Computer Games Versus Videogames

Ten years ago, computer games and videogames were closely linked. Any big hit on the Atari 2600 was quickly ported over to the various personal computers. But then came the crash of 1984, and all that changed. Anything associated with videogames died. The only computer games to survive the crash were those that were clearly differentiated from videogames. Computer game makers learned a hard lesson: steer a wide course around videogames.

But times have changed. Nintendo, Sega, and NEC are the deep pockets of the business. Where we skitter along, happy to sell 25,000 units and overjoyed to sell 100,000 units, Nintendo doesn’t even take much notice unless it can sell a million units. Profits for a single Nintendo game run into millions of dollars; profits in the computer games business are often paper-thin.

Another change is that the technological gap between home computers and videogame consoles has narrowed. The Apple II was far superior to the Atari 2600; the IBM PC was far superior to the 8-bit Nintendo; but an IBM PC with 1 meg of RAM, a hard disk, and a 286 is not a whole lot better than a 16-bit SuperFamicon. Clearly superior, yes, but not as far superior as the earlier cases.

So computer game designers have started to blur the dividing line between videogames and computer games. The allure of all that money is just too enticing for the underpaid workers of the computer games industry.

The videogames people are all too happy to have our work. The truth of the matter is, they need it badly. The videogame industry is in dire need of fresh new ideas. This has nothing to do with the creative talents of the videogame designers; it’s not as if they’re all a bunch of uncreative dullards looking hopefully to the brilliant and creative computer game designers. It’s really just a matter of economics. The cost of producing and marketing a videogame is enormous. They can’t afford to take chances on unproven products. The computer games industry, on the other hand, is more experimental, more freewheeling, more open to odd ideas. The cost of developing and publishing a computer game is far lower than the comparable cost of a videogame. Hence, computer gaming has a more experimental feel to it. We produce a wide variety of games every year, and we have to admit that there are a great many turkeys in that collection. The videogames people can pick and choose the rare winners that come out of the stew.

So we appear to have a happy situation that works for both sides. The videogames people provide the big money that keeps our industry alive, and we computer games people provide the fresh ideas that keep their industry going. Everybody wins, right?

Not quite. If the deal were that simple, then it would indeed be a great deal for all concerned. Unfortunately, the way the deal works in practice is a bit more complex. There are second-order effects here, effects that can ruin things for both industries.

The most important second-order effect is the way that computer games people anticipate the videogames business. If this were some sort of hermetically sealed double-blind scientific environment, in which videogames people delivered money and took ideas without the computer games people ever knowing what was happening, all would be well. But the fact is that we computer games people know that those videogames people are out there, checkbooks in hand. They’re just dying to give us money, if only we have a suitable design to sell them. And that realization affects our thinking. We start to think how we can make our games more commercially viable in the videogames market. We adjust our designs to be closer to what we perceive to be the videogames ideal.

This, of course, is exactly the reverse of what we need. Our value to the videogames people lies in our freewheeling, experimental style, our willingness to try new and different things. I know this sounds screwy, but the more we try to please them, the less our value to them.

This is why I have ardently resisted proposals to increase the representation of videogames at the Computer Game Developers’ Conference. It’s not that I think that videogames are bad or that videogame designers are cretins. My fear is that, if videogames, coin-op games and computer games merge into some giant whole called "electronic games", then computer games will be swamped by all the money and power that courses through these other industries.

That would be a catastrophe for both computer gaming and videogaming. Computer gaming would suffer because more time, energy and money would be devoted to making games that sell well in the videogame world.

Don’t dismiss this possibility: it is already happening. Publishers such as The Software Toolworks, Electronic Arts and Accolade are moving away from computer games and toward videogames. This is particularly striking because both EA and Accolade at one time declared that they had no intention of developing videogames. Now both companies are working hard to produce such games.

When publishers spend their development dollars on videogames, there are fewer development dollars for computer games. Many of us will be squeezed out of the business or transformed into videogame developers.

The sad thing is that the videogames people will suffer from this, too. They need our inexpensive R&D capabilities, but if most of the R&D money shifts over to videogames, the field of computer games from which they can pick and choose is narrowed.

Computer Games are Dead
Thus, we reach a surprising conclusion: the best way to make the most money from the videogames industry is to maintain our distance from them. We want to be close enough to be able to make deals, but far enough away that our industry retains its experimental style. A tough and tricky balancing act it is, but if we err in either direction, we stand to lose a lot of money. If err we must, I would prefer to err in the direction of too much distance. Erring in that direction, we lose a few deals; erring in the opposite direction, we lose our heart and soul.

So what should we do -- segregate computer games people from videogames people? Require separate bathrooms for the two kinds of designers? Keep them blissfully apart and ignorant of each other? No. The two sides need to be aware of each other’s existence. Videogames people need to know the latest games coming down the pike in the computer games business, and computer games people need to know enough about the videogames business that they can deal with its representatives intelligently. People from the videogames industry should read the Journal and speak at the conference, But they should come as honored guests rather than enfranchised constituents. I would certainly like to publish an occasional article about the video-games industry in these pages.