Alright, kiddos, today we take a history lesson back to the forgotten times when food was neon, big hair was a big thing, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, except they changed their names to Stallone and Schwarzenegger, so as to go unnoticed and sneak into positions of political and commercial power without anybody complaining.
Yes, it’s the eighties, that time we’d all rather forget about. Quite frankly, I never understood the appeal of that era. Alright, there were a few songs I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I like, but what about the thirties? Flappers, stylish suits and some great swing music, not to mention the Wizard Of Oz and the Empire State Building.
I guess I’m reluctant to think back to the eighties because I’m a gamer, and video games and the eighties go together like heavy drinking and an on-call heart surgeon. Except that whilst a botched operation only makes the patient’s nose buzz, at least according to what I’ve heard about it, gaming in the Reagan years was nothing short of lethal.
You see, in 1983 there came to be the infamous Video Game Crash, an absolute implosion of the industry that almost wiped gaming out of the public’s hands altogether. It hit Atari worst, probably rightly so, and there are certain games that we point at accusingly when the subject comes up (more on that later), but everybody who made consoles, or just made games for them, felt the noose around their necks.
But today it seems to be considered kind of cool to expect another imminent crash. I study games design at university, and everybody on my course always nods sagely like some cut-rate fortune-teller (so just a fortune-teller, then) when the subject of 1983 gaming comes up. Apparently history is due to repeat itself. Well, everybody seems to hope that it will, in the style of some biblical flood that sweeps away companies like EA and Ubisoft whilst leaving all the nice indie designers alone.
Are they mad? You’re all studying how to design games, you berks. If the coin comes up tails again we’re all out of a job, and besides, do you really think the big corporations will somehow die before the little ones do? The tiny companies are going to be the first to sink beneath the water, with their stumpy legs and low brand recognition. It’ll be worse this time round.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to know if this event is coming back round at any time soon, and to do that we have to look at the old problems of the market. Time for an eighties-style montage.
ACTIVISION AND THE THIRD-PARTY PROBLEM
Back in the era when Return Of The Jedi was new, part of the problem for games designers was that their corporate masters, Atari in particular, basically considered them to be expendable lackeys. They weren’t credited for their games of course, why the hell would they credit the people that made the product? They also weren’t paid royalties for the games that they helped create, so we have the slightly surreal idea that they could make an amazing hit bought by everybody and their dog, and were still considered lucky to scrape a living salary for one. It would be like Leonardo DiCaprio being paid ten quid an hour whilst filming Titanic.
Of course, many designers decided that this wasn’t good enough, and started to split off from the major companies to form their own third-party studios, the first of which was Activision. After a while there were about a billion third-party developers, so all’s good, right? Lots of companies means lots of nice games being made, and those Atari meanies get what’s coming to them.
Well, no. There was never any shortage of developers for Atari and their ilk to scoop up, but the consequence of many more companies, all making games for consoles without needing their permission, was inexperienced developers producing terrible games. Without the guiding hand of the major publishers, staggering out releases and demanding a certain level of quality, dreadful games started being pumped out into the marketplace like sewage into a lake. Damn, we were so close. I guess people just don’t deserve freedom.
THE SATURATION OF THE MARKET
Try going onto the Android app store. Then, when your head has finished spinning and you’ve played some of its very terrible releases, you might get an idea of what the problem was back then. With the glut of crappy games being spat out into the market, many of which were commissions from businesses who wanted a certain product sold (The Kool-Aid game, anyone?), suddenly the market was flooded with derivative, awful games that were indistinguishable from the very few good ones. People lost trust in the quality of the industry and only bought those games that they felt they could be sure about, badly wounding the marketplace and causing profits to plunge.
Of course, it wasn’t just games that were flooding the market. In an age where there are essentially three entities making consoles – Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo – it might seem strange to think that there were so many black rectangles on the shelves back then, that we might have been inside a shop for Monoliths, but there really were. At the time of the crash there were almost a dozen different consoles on the market. Some were updated versions of old ones, but they were all functionally different and none could play any of the same games as they others. This meant that when a game was released, even if you were interested in it, you only had a one-in-twelve chance of it being compatible for the ugly cuboid you happened to have. That said, there was a smarter choice, and before long people knew it.
THE ADVANCEMENT OF THE PC
As it is today, so it shall forever be. Yes, the PC was the preferable alternative to a console. The home computer was the up and coming thing back in the eighties, and because those interested in gaming tend to have an interest in modern technology, it meant that the people who were buying games didn’t always need a console, not when they had a PC at home.
Not to mention that the computers at the time were more powerful and had more memory than any of the leading consoles, meaning that all of the more sophisticated games ended up in your study, and not in your living room. And of course, your console only plays games. Your computer could do ANYTHING. Well, anything that could fit on a floppy disk, but people thought it was the best thing ever. It just didn’t make sense for the public to buy something less practical, less powerful, and less useful. It didn’t take long before they’d all worked this out, and the consequences were nasty for those caught in the flak.
The console manufacturers just couldn’t keep up. For a while they had an edge, being the cheaper option, but when computers started dropping in price to outsell each other, the real casualty was the Atari line-up and its band of brothers.
CONSOLES THAT WEREN’T MEANT TO MAKE MONEY
It’s a business plan that still exists with consoles today. Make a product, and hope the thing can make its money back from related merchandise, i.e. the games it plays. Loss leaders, eh? I don’t see anything that could go wrong here.
Atari were doing the same thing back in the day, making consoles that they knew wouldn’t profit and planning to make their real money through the games that they released on them. Maybe the Atari 2600 won’t do great, but if we sell enough copies of Combat, we can make our way out of the red and finally all get paid. Sound good?
