The evolution of video games
... to now, where the games evolve alongside the consoles
By LAUREN PHILLIPSThe State News
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TRAVIS HAUGHTON · The State News
From Atari ... Back in the 80s, the first video games were played on the Atari 2600.
It all started with PONG, the Atari 2600 and the Magnavox Odyssey 2.
Home video game consoles have come a long way since those first clunky systems, and the evolution continues as developers take advantage of the latest in technology.
This weekend, top video game industry executives, researchers and government officials will descend on MSU to discuss the future of video games at "Future Play 2005: The International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology."
The conference, which started in the Toronto area as the "Computer Game Technology Conference," has expanded its focus for its fourth meeting after new directors took over, said conference co-Chairman Brian Winn, a telecommunication, information studies and media assistant professor.
Those involved will be discussing issues affecting the future of the industry, including technology, marketing and policy issues. The conference will include submissions and reviews of academic works on these issues as well as a game exhibition.
The conference is especially relevant to MSU, Winn said, with this semester's introduction of a new Game Design and Development Specialization in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media.
Three of the largest video game companies — Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft — are planning releases of their newest consoles in the next year, with the Nintendo Revolution, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 respectively. Experts say cycles of new releases reveal the latest technologies available in gaming. They expect big developments in the new systems, especially the use of advanced artificial intelligence to increase the quality of gameplay.
At the same time, the video game industry is working to broaden its market beyond its traditionally young, male audience. It is even branching out into professional applications, with game systems used to train firefighters and police for natural disasters, future soldiers for combat methods and young professionals in corporate applications.
The debate over violent video game content came to a head in Michigan in September when Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed new legislation that makes the sale or rental of mature or adult-rated video games to children illegal. The law takes effect Dec. 1.
At the center of this is a generation who grew up with video games, hungry for the innovation and the latest technologies available from a vast and ever-developing industry and the researchers who study it.
Mechanical engineering Ben Lindstrom said when he got his first system, an original Game Boy, his mom was against video games.
"She didn't like us spending so much time indoors," he said. "But now, I interact with friends more, with (local area network) parties and playing Halo with 16 people."
Expanding the market
The industry is looking for ways to draw nontraditional gamers such as women and older people.
Carrie Heeter, a principle investigator in the Games for Entertainment and Learning lab at MSU, has studied gender and games for four years under the National Science Foundation.
"(The industry) wants a larger market — they would love to find a way to get everybody to buy the games, but they're stuck with their own success with the current games, and that limits innovation in many ways," she said.
Heeter said differences between how males and females learn and interact with the games make it necessary to branch beyond just "what works" to capture a larger female audience. She said alternative game companies with less expensive products will most likely be the first to do this.
Rachael Wojciechowski, computer science junior, said video game aisles are lacking when it comes to her sex.
"It doesn't make a difference if there are females," she said. "In the games I play, gender doesn't matter for the story line of the game. They're starting to expand the market, but they'll always have the base market and so they shouldn't drift away, but also not not-expand it."
She said she plays all different types of video games because "it's a lot of fun."
"It's a sense of false accomplishment, but it's fun to get there, beat the boss," she said. "It's a good way to pass the time without thinking about school."
Wojciechowski said she'd like to see a totally interactive game, which doesn't follow a set story line at all but develops with play.
Heeter said she is looking for something completely different than what's available.
"I want to play a game where I learn and help society," she said. "That's what excites me about games."
A new era of content
The main themes in video games right now are sports, war and conquest — generally more male-oriented concepts.
"We definitely see other games out there, like RollerCoaster Tycoon and The Sims games, which I think we'll see more of as time goes on and they try to expand the market," Winn said.
He said there is also a small market for "serious games," designed to train future soldiers, police and firefighters for natural or human-made disasters, or for use in corporate training.
"Games will become more complex, with human emotions involved," Winn said.
One such video game, Facade, is a type of soap-opera video game, which Winn said was seen as the "Holy Grail of games that would attract new audiences."
But that might not be enough for some.
Sarah Bauer, a voice performance freshman, said she played video games a lot when she was 12-14 years old, but gave up after that.
"If there's anything wrong with video games, it's that they take up a lot of time and you haven't accomplished anything," Bauer said. "I don't think anything's wrong with the content of video games."
Others said they would like more focus on making games fun again.
"Game play isn't as good as it was back when Super Nintendo was around," classical studies sophomore John Breen said. "I enjoy my Super Nintendo games way more — they're just more fun. They've taken away 'is it fun to play,' now it's 'how can we impress them with flashy play.'"
Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developer's Association, or IGDA, said he hopes the industry will be able to offer more diversity to its fans and new consumers.
