October 28, 2011

The Gaming Digital Divide Narrows

Over the last 10 years or so, I have believed that the digital divide between people who play interactive games and those who don't was an ever-widening, insurmountable gap.  Where at one time games (yes, even video games) were a plaything of the masses, things took a sickening turn for the worse.

Simple arcade style game, designed by their very nature to be easy to pick up and play (yet maddeningly difficult to master) gave way to deeper, more complex experiences.  Put the blame wherever you want: home computers, increased visual and aural fidelity, the game designer geek ghetto.  The end result was that in order to satiate the small but dedicated group of game fanatics, designer had to create more elaborate challenges and experiences.  Unless you kept up with how to address these challenges, you were quickly left out in the cold.

It's no surprise then to see children and young people who have an abundance of free time and a willingness to sit down and master these things remain an important demographic.  Any adult picking up an Xbox360 controller would likely not understand how to play anything beyond the most simple of game.
I mean, just look at this thing!
But there is hope and it comes from a variety of likely and unlikely places.   Smart phones have given masses of non-game players a piece of easy-to-use hardware that is perfect for playing games.   Interestingly, Apple for the longest time actively discouraged games on their platforms (look at the robust Mac gaming library for proof).  If anything the hunger for games on the iPhone is an indication that "normal" people really do want to play video games, and the inherent simplicity mandated by the platform gives people an easy way in.

Facebook is another place where lapsed players and first timers can get their game on.  There's a lot to be said about the current crappiness of the Facebook gaming scene which appears more interested in draining wallets using psychological trickery rather than providing an engaging experience.  There is hope.  It appears that the "ville" games are trending down, shedding their users, and are ripe for reinvention.

Even Microsoft (with a grudging nod to Nintendo Wii) has entered the fray with Kinect.  No experience necessary, just stand in front of your TV and perform the moves naturally... well mostly naturally.

So where does that leave the hardcore gamer dude and dudette.  No worries. Deep, challenging experiences are still available, though perhaps not quite as plentiful as before.  But think of it this way.  Someone playing an iPhone game or a Facebook game is really just another game player.  We all don't need to be FPS experts, just like not everyone who watches TV needs to watch Boardwalk Empire (although they should!)  Games have diversified and reclaimed an audience I though we had lost forever.  And the game industry is all the better for it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jammin' with Jager

Attending a talk with Michael Jager is a bit like being in an information blender set to "liquify".  It's a constant barrage of ideas and concept that while never boring, is nonetheless difficult to parse.

Although they have a varied clientel, JDK is perhaps best know for their work with Burton snowboards and Microsoft Xbox.  It was their work with Xbox that I find the most interesting, but not because of the design and marketing work they did. 

Side Note:  I never liked the Burton spots, but then again I am so not the market for Burton.

I find it intriguing because Micrsoft has a brand that is lothed by so many.  Micro$oft, Microshaft, Windoze, etc.  The list goes on and on.  It is considered a faceless corporate monolith only interested in delivering bad product and services, taking your money, and maintaining a stranglehold on innovation.  So why work with a company so universally loathed?

I think the Microsoft doesn't always get a fair shake.  I'm coming at the from the perspective of an avid game player, but in the earlier days of computer gaming, it was the openess of their operating system (DOS) that allowed game developers to fourish, experiment, and push the technological boundaries of the PC.  Meanwhile, Apple's closed system actively sought to stifle game.  Expansion was difficult if not impossible.

When Windows 3.1 launched it was notoriously bad for games.  Developers continued to make games in DOS.  Microsoft saw what was happening, got the best gaming minds together and asked them what windows needed to do to run games better.  The result of this reaching out was DirectX, which is the building block of nearly all PC games.

Getting back to Michael Jager and Xbox, I think he saw past the bullshit and connected with the Xbox team on a personal level.  Saw what they were doing and was able to help them craft a message that resonated with the public.  For a relative newcomer to home videogame consoles, Microsoft has done remarkably well capturing their target (heh) market and becoming a household name.  Even Microsoft detractors have to admit, they knock this one out of the park.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Champlain College FunSpot Trip: A Picture Journal

What do you call a mass of 70 college students converging on the largest collection of classic arcade games in the world.  You call it awesome, because that's what is was. Teaching video game history is no easy task.  Unlike other forms of media, how you experience games, especially older games is unique.  While you certainly can play classic arcade games via emulation, nearly all of the context gets lost.  Providing that context to students who have no practical knowledge of that era has been next to impossible.

Thank god for FunSpot and the American Classic Arcade Museum.  With over 300 working games and pins (AKA Pinball) covering the early 1970s up through 1989, the ACAM let our students experience more in a few hours than days of lecture and discussion could accomplish.  Here are some highlights:

Computer Space (1971)
Galaga (1981)
Duck Hunt and Hogan's Alley (1984) - Gangsta Style.
Rows and rows of old machines.
With 70 students, the place really felt as vibrant as the arcades of yesteryear.
4-Player Gauntlet (1985)
Rockin' the old Pinball Machines.  Those yellow cups are filled with tokens.
Stun Runner (1989)
Donkey Kong (1981) - Very obscure game :)
Xenophobe (1987) - Sark and Tron look on.

Later that day we met with Bob Lawton, the owner of FunSpot, and Gary Vincent, the president of the American Classic Arcade Museum. They were a fountain of knowledge about games and the state of the industry back in the 70s and 80s. After hearing about our Game Development Program, we were invited to the repair shop where we saw some of the machines they are trying to get up and running. In addition to the 300 working machines on the floor, Gary has around 100 in a warehouse in various states of disrepair. Locating parts and material is painstaking. Many items aren't manufactured anymore. Once a vintage vector display blows, it's gone for good.

Meeting Bob Lawton.
Space Fury (1981) - Being restored
Gary Vincent explains the hazards of old monitors.  Turns out they catch fire.
Missile Command (1981) - Rare sit-down version.
Gary shows us restored control panel artwork for the rare game Flower (1986) 

Parts and materials for old arcade games.
They even have old consoles and computers.
All tuckered out, we climbed back into our buses and made our way back to Burlington, Vermont.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Do you speak game? Part 1

If we are to agree that games (specifically Video Games) are a kind of medium to communicate thoughts and ideas, then what language they use?  It has become increasingly apparent that games are at a crossroads of sorts.  Interaction and exploration of the system have always been the heart and soul of the gameplay experience, but as technology advanced and and computers became able to do more than display simple graphics produce primitive bleeps and bloops an interesting, yet entirely predictable thing happened.  Game designers began look to film and television for inspiration on how games should be perceived.

Ms. Pac-Man: Act 1
Pac-Man(1980) introduced the concept of a non-interactive sequence designed to tell a story (more of a skit in this case).  This was quickly followed by Ms. Pac-Man where the sequences began with a movie-style clapboard introducing a three act narrative arc over the course of the game.

Night Trap (1992)
From that point on, the notion that a game had to have some kind of story took hold.  The advent of CD-Rom technology with close to 700MB of data gave game developers literally more space than they knew what to do with.  Instead of making their games larger or their systems more complex, many developers loaded their games with CD quality music, pretty pictures, and full motion video.

This trend had continued up through today with some popular games, such as the Metal Gear Solid series sporting 70% non-interactive sequences.  Again, hardly surprising.  New and dominate forms of media have a history of mimicking their predecessors.  Early film resembled little more than a stage play captured by the camera.  Early TV programs own much of their content to vaudeville and radio dramas.  Games, in this case, appear to be no different in their behavior.  However, over the last few years there has been an interesting development.  Games appear to be developing a language  of their own.  The next post on this topic with highlight some areas where games are finding their own voice.