My last post recieved a fair bit of internet interest. Unfortunately, it was mostly as predicted and I’ve not read too much substance by way of replies here or at any of the forums that my article found itself linked on. Many of the comments I got back reeked of desperation and, for want of a better phrase, lacked logic. It’s quite a shame as there are two clear instances where I specifically asked folk with such mentalities to steer clear of reading further or making poorly considered comments. Some people have even tried to argue with me that I don’t get the point being made in the article. As you can imagine, I disagree quite strongly with this and find little credibility in the argument that follows such an assumption. I am happy to say that, in some quarters, there has been reasoned and considered responses – these are the exceptions rather than the rule though.
If there’s one thing your typical Nintendo fan loves to quote, it’s history. Hear them wax lyrical about how Halflife 2 owes everything to Goldeneye on the N64. Listen to them talk in wonder about how Nintendo consistently innovate and never copy (Nintendo don’t copy, they re-invent). History is important – it shows us what we might expect from the future, it can highlight trends and serve as both a promise and an omen.
How many of you reading this regularly visit a videogame arcade? If you do visit do you go as frequently as you used to? I suspect the answer is ‘no’ in most cases to both those questions. Arcade games in the 80s and 90s were quite a different scene to what you see today. Most games were standup cabinets and featured games where a skilled player could last over 15 minutes on a single credit. Or course, there were games at home too. During this period monochrome graphics and low resolutions were wowing us in our homes whilst the hi-res, sprite scaling antics of the arcades made it seem worth paying £1 a go for a 3 minute experience.
As the years ticked by consoles like the SNES and Megadrive gave us what felt like ‘arcade perfect’ conversions of titles like Final Fight and Golden Axe. Of course, looking back we can see some quite large differences between home and arcade – but in the day, we felt we were really playing with power.
3D hit the arcades with titles like Virtua Racing and amazed everyone. Then Ridge Racer appeared and just floored people like never before. A year later we were playing it in our home – arcade perfect or thereabouts.
This trend continues but the technology leader has become blurred. Arcade hardware and console hardware have become almost one and the same. The home consoles can easily provide arcade perfect versions of Tekken 5 and such games are designed for arcade and home in tandem.
Whilst videogames in the home have gone from strength to strength arcade games have paid the price. They don’t have the edge that placed them so far above home gaming. Visually they find it an increasingly difficult challenge to compete. Virtua Fighter 5 on Sega’s new Lindbergh hardware looks astounding – but if Xbox 360 images and PlayStation 3 images are to be believed then gamers at home won’t be left behind.
Arcade games have suffered enormously because of this. To compete they model the most succesful games on short-term gameplay. The most succesful arcade games of the last few generations are racing, sports and fighting games. If you’re bad at these games you’ll probably be beaten in under a minute. If you’re good at these games you’ll possibly win them in under 5 minutes. The entire game model is designed to get the punter to pump in more credits – regardless of their skill. No more long games like R-Type style shooters or Wonderboy style platformers.
Additionally, and most tellingly, arcade games have become dependent on novel experiences to differentiate them from the home gamer. You can play Outrun 2 on your Xbox – but the arcade offers a nice car to sit in, pedals and steering wheel. How about 18 Wheeler? You could play it on your PS2 but the arcade difference is the huge, juggernaut sized steering wheel, novelty CB radio and roof-chain to sound your horn. There are but two examples of how arcades compete with the home using novelty and gimmicks.
Arcades compensate for their lack of graphical superiority with home machines by creating novelty experiences with gimmicky controls.
A major exception to this is the fighting game scene. Community and tournaments have kept this scene alive irrespective of any technological advances in graphics or control. However, even this area of arcade gaming has felt the presence of Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. It’s easy to find another human challenger to play Streetfighter 3 with if you have an Xbox. Online play truly enhances the sense of community (although nothing can beat true, in-person, tournament play) and this is one area where home gaming looks set to expand and where arcades don’t really have anywhere to go.
So what’s the point of all this rambling?
It’s a history lesson. Have a look at the arcade industry to see what happens when you stop competingly graphically and start compensating by using novelty controls.
As much as one company will tell us how unimportant technology and graphics are, I look at what’s happened to the arcade industry and feel that someone’s trying to lie to me. Especially when, two generations ago, that same someone released hardware named after the technology it was based on – the Nintendo 64. When you’ve got it, you flaunt it. When you haven’t got it you attempt to discredit it.
This is marketing. Marketing isn’t truth.
I don’t agree that graphics are everything. But I don’t agree that graphics aren’t important. If history tells us one thing it’s that, like it or not, graphics and visual technology are very very important indeed. They are far more significant than any reliance on novel controls. This has brought a thriving arcade industry to it’s knees. An industry that asks you to pay £1 for a game. What will it do to a company asking you for thirty times that much for a game?