The Art of the Pure Video Game

Pac-Man Forever

Somewhere along the way Video Games started to miss the point. They veered away from the ‘true north’ of Video Gaming and became entrenched in a AAA Focus Tested mire. Dripping in consensus and banality. Driven by commercial viability and green-lit by passionless executive teams who haven’t played a game for 20 years. The suits decide which games you play. The suits don’t know about games, that much is clear.

The process, and associated costs, have led to feature creep, a need for iterative improvement, an endless pursuit of the ‘majority’. Most games have lost the essence of the game itself , and are little more that excessive semi-disguised corridors punctuated by fetch quests for non engaging NPCs. As games got bigger they have become less game-like and more cinematic/epic/engaging. All of these are simply band-aids over broken and tired game mechanics dressed up to pull in the audience. The publishers are pushing for a point of difference, and the developers are beholding to the whims of the committee.

Lost is the purity of the game-play experience, the game itself. It’s fading. The best games are built upon a core game mechanic, that can withstand innumerable replays. In fact these games get better the more you play them. The examples are countless: Trials Evolution, Pac Man Championship Edition DX and Minecraft are all textbook examples of games built around a single core premise. This premise is fun, logical, easy to learn and mastery elevates the game to new heights. These are the games built around core ‘arcade’ mechanics, that effectively tap into a compulsion loop to play one more time. The financial barrier to entry of the arcade has evaporated, meaning that restarts are free, potentially rendering the experience worthless. Not so, ‘pure’ video games drive a compulsion within the boundaries of the game paradigm. Minecraft’s mechanics and game world, present a world free of restriction, yet underpinned by simple core mechanics. This framework provides a playground for the gamer, leading to creations of immeasurable brilliance and scope.

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

The accolades for these games lie at the feet of the game designer and engineers, whose single-minded determination have created game experiences at once shallow, but with endless depths for those willing to endure with them. Trials Evolution has a brutal punitive game mechanic at its core that chastises and repeatedly bests those prepared to invest time to understand the underlying game logic.

In these cases, the game mechanic is clear. The shortcomings and failures are always attributable to the player. Never was the adage ‘A bad workman blames his tools’, more true. These games don’t need to hide behind smoke and mirrors, marketing, USPs and Bullshots. Their intentions are perfectly apparent, driven by inherent purity. The issue therefore, is, can a game concept actually sell games in 2013? Maybe you should ask Notch that question.

Duck Hunt to Deadstorm Pirates: A Brief History of the Light Gun

When I first played Duck Hunt on the NES with a Light gun I was enraptured. Nintendo called it the Zapper. You could call it Witchcraft. Duck Hunt wasn’t the greatest game but the core mechanic was so compelling that it never became tiresome. Most of all I simply couldn’t understand how it worked. If you looked down the barrel it gave little away. It felt magical. For many years I would play any arcade game with a Light gun, spending hours on Time Crisis, Operation Wolf, Area 51, Point Blank, Virtua Cop and Silent Scope. Silent Scope was probably my favourite. In the arcade the experience was brash more visceral and much much louder; the games rumbling and buzzing with haptic feedback usually surrounded by a small crowd.

Light gun cabinets were the Rockstars of the arcades.

House of the Dead 2 on Dreamcast was the pinnacle of the home light gun experience. The gun housed a rumble pack and VMU and featured a D-Pad by the thumb. The current Sony Sharpshooter delivers the same experience. HOTD2 was a rattling creaky on rails shooter devoid of plot (apart from Zombie infestation of course!), terribly scripted and bordering on non-sensical. It didn’t matter. The fatigue endured in your right shoulder was forgotten and there was always an aching desire to play one more time.

Most home console experiences are utterly divorced from their arcade cousins. A vanilla representation of the Arcade experience, few games deliver a raw thrill. Light gun games come closest (closely followed by fighting games: for a recent example play Marvel vs Capcom 3). A kid growing up without the Arcade experience, is like never seeing a live band.

When Sony announced Move the light gun junkie inside me screamed. It looked like the logical next step. Sure, the guns aren’t allowed to look like guns anymore but it looked like it would deliver an amazing light gun experience. It does, the tracking is sublime, the response times like nothing else. Move delivers with The Shoot and Time Crisis: Razing Storm. Time Crisis: RS features a gem: Deadstorm Pirates. The two-seater arcade cabinet features a ship’s wheel and guns that are part cannon, part gatling gun. Deadstorm Pirates follows the tested Light Gun formula of terrible plot, awful voice acting and over prescriptive prompts. On Move these are painfully apparent. Very quickly Move reveals something. Gun games are shallow, they’ve always been shallow but at home in HD with a million other possible diversions, they’ve lost the crowd. The FPS made them obsolete.

