In an impassioned talk at GDC 2011 on Thursday, Computer Game Developers Conference founder and game designer Chris Crawford discussed where the industry has been, and where it's gone now.
Going through the early micro computers, he noted that while primitive, games were made for these things. Books would be released with games in them, and you'd have to code them in in order to play.
One wrote software with pencil and paper, in Assembly. "Of course you had to memorize the rules, but you also had to compile it in your head. The hardest part about it was counting backward in hexadecimal so you could do your loops."
But then came the Atari Stella/VCS. It could talk to a television set. For CRT televisions, 15 years ago you had a screen buffer, and you'd write it into the ram with scanlines. But the VCS was even more primitive. "What we had with Stella was a line buffer," he began. "You could store one scanline of graphics imagery."
"And while it was drawing that scanline, you had to prepare the data for the next scanline, and get it all in there before the next line is traced. You had to specify all the components of that scanline while the previous one was being drawn."
In the modern era, we went from micro computers to home computers. "The obvious one you all remember is the Apple II, but there were others," said Crawford. "Like the Commodore PET and the Tandy TRS-80, commonly known by people who didn't own one as the trash 80."
He had a game called Tanktics, which he had made for previous microcomputers, and he made a port for the Commodore PET. "You took all the pieces, you put that inside a ziplock bag, punched a hole in it, and the retailer hung it up on the wall," he said. "One wall would be the entire software from the entire world." He charged $15, and sold 150 copies, "which probably represents a larger market penetration than any game today," he joked. "I sold my first copy on December 30 1978 to a guy named Bill...can't quite remember his last name."
In 1984, the great catastrophe came. "That was a catastrophe whose magnitude is difficult to appreciate," he said. "About 95% of people working in games lost their jobs. That's how bad it was. And many of them couldn't get new jobs because so many people were dumped on the job market at the same time."
"Back then to be a game programmer, you had to be a hero," said Crawford. "You had to do everything! People in the game industry were basically working alone. We didn't know each other." That's why he founded the conference in 1988. "And it seems as though I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, because you are certainly not alone right now!" he joked.
"There was a lot of crap back then. Really bad games, but there was also a lot of diversity," he said. Modern games seem to be less diverse, in his estimation. "When you're putting millions of dollars into a game, you can't afford to be too creative."
Crawford closed by restating his first law of software development: "Whenever you sit down to design a game, throughout the entire process, you must repeatedly ask yourself 'What does the user do?'" He says this is important, because players don't watch games, they don't read them, they don't listen to them, they play them.
He noted similarities between old games and new, where the core concepts of platformers, shooters, and strategy games haven't changed much. "What the player does has not changed in 30 years," he said. "I want to be very careful here. I'm not saying that modern games are no better than ancient games," he added.
Still, modern computers are billions of times faster, and tools are much more friendly than they were before. Is Halo billions of times better than Combat? "I'm not going to answer those questions," he posed, "but you should contemplate them."