Sunday, October 10, 2010

Past and future of video games

I recently watched an old documentary, The Rise of the Video Game, from Discovery Channel, made in 2006 and first shown in 2007. The 5-part series tells the story of video games from 1958 to "the future". Only that in 2006 people still believed that the future of video games would be games like Second Life and Project Entropia. That vision of the future of video games has changed meanwhile. If you'd ask a similar panel of experts today how the future of video games will look, most would probably cite social game networks, based on the current success of cow clicker Facebook games like Farmville.

While I don't claim to have the power to see the future, I'm pretty certain that today's "experts" are as wrong as those of 2006 were. Experts have this nasty habit of only looking at what is hot today, and extrapolating just that into the future, instead of regarding the whole picture, and applicable history. Especially history is important, because it repeats itself.

So to understand what is going on today with social games, one does not need to look back further than 1983, to the great video game crash, which is also described in The Rise of the Video Game. As Wikipedia says: "There were several reasons for the crash, but the main cause was supersaturation of the market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games." Doesn't that sound just all too familiar?

While people are sometimes attracted to shiny new things, especially when "everybody else does this", in the longer term the rational and self-interested homo economicus tends to prevail. Once the "shiny new" sensation wears off, players are perfectly capable of telling a good game from a bad game. Making shoddy games to get rich quick didn't work with E.T., and it won't work with Facebook games. I always found it encouraging, a symbol of hope, that some MMORPGs sold over a million copies, only to lose two-thirds of those players after the free month, because it proves that players are able to make a rational decision to stop playing a game they found to have been less good than the hype.

Four years from now the experts will say "Social games? That was only a fad! The future of video games will be <insert extrapolation of current fad here>!"

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