Shadows of cynicism cast in the light of experience?. .
Has the quality of games software deteriorated over the years? Or is it simply standing still? There again
- did it ever progress?
It all started with the appearance of black and white, hand held video games featuring such delights as ‘tennis’
and 'football' - simplistic, but playable games with equally simplistic graphics and sound. Families gathered around
their televisions, captivated and somewhat overawed by the hi-tech thrill of it all.
Within months, the cartridge based consoles arrived - notably the Atari 2600 which spawned cheaper, inferior imitations.
These consoles offered better graphics and sound, and (more importantly) more variety than their 'predecessors’.
. . but at a price - around £40 a cartridge.
Months passed. passed. And then . . . the advent of the home computer boom.
(Sir) Clive Sinclair's DIY ZX80 was the first home computer to make its mark - not as a games machine, but as a
break-through in home computer technology. It was the appearance of DIY and ready-made ZX81s that inspired commerical
software - cheap, cassette-based games. The ZX81 offered no graphical marvels - it was also slow, devoid of colour
and sound, and initially the software available wasn’t much of an improvement over the games seen on the ageing
black and white hand-held consoles. Clones of arcade games such as Break Out, Space Invaders, Galaxians and Pac
Man appeared in abundance and were well received by those either lacking the time or money to frequent amusement
arcades, or unable to afford a cartridge based console. Original games were few and far between - but it didn't
matter. The technology impressed, as opposed to the quality of the software. Everyone was happy.
Commodore's VIC 20 brought improved graphics, colour and sounds - but it was overshadowed by the release of the
Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro. The VIC (apologies to any German readers) suffered due to its comparitively
high price - and small memory. Commodore offered some software support in the form of clostly ROM cartridges -
mostly clones of arcade games. But despite being unrestricted by the VIC's pitiful 3.5K memory most of these cartridges
offered too little for too much. Potental innovations came with Jeff Minter - undeterred by the VIC's memory restrictions
and unperturbed about doing his own thing. But sadly, his self indulgence was generally scorned and ignored and
the flow of unoriginal software prevailed.
The somewhat highbrow BBC boasted a larger memory and many unusual, impressive features. It also boasted a high
price tag, lower than that of the Atari, but not low enough. . . The Spectrum was considerable cheaper, more user-friendly
and sold extremely well, despite reports of unreliable machines and erratic delivery. Games software ensued - predictably,
in the form of arcade clones.
These newer machines were powerful, but this advantage only brought about more accurate versions of arcade games
- original games were still few and far between.
By this time the full-colour, arcade-quality-sound, ("blah,waffle") Atari home computer had been knocking
around for a few years, as any self-respecting Atari owner will no doubt go to great lengths to tell you, ("waffle,
blah"). However, most Atari software came in the form of Atari's rediculously (?-IB) expensive ROM cartridges
- more often than not, mediocre arcade conversations that failed to reflect the capabilities of what was, and still
is, a powerful machine. Needless to say, the Atari home computer was largely ignored - its high price put it 'out
of reach' for the casual consumer, and there were many cheaper cartridge-based consoles available which offered
much the same. Perhaps if more attention had been paid to producing cheaper, original, quality software for the
Atari, and if the machine itself had also been significantly cheaper, than original games would have appeared sooner
and consequently affected the quality of software today.
The Commodore 64 hit the streets, boasting synthesiser quality sound, high-resolution graphics and colour. Most
importantly, the C64 offered 'sprites' - a feature previously only seen in arcade games, allowing objects on the
screen to pass over background without it being erased. But the C64 failed to make a significant impression - until
its price dropped and sales boomed, inpiring arcade clones aplenty.
The whole business of writing and marketing computer games has moved forward over the years, and has become a more
formally structured and conventional 'industry' that operates in the field of entertainment. Clones are now known
as 'offically liciensed conversations' - in a comparatively short period of time the fotware scene has changed
very little, although the methods of production and distribution have 'matured'. But the quality of the products
now being shipped hasn't developed in parallel to the machinery that puts games in the shops. To my mind, the software
industry is stale. It has been running around in circles like a headless chicken.
At present, there is far too much run-of-the-mill software available - spawned by licensing deals that take the
form of television and film tie-ins or arcade conversations. Despite the effort involved in producing such games,
I feel that little or no thought goes into actually designing them. Most film and television tie-ins fall into
four tried, tested and exhausted categories: shoot 'em up, arcade adventure, beat 'em up and platform game. Sometimes
a composite game offered a mix of the four basic styles. All unoriginal and far from innovative. Over 100 licensed
conversations and tie-ins have been released to date. . . and to my mind very few tie-ins have been representive
of the theme of the original on which they are based. When it comes to arcade conversations, software houses spend
money to avoid thought and effort - all they have to do is produce a competent copy of a game that has been tried
and tested in the arcades, and in general the arcade game manufactors have been dressing up old, basic concepts
with increasingly sophesticated hardware - more thrills than thnilp.
