The Quiet Decade

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.

Comments

What the last decade has shown us, particularly in the last few years, is that what was most interesting about the 90's wasn't what was achieved in the headlong rush toward new ideas of gaming but what was left behind. Whole genres were invented, chewed up, spat out, and abandoned for newer, more high-tech genres without having been thoroughly explored and exploited to their full potential.

Braid, Continuity, Eversion, and LittleBigPlanet ably demonstrated that the 2D platformer still has life and new directions it can be taken even after the industry abandoned it in favor of its 3D variation. Aquaria took a new, omni-directional shot at the Metroidvania. Geometry Wars breathed new life into the old gameplay of Asteroids.

There's still more to discover. Even the first-person shooter, perhaps the most-flogged genre of the last ten years, hasn't revisited the twisting, puzzle-like levels that cropped up in Doom, the genre's progenitor.

Whole genres were invented, chewed up, spat out, and abandoned for newer, more high-tech genres without having been thoroughly explored and exploited to their full potential.

I wholly endorse this sentence. If it were running for political office, I'd start a political action committee to drive donations and smear its opponents.

That's what I was driving at with my desire for ever increased refinement.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
Braid, Continuity, Eversion, and LittleBigPlanet ably demonstrated that the 2D platformer still has life and new directions it can be taken even after the industry abandoned it in favor of its 3D variation.

Hell, even 3D platformers are largely a thing of the past. Super Mario Galaxy shows us that there's still plenty of room for growth within 3D platformers, but other than the Ratchet and Clank games and the odd Jak and/or Daxter thing, there doesn't seem to be much that could be included alongside Mario's 3D platformer outings any more.

The year 2050 might finally bring about the death of PC gaming.

Dug the article - very thought provoking. Not sure if I agree with everything.

I wonder if video gaming just hasn't changed much for you personally. The examples you list are all computer games, for instance. As far as consoles go, they are now hooked up to the internet, multiplayer is prevalent, music rhythm games took the nation by storm, and the Wii brought grandma to the gaming table.

I guess you can equate playing Left 4 Dead with the multiplayer coop experience of Turtles in Time or the vs mode of Quake, but I'm impressed with the advances we've seen.

As far as consoles go, they are now hooked up to the internet, multiplayer is prevalent, music rhythm games took the nation by storm, and the Wii brought grandma to the gaming table.

Sure, but after all the fuss with the Wii, I just played NSMB with my WiiMote held sideways like an old-school 1999 SNES controller. The more things change ...

The PC bias may be a result of the PC centric gaming scene of 99 and 00. What you say is true about the advanced methods of delivering games, but when I use my 360 to download Braid, Lumines or Geometry Wars, it feels like refinement. Not significant advancement. Another thing I didn't address in the article is the dramatic slowdown in generations. I think it may be possible to suggest there will only be one major generational change in the 2010s, and that one is still years away. I can imagine the 360 have a decade-long lifespan.

That said, you still bring up good points. I'm not disagreeing, so much as offering a counter-opinion.

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

I love this metaphor.

As much as I enjoy a good round of this sort of thing--and I am inclined to see things from the OP's point of view--it seems to me that the essay boils down to the transition from 2D to 3D. This transition was cementing into place (by which I mean the kinks were being worked out and the tech was spreading into a majority of gamers' hands) by 1999, right? And if one takes the long view, the move from Zelda on the NES to the SNES is roughly analogous to Zelda on the 64 vs. on the Wii (and one can substitute Mario, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, and many others in here). It's a narrative of refinement, huge transition, more refinement. And because we're still playing in three dimensions, there has been no change of kind in gaming, only one of degree.

Good read, but this article makes me feel old

We've got a thread discussing some of the technical innovations of the decade: http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/48288

Personally I think you're underselling this decade. One of the biggest AAA genres today, the third person open world game was created with the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 in 2001. Also while technically created in the 90s, it's not until this decade that MMORPGs really boomed with Everquest starting in 1999 and World of Warcraft carrying the torch in 2004.

"Another thing I didn't address in the article is the dramatic slowdown in generations. I think it may be possible to suggest there will only be one major generational change in the 2010s, and that one is still years away. I can imagine the 360 have a decade-long lifespan."

