What games are capable of today is a lot more than it used to be, and it’s more than just the gameplay that’s changed. Back in the earliest days of digital gaming, the brutally low-resolution black and white graphics were an interesting curiosity, but hardly a competitor for the lush color images you could find in movies and television. That didn’t stop people early game developers from trying…
But in order to allow players to understand what was going on, the graphics needed to represent something easy to understand.
It didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to understand what it was that Pong was getting at. The ball, a racket, and the table were all there, and that’s all you needed.
For players in the Atari era it was abstraction that gave us the greatest bang for the buck. The graphics on arcade cabinets and box covers gave the player a taste of the vision of the designer. And even though the graphics remained tiny blocks for another decade, the things they represented quickly became much more ambitious and abstract. Science fiction themes that started with arcade machines like Space Invaders, Missile Command, and Pac Man, quickly graduated to epic space battles in games like Star Raiders and Defender. By the early 80s what was essentially still a swirling spray of dots began trying to represent something approximating a complicated effects shot from Star Wars.
As graphics improved, the fidelity of things that games attempted to simulate improved with them, and we began to create interfaces inside of our games. They were designed to not only control an experience, but also invoke a mood, and give the player an intuitive understanding of what their options and/or goals were. Games like Wing Commander and Tie Fighter were now giving us rich approximations of the inside of a spaceship.
System Shock 2 and Deus Ex were probably the peak of this abstracted, UI centric gameplay, with the computer interfaces inside the game providing a conceptual framework for technology strikingly reminiscent of the world we live in today.
Part of that is because a game has it easy compared to real-world applications. The only things an in-game UI has to actually work for are the imaginary problems inside of the game. The rest could be imaginative gibberish. But these limited interfaces have fired the imaginations of two generations of software developers, becoming the prototypes for the software that followed them.
That era is over now. An explosion of graphical technology, touch interfaces, and hi-resolution mobile devices running simple, targeted applications have freed software developers from the challenges and limitations that gave games their advantage. The interfaces we use every day on our phones are now more engaging than the imaginary alien worlds of Halo and Doom. Our software allows us to parse, manipulate, and re-examine information in ways that we could only imagine a decade ago.
Reading the angry and bewildered comments on the gaming sites, it’s hard not to wonder if some of the visceral, angry reactions of “hardcore” gamers to the rising popularity of casual, indie, and mobile games, is simply part of a grieving process for the diminishing relevancy of core games as “cutting edge” entertainment.
Does that mean that games themselves are now no longer anything more than just entertainment?
The limited environments and clear, managed goals of games may still have value in helping us simulate the future, but it’s no longer the visual UI components where interactive entertainment excels in revealing the future. These days it’s input where our games are leading the way, and I’ll dive into more detail on why and how in an upcoming newsletter.
Here’s a fantastic in-depth history of video game interfaces (http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/video-games-ui-evolution/) , if you want to dive in a little deeper of just how far things have come in both software and hardware.