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Sunday Thoughts: Gaming Evolution

How things change.

I remember a time, not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things, when I feared for my favourite pastime. I had grown up playing games with the ZX Spectrum, the NES, SNES and the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis). I had enjoyed everything from Attic Attack to Zool. So what worried me so much? Solitaire on Windows 3.1

Our first home PC was my first real experience of the platform. Access to computers at school had been limited to the BBC Micro in science classes and Mac simulations that told me my ideal job was building houses in Africa. Windows and DOS games were a revelation. 256 colours seemed like all we’d ever need. I used it for drawing, point and click adventures and internet chatrooms. I also played Solitaire on it occasionally. But, and this is the important bit, so did everyone else.

There was a time when this was the most entertaining sight in my gaming world. But it didn't last long.
For the first time ever, there was a machine in our house that my mother actively played a game on. I remember realising one day that Solitaire had become the game that was most played in our house. Some weeks, my mother had spent more time playing Solitaire than I’d spent with the PlayStation. My friends all said the same thing: their mothers were all happily clicking away at Solitaire any time they were left on a PC too. It was an epidemic.

Videogames were ours. They were the thing our generation had nurtured and grown up with. Not being able to get a go on Sid Meier’s Pirates! after dinner because my mother was on a two hour Solitaire bender was not part of the plan.

I knew that Solitaire was a new kind of videogame – one which pretended it wasn’t a videogame at all. Even then, I knew that if I had noticed the wildfire spread of this game among those who were traditionally reticent to play videogames, so had the people who make those games. I thought that the balance shifting would mean more games made to target this new potential audience. I thought that would mean less games made to target me.

Of course, that didn’t really happen. Subsequent Windows releases brought a few new games and there were countless convenience store racks filled with Solitaire compendiums for PCs but my own beloved hobby continued to grow and deliver great new games for me to enjoy. Those casual Solitaire players didn’t go anywhere either and through the years of flash games, peculiar collections and eventually Facebook games, they’ve developed into a massive attraction for developers and publishers looking at ways to sell their products to as wide an audience as possible.

Today, the widest audience possible means games on Facebook and games on mobile devices. With those platforms and their enormous potential markets, developers have had to look to new ways of building revenue. It’s no longer the most profitable course of action to create a large scale game, get all of the content together on a cartridge or disc and sell it in a shop. Developers have found ways to deliver the seeds of a game and then keep delivering more once a user is hooked.

Facebook and freemium are the latest fad that developers are rushing to but it remains to be seen how lasting their impact will be.
I remember a time when we all though that the “pay-to-play” model was dead. Arcades were no longer a big draw, at least in the west, and gaming had retreated to bedroom PCs and games consoles. But now it seems that the pay-to-play model is back in a big way. So-called microtransactions are big business and that’s where the real growth is in the market today.

From farm building on Facebook to tower construction on iOS, a compelling mechanic, coupled with the ability to pay small sums of money to unlock, upgrade and progress in a game, is what makes money these days and the big traditional publishers have noticed.

Whether it’s via mobile apps that further their flagship franchises or social media tie-ins that yield valuable free marketing, traditional videogame publishers are shifting focus to these new growth areas. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re moving away from large scale games, delivered on discs or cartridges, but it does demonstrate that a broader approach is seen as necessary in the marketing and launch of big games.

Should we all be scared for the death of videogames as we know them? No, I don’t think so. Rather, we should be excited for the extra material we now have access to. While social and mobile games certainly have appeal to a wide audience and they are irrefutably the fastest growing market at the moment, big traditional releases are still incredibly profitable for publishers and as long as we keep buying, they’ll keep making. Solitaire didn’t kill my pastime and neither will FarmVille.

  1. cc_star
    Team TSA: Writer
    Since: Forever

    IMO the biggest threat is the me too mentality showed by all the publishers at the moment.

    Sales of the traditional £40/$60 boxed game are declining dramatically and they have done each year throughout this generation. Publishers seem to think the way to reverse this is to invest development money into a few more pixels, or a different lighting technology or just go all Michael Bay on us with ever bigger explosions.

    The declining sales is also causing them to play it safe & the only ideas which get off the drawing board are sequels in a successful franchise, or projects that ape a rival’s franchise and they think they can take share from them, rather than just doing their own thing and creating new markets & sales.

    I put this down to the rise of the US as a gaming power, as the biggest market it makes sense to target it, but in doing so gaming has lost its sense of pushing boundaries and most of the release calendar is taken up by identi-kit franchises & whilst this may sure up sales in this rapidly declining market, it is actually hastening the decline by not expanding the size of the pie.

    This rise of the US has come at the expense of the once vibrant Far East, their creativity broke new frontiers and created new markets rather than just trying to take share of competitors within existing markets, but they just can’t seem to get it going and have even compromised their own philosophies chasing the same market that everyone else is.

    I’ve never spent less time gaming on a console & I’ve never bought fewer games than I am currently & facts show this is a typical situation.

    I’m not sure how this situation can be reversed, normally a new generation would be along by now to save the day, but this time around everyone’s just worried about increased development costs putting even more pressure on the broken £40/$60 business model.

    Comment posted on 15/04/2012 at 14:30.
    • Taylor Made
      Since: Oct 2011

      So basically in other words, Americans are ruining the gaming industry.

      Comment posted on 15/04/2012 at 14:56.
      • cc_star
        Team TSA: Writer
        Since: Forever

        Basically the core game consumers & publishers who feed them will be responsible for demise of our hobby as we know it, not some emerging trend like Solitaire once was & social freemium games now are.

        Comment posted on 15/04/2012 at 15:02.
      • plutoniumdragon
        Since: Dec 2008

        Parallels with the US film industry, what was the last major US film which wasn’t a sequel or remake? Presumably for the same financial reasons as the lack of originality in games.

        Comment posted on 15/04/2012 at 16:37.
  2. TheDemocrodile
    Since: May 2010

    i`m not too worried about the future of gaming to be honest, mostly because of the vision of industry figures such as Ken Levine and the rise of the indie devs such as Notch, all of whom will continue to make games they want to see, play and enjoy the feedback from the users.
    Sure you have companies such as Ubisoft and Activision that would rather die than alter cash-cow franchises like AC and MW but there have always been games companies that milk their respective cash-cows to death.
    The rise of Facebook as a gaming platform in itself is nothing to worry about either, as the article points out back in the day our mothers were playing Solitaire etc excessively and now theyve found a way to monetize that, no big deal, it wont detract from the game playing userbase one bit, mostly because gamers such as you or i have maximum disdain for it and simply wont play it.

    Gaming as a whole is suffering at the moment because of the stagnant console market, hardware limitations combined with the recessions aftershocks have meant that the traditional market for console gamers – High street shoppers and their kids – has shrunk due to a lack of disposable income, once the economy bounces back this trend will reverse, you mark my words ;)

    Essentially its all good people, chill, enjoy great new experiences such as Minecraft, the revamped excellence of Tribes and look forward to the day the new hardware comes screaming out of development to usher in a new era of gaming.

    Comment posted on 15/04/2012 at 18:40.
  3. ron_mcphatty
    Since: Sep 2008

    I think the old gameplay styles like platforming and RPG, whilst supplimented by more recent ones like FPS, have endured and will probably continue to. Touch screen can’t replace buttons, many industries like aviation and photography have already come to that conclusion, but it can work along site them. Games may end up being designed around that philosophy and I don’t think thats anything to be worried about.

    My mum still plays solitaire on Dad’s iPad, same old game really.

    Comment posted on 16/04/2012 at 10:10.

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