Agreed. From all I've heard, both MS and Sony expect their respective consoles to exist in their current forms for another 5 years or so.

I wouldn't chalk that up to a lack of innovation as much as hardware developers reaching a plateau in terms of what they can do without pushing price points way up. Plus, attach rates are pretty good for both the 360 and PS3, and there's been so much investment in infrastructure by both companies, that it's hard to imagine they'd want to muck that up anytime soon by introducing a new console.

It'll be interesting to see what forms "innovation" takes in the decade ahead, and whether "innovation" really turns out to mean "refinement."

It's more than that, Cpt.

For example, can you name a new genre that was created during the 2000s that either didn't exist in 1999 or isn't just a blend of two existing genres (FPS/RPG)?

It'll be interesting to see what forms "innovation" takes in the decade ahead, and whether "innovation" really turns out to mean "refinement."

I very intentionally left the word innovation out of my article entirely. I don't think it's an innovation issue either.

For example, can you name a new genre that was created during the 2000s that either didn't exist in 1999 or isn't just a blend of two existing genres (FPS/RPG)?
Rhythm games.
Tower Defense Games.
I'd argue for the GTA open-world type game as well.
Maybe it's not a genre, but the super-short single player game is something that didn't exist before the 2000s (because there was no way to deliver it that made sense).

I think it is true that we have seen a shrinking of genres in general. But I think this might be related to the business aspect of things over anything else. Publishers are looking for that IP that they can "exploit" for multiple sequels. And often competitors are looking to make clones of those successful IPs. I'm guessing this often reduces the "let's take things in a new direction" discussions.

Interesting article and very thought provoking. Not to mention the discussion this is providing is awesome to read.

This also reminds me that I'll be 20 in a few months...

GTA 3 was the first thing that came to my mind, too -- a game of Diablo II-like importance (almost every successful game today has DNA from one or both of those titles, I'd argue).

Online console gaming.

WoW.

Simultaneous co-op!

The Wii -- motion and casual gaming.

Incidentally, I don't think the pace of change in e.g. film has slowed down, really. There are periods of faster and slower growth, but the computer revolution has lead to a period of rapid change in film long after that medium's first childhood.

Entertaining the following idea: did the pace of change in games slow between the NES and SNES eras? Looking back, I think the best products of the SNES era were refinements of models that had been worked out on the NES. The SNES was a golden age, but it wasn't a period of newness. The Mario games (which I love!) were more robust, more colorful iterations of SMB 3. The Final Fantasy games (which I loved) were simply logical extensions of the NES games. Etc. This relatively staid (though extremely fruitful) period came to an end when the technical possibilities of the PSX and N64 opened up new vistas of game experience.

I guess what I'm arguing for across my poorly organized comments is that change has been irregular and unpredictable, with periods of rapid change alternating with periods of regrouping and refinement.

This is completely unresearched, and could be easily disproved. the 2000s is when computer games really became a industry, underlined by MW2 this year. It's not a industrial process everywhere, there are still 'cottage industry' parts that operate on a small scale, but there is now a large factory-like quality to a lot of games, where they are produced for consumption. This ties into the sequels and exploitation point. Why spend a ton of R+D on a weird new product when everyone loves the safe thing that already exists.

Also it's when Deus Ex came out in 2000 and *nothing* beat it at it's own game in the rest of the decade.

I would consider the 3D GTA-style game an entirely new genre.

Ninja Edit: But having said that, my greatest complaint for genre development is that games (generally speaking) right now have two metaphors for success: violence and sports victories. I want more.

I always thought of the Grand Theft Auto III-style of open-world games as an evolution of the open-world RPGs of the late 90's like Fallout.

On the open world gaming front, I'm not sure I buy that as a genre advance. It's just a different delivery system for familiar genres. I would inclined to recognize the 3rd person action games as the real genre, but of course that traces back to Tomb Raider which is mid-90s. It's a refinement, which is exactly my point.

Wow -- a refinement of Evequest, UO and Meridian 59, but nothing that I think of as unversally new.

Console online gaming -- clearly born from PC online gaming which is the really evolutionary advance made primarily in the 90s. Is it really so impressive that it was eventually ported to consoles?

