Not Keeping Pace With the Hardware

Volume #1 Issue 2 June 1987

Compare the hardware situation in 1983 with that of today. Four years ago the typical home computer was an Apple II, Atari 800, or Commodore 64 with an eight-bit 1 MHz 6502, 64K RAM, and a floppy disk drive with about 100K of capacity. Today, the typical computer in the home is more likely an IBM PC compatible or a Macintosh, Amiga, or Atari 520ST, boasting a 16-bit processor running at perhaps 8 MHz, at least 512K RAM, and a floppy disk with at least 320K of capacity. In other words, in just four years, overall processor power has increased by perhaps 500%, RAM has increased by 800%, and floppy disk capacity has increased by at least 300%. 

One would expect that such dramatic increases in hardware capability would be followed by commensurate increases in the quality of the games that we design. After all, a smaller increase in the power-to-weight ratio produced by the internal combustion engine made possible practical automobiles and airplanes. A smaller increase in the efficiency of steelmaking (the Bessemer process) made structural steel economically viable for architectural use and forever changed the skylines of our cities. Have we game designers used the boon provided to us by the hardware people as effectively as earlier creative people took advantage of their opportunities? 

I think not. I think that most computer game designers today are still locked into the 64K gestalt of the Apple II. We still think small. We are like the stodgy architects of the late 19th century who continued to build low, squat buildings when others were building skyscrapers and the Eiffel Tower. Even when we design games for big machines, we create little more than 64K games with lots of features tacked onto them. Consider, for example, the field of computer wargames. This field was well-developed in 1983; has it undergone any revolutions since then? No. 

My own Patton Versus Rommel, released in late 1986, provides the perfect example of what has happened with computer wargames in the last four years. It is better, yes the graphics are nicer, the user interface is smoother, and there are more features, but the game represents only a series of refinements on my earlier game Eastern Front (1941), not a revolutionary departure from past practice. And Patton Versus Rommel was one of the more innovative wargames to come along in 1986. 

Consider the field of adventure games. The same story applies here. We have seen a steady evolutionary trend. The games have gotten better each year, but they remain 64K games in style and structure. The one bright note that we have seen in this field is provided by the graphics adventures created by ICOM Simulations. (I do not claim that use of graphics is necessary for adventures to advance, only that the pure-text designers have surrendered the initiative to the graphics adventures.) 

I think that the problem lies in our attitudes. Partly it is a failure to think in revolutionary terms. A student of scientific revolutions once wrote that such a revolution does not occur until there is a widely perceived need for one, even if all the data is in place to support it. I think that we’re in the same boat. After having survived the Great Crash of 1984, we are all pretty pleased with ourselves that we are alive and breathing. 

My own experience illustrates some of the other factors that contribute to the lack of emphasis on keeping up with the hardware. I learned microcomputer programming in the earliest days. I mastered the fine art of scrunching lots of game into a very tiny space. I was proud of my skill. But my current project is designed for a Macintosh with 512K of RAM and 800K of disk capacity, and I for the first time in my career I found myself not worrying about the consumption of resource. In fact, I do not fully utilize the available RAM or disk space. This suggests that I have not yet figured out how to design an honest 512K game. Sure, I could stuff lots of junk onto the disk, but that wouldn’t be the same as designing a true 512K game. 

I therefore issue this warning to all computer game designers: you’d better start thinking about the difference between a 64K game and a 512K game. These are different animals. You can’t build a 512K game by tacking a bunch of expensive graphics onto a 64K game. Customers who purchase a computer five times more powerful than a Commodore 64 have a right to expect games that are five times better than what they would get on a Commodore 64. So far, I think that we have failed to meet that expectation.