Game Programming in the 21st Century
By James Hague
…popping in a new PlayStation game and playing in less than a minute…with having to run an installer for the latest PC title and having it misdetect your hardware.
…pulling out a Palm Pilot and jotting a few notes…with waiting for your PC to boot (and run ScanDisk because you forgot to choose "Shut Down" before pulling the plug last time).
…having the same zero-maintenance Game Boy all through high school and college…with trying to figure out why your month-old system seems to be generally unstable after an afternoon of downloading demos.
It would be easy to go on for pages, only to get frothing mail exclaiming that consoles most certainly aren’t as useful as a Gateway box, especially when it comes to word processing. The thing is, though, that it wouldn’t take a whole lot to convert a next generation game console into a super dee-luxe old-skool Coleco Adam that hooks to your HDTV home theatre. Put in the SonyWord DVD, and be writing the Great American Game Design Document in less than thirty seconds, with files saved on a 32 megabyte MP3 memory stick. Now that’s appealing. What was an operating system used for, again?
Hmm…you could probably write some sort of playable game with NuonBASIC and 32 MB, too. Didn’t Civilization squeeze into 32 MB? Or was that 64?
Game Designers Are Going to Get Older
Okay, this one’s a safe bet, but it’s even more interesting than it is obvious. Much as you might want to sputter a denial while guzzling Dr. Pepper and mousing through EverQuest, a majority of popular computer games are designed for People With No Lives ™.
Forget about unbearably long films like Gettysburg; games like Final Fantasy VII and Baldur’s Gate and Metal Gear Solid have playing times in the twenty to one-hundred hour range. If you’re single, give game playing a high priority, and don’t want to dash home to an empty apartment, then this isn’t an issue. But get an SO, maybe a kid (yee-haw!), or get involved in another time consuming hobby and those blocks of three or four hours are harder to come by. Six months after you buy it, you’re still working on Half-Life.
The old saw is that nobody ever writes a good novel before the age of 30, or even 40. With game designers, it’s the opposite. There are precious few over the age of 35, and average level designer is perhaps 10 or 11 years younger than that. How will their tastes change as they get older? Will "fifty hours of linear gameplay" still be a priority? Will there still be a preoccupation with women in leather halter tops? Will the designers at id start to resemble the comic book shopkeeper of The Simpsons? Or will middle aged marketing sensibilities settle in, making the justification for the leather halter tops be "because that’s what’ll be popular with the kiddies."
Regardless, someday we’ll be seeing what kind of designs come from a fifty year old with three and half decades of gaming behind him. Somebody who burned out on Star Trek novels and Dungeons & Dragons fifteen years back. Somebody who wants games that can be played in smaller doses, but aren’t necessarily simplistic. Somebody with over the top surrealist ideas that may turn out to be the Frank Lloyd Wright of game design. Or maybe with the wisdom of age will come the realization that there’s no creative fulfillment in designing games, as Greg Johnson (of Toejam and Earl fame) claimed a few years ago.
1. Fateman, Richard J. Reply to an editorial. ACM SIGSAM Bulletin, 25 (March 1973), pp. 9-11.
Credits: Illustration © 1999 Michael Krahulik. This article is © 1999 James Hague. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll peck your eyes out.