The Rainmakers

The Rainmakers
A Natural Born Inventor

Shannon Drake | 6 Mar 2007 11:02
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With the Odyssey at the forefront in the home and Pong leading the charge in the arcade, the electronic gaming industry was off and running. Magnavox reaped most of the profits, though in an earlier interview Baer said, "I was well taken care of. I have no complaints."

And Baer went right on inventing things, like the first light gun for home games, Simon, and a number of other electronic toys and games. Indeed, on the day we spoke, he said he'd "just signed a contract with a major manufacturer." While he couldn't tell me exactly what he was designing, it is supposed to be something to communicate with both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. He's not doing videogames, but he stays busy, describing himself as "a natural-born inventor, apart from 50 U.S. patents and 100 foreign ones. I've invented hundreds of things over 30 or 40 years."

Looking back, Baer sees an industry still grappling with the very first challenge he faced all those years ago: making games fun. "All we have now is a bunch of interactive movies," he says. "And any challenging part is not necessarily fun to play, which is why so many people go back and play regular games, especially now that they're available on media like cell phones and handheld stuff. When people play, they don't play complicated modern games, they play real stuff."

I asked if he had a favorite company that did things right. "I can't really answer that question. Look at the bottom line, who sells the largest number of games? And clarifying that, they all do many things right, and lots of things that are not so great, but what do you expect? People have been publishing books for hundreds of years. Some are great, some are lousy, some in-between. And that decision making is in the eyes of the beholder anyhow. There's a lot of great stuff out there, and I don't even know about it. What I know about present games is what I watch over the shoulders of my grandkids."

However, he will offer some advice to the developers of today. "Make games that people like to play." He elaborates, "If you want to stop right there and think about it, we still play boardgames we played in 1880. We play other boardgames that were invented 5,000 years ago. They're totally different and a hell of a lot simpler than all this electronic stuff."

He cites the pursuit of graphics over gameplay, saying, "In the beginning, yes, things were so primitive that there was a definite need for things to improve the graphics. But now, the graphics ... have taken on a life of [their] own. It's one generation from having total reality out there." Additionally, "the idea of playing games over the web, it's just taken hold and it's pretty prevalent right now. It's a hell of a good idea." However, the pursuit of graphical realism means designers have lost focus on gameplay, and the anonymity of the internet means people don't get quite the social experience they used to have. "[That] was the concept in the very beginning. You don't play Ping Pong with yourself, you play it as another person. In these massive games, you don't even see the other person; they are an idea. They don't want to be known, because they're not playing themselves. They're playing the avatar they created, the guy or gal they want to be. That's not really socializing."

With that said, though, he urges the industry to "keep going. Who am I to tell an industry where to go and what to do? I expressed my opinion earlier that there should be a little more stress on having fun. The quest for being king of the hill in some bloody game doesn't sound to me like socializing or something very fun. That seems like work to me."

[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw

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