Massively Casual


I didn’t realize the AAA game industry was getting younger, I thought it was always mostly 23-year-olds all the way back to when I was a 23-year-old. – Bryan Reynolds, Zynga

In an industry as obsessed with forward motion as videogames, having a bit of myopia about the past is inevitable, if sad. Film producers like George Lucas and James Cameron may have decried the state of the film industry before the advent of THX-enhanced, stadium seat-equipped, super techno theaters, but the decades of stability for film projection and viewing technology may have been as harmful to the industry as it was beneficial.

The fact is, if creative people are left to focus on harnessing their creativity, rather than mastering the finer details of the latest gee-whiz technology, they’ll generally produce better art, having learned from experiments, successes and failure along the way. If your tech is evolving at the rate predicted by Moore’s Law, however, you’re going to be putting a hard limit on the ability of artists to keep up, which, in practice, places an arbitrary age restriction on talent. Keep up or ship out, is the hidden message, and, if you’re looking to exploit the latest technology, is a necessity. The practical reality is that in a momentum-obsessed industry, you’re going to be working with a lot of first-timers.

Part of the problem is the industry itself. Games are hot once, for a very brief time, after which they’re yesterday’s news. Gamers play a game then move on, lending the games (and their designers) little of the aura that surrounds classics of other genres. Veteran designers like Warren Spector spend five years in seclusion working on a new game, and when they emerge from their secret moon base with their latest work of creative genius, they discover a world in which no one knows their name any longer. Worse, if the technology has shifted, so too has their competitive edge. How can this possibly encourage veteran developers to keep at it year after year?

Ask yourself this question: Hundreds of years from now, will any modern videogame creators be celebrated in the way of Shakespeare? I think not. But it’s not just the fault of the audience. The games themselves change so rapidly it takes an epochal shift on the order of magnitude of something like Facebook coming along to make game design fundamentals from a prior decade valid once more.

These days you can’t walk across Silicon Valley without tripping over a videogame “startup” staffed with old-school point-and-click era game developers polishing their skills making social network titles like the army of Pascal programmers pulled out of mothballs to correct for Y2K. It’s good for them and good for you; a good game is a good game whether it utilizes the latest 3D whizbang supermicro quantum mechanics sub processor or not.

It’s good for the industry, too. Progress is one thing, but considering the industry routinely experiences project overruns, late deliveries and employee burnout, one can’t help but wonder how long it was going to take someone to figure out that having an experienced hand or two around might be a good thing, if only for the added perspective. Reinventing the wheel is only exciting the first nine times; after that it’d just be nice to have a damn wheel around when you needed one. Enter: the wheel makers.

Few were paying attention at the time, but while the game industry was wetting itself over the graphical and processing potential of the latest generation of game consoles, one of the most-played games in the world was Solitaire, the game that came for free with every computer. Fast-forward a few years, and games like Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies have run away with the charts and a website where high school classmates catch up on old times and bored housewives stalk old flames has become the hottest videogame platform in the world thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of old-school game programmers.

Hardcore gamers may scoff at the graphics and interfaces of web-based games, but while graphics and technology fetishists may be paying the industry’s bills (for now), the “core” gamers (as the industry is currently calling them) make up only a very small percentage of people playing games. Facebook games are tapping into that larger audience pool in a big way, giving developers who’ve been shoved out the back door in the past decade or so (and their design theories) a new lease on life. Whether they will eventually make more of the opportunity than a series of fun-draining, soulless FarmVille knock-offs remains to be seen.

What’s immediately clear, however, is that the “new” gaming platform, social network games, has given a number of veteran game designers a second shot at the brass ring, and the opportunity to show the young AAA upstarts (who are currently working their asses off to render their own positions obsolete) what happens when you mix talent, experience and money into a pot, stir and serve to an audience larger than anything anyone has ever seen.


Russ Pitts

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