shift in video game target audiences

video games have evolved a great deal since their introduction a few decades ago, and to me, the past couple of years have shown an interesting shift in the popular video game trend and its audience that feels like its bringing the entire history of video gaming around full circle.

in its infancy, “video game” meant “arcade game”, starting (essentially) with Pong and then developing into a thriving arcade culture of individuals who plopped quarter after quarter gobbling pellets, shooting asteroids or space invaders, or jumping over barrels. And whlie my personal experience in arcades growing up didn’t match the stereotype of angsty/rebellious teenagers, society definitely bought into that impression on both sides of the fence, and as the popularity of video games started to rise so did the concern of parents that video games were a bad influence on youth. Video games are a waste of money, they make our kids not interested in reading, they make our kids violent or lose touch with the real world, &c.

It’s impossible to say where video games would be right now if the Nintendo Entertainment System hadn’t revitalized the home video game industry after the video game crash of 1983. I think it was likely a mixed blessing for arcade machine developers; on the one hand, the success of the NES console took people away from the arcades and more money into cartridges, but on the other hand, if the NES hsdn’t resurged video gaming back into popular culture, the arcade industry would have probably died on its own.

The interesting thing to note about the arcade industry versus the home industry was how those competing yet co-dependent paths slowly diverged over time both in society’s attitudes about them and the experiences they tried to create. During the third and fourth generation of home consoles from the mid-80s to late-90s, home consoles were still “behind” when it came to replicating the arcade experience. The graphics weren’t as sharp, the home joystick didn’t have the same sort of “feel” as an arcade joystick, and more importantly, home consoles couldn’t match the social aspect of arcade video gaming, particularly in the early 90s when Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat brought people back to the arcades. But the home console market at that time was able to compete in a way that the prior home console market failed because they had a particular slice of video game aesthetic that wasn’t meant to replicate the arcade experience, it was supposed to stand on its own. Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Sonic the Hedgehog, and early RPGs like the early Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games helped define the home market audience versus the arcade audience.

It was the next generation of video game consoles (Playstation, N64, Saturn) that started to shift the dynamics and attitudes in game development as technology and graphics for home consoles started to accelerate and create the market that still has strong influence today. The long platform/RPG and other “console specialized” sorts of games still had a strong following, but it was also around this time that consoles had advanced enough to create a truer arcade experience or create an experience that (in some views) *surpassed* the arcade experience in gaming. And when the next generation of consoles came out years after (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, Dreamcast), the arcade video game industry had to change its tactic to keep the arcade experience unique, which is how games with non-standard controllers rose to dominance, particularly music video games like Dance Dance Revolution and other bemani.

Through these decades of video game history, the overwhelming majority of consoles and systems were still aimed at the everchanging youth. Video games that were smash hits in the 8-bit era were abandoned as a home market aesthetic in favor of games that emphasized graphic superiority and/or a greater sense of epicism. and as that philosophy of “better graphics! more dazzle! who cares about gameplay? just blow things up!” gained momentem and became a standard to uphold in entertainment in general (don’t even get me started on the Michael Bay’s Transformers), it created a separation between the older and newer generation of gamers, leaving older gamers in the dust.

Until a new video game aesthetic started to creep into the mainstream which in its infancy was pretty invisible to the likes of me but is now impossible to ignore: the online casual flash game.

I’m not sure when casual flash games rose to such popularity, but it’s evident how much it has a strong foothold in the new video gaming culture not just because of the popularity of sites like kongregate, yahoo games, the casual game apps that exist on facebook &c, but also how much prominence casual games have in the current gen. consoles. The PS3 and XBox 360 certainly still have the genre of hardcore gamers that are looking for games that make full use of their power to give them that Next Dazzling first person shooter/racing game/sports game, but there’s an entire online paradigm for both of these consoles that is dedicated to the downloading and buying of casual games not unlike what is possible to do on the internet. In fact, some of the games that are available through those consoles’ online services are ones that were found on the internet first and developed as an enhanced version, such as N+ and Flow.

In addition to this, you have the Wii. Nintendo’s whole marketing strategy for the Wii other than its innovative controls is that it’s the video game console for the whole family, and with launches such as Wii Sports, Wii Play, and the like, it’s clear that part of the new controller design is optimized to help enhance the casual game experience with the unique Wii interface.

When i think about how and why casual games have risen to such prominence, a few key factors come into play. First off, i feel that the online casual flash game was the first video game genre that was targeted towards older people, particularly corporate office workers. Even small businesses have integrated high-speed internet as a part of their infrastructure, and when people need a break and are tired of reading news or looking at pictures or whatever, more people find a casual flash game to occupy their time. it’s the new version of the newspaper crossword puzzle or word scramble, and it succeeds at grabbing that new audience because a) the games are generally simpler in concept and execution than typical video games (compare point and click or finding words as opposed to executing a haryuken), and b) the games are generally short to finish, an instant gratification/momentary distraction sort of thing rather than a long involved mission that involves more walking and random encounters than people want to have even in real life.

