Old Video Games

The Discovery Channel has started up a documentary series called Rise of the Video Game. I’ve read up on the history of video games before, but what makes this series so fascinating (so far) is that it puts a lot of emphasis on the place video games held in human culture. It’s interesting that they brought up Godzilla, because like video games he’s changed with the times. In the original 1954 Gojira, the monster was a symbol of the horrors of the nuclear bomb–and as far as I know no other kaiju movie has ever had a protagonist see a little girl about to die from the monster’s radiation–but in the 60s and 70s he became a friendlier defender of Japan, and in the 90s and onward he became more morally ambiguous.

Video games started with guys finding new ways to use expensive military and educational equipment for fun after hours. Tennis For Two was a relatively simple repurposing of an oscilloscope (and even today those things are expensive). Games like Spacewar! not only moved video games forward, but reflected America’s fascination with outer space and the fears of where the Cold War might lead. Space Invaders, on the other hand, could be said to have some grounding in Japan’s fears and memories of outside attack.

The Magnavox Odyssey was especially important because as the first home console, it let people do something they never could before. In an era when the TV could only tune into a handful of channels, which (it being the time of the Vietnam War) always seemed to be brining ever more bad news, the Odyssey let people have some control over what was on their TV sets beyond changing channels or turning it off. As the show put it, in the early Cold War the words “push the button” could only mean the button that would bring about the end of the world. We take it for granted now in virtually every aspect of our lives–I press buttons on my computer, video games, to buy train tickets, my cell phone, iPod, etc.–but at the time it was revolutionary, and no wonder people found it so fascinating.

Going from early CRT war simulations to the prototype of the Odyssey is about 20 years of firsts in video games, but the beginning of the video game industry was with Nolan Bushnell starting up Atari. Pong was the first arcade game to catch on. The game didn’t actually have a CPU; it was basically hard-wired, and when the time came to develop a home system (the 2600) they had to start over from scratch.

Especially in light of the recent stuff about Jade Raymond, some of the comments by Bushnell and Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani are particularly striking. According to Bushnell, when Pong was catching on as an arcade game, because women on the whole have better fine motor control than men, there were a fair number of women going around sharking people at Pong. Iwatani on the other hand was specifically trying to make a game that would appeal to women as well as the customary young male demographic when he came up with Pac-Man. Granted, he was going off of a stereotype (“Girls always want dessert after a meal”), but his intentions at least were to be inclusive. What went wrong?

Anyway, most of the rest of the first episode is about the industry crash of 1983, owing to ludicrous market oversaturation, owing partly to Warner’s mismanagement on the assumption that video games would continue to rain money down on whoever put them out. Although it’s not covered in the first episode, if you know the history, this is what set the stage for Nintendo to step in and dominate the industry.

Almost as an afterthought, the episode concludes with a few minutes on Tetris and Alexey Pajitnov. I loved Tetris from the first moment I saw it, and I’ve always liked everything I’ve heard about its creator. When talking about how the Soviet regime basically held the rights to Tetris until its fall, he basically said that the important thing to him was having been able to make something so many people enjoyed. I didn’t know until I looked at the Wikipedia page just now that he designed Hexic. I’m going to have to try it out now.

Anyway, the fun part of this post is where I try to turn these ramblings into something to do with RPGs. It’s pretty easy to draw parallels between the early histories of Atari and D&D, of course. Both were created by some impassioned guys doing their own thing, rather than following any kind of corporate plan. Both achieved meteoric success (albeit on different scales). And both were standing on the shoulders of giants. For Atari there were precedents in the form of Tennis For Two, Spacewar!, the Odyssey, etc., and for D&D there were all the different wargames that represent transitional forms from little counters representing the armies of Napoleon to character sheets representing wizards and swordsmen. For both video games and RPGs we’re well past the point where you can just step in and do whatever and hope to turn a profit.