Sounds idiotic, actually. Without restricting third-party support, not to mention the issue of games being for other consoles, the flood of derivative titles meant that somebody could pinch your idea and do it better. Not only that, but they could be cheeky enough to do it on your own platform. Atari were forced to witness other developers making games for their own consoles, undermining their profits and stopping any chance of this strategy coming up as rosy as they’d hoped. And with the public unable to tell any of these similar games apart, none of them made much money in the end, what with a roughly equal distribution of success that satisfied nobody.
Of course, some games didn’t deserve even that much success.
THOSE THAT FAILED
What, you thought I’d get through the whole article without mentioning these two scoundrels? No such luck, I’m afraid. Yes, it’s E.T. and Pac-Man, the two that couldn’t live up. We’ll deal with these one at a time, so I don’t feel like mashing a spike into my brain, and we’ll start with the slightly less offensive of the two.
To my mind Pac-Man is a greatly overrated game, even at the best of times. Yes, it’s an integral part of gaming history, but there are older games that have aged better. Tetris, for example. So I was slightly gleeful when I found out that the stupid yellow circle had let the public down with its movement to the Atari 2600 in 1982.
I don’t know what they thought would happen. The game was visibly worse than the arcade version which it was based on, but this was pretty much to be expected. The development was done by a single man, pressured by both the public and Atari for a really good port, and of course he could never deliver on his own. Whilst the game sold well, it was mostly from pre-orders and the first few day of sales, before anybody knew what they were paying hard-earned cash for.
And it worked as well then as it does now. When they saw the mess they had put into their consoles, excitement turned to disgust, and people were understandably upset. See, this is the danger of pre-ordering. You’ve essentially paid money for a product that doesn’t exist yet and is under no obligation to be good now that it’s made the cash already. How did you think this was going to go?
Pac-Man made its money, but the impact on the public was bad. The scales started to fall from their eyes and they began to see the quality of games for what they really were. They only needed one more push…
… And in Christmas, 1982, it came. E.T. The Video Game, for the Atari 2600. Order now and get your own statue of Icarus thrown in, screaming as he plummets towards the Earth.
E.T. has achieved some weird cult status just by its sheer, dribbling awfulness, and yes, I’ve tried it. You can find it online without too much difficulty, and I wanted to know more about the game that is commonly referred to by those who remember this catastrophe as “The Worst Game Ever.”
Well, after playing it for a while, I can safely say that if E.T. isn’t the worst game ever, it’s making a pretty good try for it. Watching an ugly crooked sprite bleep his way from frame to frame, falling in every pit just because it looked at him funny, and watching a timer count down to your death with no way to speed it up enough, the whole thing is just staggeringly awful, even for its time. By the even harsher standards of today, it comes somewhere between Malaria and Michael Bay movies.
But then, in retrospect it almost seemed like this game’s destiny. Right from the beginning it was going to have huge difficulty getting anywhere near profit. Atari spent about twenty million just to get the film rights, and were desperate to have it out for Christmas, whilst the film’s popularity was still high and the market would be just right.
But in order to make enough copies, the programming had to be done by September, and they’d only gotten the green light to start designing in the last week of July. With just over a month to make a bestseller, a small team got to work and diligently went about screwing everything up, including rejecting ideas by Spielberg himself, who saw the hideous monstrosity they’d made and suggested that they make something very different instead. Sorry, Steve. You might be thought of as clever, with your celebrated understanding of pop culture and having made the very inspiration for the game we’re working on, but we think we’re onto something with this repeated pit-falling lark.
The true irony is that Atari weren’t just walking towards failure – they were throwing coal in the engine and going as fast as they could. They advertised E.T. more than Catholicism advertises misery, and the result was that the public were chomping at the bit to get this exciting game when the Holiday season rolled around.
Only when they finally did chomp, they immediately spat it back out, and Atari was horrified to realise that having made four million copies of this freak show, three and half million had been unsold or sent back. These unwanted copies were promptly buried in a New Mexico dump, with a few Atari consoles added for good measure, in a manner that is staggeringly reminiscent of a sacrificial offering.
The end result of all this was to help finish what Pac-Man and other failures had started: The realisation that most games being sold on the market were embarrassingly awful. The crash wasn’t the sole fault of E.T., but it certainly was one of the worst offenders.
The financial fallout hit Atari hardest and came close to finishing it off, and the dying star that was the industry became a black hole that started to suck everybody into it. Damn, I guess I can no longer consider the Xenomorph to be the scariest alien lifeform. E.T. is the only one who ever actually helped destroyed an industry, the long-necked little bastard.
So what does this mean today? Are we due a second crash? Can a stable games market only be a fleeting dream?
Well, I don’t think we’ve got problems, at least not within the next five years. The market isn’t saturated on consoles for certain, so that isn’t an issue by any means. There are major games that disappoint, yes, but the wider spread and variation in the industry, not to mention how easy it is to find specific kinds of games with the help of the internet (you’re welcome) means that people can find something that suits them without too much difficulty.
Not to mention that the big companies are now nothing short of suspicious when it comes to third-party support. You don’t do anything without their permission, bucko. They’re the Godfathers of gaming. Previously it was the fault of the unrestricted, unsupervised production of games and the disinterest in the wider market. They were the major causes of the last crash, the ones that ruined everything and the big corporations have put a lid on it now, for better or worse.
There’s other factors that are different. A great deal of the old crash was due to the failure of arcade machines, and gaming on the computer never died at all. So the PC master race can relax, because history shows us that their babies can endure anything.
Anyway, time to go throw a brick through Atari’s window. I feel they’ve earned it.