This year I encountered considerable debate regarding which era of film the game industry can currently be compared. Are we in the 1930s? What about the 1950s? I even heard a cynical declaration that games are just reaching what film was in the beginning of the 1900s.
It is an unsurprising discussion because games are now officially mainstream like film, beyond any of a shadow of a doubt. They might not be acknowledged by all, but they are played by all. And games have reached every era of film that exists.
This holiday I talked with family of all ages. Though she is repelled by the labels "hardcore" and "gamer", my aunt has become way more hardcore than I. When asked if she played five hours of Farmville a week, her kids laughed. To think she tended so rarely to her fields! She had planned out, before vacation, the crops she would sow to make the best of her extended time away from the computer. Which era of film had people planning their next movie-night during the film's climax?
I didn't tell my aunt that Farmville is a clever series of carrots, decoration, and viral marketing designed mostly around getting her money. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn't enjoy a game? She's never spent money in-game, anyway. She talked about her love of the game and what it meant to her. I talked during dinner all about the debate between meaningful mechanics versus games built upon achievements, but most of the evening I just pondered the gaming gap that lay between us.
Meanwhile, who am I to find fault in her gaming? I find myself less and less interested in long, complicated games, instead satisfied by the intuitive interactive pleasures available on my iPod touch. Give me a clever low-level game loop over a ten-hour game any day. Meanwhile some friends are still addicted to WoW. Others are indie-folk, playing retro-inspired games hearkening back to yesteryear. Or what about those guys I meet who still seek out arcades.
So tell me, what era are we in with our Kinect and Move? The consoles with their gamepads? Facebook and Flash? iPhone? The DS and PSP? PC? Mac?
You cannot tell me our maturity level because there are too many sides to nail down. Films are very definable in technical terms (except in EXTREME cases). They added color and better sound and higher resolution over time, but they are a visual and aural experience that you watch on a flat screen for between one and three hours. The experience does not fundamentally change with more or less people.
Now define how a video game works. Or should I say console game, or handheld, or multiplayer? Tell me that we will be able to define one in thirty years any better than you can today. Play it by yourself or with one million others or any amount between. Tell me if we will learn tools that will declare a game to be better if it requires players to work together or not. Or whether you interact with the screen or via some other input. What happens when holograms factor into games thirty years from now. And how long should a play session be?
Watching the indie scene, I am watching the 2d-platformer evolve. That, I could declare, is in the 1960s or 70s. We are building a language for it. And much of that knowledge can pass from 2d onto 3d games. Much of it is the same, whether on PC or iPhone. But now relate to me how Peggle is like Cave Story is like Farmville? I could definitely compare them, but not the way you could compare a horror movie to a comedy to a drama.
I felt very strange this year. I've made Flash games and used level editors from Blizzard and Valve in the past and always planned on moving up to hardcore PC/console games. Instead, this year I worked almost purely on Facebook games and iPhone, and it made me think about design theory that otherwise would have been irrelevant. It made me think about gaming habits. About why we play and what we get from it and how often.
We just work in too broad a field for me to declare how far we have grown. But I will say this: we are coming into our own. All hail this behemoth of an industry, now let's see if we have any way of steering it.
Happy new year!
Randy took a break from working on several unannounced iPhone games to write this post. Games he's making with Tiger Style Games, Phoolish Games, and SunBoyd Games. He also tweets.