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Issue #251 of The Escapist Magazine was called Uphill Both Ways and we had a collection of articles positing that the best days of gaming were somehow behind us. John Constantine wrote an article (Mega Man: A Transmission from Another World) that decried the lack of mystery around today’s games, specifically the difference between the first Mega Man in 1987 and Mega Man 10 this year. Issue #252, The Way of The Future, was the counterpoint. Jason Della Rocca wrote in Gaming for Our Future that games will soon infect so much of our lives that the term “gamer” will be irrelevant.

Both John and Jason agreed to conduct a debate, of sorts, between their two viewpoints. We sat down over the interweb and took sides: Old School vs. New Wave. Nostalgia vs. Innovation. Click play to hear John Constantine and Jason Della Rocca debate it out.

But as we are writers before orators, I also collected the opinions of Constantine and Jason Della Rocca in fancy print form. Here is the debate that raged over email which inspired the debate above.

The Escapist(TE): Are the best days of videogaming behind us or ahead of us? Why?

Jason Della Rocca(JDR): Yes.

Wow, first question out the gate and you already send us into an infinite loop. This is not an answerable question. On the one hand, so much about games is focused on the idea of progress: actual progress within a given game, progress of the technology, progress of the art form, progress of the business. However, on the other hand, so much about games is the experience of play. And that experience is personal and not necessarily driven by the same notions of progress. Meaning, the tech behind games continues to improve as we look ahead, but, perhaps my personal play experiences reached their peak when I was a pre-teen playing with my neighborhood buddies.

John Constantine(JC): Jason, you’re absolutely spot on. The question flat out can’t be answered without games just disappearing from the world tomorrow. It’s difficult to argue that the medium itself isn’t better today than it was thirty or even just fifteen years ago simply because they’re so much more accessible to people. The proliferation of cell phone technology alone puts games into the hands of millions and millions of people who would have had to actively seek out a platform to play them on back when. That said, it’s hard not to be a little wistful for a time when there was no playbook for designing games. Thirty years ago, there weren’t so many different established rule sets (this game is a platformer, that is a puzzle game, etc.), so making games was a more strenuous creative act. So games, and the art of making them, may not have been better in 1985, but it was certainly more exciting.

TE: What have we lost since the 8-bit generation? What have we gained?

JC: The newness of the creative process I just described is both a loss and a gain really. It’s sad for that period of striking out into the unknown to end but, as Jason mentions, it’s a good thing that there’s an established language for discussing and making games. The craft can be refined once it’s defined, and all that. It’s also good that the ability to make and distribute games isn’t as constrained as it was during the 8-bit generation. If you have a simple, quality game, you can throw it up on Kongregate instead of trying to get it into an arcade or onto a console.

The one-thing I consider a loss that I explore in my 251 article is the end of gaming’s mystique, that there’s no mystery surrounding their creation. It’s an issue that doesn’t really affect the average gamer though. Unless they’re the romantic type.

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This is a continuation of the videogame debate Old School vs. New Wave. Click play to listen to the debate or read on for more insight.

JDR: Oh man, another monster question! I’m not even going to attempt to catalog all that has changed over the years … Hmm, hard to say what’s been lost? Certain genres perhaps have met a Darwinian extinction at the hands of time? I’d say simplicity of play mechanics, but that’s back again with casual/mobile games.

From the plus column, I’m mostly interested in questions of “language”. The language of game design and the language of play. Simply put we have a far greater vocabulary for the creation of games. Sure, there’s still a lot of voodoo magic to finding the fun, but overall, the process of creating a game is understood, is formalized, can be taught, and so on. Of course, movies followed a very similar trajectory …

And, the same is true for greater swaths of the population being game literate. Greater levels of literacy allow for more sophisticated explorations of the art form. To some extent, you have more faith that the audience can follow you.

TE: Both of you mentioned the genres that may have fallen by the wayside as technology advanced in the videogame industry. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What types of games that were made in the past should be made now?

JC: Sometimes it’s a good thing. No one misses FMV games, right? But it’s tragic that certain gaming experiences disappear completely thanks to changes in the way we physically play games. New tech like the Wii Remote brought lightgun-style shooters back into people’s lives, but the experience of sitting in a specialized arcade cabinet for a driving or spaceflight game has gone extinct, and it’s unlikely it’ll ever return. New gamers can play a graphically amazing new After Burner in the comfort of their home, but they’ll most likely never get to climb in a custom cockpit built for the game. Genres can be reborn provided a creator revisits and revitalizes them, but experiences like those found in the arcades of the early 90s are almost gone for good. That, put simply, blows.

TE: How do the experiences of kids playing Modern Warfare 2 for the first time differ from a kid playing Mega Man 2 when it was released?

JDR: This is a literacy issue. Those who started playing games at the start of the industry, were able to learn gaming with training wheels on, and then graduate accordingly. None of us had to dive right into CoD.
One game led to the next. One input more or interface gave me confidence to understand the next. 2D lead to isometric view to 2.5D, which held my hand into the world of 3D, and so on.

