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Here is a topic that I have thought of, and then passed on, several times. Buying video games. It’s not the most sensational topic. Some might even call it dull. Pedestrian. This is just the standard day to day of any industry that sell products to people. Maybe, maybe not. Video games have had a unique convergence of circumstances that makes buying them right now really interesting. I’ll try to explain.

Video games are fairly new as creative media go. Games are as ancient as civilization, but video games are really only a few decades old. Almost as soon as they were conceived, they were marketed as products. This is not an issue faced by backgammon, or chess. Games, once upon a time, were not products. They were an activity between people. Rules would not be laid out by a designer, they would be decided upon organically by players. If you wanted to play these games you would construct a board and play them. If a rule didn’t work, you changed it. Most likely you gambled on the outcome. If there was money to be made or lost on a game, it was in the gambling.

Some folks reading this probably just had their nostalgia buttons triggered. The “things were better when” button. Lets just back that up a bit. Backgammon is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 years old, and while I don’t know for certain, I would lay pretty good odds that the early versions of backgammon were garbage. That game was likely terrible through hundreds of years of minor iteration. People still play snakes and ladders, and that has never been a good game. In fact, snakes and ladders is not really a game at all. It is a hindu allegory for karma and predetermination. It was never intended to be a game, which is lucky for it, since as a game it is complete trash. Game design, like song writing, is a real tangible skill. Sure a good game can come from years of minute tweaking from countless individuals, but it’s probably worth the money to pay a designer to create a game.

Sometime between the 17th century and now, developing new games became an industry. They could be created, reproduced, packaged, and sold to people seeking novel entertainment. The rate of new games being produced increased every century, every decade, every year, until we arrive at present day, where the staggering onslaught of quality games flowing forth from talented game designers would probably kill a 3000 year old backgammon player dead with the pure awful shock of it all. Selling games had been nothing but good for the medium.

Of course video games are not centuries old. They are a few decades old, and the scaffolding they are constructed on has been constantly changing the entire time. The technology used to create video games has grown so much in such a short time that stunning games from my own childhood look like cave paintings now. Strange digital farts and blocky stickmen were the height of electronic audio and video. People paid to comment on markets and the movements of money said that, like 8 track tapes, video games would be a weird fad confined to the late 70s and early 80s. Of course they were right. The technology in both those cases was destined to be superseded by more effective, superior, and more convenient technologies. No one suspected that music would be in danger if one distribution vector ceased to be viable. Video games are just games, a medium as old as civilization, repackaged in a digital form. They were never in any real danger. This new packaging is so very new though, that it is sometimes difficult to tell, even for people paid to comment on such things.

Each generation of technology has been such a tremendous leap over the last that video games have yet to settle out. Board and card games have been able to depend on the reliability of the substrates they are printed on. They can work on the details of gameplay over several versions and iterations of the same game. There are modern day tweaks to the rules of chess. Video games have not had the same luxury. Every few years, the scaffolding a particular video game is built upon is torn away completely, and constructed anew. That experience is frozen in time. Shackled to the platform it ran on. Video games can be remade or reimagined, but not refined. At least not in the same way that board games can be organically evolved by the people playing them. This is why there is no video game equivalent of chess. If you have to reinvent the board for every new version, you might as well create chess 2. Hopefully the small tweaks you added will help it sell really well, since you will need all that money to finance chess 3, redone and reprogrammed from the ground up for the new consoles coming out in the fall.

Video games have been a very short term gain proposition. Most of a games sales were in the first few weeks of release. After that, you had to get back on the treadmill. Churn out a new version, or a new game. Sell. Repeat.

Here is where we come to the strange convergence we are at now. Computers continue to get more powerful by the nanosecond, but the main technology platforms are all basically the same. They vary slightly in the details, but they all run similar game code in similar ways. All the input devices are drifting closer and closer together. The methods of interaction in games are slowly but surely becoming standardized. Most importantly, a video game can now live forever. A game used to be confined to the hardware that it ran on, but now that hardware is no hardware at all. Games are distributed by, and, increasingly, run on, the internet, a highly abstracted software layer that can sit on all types and varieties of hardware. A single video game can now be maintained indefinitely with small, regular updates and patches. They can be services that a player can subscribe to for any amount of time that they choose. They can be delivered for free, and sold a few cents at a time to millions of people. They can, and do benefit from the digital model of infinite supply and limited demand. The self life of a video game can now be centuries.

Buying video games is changing rapidly, in a sprawling mess of options. It is unlikely that a game designed today will ever, for any technical reason, be rendered obsolete. The scaffolds they are built on have become fluid and malleable.

If there is a video game equivalent to chess, it is being designed and worked on today.

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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