The big problem

More than 25 years ago a new sort of electronic device appeared on the scene: The home computer. And the demographic that owned these was the adolescent and immediately post-adolescent male.

So when the games industry started it made games that would appeal to this demographic. Fighting, driving and flying, sports. Now it’s 25 years later and the industry is still, largely, making the same things. It has never grown up.

But there is worse to come.

At the beginning of the industry we created our own intellectual property. It was gaming, pure and simple. But then some people decided to piggyback IP from other industries, books and films, in order to get instant brand recognition.

The problem with this is that you are not building your own brands, so you own nothing.

Not only that, you are copying from inferior media so stunting the possibilities in what you make. This has been a disaster for computer gaming. Short term profit instead of building a great industry.

It is so bad that to many people computer games now just look like a bit of merchandising frippery for the main event, which is the book or film. Doing a Harry Potter or a James Bond game harms the whole games industry.

Then the platform holders haven’t helped. They have done a huge amount to build this industry but now they are doing even more to harm it and hold it back. The problem is publisher approval. This censorship is worse than book burning, really. By deciding what they will allow on their platforms they are holding back creativity at every level.

I remember when one platform holder announced that they would allow no more 2D games! The stupidity of this sort of pronouncement knows no bounds and I am very surprised that it is legal. Surely the competition authorities are there to jump on this sort of abuse?

What we need is for platform holder approval to be only about technical standards, and for publishers to be able to release anything they want. The national censorship authorities in each country can decide what can and cannot be sold. This is what works for books and what works for films.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Nintendo has always been a champion of doing it properly. It has created fantastic IP like Mario and Zelda and gone on to manage these properties with skill over many years so as to maximise profit.

Nintendo doesn’t hang on the coat-tails of technically inferior media like books and film; instead it makes the most of the technology and makes great entertainment without being restrained by genre.

In general Nintendo pitched at being family-friendly and thus suitable for younger audiences. But now it has created what may well be the most significant computer game ever: Brain Age.

The fact is that if you had taken this for approval to one of the other platform holders they would probably have turned it down! Yet it is a global mega best-seller.

Brain Age proves that you can do more with computer gaming. More in terms of escaping from adolescent themes. More in terms of escaping from film and book licenses. More in proving that there are undiscovered genres out there. And more in attracting a far wider demographic to our industry.

We should have been doing this years ago and were only held back by our lack of vision and our short-termism.

So Brain Age has made the whole of the rest of the games industry green with envy. It was obviously not expensive to develop and it has made absolute mountains of money. So now everyone should realise that sticking to their narrow genres is bad business.

Obviously the ‘me too’ brigade will do their own bigger, better take on Brain Age. But they are missing the point and they are missing the opportunity. The lesson of Brain Age is that anything will work when done well and taking advantage of the capabilities of the platform. You couldn’t do Brain Age even one hundredth as well with a book or a film.

Brain Age has at last forced the industry to sit up, to take notice, and to look at what is really possible.

So do you think that there is now light at the end of the tunnel, that the game industry can at last realise its potential? Just add you thoughts by clicking the comments link below…


  1. Thank you for another interesting post. I agree with a number of your points. I am particularly disgusted by the power of the platform holders to censor content — I understand their motivation, but strangling creativity and choice is never a good idea.

    While I also congratulate Nintendo for its business success, I am not so sure that I would point to it as a leader in applying creativity to gaming. While many of Nintendo’s games are clever, they often resemble the simpler days of arcade gaming — there is nothing wrong with this, but it explains why experienced gamers often find Nintendo games boring. Even Brain Age, which you justifiably praised, can be more closely approximated by a book than games such as Half Life or Halo or Killzone, each of which falls into the an established genre.

    While I agree that there is a great opportunity for innovation by creating games outside existing genres, I also believe that the potential of established genres has barely been tapped. The FPS genre, for example, has been around a long time, but the games are still primitive compared with their potential. Like genres in literature, genres in gaming exist because they have timeless appeal, and the opportunity for innovation in those genres is limitless.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Evan.
    This only serves to reinforce the fact that so far we are only scratching the surface of the potentials and possibilities of the platforms available to us.
    With better management we could easily have an industry several times bigger than it currently is, by offering a wider range of customers a wider range of products and realising a little bit more of the potential of gaming.

  3. Doing a Harry Potter or a James Bond game harms the whole games industry.

    Like N64 Goldeneye did, hmmm?

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