Friday, January 8, 2010

Video Games : Industry and Culture

We all play video games; and if you're reading this then it is more than just a diversion. It has become a passion, an obsession, and for some a possible career.
The video game industry and culture are related in such a way that not understanding one part will cause failure in the other. Misreading the culture will cause the budding game designer to fail in the industry. Without understanding the industry, the game will not be able to flourish.

Cultural History of Video Games
Looking back at the history behind video games, it seems that one of the very first examples was written merely to test the capabilities of a new computer system, the PDP-1. This was, to my mind, the first true video game.
What is more important is the circumstances : the designers of the PDP-1 wanted to create an application that would show off their new machine. The video game fit the bill perfectly.
This remains true today. Video games are real time systems, they have advanced graphical and sound capabilities and respond to the user immediately. A video game pushes the hardware to its' limits.
If you want to make up your own mind who was the true 'Father of Video Games', the site has a statement written by Ralph Baer. Mr. Baer is, again, in my opinion, the inventor of the commercial video game.
He created the first console that could be linked up to a standard television set, which was a commercial success. The system was manufactured by Sanders Associates in 1967, and was licensed to Magnavox in 1970. It became the heart of the Odyssey 1TL200, hitting the market in 1972, and selling one hundred thousand units.
Baer had created an industry.
The first video games, such as PONG were entirely abstract. This trend continued with games such as Pac Man, until Space Invaders launched the familiar 'blow things up' video game that we know and love today.

Video Game Culture
Largely the domain of 16-24 year old males, video games are almost always associated with violence, sex, and everything that is wrong with society. Girls, for example, do not play games. Nor do teachers or priests.
The reason is simply because they are viewed as either a complete waste of time, or something that taps into the inner psyche of the human mind in such a way as to be actively harmful.
While this may or may not be true, the most popular video games revolve around guns, cars, or a mixture of guns and cars. With a good measure of impossibly proportioned female protagonists thrown in. Lara Croft. The Dead or Alive girls, now starring in Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What's more, adding female characters only entices male players, and adding muscle bound male characters also entices (jealous) male players. Clearly, there is something entirely male about video games.
It has been suggested that girls prefer the abstract game. Sonic the Hedgehog, Pac Man, Animal Crossing, Tetris, those kinds of game. Where the pace is a little less frenetic, and there is more emphasis on puzzle solving than knowing ten ways to stealthily kill a soldier.
There are also those girls who take it all in the same way as their male counterparts, and love it. You can find them at and .
As a side note, those games which appeal to both sexes, and are designed as such, do not usually sell widely to both sexes. A game that is focussed on the male gamer (with cars, sex or guns, and preferable a mixture) will sell more units than one aimed at both male and female gamers; the female gamers do not make up for the alienation of those male gamers not excited by the game.

The Industry
The cost of making a game is proportional to the inventiveness of the idea; if nobody has ever done it before, there is no residual talent, and it will take a long time, and hence be rather expensive.
Then again, if it is based on licensed technology bought in from another studio, then it will also be quite expensive. Small, technologically simple games, such as Tetris, Pac Man and so on are, these days at least, reasonably inexpensive to design and build.
Traditionally, creating a commercial game, of the expensive kind, takes a studio and a publisher, and possibly even a distributor. The studio creates the game, with money lent by the publisher, who then distributes the finished product and pays royalties to the studio.
This model changes if the studio self-publishes, via a shareware or electronic distribution. There is also the possibility to acquire funding via a smaller, entry product, or a third party.
It is not easy. Having a good idea, and being able to create a workable plan and perhaps even a demonstration product will help to persuade an investor (publisher or otherwise) but is no guarantee of success.
Publishers tend to stick to a genre (or market) that they know well, and not explore other avenues. Hence, choosing the right one to approach is key, as is knowing what they have done before.
Finally, a word about timescales. Games take upwards of 10 months to create; some games over two years. What is in vogue now might not be in three years time when it hits the shelves, so garnering interest early, and catching the wave of enthusiasm is vital.

Essentially, the gaming public will wait, as long as they believe that the product is worth waiting for. Know, catch, and hold on to that market.


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