The investment required to buy a licence takes a chunk out of the budget for a project, and this, in combination
with the fact that a publisher with a licence is assured of a respectable level of sales, means that there's less
money and less impetus behind the development of the game itself. Wholesalers, retailers and consumers are probably
going to buy a lot of copies of a licenced game - especially if the release is timed to 'circumvent' the deadlines
of monthly review magazines. So why bother going to all the trouble and effort of being innovative? Innovation
involves risk, and the lower the risk the better the project appears to the commercially-minced publisher.
Take a few recent examples of uninspired tie-ins:
The cartoon series Scooby Doo features a group of bungling kids (and their dog) who continually stumble across
crimes and mystaries which they eventually solve by accident. Elite's computer game however is nothing more than
a platform and ladders game with beat 'em up overtones.
Tarzan swings through the jungle, wrestles alligators and lions, chases the bad guys and gets captured by tribes
of ignorant natives - but he always manages to escape and save the day by using his animal friends to his advantage.
However, the computer game turns out to be a run-of-the-mill arcade adventure that follows an uninspiring course:
explore hundreds of screens, find and use objects and beat up a few natives in the process. Sadly, this is hardly
representative of Edgar Rice Burrcughs 'Tarzan'. The Jungle Swinger is merely planted in another uninspiring game;
another in a long line of formulaic arcade adventures.
Judge Dredd is a character with immense protential for an outstanding computer game. But this potential was not
utilisied in the slightest - after the game had spend many months in the development stage, I was disgusted to
see that Melbourne House had produced nothing more than an unimaginative and glorified platform game, which complete
fails to capture the character of judge Dredd as seen in 2000AD. What is the point of spending money on a licence
if you largely ignore the potential effect your investment can have on the content of the game itself?
Highlander is a prime example of a 'stock' game taken of the shelf of ideas and written after a licence has been
acquired - with a few minimal changes to the graphics it could have so easily been Star Wars, Robin Hood, or even
2000AD's Slaine. Sure, the film Highlander features sword fighting, but there's a lot more to it. Are the fight
sequences suitable or innovative enough material for a computer game? Hardly, as it has been done so many times
before. Most television series and films don't provide suitable material for a computer game - so why bother? But
tie-ins seem to sell well, as the market statistics show. The real question is why do people continue to buy poor
games that are dressed up with a licence and a neat illustration on the inlay? By now, I would have though game
buyers would have worked out that a tie-in, more often than not, is likely to be an excuse for a poor game. Predictably
poor software, that achieves predictably respectable sales.
The overall style and content of Jeff Minter's next game is predicatable, but only in that it will be a shoot 'em
up. The difference is, Jeff always attempts something new - something innovative. The quality of his games hasn't
gone downhill - he's 'slipped up' with Mama Liama, but in many ways it wasn't a decline in quality. Unlike a lot
of new games, Minter's output isn't highly derivetive of existing product, it is influenced by the games he pays,
but only superficially.
The deriviate - almost clone like approach taken by most companies is A Very Bad Thing. Worse still, presentation
seems to be having a disproportionate affect on reviewers and purchasers opinion of games without them realising.
That's not to say all well presented games are poor, but presentation goes beyond the game itself - advertising,
reputation of the company in question and chart position all subconsciously bias an opinion.
I would like to think that ZZAP! hasn't fallen into this 'presentation trap' - there may well have been a few mistakes,
but then even three people offering opinions are occasionally prone to error. It has been suggested by some in
the software houses that we could be out of touch with our readership. This is a possibility - it seems that chart
positions and sales often conflict with our opinions. But should we be reflecting opinions or guiding it to some
extent? Our reviews are intended as guidelines - they should not be taken as gospel, and it is worrying when we
hear reports that High Street multiples want to see the ZZAP! review of a game before deciding on the number of
units to order.
But what makes a good game? Does it matter that a game is unoriginal or lacks innovation as long as those who buy
it are content? Are software publishers merely catering for the demand that is there?
There is the odd ray of light. Now and again, someone comes up with an original concept or an original treatment
of a theme. The trouble is, within a few months clone upon clone appears and another 'new genre' is bludgeoned
to death, diluted and absorbed by the ideas-starved sponge that the software industry has become.
Unfortunately, software houses will continue to release repackaged version of the same old thing, if that is what
the customers appear to want. Is this really what YOU want - or is it all you can get?