John Romero's been making games for more than three decades, and in that time he's seen history repeat itself more than once. In his keynote presentation at the GameON Ventures conference in Toronto yesterday, Romero laid out a few of the patterns he's spotted in that span of time, some existing solely within the industry and some dealing with the industry's relationship to the larger society.
Romero's no doubt considered the latter factor at great length, as his landmark shooter Doom became an oft-cited centerpiece of the mid-'90s political posturing over video game violence, along with games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Romero pointed out that similar hysteria had surfaced time and again in the past with other entertainment forms that captured youth imagination, like comics, heavy metal, and Dungeons & Dragons. And while he dismissed any concern about games feeding into violence, he did suggest an alternative culprit.
"I believe games are cultural and the violence that we see in the world goes beyond games," Romero said. "Plenty of countries play games. Canada, Germany, Japan, England, Ireland... They're all hardcore consumers of games, yet we don't see similar outbreaks of violence in these countries. It's not the game, it's the gun. It's not the computer, it's the culture. It's not the player."
"When we push the boundaries of games, when we experiment with the medium to see what it can do, there are always those who will question if the new work at the end is still within the boundary..."
Most gamers would no doubt agree with Romero's contention that games don't contribute to violence, but there might be more dissent when it comes to another pattern he identified.
"Recently the question of 'What is a game?' has surfaced," Romero said. "Computer games weren't games according to people who played board games back in the '70s. While console games were not games according to computer game players in the '80s... As we expand the boundary of games, people question whether it's a game at all. Is Gone Home a game? Is Life is Strange a game? Is Her Story a game? Yes, I think they are. When we push the boundaries of games, when we experiment with the medium to see what it can do, there are always those who will question if the new work at the end is still within the boundary, when in fact it has just pushed it."
A third pattern he laid out for the audience was the predominance of games as a social activity. Before the advent of the home computer, games were almost universally multiplayer. From chess and checkers to baseball and basketball, playing games meant playing with other people. But the first couple decades of the home computer were overwhelmingly dominated by single-player games. As Raph Koster has said, that era was "an aberration" made possible because the computers of the day lacked any kind of easy connectivity.
"Doom came at the right time, when local area networking was emerging and modems were everywhere," Romero noted. "Doom broke the single-player spell of the previous 20 years since the start of computer gaming."
As for where games are headed, Romero expects them to get even more social, driven in part by the advent of augmented reality and the continued prominence of mobile games. Pokemon Go is evidence of that future already becoming the present, but Romero also laid out some more forward-looking predictions.
"I believe procedural generation is going to reach a more impressive level as programmers and designers apply and discover more advanced techniques, such as machine learning. Procedural synthesis [of graphics] might be implemented in popular engines as plug-ins much in the way SpeedTree handles foliage generation."
Of course, all the fancy tech and plug-ins in the world won't help a game if it's simply not fun.
"I still believe that games have to have great designs to be successful. Tech by itself is not enough, but great tech combined with great design is a huge win. So what does all this great technology and design mean? It means what it has always meant. We're going to continue to have more amazing games. It means 'Game On.'"