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Games 'would've died as a fad' if it weren't for 80s crash
Games 'would've died as a fad' if it weren't for 80s crash Exclusive
March 26, 2012 | By Staff

March 26, 2012 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

In a new Gamasutra feature interview, EA chief creative director Richard Hilleman reflects on the video game crash of 1983, and explains why the industry would have died off altogether if it weren't for this catastrophic shakeup.

Hilleman, who joined EA just before the crash in 1982, says that the game industry couldn't move forward based on the precedent set by the Atari 2600, as the console and the company behind it weren't the right vanguards for a successful long-term industry.

"The 2600 crash, from my perspective, was a good example of creative destruction, and anybody who's spent any time reading about Atari at that time recognizes that they needed some creative destruction; they clearly were not the right custodians of a great new business," says Hilleman.

He notes that the 2600 "set expectations in people's minds" about what video games needed to be, and the industry did not have enough creative freedom to explore new types of games and products.

Once the business collapsed, it changed the way retailers treated video games, says Hilleman. Games were no longer a product to be stocked en masse, and as a result retailers now adopt a safer, more conservative approach when selling games.

"When the business went awayi¿½ It scared the crap out of an entire generation of retailers, and they were absolutely -- every single one of them knew somebody who got fired because they bought too much of 2600 stock," Hilleman said. "Actually, most of them were guys who got fired and got a new job. They all changed seats."

"So number one is, it changed the behavior of our retailers toward the way they took product, and the way that they took risk, and I think the consolidation at the top of the chart is an example of that expression and its long-term influence.

Hilleman said that the crash also gave the industry a chance to move away from small-scale arcade imitations into more complex games on the home computer.

"[The crash] left a hole, and the hole got filled by computer games, and those computer games were really different in form. 2600 games were, almost without exception -- maybe Star Raiders being the sole exception -- they were essentially 90 second arcade experiences. There was no changing of the form; there was no changing of the granularity, no changing of the expectations.

"Computer games did all that innovation. And some of it was because they had writable, local media, some of it was because they were pirateable. But I think the decline and demise of the 2600 market was absolutely necessary, or actually we would've died as a fad."

The full interview with Hilleman, in which he discusses the future of EA and the game industry at large, is live now on Gamasutra.

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Jonathan Murphy
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Seriously no. As computers became more powerful, people found more creative ways to use them. Crash, or stagnation. Games were never going away and never will. Typical talk from someone who doesn't think of what an individual can do, only what a giant company can do.

Michael DeFazio
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...As a counter-example to your statement, look at Hollywood, they still make money, and yet the amount of creativity on display from most big budget Hollywood movies is minimal (this is my opinion of course). I would say that the movie industry is overdue for some "creative destruction".

It's not that people are inherently less creative nowadays nor is it that people don't have great stories to tell, it's just the business folks in Hollywood seem to realize that they can keep churning out Michael Bay movies or rebooting old franchises to turn a profit rather than to innovate and take risks.

Ron Alpert
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It always strikes me as strange when people wonder "how different would things be if not for The Crash..." If you look at every big juncture of games (introduction, NES era, PSX era, etc) they all make a lot of sense and were fairly unavoidable in one way or another, as the industry essentially grew from a toy/niche/hobby industry to bigger and more serious business. No Crash, as we know it, might mean we'd have seen some instance of a significantly different path to get where we've been going, but I think it is wrong to say "if X then Y" in a lot of these cases.

Games absolutely would still have become big business. Independent development absolutely would still have flourished. We might have different huge dominant franchises now (Pitfall and Pacman rather than Mario and Zelda and Metroid, etc) but overall I think it's safe to assume, looking at how business and tech have evolved, that this has all been a very predictable path in many ways.

Mark Taylor
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I think I shall not be studying Richard Hilleman's Philosophy of Life.

Joe Zachery
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The crash only affected the US market. Japan would have still had a gaming industry, and the same goes for Europe.

Nooh Ha
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In fact it is almost the opposite in Europe which was an almost exclusively computer game rather than console game territory until the early 90s. 1982 saw the start of the C64 and Spectrum boom as well as continuing success for the BBC Micro, all of whose success propelled the indigenous EU games development sector to record size, in particular the UK. AFAIK, the 2600 and its rollercoaster commercial success was almost exclusively a US phenomenom.

Joe McGinn
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"...and the industry did not have enough creative freedom to explore new types of games and products."

Surely this is the state of much of the console industry today?

Eric Spain
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I was thinking the same thing. We are back to big businesses controlling the market, and gaming stores just stocking everything they possibly can. Billions of dollars each year are wasted on cancelled titles while everything gets channelled into pulp gaming.

Perhaps we are headed for another crash.

Rob B
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Nope, because its just not really true. They had plenty of creative freedom but no experience and knowledge to back it up. So tonnes of new games from all sorts of people trying their hand, all of them utterly terrible. What was even worse was that there was about a dozen consoles clamouring to take chunks of this new and vast market, each of them pretty awful, each of them with their own catalogue of new but abysmal games.

Its almost the opposite of what we have today, which is a cut down selection of big player consoles and stable games playing to the strengths of the market made by experienced programmers.

