The Value Of Gaming And The Pitfalls Of History

The Value Of Gaming And The Pitfalls Of History

The Value Of Gaming And The Pitfalls Of HistoryAfter spending a week in GDC, writing posts at midnight, waking up early for meetings, gorging on omelettes with ponderous amounts of ‘cheese’ it’s good to finally be back in the office, and have the time to collect my thoughts. In hindsight GDC seemed to be the event where social gaming struck back, where iOS gaming demanded to be taken seriously.

It’s a topic that had me asking myself – what is the value of gaming?

Iwata’s keynote was telling, this quote – which seems to address the movement towards cheap, disposable game development – was particularly interesting.

Their goal is to just gather as much software as possible, because… that is how they profit. The value of video game software does not matter to them. The fact is, what we produce has value, and we should protect that value.

Plenty have criticised Iwata for this statement. Bryan Reynolds of Zynga claimed Nintendo were “missing the point”, Michael Pachter brought the hyperbole, stating that Iwata’s keynote – along with the announcment of the iPad 2 – was proof that Nintendo were “doomed” in the long term. As a huge fan of mobile gaming I personally felt that the keynote was reflective of Nintendo’s fear of online, a reluctance to embrace new, innovative methods of consuming video games.

But during another presentation I had that assumption challenged. Dramatically.

Later that week I was dragged along to David Crane’s Pitfall! retrospective presentation – by ex-Kotaku editor David Wildgoose believe it or not. The Goose, bless him, is a little bit older than me and had actually played Pitfall! I hadn’t, and therefore wasn’t too enamoured about sitting through a two hour retrospective about a game I’d never encountered before.

But roughly halfway through the speech, David Crane rattled off an anecdote that sent alarm bells ringing for me.

He spoke about the great Video Game crash of the early 80s. David Crane, creator of Pitfall! and co-founder of Activision, was partly responsible for this crash. By successfully setting up Activision (one of the first third party gaming companies), Crane helped open the floodgates for other third party publishers to produce games for the Atari 2600 – a move which eventually resulted in a tidal wave of third party games being released on the platform.

In the early 80s retailers like Toys R Us would literally have a barrel full of titles in the store – just cartridges – cheaply produced, barely playable games with no packaging sold at $5 a pop. According to Crane, when parents went in to buy an Atari game for their kids, they would delve into those barrels and pick up six terrible games for Christmas, instead of picking up the quality $40 game their kids had asked for. It got to the stage that retailers would no longer stock new games until they’d gotten rid of their massive stock of shovelware.

With perspective, the situation we’re currently in sounds a little familiar.

If we don’t learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them – so when Iwata talks about protecting the value of video games, we should probably listen. It was essentially Nintendo who rescued the games industry from the crash of the early 80s and they did so by providing games with a stable value, by attempting to guarantee their quality, by more stringently protecting the brand of gaming as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong – I love iOS games. I love the ease of use, I love games with simple mechanics and I love cheap games. Doesn’t everyone? But at some point we have to ask ourselves – how much do we value the games we play? How much do we value the experiences and production values that a top level studio can deliver?

When I was seven I had a dual tape recorder. I used to pirate games – excessively. If my friends bought a game, I would make a copy on one of the hundreds of blank tapes lying scattered around my bedroom. I played hundreds of games during that period, but if you asked me their names I could probably remember around 20 – and most, if not all, were the games I actually purchased myself with my own pocket money. I cared about these games because they had value.

Maybe that’s hypocritical – maybe that’s the cycle of consumerism at work – but if we don’t learn from the pitfalls of history we risk losing the value of gaming.

Ultimately it comes down to this: if games don’t have value, they don’t have meaning. And if they don’t have meaning what’s the point of playing games at all?


  • I pirate pretty much every single game I play these days now; games just aren’t worth the high prices to me anymore. The only game I’ve bought in the past few months is Pokemon White, because the IR features don’t get on my flashcart. And even then, I might not get my money’s worth. That “awesome” factor from the beginning of my videogame era has just dissipated over the years.

    You wonder why people pirate games? Because it just doesn’t excite us as much as it used to.

    • I haven’t pirated a game in years. Because I think the games worth playing are of a high enough quality to justify the cost. Possibly not always the asking cost in Australia, but certainly worth paying for.

      Games now are more exciting than they have ever been.

    • There is something to be said for buying games though. You have artificially devalued them by obtaining them illegally. If you have the ability to get every game for free then it’s hard to attach a value to them. 

      I also have to disagree about the excitement though. There must still be a level of excitement if you bother downloading or burning these games. If not why do you bother. I have seen this with people I know who pirate everything. You end up unenthusiastic because there is no anticipation. No feeling of opening the package. No thrill of the price match and if you chuck it out after a day you have lost little. 

      Stop pirating for a few months. Find a game that sounds interesting and save up for it. Wait for a street date and get it day one. Because you have parted with cash it’s value will increase in your eyes and you will invest in the experience. 