There isn’t much thought given to this idea of literacy and graduating players across increasing complexity of gameplay. We normally think more so about content: cute and cuddly for the kids, big guns for the grownups.

Those earlier games are still around, of course. As well as similarly “simpler” fare versus CoD, but there’s usually peer pressure to be playing the latest and greatest that new gamers are hesitant to play a bit of games types that have training wheels.

TE: Jason, you talked about the literacy of games. Are so-called kids games adequately preparing the younglings to appreciate more adult games? Mirroring how a child is taught to read, should there be a better progression from primer games, to young adult games, to more adult-themed games? Are enough parent’s “reading to their kids every night” by playing the right games with them when they are young? What are the “right games”?

JDR: On the question of language/literacy, no one is doing this in any deliberate manner in the industry. It comes down to parents taking the time to introduce their kids to the “classics”.

All of the kids games are either “edutainment” style math/etc games, or cartoon licenses. There is no early “language of game” learning series. It’s kinda sad.

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This is a continuation of the videogame debate Old School vs. New Wave. Click play to listen to the debate or read on for more insight.

JC: Back when my old blog for Nerve 61 Frames Per Second was still up and running, passing on game literacy to my children was something I wrote about on a regular basis. In the same way that my own father shared the sci-fi and western pulp novels he was raised on, I look forward to making sure my child’s teeth are cut on the NES adventures and platformers I was. Great as the games we play today are, damn near all of them are rooted in the same fundamental mechanics as the games made twenty-five years ago. They are the Rosetta Stone for the entire medium at this point.

Unless something happens in the near future that changes that–say Natal, the PS Move, and the next Wii iteration spark some kind of motion controlled renaissance for example–a familiarity with the classics will be fundamental for game designers, if not game players.

TE: How much of a sense awe has been lost? Early on, when a game was released, say when Sonic the Hedgehog first came out or FFVII, there was much ooh-ing and ah-ing over the new concept or clever use of technology. Have games advanced so far and become so ever-present that we no longer are impressed by huge leaps? Or are there just less huge leaps?

JDR: Regarding awe, it still here in massive doses. Sadly, the awe often gets overshadowed by the mega releases like Call of Duty.

Fine, the raw graphics may not longer have the same oomph. But who cares? In many ways, that’s the least interesting element to be in awe of! I was blown away from Chris Hecker’s Spy Party prototype. The graphics are super basic, but the psychological engagement is beyond belief.

Let’s be done graphics and tech related awe, and focus on other aspects of what games can deliver. FYI, consumers have already moved on, and is largely why the PS3 (banking on graphics/tech awe) has done so poorly versus other platforms providing different experiences.

JC: I think there’s little to no awe left in gaming, at least not the same sort of, “No way is that even real!” surprise that followed the release of games like the aforementioned Sonic or FFVII, or especially titles like Super Mario 64. When the Dreamcast and Playstation 2 released at the turn of the century, reactions to new technology had already become grounded by realistic expectations. Yes, games like Soul Calibur and Metal Gear Solid 2 looked fantastic to gamers, but they were merely matching expectations. The leaps aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, but even bold new aesthetics in games, like the stylization of something like MadWorld or 3D Dot Game Heroes, things that would have dropped jaws twenty years ago, are met with enthusiasm but not awe.

TE: Why are so many gamers and developers currently obsession with older games (remakes, demakes, etc)? Is it just nostalgia or indicative of the current state of the gaming industry?

JDR: This is not a particularly interesting phenomena. Recycling, regurgitation, refreshing content and culture is standard among all forms of art and entertainment. So, I see this as healthy and would actually be concerned if it wasn’t happening.

JC: Definitely not indicative of just the current gaming industry. Like you said, Jason, arts and entertainment repeat themselves naturally.
(If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, etc.) Games’ history of iteration and reiteration is interesting though, because it’s been defined by stiff jumps in technology in the past. Console releases, a game type/franchise is made, it’s iterated on with sequels, technology jumps forward with a new console, game type/franchise is remade to accommodate it. I think it’s very possible that going forward, as technology evolves at a more fluid pace and is no longer segregated by platform, game makers’ obsession with older games might seem less formulaic, if not less consistent, than it does now.

I want to thank John Constantine and Jason Della Rocca for taking the time for this debate. If you’re interested in more from their points of view, take a look at Mega Man: A Transmission from Another World, John Constantine’s article in issue #251 and Gaming for Our Future by Jason Della Rocca in issue #252 of The Escapist Magazine.

Jason Della Rocca is a jet-setting strategy consultant for the games industry. He tries to game everything, and blogs about it via RealityPanic.com.

John Constantine is a freelance games journalist whose work has appeared on The Onion AV Club, MTV’s Multiplayer and 1UP.com. He is the founder of 61 Frames Per Second and wakes up every morning hoping Chrono Trigger 3 is announced.

Greg Tito wishes that this debate was settled cage match-style instead of polite musings.

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