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Dead medium: Computer Games Are Dead (Part 4)
From: ChrisCr@aol.com Chris Crawford

INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN Volume 9, Number 4, April 1996

Interactive Entertainment Design
5251 Sierra Road
San Jose, CA 95132
published six times/year, $36 year, $50 outside US

(((We now conclude Mr Crawford's essay on the decline of

computer gaming, "Computer Games Are Dead.".)))

Howcum we're still kicking? It would be easy to

dismiss my apocalyptic preaching with the simple

observation that the industry is financially healthy. The

hairshirts who point with quavering fingers at our

iniquity, threatening hellfire and brimstone, may be at

least partially right about the iniquity, but so far we

seem to have been doing enough things right that the

hellfire and brimstone are on hold. So perhaps we should

ignore crazy hairshirts like Chris Crawford.

It's certainly true that the computer games industry

has successfully escaped damnation for quite some time

now. In many ways, the situation is similar to the stock

market, which just keeps rising and rising in blithe

disregard for the predictions of financial experts who

insist that it must come down sooner or later. The

financial papers talk about the Dow defying gravity, and

nobody seems to understand what's happening. The big

difference, of course, is that canny investors are

balancing their portfolios with greater diversification,

but the computer games industry just keeps believing in

itself.

There are three reasons for the apparent levitation

of the computer games industry. First is easy money.

Because so much money was made by the pioneers, there are

plenty of investors willing to pour money into the

business. Because everybody sees this as a growth

industry, investors are willing to lose money today in

order to get a solid market position for the future.

So the money pours into our industry, we build

million-dollar products that return ten cents on the

dollar for their development costs, and we just keep

reminding our investors of Myst and Doom. We think that

because we're gaining money, we're doing just fine, but in

fact much of that income is investment, not earnings.

Someday the easy money will dry up, and when it does, we

won't look so superhuman.

Another factor in our continuing success is the

supply of cheap labor. Any other industry would have to

pay its creative and technical people huge amounts of

money for their services, but in this business there are

always eager young talents willing to work for next to

nothing to get their big break. There are thousands of

people who are working on speculation, and their net

contribution to this industry can be valued in the

hundreds of millions of dollars.

This labor acts just like investment, so again the

impression is created of a wealthy and successful

industry, but in fact it's more like those financial

empires assembled by con men who borrow in long chains,

making themselves look rich on borrowed money. At some

point, a payment comes due that can't be met, and the

whole financial "empire" collapses.

So it is with our industry. At some point the

expectation of easy money will erode, causing some of the

opportunists investing their time to write off their

investment, depriving companies of valuable cheap labor,

further accelerating their decline, which in turn only

hastens the first process.

A third factor in our faux-success is the false basis

of most of our sales. Several years ago I pointed out

that we were riding on the backs of the hardware

manufacturers, who have performed economic miracles in

lowering the price of the personal computer while raising

its performance. The ever-improving price/performance

ratio of personal computers has enticed an ever-larger

segment of the public to take the plunge.

Of course, whenever you buy hardware, you might as

well get a few games. I believe that the ignorant games

purchases of initial computer buyers have been a major

component of our industry's financial success in the last

five years.

The best evidence in support of this belief is the

dramatic concentration of sales in a few hit titles.

Surely the phenomenal success of Myst cannot be due to any

overwhelming superiority of the title == we've all played

the game and we all know how good it is. Existing computer

owners did not rush out to buy Myst because it's the

greatest computer game to come along in years. Instead, it

established a solid reputation as a great pretty pictures

game, the one for first-time buyers to get in order to

show off the wonderful capabilities of their new machines.

If my hypothesis be correct, then as the deceleration

in sales of home computers expands, we should see a strong

decline in the sales of computer games. This issue will

make itself clear in a matter of a year or two. If in

fact we do see this strong decline, then we will know that

we've been living in a fool's paradise, and that the

financial success we have enjoyed has little to do with

the economic merits of our output.

You can't defy gravity forever. We've pulled off a

great levitation act for the last five years, but reality

will catch up with us and when it does, we'll hit the

ground all the harder for our failure to appreciate what's

been happening.

If there were no other forces at work, we'd be facing

the same future that coin-op games and videogames are

facing.

OTHER FORCES

But there are other forces at work, forces that

might save computer gaming: multimedia and the Internet. I

will not prognosticate on their separate futures; you've

seen more than enough hype on those two subjects already.

Instead, I want to focus on the how these two forces will

affect computer games.

Let's start with multimedia. What is most striking to

me about multimedia is the fact that it isn't gaming.