In the post-Kinect era Move feels old, holding a controller pretending to fire a gun doesn’t hold the same thrill it had over a decade ago.

Wielding plastic no longer empowers: it restricts and inhibits.

Killzone 3 and the Sharpshooter are trying to advance the FPS by bolting a light gun mechanic into the game. All that seems to do is induce fatigue and decrease accuracy. Years from now sports therapists will be dealing with SharpShooter shoulder like they deal with RSI now. By plundering the historical back catalogue of Video Games platform holders are trying to make something old feel new again. The continuous iterations of bowling and tennis are enough to clearly illustrate that point. The mainstream aren’t going to fall for the ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ of Third Generation consoles. Time has marched on.

The Billion Dollar Roll: How Tenpin changed the direction of video gaming forever

The rapid advancement of technology is often characterized by a simple theme. The desire to  communicate gave birth to the fax, mobile phones and the Internet. Video gaming has also had a common theme that has unified families, driven innovation in the arcades and ushered in the greatest step change of the current console generation: The widespread adoption of motion control. The unlikely lightning rod for this continual and unabated drive towards innovation has been the desire to replicate (as closely as possible) Ten Pin Bowling.

Video Game bowling is one of the most played video games genres in the history of the industry. This fact alone is astonishing. And also raises the question why? How is this even possible?

Bowling is cited as having its roots in Germany in 300 AD, with the first formalised rules coming into place in New York in 1895. Bowling for the Atari 2600 was released in 1978. A year later Midway released 4 Player Bowling Alley into the Arcades with a table-top cabinet that had two trackballs that looked and felt like bowling balls, the cabinet evoked the feel of the bowling halls with its wood effect veneers. In the years that followed there was a constant stream of Arcade and Home console iterations of the sport.

Ten Pin Deluxe (Bally Midway) hit the arcades in 1984 and was a shuffleboard bowling game integrating a puck and a monitor. It was also one of the greatest cabinets ever conceived with a faux wood lane and again attempted to replicate the motion of bowling in the best way possible at the time. These crude iterations were paving the way for intuitive motion based controls driven by the fact that bowling was hugely popular as a mainstream leisure activity that has an intuitive and familiar mechanic and a robust and enduring appeal. The formula was attempted over and over. The continued migration away from gimmick to video game simulation culminated in Alley Master (Cinematronics) which hit the arcades in 1986, complete with improved graphics but an ill-considered choice of stick input.

A decade later the next major innovation happened in the handheld space when Virtual Bowling made it on to the ill-fated Virtual Boy in 1995. Nester’s Funky Bowling followed it up in 1996. Through the 1990s iterations hit the PC, Playstation, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, SNES and Xbox in the 2000’s Bowling came onto mobile and iOS in the form of Midnight Bowling and PC browser-based oddities like Polar Bowling and Elf Bowling bemused rather than amused. Konami brought Simpsons bowling into the arcades in 2000, and rather than make a bold attempt to deliver the depth of lane found on the Virtual Boy Konami made the interaction more visceral by utilising a trackball.  Michael Jackson was such a fan he owned cabinet number 42145. Silver Strike Bowling revolutionised out of home trackball ten pin in 2004 and 2010 changed the game with a connected LIVE experience throughout the United States. Trackball Ten Pin had reached a high watermark that it looked impossible to surpass.

The definitive moment in the evolution of video game bowling came in 2006, 28 years after the release of bowling on the Atari 2600. Wii Bowling shipped with every Wii outside Japan. Globally the mainstream fell back in love with Video Game bowling. Wii Sports is the best-selling video game of all time which (at time of writing) had shipped around 76 million copies. 85-year-old John Bates is currently the Worlds Greatest Wii Bowling Player having bowled in excess of 2,850 perfect games. He pwns on Wii Bowling.

Kinect perfected the formula further, to a point where the experience delivered by Kinect Sports is rewarding, intuitive and great fun. The Nintendo Touch Generations dream had finally become a reality, sadly not on a Nintendo platform. Pwned. Finally it seems as if the abolition of the prop has defined the genre. This memo was clearly not received by CTA digital who smelt gold in them thar video gaming bowling hills and created peripherals across all three current gen machines.

Microsoft went all in with a marketing budget for Kinect of half a billion dollars. I can’t help but think this is because they knew they had the video game bowling crown in the bag.

Let’s hammer the pocket.

News Just In!

Cory Archangel has an installation called Beat The Champ running at the Barbican, London until 22nd May 2011. I can’t wait to see it. It’s an installation based on the sounds of Video Game Bowling

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