Peering into the dark crystal

Posted by Rich Carlson.
First posted on 01 October 2006. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
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Recently I happened to watch The Dark Crystal. I have seen this movie before, but it was years or even decades ago. It is an amazing film that stands the test of time. As I began to mellow out and enjoy it, I remembered something... distant... I found myself instantly transported backward in time to another age (cue "swirling vortex of history" sound effect).

Perhaps not another age, not even a previous life, but a time not too long ago when fantasy and science fiction movies and games were frighteningly fresh and innovative, and ideas were sparking off with a frequency that still blows my mind today.

1977... 1981... 1985... Those were heady days in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, on college campuses (specifically, on college campus computer networks), and among the first generation of computer game makers. They were heady because there were no rules, only choices. Sky's the limit, anything goes. Obviously, deathstar game publishers did not yet exist, but even if they had, they would be cooler and more experimental than they are now. Hollywood was.

A generation inspired by the counterculture of the 1960s, with new ideas and cutting edge technology, computer programmers, computer designers, students, film makers and game makers, were heading in every direction at once.

The 10 year period centered on the early 1980s was a phenomenal time for computer games and everything that surrounded and inspired them. Imagine if you could take a random cross section of the game and movie entertainments from that time, you might get:

Star Wars, Zork, Dungeons & Dragons, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Planetfall, Cosmic Encounter, Poltergeist, Wasteland, Paranoia, E.T., Pool of Radiance, Call of Cthulhu, Alien, Enchanter, Champions, Time Bandits, Pirates!, Runequest, Robocop, Maniac Mansion, Sorcerer's Cave, Back to the Future, Starflight, Toon...

It was not a time of just 1-2 great movies or 2-3 great games per year. Triple those figures? Quintuple them? More? If you did, you would be talking about the state of the industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Many of you were around then, and you could testify for me on this take on history. Some of you were not, though, so you just have to take my word for it. Rest assured that I am talking about quality and quantity, not just taking a sentimental journey down memory lane.

Of course, things are different now. The game industry seems like a monolithic collective of lumbering juggernauts with developers dangling off of them like dingleberries, sometimes clinging on tenaciously (like a tenacious dingleberry?), sometimes being rubbed off, absently without a care. What a disgusting analogy! Let us move on, quickly.

Good fantasy and science fiction movies still happen obviously, but can you name 3 great flicks from last year? Good games still happen too, but what about last year or the year before? What happened then? Moreover, how many games have been released so far this year that you can call instant "classics"? 1? 2? Hard to say, but these are "mighty" low numbers compared to the past days of yore.

Game publishers do not want "classics". Neither do developers. Classics require too much time to craft. Nobody wants to take chances. They make "products" now instead of "games". They only want hits—just those few hits and the mega millions in revenues they ultimately generate that keep the industry alive, while also consigning it to a kind of perpetual stasis state. Same old, same old.

However, here is the beauty part. Hope springs eternal because those who want things to stay the same rarely see the next change coming. Indeed, the state of gaming is changing quite drastically, right under the industry's collective nose.

Slowly, publishers and developers are becoming concerned as computer game sales slip (and are predicted to slip again this year). Red flags go up. Something must be done! Focus on consoles! Abandon the PC! Up the budgets! Slash the development schedules! Make the process more complex! Overwork the teams! Throw money! All kinds of scary stuff like that...

What is it that is under the industry's big nose? A feeding frenzy of game development activity with a cumulative impact that developers are only beginning to grasp—consoles, online services, independent games, handheld games, coffee break games, downloadable games, casual games, multiplayer games, gambling games, indie game distribution, next gen, phone games, self funded games, and the return of shareware—mind boggling stuff, really, and all happening at once!

This sounds familiar and I think it is going be good. The new portals, platforms, devices, and audiences all need new games. What was old is new again on a small screen. What has not been dreamed up before—new games with fresh and surprising gameplay—stands a better chance in a long time of being dreamed up and made now.

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