That is, multimedia is just another term for interactive

entertainment, but there's a clear connotation of

differentiation from gaming. We may not know what

multimedia really is, but we do know that it isn't gaming.

Yes, computer games use CD-ROMs and sound boards and full

motion video, just like multimedia products, but we still

know that computer games are distinct from multimedia.

This distinction implies divergence, and divergence

means that multimedia won't save computer gaming. I think

that multimedia represents a society-wide rejection of

computer games. After all, if everybody thought that

computer games represent the path to the future, then what

need would there be for an alternative path utilizing the

same means? The rapid growth of multimedia represents a

broad desire for something other than computer games,

something different. Therefore, the progress of

multimedia represents not the salvation of computer games,

but its bane.

The Internet is a different story. This is not an

alternative using the same technology, but something quite

new. What is exciting about the Internet is that its

culture is as yet undefined. Initially a research

culture, later a more broadly academic culture, now it is

moving out into larger circles of society, and along the

way its culture is changing. Because it is so ill-

defined, the starry-eyed optimists among us see whatever

they wish to see in the Internet. At some point, though,

the Internet will crawl into focus; it will not be all

things to all people.

I don't know what this focal point will be, but let's

explore two simplistic alternatives based on a single

polarity: let's assume that either the Internet culture

will embrace the techie-nerd culture that dominates

computer gaming, or it will reject it. Again, this is a

simple polarity, but it clarifies our reasoning. Because

if the Internet settles down to an on-line manifestation

of the techie-nerd universe, then its entertainment will

be a clone of the existing techie-nerd world of computer

games == in which case computer gaming will not be changed

by the Internet.

On the other hand, if the Internet becomes populist,

mainstream rather than techie-nerd, then conventional

computer games will fail on the Internet just as surely as

they have failed to penetrate society at large, and the

computer gamers will retreat into their own little

hobbyist enclave the same way they've done with standalone

systems.

Either way, we come to the same conclusion: the

Internet is not going to change the nature of computer

gaming. A dying man can change hospitals, but it won't

change the outcome.

Some will point to the multi-player aspect of the

Internet and argue that this is the revolutionary

socializing factor that will change the face of gaming.

Until now games have been solitary experiences, attracting

asocial nerds and repelling the more socially adept. The

Internet will change all that, they say, attracting a new

type of player, thereby enabling a whole galaxy of new

creative opportunities.

There is merit in this argument, but I think it must

take a back seat to the larger cultural issues surrounding

the use of the Internet. I really don't think that large

numbers of people will make their decision to participate

in the Internet solely on the basis of the games available

there. Ultimately, the Internet will develop a culture,

and this overarching culture will dictate the style of

games that will be commercially viable.

In other words, the availability of fine multi-player

games will not attract large numbers of "normal" people to

join an otherwise "techie-nerd" culture. If, by my

previous argument, the Internet instead becomes a medium

for "normal" people, then the multi-player interactive

entertainment available will be differentiated from

computer gaming, and again we will see the divergence

between computer gaming and Internet interactive

entertainment in exactly the same manner that multimedia

has differentiated itself from computer gaming.

What I am saying here is that technology doesn't

change people; people change technology. It took nearly a

decade for computer games to establish their target

market, but that marketplace is now clearly defined, and

it's the people == the customers == who dictate the shape

of computer gaming. New technologies will not change the

customer base.

Computer gaming has failed to establish itself as a

mass market medium. Instead, the field has become a hobby,

and hobbies tend to be insular and resistant to change.

I am not suggesting that computer games will drop off

the face of the earth. Indeed, they will surely persist

with the same durability demonstrated by, say, model

railroading, amateur photography, and woodworking. But

this generation has dropped the torch in its scramble for

quick gain, and has lost its shot at creating a living

medium with a bright future.

Instead, we have created a hobby, a good and fine

thing, to be sure, but nothing approaching the potential

that we optimistically contemplated back in the early 80s.

As for me, well, I don't give up so easily. I have

picked up the torch, brushed it off, and resumed trudging

up the now-lonely path, even as the rest of the parade

gaily marches down to hell. There are plenty of other

people standing around hopefully, potential torchbearers

all, each bringing some special talent to the picture. I

don't know whether it will emerge from the multimedia

people, or the Internet people, or from some other

direction, but I do know that we need to start all over

and build a new creative community, one dedicated to the

construction of a mass medium rather than the exploitation

of a technology.

I approach this task with optimism and excitement.

Over the last year or two, as I have opened my eyes to

people outside the traditional computer gaming community,

I have discovered a wide array of talented people,

bursting with energy and enthusiasm. They're out there,

ready to make a revolution.

Chris Crawford interview