Rob Bartel — In an effort to better understand the evolving relationship between traditional and technology based game play, I asked Rob Bartel, a veteran designer and producer of video games with Electronic Arts’ BioWare studio, to write a series of postings on the history and current status of game play. I think you will enjoy this outstanding series and learn a great deal about where gaming has been, where it is now and where it is going.
Rob is uniquely qualified to write this series as he recently expanded into board game design with Two by Two, a light family game published by Valley Games. A passionate advocate for the board game industry, Rob helped found two national initiatives – the Game Artisans of Canada and the Canadian Heritage Collection. His newest endeavor is the Famous Games Company, an innovative provider of promotional card games for the sports marketing industry.
Armed with a history degree and a talent for poetry and theatre, I made what many considered an odd choice at the time and joined a little-known company called BioWare as a professional video game designer back in 1998. Today digital games are enjoyed by people of all genders, ages, and walks of life but, in 1998, they were anything but mainstream. Video games were considered the sole domain of teenage boys with a severe lack of social skills. But I saw potential and, over the next thirteen years, I worked hard to convince the studio that our audience was a lot more sophisticated, intelligent, and diverse than they were imagining. Looking back on the industry with a historian’s eye, it’s clear to me now that video games have gone through four distinct phases:
1972-1983: An Adult Novelty
During this era, which was dominated by brands such as Magnavox, Coleco, and Atari, video games were considered more as a “wonder of science” than as truly compelling activities in their own right. The market was predominantly university educated and technically savvy adult males with a passion for tinkering with circuit boards and soldering irons. The novelty wore off in spectacular fashion with the great video game crash of 1983 when that market turned its attention to personal computers, which were more versatile, customizable, and responsible than a dedicated game console. The crash decimated the North American video game industry, ultimately driving almost every major player out of business.
1985-1991: Child’s Play
Following the devastating 1983 crash, Japanese companies like Sega and Nintendo (originally a playing card company) rose to prominence, slowly reinvigorating the industry with smartly designed games, simpler controls, and a narrower focus on the children's and pre-teen market. Games of the era, which still hold a lot of nostalgia for adults in their 20s and 30s today, entertained their audiences with solitary experiences in brightly colored cartoon worlds populated with talking animals, mustachioed plumbers, and magic beanstalks that grew into the clouds. Within North America, video games quickly came to be seen as child's play rather than as a socially acceptable activity for adults.
1991-2007: Enter the Teenagers
While Sega and Nintendo captured the children’s market, something very different was beginning to
develop in the computer game market. Players there were showing a growing interest in the social (and anti-social) possibilities of playing their games online. This sparked a remarkably diverse range of new game genres yet, surprisingly, almost all of these games fell into a very narrow band of science fiction-, fantasy-, and horror-based settings. 1991 saw the release of Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical Massively Multiplayer game. In 1992 came Wolfenstein 3D which launched the First-Person Shooter genre. Dune II released the same year and is credited with launching the Real-Time Strategy genre. The console market was slow to absorb these changes. In 1994, however, Sony targeted its brand new PlayStation console, with its more complex controller, heavy use of licensed popular music, and more mature range of titles, to a decidedly more teenage audience than its competitors. It was a successful strategy and they quickly became the dominant player, capturing a large audience that felt they had outgrown what Sega and Nintendo had to offer.
In 2001, Microsoft leveraged their experience in the computer market to finally close the circle with their Xbox console, offering online connectivity and a glossy science fiction First-Person Shooter called Halo as their must-have title. Subsequent versions of the Sony and Nintendo consoles ultimately followed suit, adding network connectivity and expanding the range of Mature-rated games on their respective platforms. By 2007, research showed that console games with a Mature rating (i.e. for ages 17+) were consistently outselling games targeted at younger audiences, despite their more restricted distribution.
2007 – Present: The Tipping Point
Global video game sales skyrocketed past the music industry in 2007 and went on to surpass the movie industry in 2008. A fundamental shift was underway, however, and the adult audience that was beginning to appear on the consoles, large as it was, was already being overshadowed by something even bigger. Digital games had reached a tipping point: they finally broke into the mainstream where they were becoming widely accepted and integrated into people’s daily lives. How did it happen? Well it began in the fall of 2006 with Nintendo’s motion-sensing Wii console, a product that most industry pundits predicted would be a flop. Parents found themselves using their teenager’s video game console as part of their own yoga and exercise regimes, however. Physiotherapists used the Wii as an engaging way to rehabilitate patients after an injury. It spread like wildfire in senior’s centers and retirement communities where the light physical activity and intuitive motion-based controls were greatly welcomed. For the first time since the early 1990s, Nintendo was seen as the industry leader rather than an also-ran. But that was just the start.
2007 was the year that the Facebook social networking site opened up their framework to outside developers. Games quickly became the most numerous and popular application type and, only four years later, Facebook games made Zynga, a relative newcomer, the second-most-valuable publisher in the entire video games industry. If it weren’t for the amalgamation of Activision and Blizzard a few years earlier, they would have made it all the way to the top. 2007 was also the year that Apple released its first iPhone. In 2008, they released their App Store for third-party software. As was the case on Facebook, games quickly rose to the fore, building to the point where Apple finally launched a dedicated social Game Center on both the iPhone and their brand new iPad device in 2010. 2010 also saw Sony and Microsoft playing catch up with Nintendo and finally releasing motion-based controllers, complete with product endorsements and giveaways on the Oprah Winfrey show. So here we are, on the far side of that tipping point – video games are everywhere, they’re mainstream. Some pretty big thinkers are talking about how games can fix the world and perfectly rational business executives sprinkle their presentations with buzzwords like “gamification”.
But What About Board & Card Games?
I founded the Famous Games Company because I believe that, while tangible games are on a different timeline than digital games, they’re on a very similar trajectory and are approaching a tipping point of their own. To learn why, stay tuned for When Games Explode – Part II: A Brief History of Tangible Games.