"It's a very exciting, challenging industry," he said. "There are a lot of great rewards and the industry is growing. We still have a lot of challenges, with creative freedoms, workforce issues, business challenges to stay relevant and appealing. But there's a lot of good stuff, too."
Winn said he hopes this weekend's conference will help address some of these issues and encourage dialogue about them.
"There are a lot of things with that — about the future of the industry and policy issues," Winn said. "This is a very timely event to discuss all of these issues and see where things are going."
Limitations to development
Because of the new state law penalizing the sale of adult video games to minors, Winn said one of the hot-button panels at the conference is going to be "Game content, ratings, censorship and the First Amendment," from 2:45-4:45 p.m. Friday in the Union. It will be open to the public.
The law was passed with the intent of protecting children from violent and sexually explicit video games, according to a press release from Granholm's office. Other states — most recently California — have passed similar laws, citing similar intents.
Della Rocca, one of the panelists, said laws like these limit the distribution of video games.
"The IGDA fundamentally opposes any legislation that would treat games differently than any other form of entertainment, movies, music or whatever," Della Rocca said. "We work to defend the creative freedom of the industry."
Quality of life and work conditions are also issues at the forefront of industry concerns, Della Rocca said.
"On the whole, people are overworked, overstressed," he said. "They're subsisting on pizza and coffee. As a whole, the industry is burning out its workers with five and a half years as the average career."
"They'll do a project or two and then it's out the door, they're done, we lose all that talent and it leaves a big gap."
That leads to other issues in the industry, which is seeing more risk aversion, Della Rocca said.
"They know they can bank on the success of previous games," Della Rocca said. "There's a lack of innovation, originality, a lot of sequels, a lot of games based on movies, book or comic book licenses. They don't want to risk creating their own worlds."
Della Rocca said although no solution is simple, the next generation of console releases could help.
"There will be a point where we'll reach a threshold on the visual kind of thing — it'll be good enough, finally, so we'll pursue more advanced physical stimulation, more advanced artificial intelligence," Della Rocca said.
With the announcement of a $400 all-inclusive version of the new Xbox 360 and an average $45 price tag on games for current systems, students dealing with tuition bills are hesitant to jump in line for the newest systems or latest game releases.
"Price is an issue — I don't own as many games because of this," finance junior Steven Holben said. "It's a lot of money. It's fun, but it makes you more selective on the games you buy."
"Pushing graphical limits"
Studio art sophomore Ross Little, 20, got his first Nintendo system for his third birthday and now has an Xbox, a PlayStation 2 and a Nintendo GameCube.
"There are a lot of ideas behind them that people might not know. I really respect that," Little said of his appreciation for video games. "For example, like with 'Metal Gear Solid,' you play through the game and it's so cinematic, with a beautiful soundtrack."
The evolution has advanced quickly, moving from the stick-figure graphics of Little's first systems and games to what's available on his newest systems.
Experts say with the evolution of technology like artificial intelligence, video games are going to become even more realistic.
"Artificial intelligence" has been a key component in this reality. Artificial intelligence, or AI, is a simulation of human intelligence using computer programming. It is continuously developed and applied to video game technologies.
"As the hardware technology gets faster and faster, we can do more and more things because of performance," Winn said. "A lot of things you couldn't do before you can now do in real time."
This reaches into artificial physics in games, Winn said, where the way things move and react become much more realistic. This means when a car in a racing game grazes a wall, it will come away with realistic damages such as dents and a lessened ability.
Thomas Kazmierczak, a geography junior, said he'd like to see a leap in game development.
"I'd like to see less focus on pushing graphical limits of games and more focus on innovative gameplay styles," Kazmierczak said.
Lindstrom said he hopes the next generation of video games will work in even more interaction with the character's environment as you would in the natural world, for example, have the ability to pick up objects such as lamps or stones.
"A fully destructible environment would be nice — it's unrealistic to shoot a rocket at a door and have it still there," he said.
With the latest wave of consoles, fans can expect a leap in the graphics of gameplay, including more artificial intelligence that will improve the reactions of characters. There will also be growth in the technology, especially with the Nintendo Revolution's controllers, which look like a TV remote control.
But technology has yet to catch up with the most fanciful imaginations.
"Being able to speak into a game system and have it understand, it's not going to happen for the foreseeable future," Winn said. "That's something a lot of people say is the ultimate, but it's certainly a long way off."
Virtual reality systems with headsets and gloves, a brief trend in the early 1990s, aren't going to be revamped anytime soon.
"I don't think that's going to gain mainstream popularity until it can be much more natural," Winn said. "Having a 10-pound weight on your head is not very natural. When it's like sunglasses, maybe, in five or 10 years."
Lauren Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.