Rhythm games? -- DDR launched in 1998.

This is completely unresearched, and could be easily disproved.

Great. I encourage it. Go for it, but don't just drop some vague dismissive comment. Bring me the science.

I think it's important to recognize that I'm making a distinction here. To me the 2000s may have well seen many advances in the _way_ we play games, but has seen little evolution in the actual games we play.

Grob, it depends on what measure we're using to define "change". Remember that the SNES era gave is fancy proprietary processor add-ons to our carts, which made something like StarFox possible.

Though StarFox is a variation on the rail-shooter, wasn't it the first time gamers saw "polygons" on their home consoles? And, through DOnkey Kong Country, it introduced gamers to "rendered graphics".

On the whole, I think it's hard to point to things being 100% revolutionary, unless they invent a genre all of their own (the way that SMB created the side-scroller, or how GTA3 laid the foundations for open-world sandbox games). EVen then, I'm sure you could reduce things to such an extent that you could say "x" was influenced by "Y".
Such as "Zelda?! You could TOTALLY see the influence from Atari's 'Adventure!'"

grobstein wrote:

Simultaneous co-op!

What, like Double Dragon? Or more like "I'm on my couch while my buddy is on HIS couch half-way across town but we're both Killin Doodz in L4d" kind of co-op?

Personally, I'd propose Episodic models of game experiences (or "subscription gaming") as something that hadn't really been done in the 90s -- you could technically say that the Sega Channel almost achieved this, but market penetration was woeful for that venture.

DLC -- that is, the act of modifying and adding to a game after release -- was around in the 90s as game patches, but they weren't really monetized. We called those "expansion packs".

I think the DS is a pretty 2000s device, because it reinterpreted the handheld in an interesting way... but those advancements were UI based.

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Scratched makes an excellent point. The 2000s is when we see Video Games become a major market force. It's not just a team of 4-5 dudes working on a project anymore. It's a full-on marketing venture, with significant development costs, tie-ins and cost-analyses attached. It's an era when the promise of the next GTA release can be enough to fight off an aggressive aquisition. It's a full-on business.

Interesting article Elysium. It rings very true with my feelings about gaming this past decade.

Over the course of the decade I find that PC gaming has moved to “casual/social” gaming which includes MMO’s; And gamers that like the control input of K&M.

With the console maturing to “PC levels” and online multiplayer, many people have given up on the PC upgrade rat-race and moved to the couch for their gaming. After getting a Xbox & 360 I haven’t upgraded my gaming PC since Oct 2005 (7800 GTX). It can still play WoW at high resolutions. I hope that Bioware’s Star Wars: Old Republic finally makes me upgrade the old girl.

With the digital downloads bringing back past PC titles and the console used market live & well; I find it interesting that games that span the whole decade are still a lot of fun. Not just for nostalgia reasons. I would have never thought a 2005 PC would still have so much gaming left in her.

That just was not the case with the earlier decades.

-Ecarus “Does remembering a coin operated Pong machine make me old?”

Somehow, "Decade of Refinement" isn't very sexy...

but it's beter than "The Lost Decade"

I better qualify that a bit. I was 18 at the turn of 2000, and the big players in the video games industry now (well, most of them still exist. atari, infogrames, midway and others have gone/merged/been bought) have existed long before 2000. It seems to me that before 2000 as the audience for games wasn't as large as it is now, and budgets smaller (does that account for inflation I wonder) games have moved from a dozen guys in a 'workshop' making something, to a games 'factory' making a consumer product. I've seen games in my town centre move from being a few racks in a hobby shop and a small section of record shops to having 5 dedicated shops and a major proportion of the record shops.

Rhythm games? -- DDR launched in 1998.
Was Singstar in the 90s? Karaoke games then.

Also DDR doesn't count because it's for losers.

Oh, I totally agree that the 2000s have seen the grand expansion of gaming industrialization. I wasn't arguing against that. If anything, I think that would go a step toward supporting my argument. As you rightly point out, these companies aren't aggressive at breaking the bounds of predictable gaming. I still think that the passionate people actually making the games remain as creative and vibrant as ever. There are great games out there that are often wonderful refinements of what's come before.

I blame "kids these days."