Looking back across the gulf expanse of the 2000s, I am struck to realize that video games are not substantially different now than they were in 1999 and that I am at the tail end of a decade that could perhaps best be described as static. That’s not to diminish the quality of games we have enjoyed these ten years, for some of the finest gaming known to man has happily punched us in the virtual face since the days when the terminally paranoid hoarded bottled water in fear of the coming Y2K machine revolution.
But looking at the industry as a whole, it’s been a relatively quiet decade.
This should not necessarily come as a shock. This is, if anything, yet another sign that video gaming is maturing into a fully realized entertainment medium and a well established platform that shall not soon perish from this Earth. While it might have been nice playing the latest New Super Mario Brothers by projecting my thoughts onto the screen where machine bent to the will of alpha waves, the fact may be that the age of exponential advancement is nearly over.
Look at the games of 1999 and 2000: Counter Strike, System Shock 2, Age of Empires 2, Quake 3, Everquest, Planescape: Torment, Diablo II, Deus Ex and Baldur’s Gate 2. An outstanding sampling without question, but in many important ways these are basically the same games, or at least the same kinds of games, we’re playing now. The difference between Dragon Age and Torment or BG2 is one of degree, not fundamental difference. Diablo II, hell I’m excited there’s a new patch nearly out for that game. These aren’t just games where I might still be playing something similar — these are games I might still play.
If you could go back to 2000 and explain to gamers that in 2010 they would be playing a bunch of 3D action games, console platformers and online shooters, tell me they’d not look upon my temporally impossible visage bringing sad tidings from the future with abject disappointment. After all, they had just gone through the sea change of the 1990s.
This was the decade that took us from Commander Keen and the first Wing Commander to the launch of the PlayStation 2. 1990 Nintendo released the very first Final Fantasy in North America. 1991 Microprose releases Civilization. 1992 brings Ultima VII, Dune II and The 7th Guest. 1993 — Doom and Myst.
And on it goes. Gaming wasn’t advancing in evolutionary fashion on the scale of decades but by steps measuring months. At any given moment you weren’t just playing new games with mechanics that were impossible months before, but games in entirely new genres the likes of which couldn’t have been imagined the year before.
By comparison, the 2000s might seem like a huge disappointment and its participants the sleepy-eyed artisans of numbing conformity. This is, of course, totally unfair.
The slowed evolution of video gaming across a decade is not a sign that the industry has lost its passion and creativity. It’s a sign that we’ve reached industry maturity, and while gaming may be adult in that questionable way that 23 year-olds who come to work bleary eyed from clubbing the night before are adults it is definitely an adult of a kind. Look at the same exponential pattern that occurred in other technologically motivated industries and you see a similar growth chart.
The advancement from flickering films with neither sound nor color to Star Wars is a span on the measure of 50 years. Television's advance from dim, barely discernible images of variety shows to the first High Definition spectacles is more on the timeframe of 40 years. For video games, if we agree to recognize the Pong era as the first large scale exposure of the medium, then we are closing rapidly in on our own fourth decade.
Where will the medium be in 2050, another 40 years gone by? Certainly there will have been some significant advancement, but will it be as great a change as that from Pong to Uncharted 2? It seems unlikely. Just as we’ve waited endlessly for our flying cars and vacations on Mars, the future will probably hold a games industry that would be recognizable to our modern sensibilities. We may even be playing relatively similar games in a relatively similar way.
So, as I look forward to the next decade, what I hope for is not monumental shifts but refinement. I look for resolution between consumer and provider, some kind of compromise to finally address the long standing conflicts posed by technology that delivers gaming in new and sometimes unauthorized ways. I look for gaming to finally lose most of the stigma that has plagued it over the past three decades. I look for a hobby that continues to sustain that spark of child that glows bright in my mind.