The Essential Imbalance
Unlike the organized sports, children’s games and cultural play which had come before them, video games were distinctly different; created not from imaginations or reinforced cultural rules, but based on technology. No longer could we imagine anything as part of our play, but there were defined restrictions, and any change to the rules or the system came only with a change to real, existing and complicated technologies. This is, then, an intangible aspect of computer game;, an aspect of codes, programming, and hardware which the average player has little or no recognition or understanding of. Because this aspect is so hidden from a normal gamer’s sight, I think we all forget it exists. We may complain some shooters hit boxes are too small or large, or complain that some game has too many bugs, or graphic glitches, but I think we forget that there is a reason that happens, and it isn’t a creative magic, it’s because some number somewhere within a massive system of code is one digit too small or large, or because someone forgot to write down that specific bug. I think there is such a huge divide, it seems, between gamers and game developers because they see the game as a completely different product. To the gamer, it is a game to be played; to a developer, it is software to be developed. It is a technology being developed, as much as an entertaining (or not so entertaining) game.
As I read The Origins of Spacewar!, it is not just about the creation of a game, but a creation of a revolutionizing technology. They didn’t just innovate an “industry,” as we see it now, but they innovated how we used computers completely. Before, there was Mouse in the Maze, a demonstration of the processing power of the TX-O, and after, software can now be seen not merely as demonstrations of this computing power, but as actually usable (in this case, playable) applications which anyone can use. I’m sure there are other major software innovations around this time, but I think it was a big change, from computers as room-sized systems which only The Operator can use, to something which, given access, any passerby could pick up and actually play with; interact with. But interact with not as technology but as entertainment.
Since these early days, this close relationship has been felt. With growing computer power, games have evolved, grown and expanded. With that expansion, new avenues for research and development have been opened up. This gives video games some kind of real world application that doesn’t seem to be the case with the games of another age. But I think it also really defines how game development happens, and why situations like the one described in Swap adjacent gems to make sets of three; in this article, Juul’s traces the history of match-three games like Bejeweled. There is a really interesting conundrum, here, about how so many developers seem to create almost identical games, only improved in small (but, one could argue, very important) ways, but they all seem convinced they came up with an original idea. How could they not admit (or even realize) they were merely regurgitating the same game over and over?
I think this incremental improvement idea seems really impenetrable from a consumer standpoint, but I think in the technology development context makes way more sense. As a gamer, it seems, depending on our mood, either ignorant or downright malicious how these developers praise their developments as game changing when they are really minor changes, and then these games are sold to the public. But minor changes is, at least in my small knowledge, exactly how technology advances. Even Spacewar!, which is universally accepted as maybe the original game, was built on the ideas and codes of multiple systems. It was an accumulation of the work of multiple developers. Yes, it was an incredible achievement, and was a massive evolution, but it was still built on ideas that came before. And the development also created huge amounts of prototypes, which, if they had been released incrementally, probably wouldn’t be seen as much different. This idea is even more pertinent today in the age of Steam Greenlight and betas upon betas, alphas upon alphas… I think there is way more at work here than merely lazy developers trying to create the same game but different enough to get the “masses” to buy and play it. As even Juul himself felt, as he tried to develop his own match three game, it was almost impossible to actually have an idea which was never done before. So why is that match-three games seem to be maligned as somehow inferior, and this development process, very similar to the process done with every first person military shooter for the last fifteen years or the dozens of third person action-adventure games with parkour and stealth, somehow decried as bad? It all really comes down to this idea that match-three games are somehow inferior than other games because they are created and consumed by those not versed in gaming history, and the gameplay itself is not the most advanced available. These facts lead this development process to turn from the natural process, and into a malicious attempt at “stealing” the money of those who don’t know better. There is an idea that, because a game is simplistic, the technology behind it must be easy. I would think this is decidedly not the case. Each match three game which adds these new game types or new ideas must do the same kind of work; making the gameplay engaging, balancing, debugging, etc. Yeah, they don’t have to deal with hefty graphics engines, but they also probably don’t have as much money as those kinds of games. It just seems like a case of decrying a product without really considering the process of creating that product. This incremental progress seems to be a major part of video game development, and while there is definitely reason for concern over laziness in development and becoming too comfortable with copying the ideas already used, to blame it on any one developer or genre is not going to get us anywhere.