The difference between a crash and an explosion
Why gaming's expansion shouldn't be haunted by the spectre of '83
Can you have too many games? Recent years have seen an unqualified celebration of the opening up of the games market to indies and small developers, who have found themselves free to create and distribute games on a wide variety of platforms. Closed platform holders are rushing to engage with this new wave of development, while open platforms luxuriate in a wider range of game software than we've ever seen before. Yet problems are mounting in this new utopia. Discovery is a huge issue, with even some very good games failing to find an audience, while the wholesale copying of game systems by unscrupulous firms has caused controversy. Perhaps the voices asking whether this new openness is actually a good thing aren't so crazy after all?
A brief history lesson is in order. In 1983, the video games business in North America went into a massive recession, which over the course of two years knocked over 95 per cent off the revenues of the fledgling industry. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see the causes of the crash fairly clearly - a convergence of factors ranging from rising adoption of home computers through to inflation, but focused around one key issue, namely the flood of extremely low-quality software which "poisoned the well", turning consumers away from video games and eroding confidence in the medium to the extent that only the arrival of new systems from Japan later in the 1980s would prompt a recovery.
In the past year, there's been a resurgence of interest in the 1983 crash among videogame executives and the industry's senior statesmen. They've not suddenly undergone a Road to Damascus conversion to become devoted scholars of the fascinating field of game history, though. Rather, they've adopted a tendency to say things like "I know it's not fashionable to say this, but...", followed by a darkly foreboding warning that it could all happen again, and that we're definitely on the path to disaster right now.
"In the past year, there's been a resurgence of interest in the 1983 crash among video game executives and the industry's senior statesmen"
Here's how they see our bright future going dark. The enormous amount of software being launched on platforms like the App Store and Google Play (among others - Steam has massively stepped up its Greenlight authorisations, for example) ends up overwhelming the ability of those platforms (and the consumers they serve) to provide for effective discovery mechanisms or to absorb and provide commercial success to deserving games. Great games end up being lost and their creators go under. The "Indie Bubble", thus far sustained by scarcity, bursts. Meanwhile, consumers unable to find good software end up being disappointed and annoyed with the low quality games they're playing. Rubbish games with grasping, unpleasant approaches to free-to-play mechanisms; relatively expensive indie titles that are rushed, buggy and incomplete; Kickstarter titles that either never materialise or miserably fail to deliver on their promises. It all adds up, until - crash! - consumers lose interest and drift away, leaving a huge hole in the industry's revenues.
In other words, it's 1983 all over again. Flooded with software that's mediocre at best and often absolutely rubbish, consumers lose confidence in an entire medium and go elsewhere to get their kicks. That's actually not all that unrealistic, by the way - the 1983 crash is far from being the only example of people deciding en masse that their time is better spent elsewhere. Interest in entire mediums - games, films, books, TV shows - ebbs and flows in accordance with consumers' perception of the quality on offer. Many of the mini-crises which the games business has encountered in its history, while not quite as dramatic as the 1983 crash, are down to a market segment turning away from the industry because they're just not all that interested any more - the decline of arcades, the Japanese industry's difficulty in keeping people playing past their college years, the desperate scrabble to figure out where the Wii's customers went after their console was put into a cupboard, the exodus from Facebook's myriad of mostly depopulated games.
One thing in this prophecy does ring true - we are most certainly in an Indie Bubble right now. That's a wonderful thing, for what it's worth - a bubble founded on creativity and promoting the discovery and rewarding of new creative ideas, new styles of play and new directions for our medium can only be a good thing - but it's a wonderful thing that will come to an end. The audience for indie games is much, much larger than anyone gave it credit for, which is why we've ended up in such a remarkable bubble, as talented developers reap huge rewards for being able to step into the gap and fulfil this pent-up demand, but sooner or later supply will balance against demand (even as that demand continues growing), and most likely, outstrip it. Revenues from indie games will start dropping off; creators will find it tougher to get noticed, tougher to find an audience and tougher to make a living. It won't be impossible; the indie scene, now established, is a part of the landscape of the industry and will not disappear, but the present bubble market, which has rewarded many creators handsomely, will eventually crash and leave some people (the "I gave up my job and remortgaged my house to make this entirely greyscale top-down RPG based on the Miner's Strike of 1984" crowd) destitute.