Secondly, there’s the ease in which any random joe can program and develop a quality casual game. As opposed to console games which require a team of programmers and artists and what have you to put together, flash is relatively easy enough to learn that basic games can be a one-man show, and with sites like kongregate, they can gain free and instant exposure to tens of thousands of people. It’s even hit a point where those that can’t comprehend Flash can go to sites like simcarnival where a special application exists to make that process even easier, requiring practically no programming experience whatsoever.

Third, and in my opinion the most significant, some of the casual games that have come out of this have risen to true brilliance, and this is where i feel the video game trend has come full circle. Because surely there are current more standard video games that have their own sense of brilliance and success such as WoW or the Final Fantasy series or GTA or Mortal Kombat, but it’s been a long time since there has been a video game in which the brilliance matches the sensibility of how Pac Man and Tetris and Centipede and Asteroids were brilliant, or how Legend of Zelda and the original Super Mario Brothers were brilliant: that despite its seeming simplicity in concept, gameplay, and graphics, they never get tiresome or old.

And because of all of this, i have a suspicion that the Big 3 console companies are on their last legs in the market of video games unless the momentum can be rebuilt up because of the likes of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Otherwise, i strongly suspect that people will soon be more likely to buy a $5 texas hold ’em application on their smartphone or pull up a game of chain factor or their favorite kongregate game than spend $50+ on a console video game.

Originally posted on darkblog resonate. I prefer any thoughts or comments there.

teaching drums without the teacher

yesterday my brother forwarded me an article from New Scientist entitled Robotic drumstick keeps novices on the beat. I’m still wrapping my head around what i think about the whole thing, but i can initially say that even though i’m a pretty big promoter of technology in music and music learning, i believe that there’s more lost than gained from this particular approach over the long term.

at first glance it seems to have potential – the gap that we have in teaching anyone anything physical is the lack of being able to directly influence subtle adjustments of muscle memory. This robotic contraption has the potential to create a consistent approach to drumming between a lot of different players which has practical application to, say, marching percussion lines in which creating a consistent approach to playing the drum is paramount. But that’s a very particular context and one that i firmly believe doesn’t serve to create good musicianship in the same way that giving someone a step-by-step recipe instruction doesn’t in itself create a good chef. and as far as i’m concerned, good musicianship is what should be the ultimate end goal of even the very first steps of music pedagogy.

to me, the development of the mechanical skills should move beyond the process of physical imitation to a process of mental understanding. When serious students initially learn how to hit a drum or breathe into a mouthpiece, they’re translating what they’re doing physically into a cognitive recognition and experimenting based on internal and external feedback to find what will produce the best result. The more times they can say in their head, “this feeling makes this happen, that feeling makes that happen,” the more they can truly comprehend the relationship between what is happening physically, how that affects the sound and their perception of that sound, and what sort of mindset has created that effect.

Having a mechanical guidance system like this feels like it takes the mental understanding aspects out of the equation and reduces instrument learning to a physical process instead of a musical one. The article says that the subjects “learned how hard to hit the drum 18% more accurately than when they tried to mimic a rhythm after just hearing it.” If you treat it like a physical process only, you’re surely more likely to get instant gratification statistics of that nature, but why would we ever want to train a musician to not listen? How many problems do we have already with virtuoso instrumentalists who may be technically amazing but don’t know how to blend with the ensemble or stay in time or move out of time with an ensemble? How many of those who could hit the drum 18% more accurately will become better musicians than those that didn’t? How many could be potentially worse?

Some might argue that a tool like this can at least be used as a source of guidance for those that are struggling, but i think that the pedagogical approach needs to be consistent with what ultimately creates the ideal musician. Yes, there are people who have gaps in their physical technique, but a tool like this seems like it’s a) a cheap and easy shortcut that doesn’t create cognitive retention of the concepts, b) assuming there is only one technique or that that technique cannot waver, and/or c) promoting the notion that understanding the physical aspects of sound creation supercedes the need to learn how to listen.

ultimately i think it stifles the creativity of the performers and what sense of individualism they can bring to a piece of music. if i wanted to hear a technically perfect and literal rendition of a piece of music designed to be played by a live acoustic performer, i’d stick the music into my MIDI sequencer and call it good. i find that the use of this sort of technology in music is far more valuable in other paradigms, such as the silly but awesome Tsukuba Series. If that’s not a good use of music technology, i don’t know what is.