The videogame that many people associate as being the “first” would have to be Pong. For all of the Conners, Dakotas, Brentleys, and Kaydens that were born in the 1990s and have no idea what Pong is, it’s a game where two rectangles are denying ownership of a square.
Atari released their 2600 console and helped make videogames much more accessible to the people that used to hang out in arcades, worshipping the devil, smoking the reefer, and corrupting the youth of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Atari games often involved blocks emitting blocks at other blocks while bleeping.
Nintendo came up with Super Mario Brothers, and released it on their Family Computer. Much like any foreign word that makes it way to Japanese, it ends up getting 50% more vowels added to it, and thus the length is cut down to make it easier to say. Family Computer became Famicon, and Famicon became a huge hit in Japan, and was later transformed into the Back to the Future Delorean in order to be successful in the US.
The Famicon had games of much greater complexity than those of Atari, and allowed players to go on adventures with their friend Mario while he viciously stomped on little mushroom people and making orphans of their mushroom families. The story behind Atari games had to be conveyed in the instruction books, which painted a much more fabulous picture for the game’s backdrop than the massive pixels possibly could.
With the greater complexity came greater challenges. Capcom decided to fuck with children everywhere by releasing a game called Rockman, which was later changed to Megaman for American audiences. In this game, you play the part of a mega man who constantly dies and makes you scream in frustration. The redeeming points of the game were that you could start in any level, progress in any path, and save all of your victories and failures. It was challenging, memorable, and frustrating.
Sometime around 2005, I listened to a presentation on XBOX given by a Microsoft employee who very skillfully outlined how game design has changed to move away from frustration and challenges, and into constant progression. In Megaman, you could “save” your game with only one life left, setting yourself up for quicker defeats in the future, essentially crippling your progression and forcing you to start over from the beginning. Under the new guidelines of game design, there should be save points, a progression of difficulty, and a progression of abilities used to overcome the difficulty. This makes sense in terms of fun, because after playing Air Man’s stage in Megaman 2 several hundred times and nearly breaking several controllers due to the frustration, it is only sensible that game design change.We’ve seen another shift in how games are laid out, and this one is more dubious. “Shovelware” as it is called, is the market’s progression of shareware. Shareware was big before most people were connecting to the internet, and involved spending 5 dollars for a game which allowed you access to about 1/5 of the content. The idea was that you would spend more money to get either sequels to the game, or unlock the rest of the content in the game. Shovelware is lower quality stuff churned out in large amounts, selling for much lower prices that good quality games.
Appearing alongside shovelware had been the free to play, or “F2P” model, which is hugely popular in Asian countries. The basic idea is that you are given a game for free, and you may progress in the game very slowly or pay money to progress more quickly. These games often try to compare you against other players to make it appear that you are falling behind, encouraging you to buy some money to catch up or surpass the other players.
Due to the shift in game design, there are plenty of games now with absolutely no “lose” conditions, where you constantly grind to progress in a game that requires no skill to progress, but does require money. Most “games” are now nothing more than assembly line work, where the workers who put in the most overtime are awarded with stickers. All of the games that exist on Facebook such as Mafia Wars, Farmville, and anything pooped out by Zynga, have been extremely popular with people interested in wasting their time yet too uncoordinated to play a real game or too dense to do a crossword.
There is very little chance of the game market going back to the highly frustrating games of the past, but rather keeping with the handholding adventures that are nearly impossible to fail. We’re going to see complexity of games converge with the complexity of a DVD player, allowing instant gratification and congratulations for pressing the correct button when prompted. These games no longer require any degree of skill aside from ability to react to stimulus to progress the story and receive instant gratification.
At least there’s Dwarf Fortress.