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GamesFirst! Magazine

The Dumbed-Down Future 
 of Computer Gaming

Imagine that for five years the majority of films were made for a select and highly sophisticated audience. An audience versed in the history of cinema and able to, at a glance, discern a variety of influences. Imagine if almost every book published for five years was aimed at the most literate and critically aware individuals. I contend that that has been the state of computer games from say 1996 to 2001, and we are currently in the last days of the golden age.

Examining the most popular games of the last five years, you notice that most contain an amazing level of complexity. All of the top RPGs and RTS titles have steep learning curves and demand immersive play – spending twenty minutes on Planescape: Torment or Age of Empires doesn’t yield much. Games like Unreal: Tournament were made strictly for online play and hence require a certain degree of sophistication and an understanding of online etiquette. Many games have deep storylines and nobody could say that Black and White was designed with a casual gamer in mind.

But it is the casual gamer who will, in the coming years, dominate computer games. At E3, the casual gamer seemed to be on everyone’s mind. This type of player, according to market research, isn’t interested in significant levels of complexity. He wants to play from twenty to thirty minutes at a stretch. He wants to be able to be able to play at anytime without having to remember where he was at or what he was doing. According to all of the sources I talked to, the casual game market is untapped and huge. (A good example of this sort of game is the high selling but critically ignored Deer Hunter series.) The definition of the casual gamer has been, I believe, derived from the console game market and it will now be imposed on the computer.

How do I know this? Most of the games showing at E3 that will be released either this year or Q1 of the next began development in the heydays of 1998/99. Therefore, many of these – Arcanum, Warcraft III, Torn, etc – follow up on the type of success forged there. They are complex, immersive, and ask a great deal from players. However, it is clear that certain concessions to the casual gamer have entered the development cycle. Arcanum players have the ability to select character types, which allow the computer to handle the entire RPG/character screen portion of the game. In other words, play Arcanum, select a Dark Mage archetype, and the game itself will allocate points for attributes, pick spells, and determine specializations. Where character creation and development has usually been a huge and important part of RPGs, the casual gamer, desiring the quick thrill of the sitcom, has not the time or inclination for such things.

Future RPG titles like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic have truncated storylines and the developers specifically told me that they want to capitalize on the casual gamer market.

The ascendancy of the casual gamer does have a few roadblocks. One thing that helped the unusual quality of games for the last several years is that they must be installed. I can remember playing doom and having to dig through my autoexec.bat and config.sys files before getting it to work. Though most games have easier installs today, a player must have a certain amount of computer experience and skill, especially when something goes wrong. Also, a player must be able to maintain his machine and manage disk space as most games are so large that a few will fill most hard drives. All of this means that somebody must be competent and confident with a computer, willing to spend to the sometime god-awful amounts of time necessary to various tasks such as reformatting a hard drive. 

Something like Deer Hunter appeals to a different type of gamer entirely. I’d say that the console is the perfect platform for casual gamers. For installation, one just pops in a cartridge. Additionally, the console sits in the living room. They are played on the television set. Computers tend to be shunted off to bedrooms and offices. As a result, the console has a degree of socialability about it. Console games can and often are played in groups. Computer games are not. Even playing online, one is often physically alone. As you are alone on the computer, you can achieve a higher degree of immersion, like reading a book, while a console has more of a party feel.

These factors have helped created the computer games of the last several years and will also, hopefully, contribute to their continued sophistication and complexity. Obviously I’m advocating a certain type of play and would like to see computer games moving away from rather then towards console-style play. The diversity between the two systems is healthy. To keep that diversity, console and computer games should become less like each other, each playing to their strengths and core markets.

Am I saying that games like Deer Hunter don’t have their place? No. They provide a certain type of experience enjoyed by many. However, Deer Hunter can’t be compared to Baldur’s Gate in any meaningful way. One is meant to be played for an hour. The other for one hundred. One is a pleasant diversion. The other an epic story. One is, to be frank, mediocre and bland. The other rich in complexity and variety. As the casual gamer becomes the focus of the computer game industry and concessions to the casual gamer are made, expect higher levels of mediocrity in the best games.

And when I say that the golden age of gaming is over, am I for-sure correct? No. That’s the way of prognostication and prophecy. At E3 the meme of the casual gamer was on many people’s lips and minds. I saw a whole load of Hollywood types – people who "don’t even play games" but love the one they are funding, people who would be selling Girl Scout cookies if the return on investment was high enough – and that makes me sure that money in computer games, now of multi-billion dollar industry, has begun to attract more of the wrong type of people. Expect gaming to become more like filmmaking and publishing where whatever will appeal and not offend the most is best.

Maybe the sky isn’t falling. Maybe I’m overreacting. But it is a strange business where Interplay can advertise itself as being by gamers/for gamers and on the basis of their games we actually believe them. I think the times are a changing though and expect the quality of titles in every genre to decrease over the next few years. There will be great games, like there are always a few great films every year, but we’ll be wading through more dreck getting to them.

Matt Blackburn

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