Naturally you can go to far the other way and stagnate by sticking with the same thing over and over, but contrary to niche belief this hasnt happened. FPS games get bashed most for this but the change they undergo between iterations whether it is in story, mechanics or any other facet has been more than enough to make it sell like hot cakes all the other genres are much the same and there isnt really any sign this is going to change.

Whats more weve never had so much _successful_ innovation with the rise of the indie games and the new distribution and group reviewing quality control methods that allow them to sell solid experiences for low prices. Steam, Live, even the mobile market has its fair share of innovative developments.

Nobody can be certain of how long the industry can maintain its growth but currently it is steadily rising even in the midst of some tough economic times and has been for the last couple of decades with no indication of it slowing any time soon.

Edit1: I should note that I dont believe its impossible for the games industry to fall but that it shows no real similarity to the 80s North American market. Itd probably cave in more like the movie industry, a gradual drop in profits year after year as the old tricks fail to impress people any more.

Edit2: Why does it remove line breaks when you edit... irritating.

Justin Kwok
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The issue was the treatment of game designers as "towel designers"... which ironically led to the creation of Activision... who (arguably) are now doing the same thing.

I would argue that the crash was inevitable... the business was treating games as if they were content-agnostic commodities. Look at the big business views and decision on the creation of ET and PacMan as examples.

Leonard Herman
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To state "that 2600 games were, almost without exception -- maybe Star Raiders being the sole exception -- they were essentially 90 second arcade experiences" is very naive. Considering its lack of memory, several games were truely innovative, including Adventure and Superman. And there were three other first-person space games available for the system, in addition to Star Raiders. Phaser Patrol and StarMaster were superior to Star Raiders, which was just a rehash of an Atari computer game.

Before the crash Nintendo was already developing its Famicom and looking for a worldwide distributor. It is safe to say that if the crash hadn't occurred, things might have been different (Atari might have owned the world-wide rights to the Famicom and Nintendo might not be the player it is today). But to say that games would've totally died if there wasn't one, is ridiculous.

kevin williams
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To pontificate from the comfort of the rear-view mirror on history (and re-write it a little) is always the preserve of the corporate executive. The reality of what happened during the 80's is a painful and miss-represented past for the consumer game scene and it is always easier to paint it as a map-able past rather than a confusing mess that continues to this day.

For those of us that lived through the international eruption and collapse of consumer gaming, the view from the States is only a very small part of the picture - and to use Atari's 2600 as a major line in the sand is missing the real issues that shaped the crash. However for a corporation looking at a second (if not third) crash on the horizon the ability to paint a rosy picture is essential to continue investor faith in their current steerage.

From a international perspective, the 84 crash can be placed at the door of poor corporate development decisions - greed to produce rushed 'rubbish' and then use marketing manipulation to encourage reviews that 'hyped' poor content and hardware. And the development of a executive sub-class that had little knowledge of the game scene, but a lot of greed towards what it could do for them. Look familiar?

What enthuses me towards the future of consumer gaming is the return to the core (social) aspect of development - the collapse of the mega-development studio and all those hangers on, and a return to the 'bedroom' development model. The AAA titles will not have to strive to survive in a DLC world, where the boxed copy will no longer be god - the question now is if the next-next-generation consoles will be superseded like the Mattle, Coleco and Atari of the 80's?

Anthony Boterf
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This could very well be a good look at what is to only need look at the recent rash of highly successful crowd-funding projects , for genres or iterations of past games that were "too risky" for a big publisher to take on , to see that the tools are in place now for indies to reclaim their the cost of big publishers and their distribution pipelines.

Nathan VanHouten
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I think the article was written to say that if no industry wide change happened in response to The Crash, the market saturation and stagnation would have reduced consumer demand for the product; much in the same way that eating Ramen Noodles for 10 years straight would burn people out of the sodium filled food source.

As for the 'nuh-uh!' retorts I have seen above, I ask you to write your own articles on The Crash as it would be interesting to see some good intellectual points from a counter perspective.

kevin williams
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@Nathan, not sure that the commissioning editors would be able to take a feature that would counter the popular (trade) view. I remember the editors that blocked all talk before the Crash in the 80's - only to disappear after the dust settled.

Politically incorrect comments to make at this point:

- why the consumer trade try's to block DLC against retail
- was the next-gen hardware as next-gen as was claimed
- have the latest AAA alienated the player base
- will social gaming by pass the traditional consumer dev model

I still wait for a feature including these comments - but as I write in another part of the digital entertainment scene I leave it to those that claim to report the consumer sector!

Michael Wenk
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You see in any entertainment medium, with the exception of sports a simple point where people get fatigued on that medium. This just happens. To say that games would have died is false. Games would have changed, or they would have died, crash or no crash.

I think that had other media come up with more compelling content and changed with the times better, that would have been more likely to put a halt on games than the crash.

Jonathan Murphy
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Imagine every American disappeared over night? The world won't cease to operate. I know there are plenty of Americans who think we're the center of the universe. It's his, "Would've died out" attitude. It's from the perspective that the USA defines all tech, all progress, and all creativity.

His mentality really annoys me. Like no one else matters.