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The Art of the State of the Art

Halo 3, Madden NFL 08, Guitar Hero 2. What do these titles have in common?

Virtually nothing. 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 platforms.

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 compelling.

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 Art.”

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.

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