The professionalization of gaming

Anyone who has been involved with gaming since the early 80s, whether as a consumer or creator, can hardly fail to have noticed that it has become a lot more professional and business-like. Listen to any of the old hands talk about the early days and you soon realise how unstructured and random it all was.

This randomness was often a good thing. The unstructured way people developed things – often just doing stuff that interested them – resulted in some great games that would never have seen the light of day if they’d been voted for by committee. Populous started off as an interesting tech demo before it invented a whole new genre. It’s unlikely Kevin Toms have been given the go ahead to write a football management sim (at a time when no such thing existed) if he’d had to pitch it to a management group interested only in the bottom line. Something as wacky as Head over Heels would probably have been a hard sell to company execs out to make a profit on a safe bet, yet it turned out well for all concerned.

Without wishing to put the rose-tinted spectacles on too much, those early days had a real sense of fun and adventure; a pioneering, if somewhat anarchic spirit, where anything seemed possible. Of course, the unstructured nature of the business and relatively low entry barrier (if you had a computer and some time, you could write a game) resulted in some real garbage being released. And of course, those aforementioned glasses mean that we only tend to remember and celebrate classic titles, conveniently forgetting the endless mediocre Pac-Man/Space invader clones. But still, the lack of professional business structures allowed creativity to flourish and experimentation was not actively frowned on.

The same applies to magazines. 8 bit/16 bit magazines like Zzap! 64, Your Sinclair and, Amiga Power had a sense of mischief and fun. They were serious about gaming and reviewed games properly, but it was clear that they were having a blast doing it and the reader was always in on the joke (well, most of the time!). The humour might not always have worked (see my previous comments about Chuck Vomit in Zzap!), but it captured that same anarchic spirit that characterised gaming in general. Since the demise of Amiga Power, I’ve pretty much stopped reading computer magazines. I pick up the odd issue if there’s some free software I want, but I no longer subscribe to any. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in gaming, it’s just that all the mainstream magazines have become more professional and serious (read: dull) and lost that sense of fun that characterised earlier titles.

Don’t get me wrong: in lots of ways, this professionalization has been a good thing. It’s helped the industry to be taken seriously, rather than dismissed as “something for children”. The introduction of large teams and larger budgets have helped the industry to thrive and develop, leading to some games that would never have been possible under the old lone bedroom coder model. At the same time, though, it’s lost some of that sense of fun and creativity. In the early days, games were led by imagination, not market research. This meant you never quite knew what you were going to get from (say) a Jeff Minter or Archer Maclean title.

Games are a lot safer now, with publishers sticking to what works or copying the last big success. Try and find a game on the shelves of your local computer shop (if you still have one) that doesn’t have a number (Gears of War 4) or year (FIFA 17) after it or which doesn’t follow a tried and tested formula (Lego [insert latest film/book licence/whatever here]).Difficult, isnt’ it? It’s not that some of these games aren’t good; they’re just not terribly imaginative.

I know that, to an extent, I’m still looking at this through rose-tinted glasses, but I can still remember that buzz of excitement when I read that one of my favourite developers/programmers was working on a new game. I no longer get that same sense of anticipation because professionalization has lost that personal connection with the creators. I know I’m going to get something safe that will sell, rather than something daring and different (and yes, occasionally crap because of it). Programmers used to be our rock stars, our gods; the people nerds like me looked up to and aspired to be. Now, there’s that many people involved in creating a game I’d probably recognise 1 name out of every 500.

That’s why I’ve been heartened by the success of platforms like Steam, Google Play and the App Store, which have once again opened the door to smaller developers. They’re not perfect and still suffer from a lot of shovelware, but they’ve also led to the development of some real gems that hark back to those early days of computing when experimentation was encouraged and different was (or could be) good.

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4 thoughts on “The professionalization of gaming

  1. Nice article!

    I’ve been spending the last few evenings reading through old copies of C&VG from archive.org, so I definitely know what you mean re magazines. It’s nice to see ads where the cover art of the game was obviously hand-drawn!

    I’ve usually more interested in Indie stuff myself these days on Steam – I recommend Road Redemption as a decent combat racer and The Long Dark for those who miss Midwinter. Both early access but coming on nicely.

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    • Thanks for the recommendations – I will check those out.

      I used to love those hand drawn covers (and game box artwork), which clearly had such attention lavished on them – better than the bland/smiling model covers of so many magazines today.

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  2. I miss the days when gaming magazines were funny. Video games and movies are too safe these days, which is why we see so many sequels. Can’t blame companies though, given the financial risk of making triple A titles these days. Like you say weird and wonderful stuff can still be found on Steam/iTunes courtesy of indie developers.

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  3. I’d like to think that if a couple of publishers were a little more daring, they’d find out that the market is there for games that dare to be different. Sadly, gaming history is littered with titles that to deserved to sell far better than they actually did, so of course publishers are going to stick with a safe bet rather than experiment. At the end of the day, they are in it to make money and (as I’ve written in another post), unless we all stop buying the latest iteration of FIFA or Assassin’s Creed (which ain’t gonna happen), there’s no reason for them to change their approach or business model. Innovation will be left to the smaller developers – but at least they now have several platforms to work on, so things are perhaps in better shape than they were 10 years ago.

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