Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Will Your Game Today Matter in 20 Years?

You don't need to be over 30 to understand the reference.
Many of today's youth have played Oregon Trail.
I wanted to read this article yesterday from Mitch Dyer, an associate editor at IGN, about the legacy of video games. His thesis focuses on today’s games being best appreciated today and won’t make for a lasting memory in the future. This isn’t about games that leave an impression on our minds or maintain an emotional tie. Rather, these are games that can last throughout the decades so new generations can pick them up and play and still retain their original value (much like a book or a film). The problem is that gaming is an ever-changing medium. Mario 10 years ago looks different from Mario today. He has the same basic concept, but he has evolved into a less-pixilated plumber.

Part of what prompted this topic was a topic regarding brand value over time at a gaming summit, which looked at franchises like Fifa, CoD, and WoW, games that are not legacy worthy: i.e. you can’t go back and pick up the original Call of Duty. It’s no longer in print nor on a playable format. And Dyer has a good point. A lot of our past with games have been throw-away products. In fact, that’s what much of the industry is built on: creating a product, selling it for 2-3 years, disposing of it and moving to the next title. Think of what you’re playing today and is it something that you can imagine yourself playing 20 years from now? Probably not.

But where I feel Dyer’s argument starts falling apart is when he marks the comparison to film and books, under the assumption that they all have a lasting quality.

They don’t. There are throwaway films and throwaway books and casual plays whose sole purpose is to make money and entertain. Super Hero movies are not ground-breaking content. Neither are romance novels that are a dime a dozen (hell just go to Amazon.com’s Kindle store and see the tens of thousands that are free), or Broadway shows based off of hit-films to capitalize on trends (Spiderman: Turn off the Dark sound familiar?). Not all films are worth the effort to remember or keep as part of a legacy, much like the myriad of video games. And while yes, the medium of film has developed over the years that we take better care and appreciation for what is created, it doesn’t make all worthy. In time as gaming matures, it too will be taken seriously where collector’s will better preserve the past.

In fact, many of us already do. There are more original Nintendo and SNES systems on the market today then there were 5 years ago. More ROM’s and Emulators are available to keep the past alive. Even as content is shifting to become more digital (which would help preserve older games), there are still many of us who see the need to keep the past alive. 

Snake in a box. Classic. And part of a history that makes
Metal Gear Solid worthy of replay.
The next issue I have is the other assumption that films and books started out as art. They grew into their work over time. Many people, when printing and film became first accessible, saw them as fruitless pieces of entertainment. They were good for a few runs and then that’s it. Some were destroyed to save space. Others were ripped from their original reel to try and salvage the film canisters for another project. There are hundreds of thousands of short films from the early days that we will never be able to rescue because of this, and it wasn’t until film became acknowledged as art that people gave a crap about preservation. Gaming is no different, and as it evolves, people will start the care. It’ll take time and it’s not an overnight process, but we’ll get there. It took centuries for books. Decades for film; games will come of age eventually. And early films were crap. I mean, look at them. Usually 2-5 minute clips of people doing random, every-day activities.  In black and white with low quality frame rates and no sound. I don't know about you, but I sure don't want to watch someone pouring milk for 3 minutes. But that's what film was when things started out. The experience that we know today for movies didn't begin until the 1920's when so many of the techniques were developed, and it has grown with technology. Gaming is no different: starting out pixilated on a computer screen and we're now at full movie-like quality characters.

My other concern with Dyer’s argument is that he glosses over important gaming franchises. While CoD is a yearly export along with Madden and Fifa, products like Super Mario and Grand Theft Auto are memorable. If Twitch.TV is any indication, next to League of Legends, the top most played games are pre-2000. People still yearn for classic Mario and the original Grand Theft Auto. They want to save the world as Cloud Strife and as a Pokémon trainer. I still have people asking if I’m willing to sell my original Pokémon Red, Blue, Gold and Stadium games. There is value to the past, even as technology matures. People will remember Tommy Vercetti from GTA: Vice City. While the newer GTA’s are much more advanced, there was an essence to the game that you can’t find anywhere else. A story, a charm, and life that cannot be replicated. The same applies to Super Mario 64. And Final Fantasy 6, and Chrono Trigger (still argued as one of the best RPG’s of all time). There is value in franchises and in the gaming past. People still want it.

It’s not an argument of how long will a game be remembered, rather when will gaming be accepted as art that preservation can begin.

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