The other day I was talking with Warren Spector, designer of the upcoming Wii game Epic Mickey. Warren has been designing videogames for decades, going back to the cult classic PC games Ultima and Deus Ex.
Though he’s working on what is ostensibly a blockbuster now, he thinks we’re in a new golden age for gaming. This is being driven by the rise and spread of new platforms – from digital downloads on the Xbox Live Arcade to the iTunes app store.
I agree with Warren, but I’d go one step further – I think this is not just a new golden age, but the most golden age yet. When people talk about the golden age of gaming, they’re usually referring to the early 80s. The early 80s had a lot going for it in terms of electronic entertainment. It was the era of Pac-Man Fever in the arcades, and the Atari 2600 at home. It was also the time when the first wave of personal computer hobbyists, hackers and coders on machines such as the Apple II and Commodore 64 pioneered the first DIY software creation and distribution subculture.
The end of that era came with a video game adaptation of the hit film E.T. Not only was the game crass and crappy, but there were so copies produced that they supposedly had to be buried in the desert of New Mexico (a legend which has now turned the place into something like the Area 51 of gaming). The buried E.T.s symbolized the ugly mark of a new era of gaming, when corporate tie-ins devoured the indie geeks like Pac-Man chomping down fading power pellets.
True enough, the 90s saw the rise of the Playstation generation – bigger, flashier franchises driven by bigger, flashier sequels (Think Madden). Yes, a thriving PC underworld still emerged to transform the industry – particularly Doom, Quake, Half-Life, and their progeny – but it never quite got the respect (or eyeballs) of consoles. This was especially true over the 00s, when blockbuster franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Halo dominated the charts.
This month, the latest and supposedly last Halo title, Halo Reach, is hitting – and flying off - shelves. Yes, it’s selling gazillions of copies, and the must-play of the year. But its relevance pales, I’d argue, to the games that most people (especially those sitting next to me on my train this morning) are playing.
It’s hard to go a day, for example, without seeing someone on the road playing Farmville on Facebook or Angry Birds, the chart-topping mobile game. Angry Birds is the Pong of iPhone generation – a simple, addictive, elegantly designed game that appeals to a broad cross-section of players. Just as most of us grew up on Pong, there’s a whole new generation of gamers growing up on Angry Birds. Halo Reach, while truly awesome, seems almost niche in comparison – a game that requires a huge amount of time, and relative skill, to accomplish.
The gold of a golden age doesn’t just come from the luster of sales, but the promise of a rising dawn. Huge new swaths of the population – people who may have never gripped an Xbox controller – are choosing to play games like Angry Birds during their precious down time. They still may not self-identify as gamers, but their driving innovation all the same.