      This reminds me of a story I heard. I dude in the states set up a charity in Africa to collect old push bikes from US. He fixed them. Shipped them to Africa and gave them away. As appreciated as they were, they were broken or lost or whatever because locals did not place value on them. Even though it was a charity, he started charging a small amount for the bikes which in turn created value that saw the recipients take much more care. 

      I would argue the free games you get devalue them. You are free to continue pirating but I think you will find your lack of enthusiasm for games atm is in part related to what you pay for them. 

      I’m not saying pay $119 for a game. I’m still a tight arse so get Em as cheap as possible. But invest time in your decision and part with cash. Your long term gaming patterns may start to change. 

      Btw I’m 29 and I played pitfall heaps. Awesome fun.

      • My daughter and I had a similar conversation today. She is ten, and my younger one is turning 7. The 7 year old has been saving up for a year to purchase a Nintendo DS (My 10yr old saved up for two years to get hers.)
        The 7 yr old now has the money, and is considering buying 2nd hand, as it would save $70 and she could get a case and a couple of games then.
        My 10yr old daughter said she would rather buy a new one, even when we pointed out that you can get the same warranty on a used DS and you could get more games etc. she reckoned that part of the fun was saving up for it. The waiting, and then the anticipation of unwrapping the brand new box for the first time. That it was just more fun when you spent nights thinking about it and read reviews and worked out what games you would buy first. She buys all her games new, reads all the reviews, she finds the best prices she can, and she values each purchase highly and really, really enjoys the small selection of games she has.
        Her friends have R4 carts with hundreds of games on them, and are nowhere near as enthusiastic about any particular title, and miss out on the anticipation completely. A friend offered to get her an R4 for her birthday, she turned it down and asked for ghost trick instead.

      • True, there are better arguments against Piracy, but he does have a point, and one that has been proven before. Personally I used to pirate the vast majority of my games, but now I only pirate a small percentage of them, and even then I’ll usually end up buying them to support their creators.

    • I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed a game in many years, I would say the only company I NEVER pirate from is Blizzard.
      I’ve liked every single Blizzard game, except World of Warcraft.
      I will never buy another Call of Duty game, I don’t care how good the multiplayer is, I will always pirate.
      Shoot me down if you must, but know that I haven’t genuinely been excited about a game in years, nothing seems to scratch that itch, I’m really looking forward to Crysis 2 though.

  • Terrifying. I have to say, like you, Mark, I hadn’t thought of it this way. I don’t own an i-x, but I’m aware of the dubious quality of the games available – for every Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja there’s 3 E.T the Extra Terrestrial. Not that the Wii is much better.

    Oh and BlueMaxima – while I appreciate your position, people work on those games. Purchasing good games rather than bad shapes the industry as whole. Purchasing nothing does nothing but devalue the industry. You’re part of the problem.

  • So I guess the situation, to me, looks quantitatively different than crash in the 80’s. The reason the iOS store can still be chock full of crap and still function is that it’s *digital*. There is no shelf size limit in the app store, or whichever digital store Iwata was harshing on (I can’t remember, I was falling asleep in the second row at the time.)

    Still, your point about value stands.

    • Quantitatively it may be very different, but I think there’s something to be said about the quality of games – then and now – that’s fairly similar. Twenty digital (iOS or Android, for example) games at $1.99 a pop, no matter how fun, addictive or zany, may not (and, in my view, won’t) equal the experience of a 10-hour top-notch shooter or a 40-100 hour RPG in terms of intensity, story and immersiveness.

    • It’s actually similar to the 80’s Crash in that Iwata or Fils-aime (I can’t remember) Recently stated that the New Downloadable DS games would be priced at around $40, as opposed to 0.99, in order to avoid another crash similar to the one in the eighties.

  • Man, pitfall, bless your croc infested socks. In the past, I used to grab cheap copies of games at markets, in fact back in the early 90’s I was working for a computer shop running the ‘market day sales’. What was the stock I moved most? Massive boxes of 5 1/4 inch shareware. Amongst that, were full version games too. It really was pot luck though whether you got a working disk without bad sectors…. Fast forward to easily downloaded games. I did it for a while, but pretty much all that stuff has zero value. To me, it became browsing at the library. It put me off games for a few years really. Then as I aged and had income at my hand, I began buying games and finishing the damn things, because they felt like mine, and that I owed it to myself to finish them.
    I think I’ve downloaded one game in the last 3 years which was purely to see whether I would like it as I was unsure, and there’s no “library”/demo anymore. Turned out to be naff and I never brought it.

    Most of my games are got via Steam these days, mostly all of them were bargain sale price bought. But I certainly don’t treasure them as much as a boxed copy.

    OHOHOH and did the Goose totally confess his undying love for me and loops???

    • He told me that he thought the best part of working at Kotaku was the community. I nodded in agreement – sagely.