"The audience for indie games is much, much larger than anyone gave it credit for, which is why we've ended up in such a remarkable bubble"
For what it's worth, I would play the hell out of a greyscale top-down RPG based on the Miner's Strike, but that's really not the point.
Even if I agree that the Indie Bubble will come to an end and make life tougher for creators, though, I can't agree with the rest of the prophecy. The spectre of the 1983 crash is a scary one to wave about, but Hallowe'en is over, and this comparison requires far too many false equivalences to stand up to any scrutiny. For a start, the 1983 crash was brought about in large part by large companies making terrible, terrible games and then releasing them with huge marketing budgets and charging the same amount for them as every other game on the market. Compared to the present situation, where cheaply developed titles are put on the market with minimal marketing support, relying largely on word of mouth and effective leverage of discovery mechanisms, and priced at much lower cost than AAA software (often free, in fact, with IAP mechanisms to make a profit if and only if the player actually likes the game enough to pay), this is a radically different situation. A player who spends lots of money on a heavily marketed game that sucks is absolutely likely to step back from the medium, especially if it happens several times; a player who downloads a handful of cheap or free titles that were recommended by friends and doesn't like some of them is a completely different proposition.
Moreover, the industry's revenue sources are very different today than they were in 1983. The video game crash came about largely because the terrible games being manufactured were being sold to children - or rather, to children's parents, who rapidly stopped spending money on them when the kids were disappointed. The situation at present is very different. The consumers who access indie titles are not children, for the most part, they're pretty well informed and genuinely interested adults, spending their own money. Titles aimed at broader demographics are often free-to-play, which has its faults but is certainly insulated from a 1983-style crash simply by merit of being perhaps the most pure expression imaginable of the "try before you buy" philosophy. Titles for the fickle kids' market, meanwhile, are arguably better quality than they have been for years, not least thanks to the sterling recent track record of companies like Nintendo and Activision in the console field, and the rise of excellent innovators like Moshi Monsters elsewhere.
"It's easy for someone who's used to games being created to make money to fear the market being altered by this new wave of undirected creativity"
It's unkind, perhaps, but one can sense an undercurrent in the negativity - a fear that all of this new wave of indie creators, these thoughtful students, high-falutin' literary types, strongly motivated feminists or politically minded activists, and all the rest besides, are bringing an uncommercial and even anti-commercial sentiment into the industry. They're turning out countless games, from the bigger releases that end up on Steam or the App Store down to the dozens of games that end up being available after Game Jams or other such contests. Many of them are using games as a tool of expression rather than an instrument of commerce. It's easy for someone who's used to games being created for one single-minded if slightly soulless purpose - to sell to enough consumers to make money - to fear the market being flooded and inevitably altered by this new wave of undirected creativity. That, I think, is where the fear of "too many games" and the summoning of the unquiet spirits of 1983 finds its origins.
This is a creative industry, and we should never be afraid of creativity. A creative industry that fears creativity is one which has lost its voice, or run out of things to say, and video games do not fall into that category; on the contrary, the upheaval we see in today's industry is a result of finally learning to speak and beginning to grapple with the complexities and challenges of language, of form and of communication. The book industry faces challenges, but those challenges are not the result of the easy accessibility of pen and paper to the masses; the very lifeblood of books lies in the fact that anyone may pick up a pen or a open a new Word document and start creating, and some of those who begin to create will end up performing magic. Freely available, cheap film cameras gave us Spielberg and his entire generation; good quality cameras in every smartphone will give cinema its next generation of auteurs. And games? We should absolutely rejoice in the fact that smart, creative, expressive, angry, thoughtful people are choosing games as a medium in which to express and explain their feelings and their experiences - that our medium is becoming a way for a generation of artists and creators to share with others, just as writing and music and film have been for other generations. The seeds we're sowing right now aren't the seeds of another video game crash. They're the seeds that will grow into the most extraordinary, visionary and innovative generation of game creators we've ever seen. Don't fear it; feel privileged that we get to see it happen.