We Are Still Not Keeping Up with the Hardware

Many issues ago, I wrote an essay entitled "We are not keeping pace with the hardware" in which I observed that personal computer hardware had improved dramatically, yet entertainment software had not improved proportionately. I’d like to revisit the question in this essay.

The other day I went out and bought myself a PowerMac 8500, with 16 MB of RAM, a 1 gigabyte hard drive, a quad speed CD drive, and a 21"color monitor. It occurred to me, while using this new behemoth, that I’ve come a long ways in fifteen years. Let me take you back to yesteryear and do some comparison. Back then, my system was an Atari 800 with 48K of RAM and a floppy disk drive with 88K of capacity. The processor was an eight-bit 6502 running at 1.79 MHz. Here, let’s line up the basic features:

Factor           Atari 800     PowerMac 8500    ratio
Data bus width:    8 bits         32 bits         4x
Clock speed:       1 MHz         120 MHz        120x
RAM:              48 KB           16 MB         340x
disk drive size:  88 KB            1 GB      11,000x
disk drive speed:  slow            fast            !
display size       8 kpx           1 mpx        125x

When we put all these elements together, I conclude that the PowerMac is at least a thousand times more powerful than the Atari 800. That’s an enormous improvement!In the entire history of human technological advance, I can think of no case in which any technology has improved so much so quickly. Indeed, there aren’t that many cases in which a technology improved so much in any period of time.

As I pointed out in my earlier essay, much smaller technological improvements have yielded gigantic changes in society. The reduction in the price of steel made possible by the Bessemer process encouraged society to use large quantities of structural steel, which in turn revolutionized the height of our cities. The growing size and stability of ocean-going ships made possible the global voyages in the 1500s that opened up the world to European exploitation. So, if smaller improvements in other technologies had such large consequences, then surely a thousand-fold increase in hardware capability should have made possible a gigantic revolution in game design.

So where’s the revolution? Oh sure, we’ve seen improvements over the last fifteen years. Why, Wing Commander N is much better than Star Raiders. And Doom is much better than Castle Wolfenstein. And Myst sure beats all heck out of Adventure.

But let’s sharpen the point of this discussion, shall we?If the hardware has improved a thousand-fold, then we’d expect the software to have improved a thousand-fold. Thus, Wing Commander N should be a thousand times better than Star Raiders. So, I ask those of you who have played both, is WingCommander N a thousand times more fun than Star Raiders?Is Doom a thousand times more fun than Castle Wolfenstein?Is Myst a thousand times better than Adventure was?

I think that we can all agree on two things:1. none of the modern games are a thousand or even a hundred times more entertaining than the originals; and 2. this comparison is unfair. In the first place, there’s the matter of diminishing returns; the finest meal prepared by a brilliant chef is still not going to be a thousand times better than a greasy burger. There’s also the matter of audience expectations. Back then, we were like a famished man, to whom even a greasy burger tastes wonderful. We thought Star Raiders was the living end.

Suppose that you and I sneak back to 1980 in our time machine, and offer one of those early designers a PowerMac 8500 with all the trimmings. We ask our ancient friend what he thinks he could do with it. Can you imagine the sense of limitless possibilities that would spew forth from his lips? Suppose even further, that we tell him that such machines are ubiquitous in 1995, that millions of people have them, that there are literally thousands of people working in the game design industry, that budgets for games are routinely in the six-figure range and sometimes climb into seven figures can you imagine the excitement and wonder our antiquarian designer would feel? Eagerly he asks us about the games we have in that wondrous year of 1995. We balk for a moment, trying to decide how to explain it, then say, "Souped-up Star Raiders, souped-up Adventure, and souped-up Castle Wolfenstein." What do you think he’d say?

That’s pretty much how I feel these days. If our ancestors were able to build Star Raiders, Eastern Front (1941), and M.U.L.E. with that lousy equipment, shouldn’t we be able to conquer the galaxy with hardware a thousand times better?

Again, let me be more specific:what, exactly, should better hardware permit us to do? What benefits does it confer?

The most obvious benefit is better cosmetics. With better hardware we can include better imagery, smoother animation, higher-quality sound. And on this point, I think that we can pat ourselves on the back. Our cosmetic work has improved a thousand-fold over the last fifteen years. Hooray for us.

But that’s not the only thing better hardware should permit us. It should also allow us to raise the standard of user interface in our products. If we dedicated just one-tenth of our new-found hardware power to user interface, our games would still be a hundred times easier to use. But in fact, the reverse is the case:games today are harder to play than in the old Atari 800 days. Back then, you shoved a diskette into the disk drive, booted the system, and it came up in the game. There were NO installation instructions back then: you just played the game. Nowadays, though, getting a game up and running is a major hassle. You’ve got to configure everything just right, and make sure that you’re running with the proper boards installed it’s a nightmare. Howcum computers that are a thousand times more powerful are harder to use? We’ve blown it bigtime here.

The third thing that better hardware should permit us is better programs. Basically, with better hardware, we should be able to use better compilers and worry less about saving RAMin our programs. As a result, we’d expect to see programs get smarter and bigger. But in fact, I don’t see that much improvement in the overall intelligence of entertainment software. Yes, software today is smarter than in 1980, but the scale of improvements seems piddling compared to what is possible. And program sizes don’t seem to have increased by that much, either. Back then, a big program might run 50K in size; nowadays, a big program might have 500K of executable code. That’s a ten-fold increase in size not very impressive given the other increases we’ve seen.

So where have we gone wrong?What’s missing?Well, Idon’t think that we can accuse the designers of getting stupider over the last fifteen years -- hey, I’m one of those designers!And indeed, our ability to keep improving the cosmetic standards shows that we can keep up with the hardware when we really want to. So what is the problem?I’ll leave that question to you.