  • I don’t think we are in danger of another video game crash. Sure there is a TON of ever increasing shovelware, but the industry has matured these days. People don’t just by random cartridges. People are much more informed then ever, due to the internet and specialised gaming stores. From the social games side of things, they tend to spread by word of mouth more often then not, so social shovelware isn’t even seen by most people.

  • Itawa makes a good point. All of this shovelware iphone/social gaming crap is only going to hurt in the long run. I particularly liked that metaphor with the barrel of cheap games, it’s scarily similar to the state of iPhone games atm. 90% of people will shell out $1 for forty crappy pieces of shovelware, instead of $40 for one quality, long-lasting title.

    Personally, I hate mobile/social gaming. There are about four ideas that just keep getting recycled over and over – and most of them are just stolen from free-to-play flash games. Why should I pay someone even $1 for stealing a game and whacking his own textures on it? That’s worse than piracy IMO

  • When I first discovered emulators I was astounded by the fact that I could play every Snes and Megadrive game that I couldn’t afford as a kid. But the thing is I only played each of them for about 5 minutes and never went back, whereas with the few games I received as a kid I would go through every inch of the game until I had seen everything.

    So by having a limited number of games I got more value out of the ones I had.

    Funnily enough I am now in a similar situation as an adult, while I’m not rich I generally have enough income to buy whatever games I want and go nuts during the sales, but with work and life getting in the way I don’t have time to play most of them fully before the next thing comes out.

    The pile of shame has grown ever so high (I tell myself that I will live out my retirement years by playing through them) and its now at the point where I’ve been stopping myself from buying new games that I know I won’t have much time to play.

    I’ll still invest in my favourites and the big names but I am now spending far less money on gaming than I used to and getting more ‘value’ out of the few I do buy.

  • I think it’s true to some degree that I value the games of old more than the present day games. Partly I assume this is to do with getting older, but there does seem to be something missing from the games of late. I still manage to find gems every now and then, and I do treasure those as I did my old atari games, but they seem to be few and far between these days. A lot of it has to do with the “me too” factor I think. Too many games rehash ideas from previous hits and just add one or two tewaks and expect it to be a hit. This migth be ‘business’ cos they want to be assured of a pay-off, or maybe it’s just a pure lack of imagination driven by too many years of entertainment being crammed in our faces and being re-hashed over and over again. I dunno, but I really do love it when I manage to find that sense of value that I get when I find a real gem that makes a real impression on me. It might not happen as much as it used to, but at least it still happens sometime.. One would think that this might make someone appreciate those moments even more, but for some reason, I don’t think I do.

  • I have no idea of any market analyses or projections (apart from articles on Kotaku and anecdotal evidence) but AAA-quality games made by big studios with a hefty emotional or visceral impact will always sell a bunch, even if the ridiculous money is in small social games (Zynga et al).

    It’s probably hyperbole (and a bit nasty), but the quote from somebody at the GDC (the plastic coins guy?) that most of the money-spinners were made for 43-year olds probably holds true. There’s still a vast consumer base for quality, well-made and immersive games, and to underestimate the demand for mature, serious (as opposed to casual) games is probably unwise.

  • I’ll preface these comments by saying they’re all based purely on my own gut feel, and I have no facts, figures or any other evidence of any kind to back them up 😛

    I think the big difference between now and the 80s crash is the much larger, more diverse market. Cheap iPhone/Android games aren’t really comparable to the $5 Atari games on offer back then. If we were talking about $5 PS3/360 disc games competing with the major releases then there might be something to it.

    But these cheap little phone games fill a different gap in the market – I might have a 15 minute bash on Angry Birds or poker or whatever while I’m on the bus to work, but it doesn’t replace full-scale games. Is anybody seriously going to buy 10 crappy little phone games instead of the next Uncharted or Elder Scrolls or whatever? No. Or rather, the people who will do that probably wouldn’t have ever bought those AAA releases anyway, and quite possibly don’t even own a console (and if they do own one, it’s probably a Wii).

    The kinds of people who are interested in the “big” games are much more likely to buy their Uncharted and Elder Scrolls, and maybe buy 3 or 4 cheap phone games, not abandon their AAA games in favour of bite-sized phone games.

    If anything, the cheap little phone games may end up acting as a kind of gateway drug – pull in people who otherwise might not have had any interest in gaming, and a few of them might take to it and end up graduating to full-scale console (or even, god help them, PC) gaming.

    • Totally agree Braaains, firstly that the AAA market and the iOS/Android market do not overlap, and secondly that I’ve seen the gateway effect in action – I can think of two people I know who both ‘hated xbox’ but got into plants vs zombies on ipad and then ‘graduated’ to playing games on the 360 -something that they would have never even contemplated before. Win for gaming!

  • “When parents went in to buy a Wii game for their kids, they would delve into those shelves and pick up six terrible games for Christmas, instead of picking up the quality $40 game their kids had asked for. It got to the stage that retailers would no longer stock new games until they’d gotten rid of their massive stock of shovelware. ”

    Fixed. 😛

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