Although it’s pretty niche compared to the legions of GTA and Madden players out there, there’s a strong retro gaming community among video gamers. Some play emulators, some still have the old systems in working order, some buy those tiny “flashback” systems, and a tiny handful have actually made new games for consoles like the Atari 2600. I think a lot of the appeal of older video games is in their elegant simplicity. This I think is what RPGs can learn from retro games, and the design aesthetic of some of the best indie games is based on a simple but engaging gameplay mechanic–Dogs in the Vineyard is probably the best possible example. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Tetris, etc. all do something that is ultimately extremely simple, but they do it extremely well. One of the guys from Bungie once said that the way to make a good video game is to create 30 seconds of consistently engaging gameplay, and make it work over and over. That’s all of those games right there. Dodge the ghosts, eat the power pill, and come back to eat three at once before going on to clear out that corner of the maze. Hold on just a little longer until the 1×4 piece comes and gets you a tetris, etc. That’s probably why the video game I’ve been playing most over the past few days is Super Mario World… ^_^;

Aside from the “some guys doing fun stuff in a basement” thing (not to be taken literally), what OD&D and many indie games have in common is simplicity. The earlier basic versions of D&D were stapled in the middle rather than perfect-bound, and the Rules Cyclopedia, which many seem to regard as the definitive version of basic D&D, weighs in at a mere 210 pages. Whether or not you agree with the “kill things and take their stuff” meme, there’s a lot to be said for knowing what you want to do and making a game that serves it. Aside from creating a protagonist (as opposed to a paddle or a spaceship) that could be anthropomorphicized (channeling some Scott McCloud here), Pac-Man changed its essential verb from something like “shoot” to, of all things, “eat.” While other kinds of tabletop games are perhaps better suited to one-verb designs than RPGs, I think there’s (still) a lot to be explored here.

None of this is to say that I think that drawing on these things will “save” tabletop RPGs, or become “the future of tabletop RPGs.” I think it’s more important to think about what makes for good games. If the world of video games has room for both Metal Gear Solid and Cake Mania, the world of tabletop games can surely handle both Exalted and Primetime Adventures. The thing about RPGs is that if you try to strip them down as far as they’ll go you wind up with either free-form role-playing or several different possible cornerstones.

(I just realized this goes back to a post of mine from last year about how video games divide genres up by how they play rather than what the story is about).

2 thoughts on “Old Video Games

  1. The fun thing I like to point out to people who make the false accusation that video games are for children is that the video game boom, before the 83-84 crash, was mostly due to adults. The first Pong machine was installed at a bar that would eventually become a comedy club, Business men frequented arcades after work, and if you find old commercials, many of the target audience are certainly not kids (I’ve even seen one that featured the late, great Phil Hartman raving about Video Hockey).
    Blame Nintendo, it’s self-censorship and Chuck E. Cheese for that change and it severely needs a overdue general public image overhaul away from “kids toy”.

    As for RPGs, you’re correct that each game has a different feel because of different elements. DnD started out as a suped up version of Chainmail, which was just the old war miniature games with a Lord of the Rings paint job slapped on. At it’s base it’s very tactical and conductive to war game style tactics (how far away is the target, what is the effectiveness of the poison to my troop, etc.)

    I think we might get more wider branching if we take other game style’s “handling”. The idea of “trump cards” in card games or the “enclosed world” of board games, Both I think would be great additions to RPGs,(Like a game with a set map and general encounters or a deck of cards a player can draw from as a benefit of good role playing) but I’m sure there could be plenty more where that came from.

  2. There have already been some indie RPGs that tried that kind of thing — The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, Dogs in the Vineyard, Fastlane, etc. — though I think there could be more.

    One of the games I’ve had on the back burner for a while is Moonsick, which for various reasons has been evolving towards being more like a card game with RPG elements. (Partly just because it need to be really visual). The cool thing is that recently Guild of Blades announced that they’re going to start offering POD services for cards, which for me means my weird little game just got a lot more viable to make (and sell, if it comes to that).

    Incidentally, as a designer I’ve been moving away from using stuff like rewards for “good roleplaying,” at least for stuff that happens during gameplay, mainly because it’s so fuzzy and even a generous and well-intentioned GM can forget sometimes. I like stuff like Primetime Adventures’ fanmail mechanic (each player gets a token to give to another player who does stuff they think is neat), or providing rewards tied to the character/player doing specific and more concrete things (think of how you earn dice in InSpectres), or at the very least leaving the fuzzy stuff for after the game.

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