The Art of the State of
Halo 3, Madden NFL 08,
Guitar Hero 2. What do these titles have in common?
Aside from all being video games the only characteristic they share
is finishing in the money on a “Top Sellers of 2007” list. These
three titles are the win, place and show respectively but that’s
not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is how they differ.
One of these titles has
the unique distinction of having its controller hooked up to a
Commodore 64 computer. It’s true, a Guitar Hero style controller
has been hooked up to a C64
[http://freedomirc.net/~megaboz/shredz64/]. And what’s more, soon
you’ll really play the game on a C64 and you’ll get the real game
experience. That’s interesting. That really says something to me.
It says there are still top sellers that can be played on ALL
Most popular games
derive their sparkle through State Of The Art technical features.
Madden football uses “exclusive PS3 motion controls” to enhance
your player experience, which they do. Madden is also available on
PSP and DS, but compare those to the PS3 and you will say, “It
isn’t the game!”
Take a moment and think
about State Of The Art. I worked with a wry fellow at Atari who was
quite fond of saying “’State of the Art’ means if it’s broke,
nobody knows how to fix it.” Early in the days of the Atari VCS any
game we did was automatically a technical innovation since that was
the state of the art platform. Almost immediately game hosting
technologies gained a Moore’s law advantage, and it was clear we
were no longer working on a state of the art platform. Yet it was our
job to replicate the most popular state of the art games on our
platform, because marketing had undergone their evolution as well.
Clearly, deciding how
much of a game you can (or reasonably should) deliver on a less
capable platform is not a new problem. Back at Atari we dealt with it
all the time. Every coin-op conversion attempted on the 2600 started
off with the same question: What is the essence of this game play and
how much of that can we deliver? Consequently every game we saw
became a simple two-digit number: the Delivery Percentage, or the
percentage of that game concept we felt could be delivered on the
2600. Some games were higher and some were lower. But naturally the
averages kept dropping as we watched the bleeding edge rolling away
from us with increasing speed.
The state of the art
advances rapidly and continuously, and the biggest determinant in
assessing state of the art is transcendence of backward
compatibility. If something is truly state of the art on a platform,
it shouldn’t be able to be delivered on any prior technology
without it being jarringly obvious that key elements are missing.
And that’s what we
do. Increasing technological capacity is the easiest and most
fleeting form of innovation. It is so frequently the goal of our
industry to add speed/memory/processors and then take full advantage
of the latest hardware.
But is that really the
State of the Art? If we focus on the word “State” then yes, I
think it is. But if we focus on the word “Art,” that is another
matter entirely. Increasing play cleverness and game design acuity,
these are more profound and substantially more elusive goals.
Creating a game on the
PS3 that people desire to replicate on the 2600, well, that’s not
too difficult. But show me a game on the 2600 that people desire to
replicate on the PS3? That’s brilliant. And what’s more, that’s
an easy development.
A great game whose play
transcends platform capability is the Holy Grail of game design. The
essential ingredients are the same as in all works of genius:
simplicity and purity of design. The kind of thing that makes nearly
everyone say, “I could have done this.”
Meanwhile, back at the
original point. . .
Guitar Hero is
different from the other games because it has a very high delivery
percentage on the 2600. The fundamental game play is simple and
“platform independent.” Guitar Hero’s game play is 95% intact
on any system that can deliver elemental graphics, play reasonable
audio and handle the specialty controller.
Some games don’t even
have a controller restriction. They are the top of the heap. The all
time example is Tetris. Who among us has not wasted more hours than
they’d willingly admit rotating, shifting and dropping tetrominoes?
And there is virtually no platform in the history of video games that
cannot do a very complete version of Tetris.
While mindful of the
import the term State of the Art imparts, I submit it is insufficient
to describe the magnitude of a product that is at once compelling on
the most advanced platforms while making the simplest platforms more
It doesn’t just
advance the forefront of the industry, it advances the entire history
of the industry. This is amazing. This is fundamental. This is once
in a generation.
This is “Span of the
Boxout 1 (150 words):
A most unusual
controller proposal resulted when a Psychic Institute pitched Atari a
game idea: use the VCS to screen and identify people with strong
psychic capabilities. They wanted to do a game in which exercised
various psychic abilities. We planned predictive exercises where the
player indicates which way an object will move or the pattern on a
card. The big payoff involved a series of colorful planets displayed
on the screen and the player would attempt to move them around with
“psychic energy.” The controller was a headband that originally
was supposed to collect brain waves and allow players to actually use
mental states to control the game. But by the time it got through
manufacturing and marketing, it was basically a cheap plastic ring
that might measure muscle tension around the temples. When the
idealism of esoteric concepts meets hard market realities, the result
is frequently a headache.
Boxout 2 (99 words):
Sometimes people use an
existing controller from one system to innovate on another system.
Sometimes people create innovative controllers for special
applications. And sometimes people take existing controllers on
existing systems and just use them in innovative ways. For instance,
on Raiders of the Lost Ark I used both joysticks for one player, that
seemed like and innovative approach. Some people used 2600 console
switches as extra controller buttons. Some innovations are born of
necessity, some of curiosity and still others are born of desire. I
just don’t understand why there haven’t been more interesting
applications involving vibrating controllers.