The Spinning Wheel: Lessons Learned from the Video Game Crash of ‘83
If there is something this recession has taught me, it is that life is cyclical. What goes up must come down. You reap what you sow. What goes around comes around. Insert any other clichés you can think of, but the point is, this isn’t the first financial crash we’ve seen, and it probably won’t be the last.
In 1983, the video game industry crashed. Warehouses were full. Stores had shelves and shelves of games they could not sell. Boys and girls did the unthinkable; they went outside to play. The industry had hit rock bottom due to a mixture of haphazard business decisions, poor game development and over saturation of the market. And unlike pinball machines, video games’ untimely demise was not because something better had been developed, but because they were too stupid to see the eventual consequences of their actions. Ok, the rapid development of personal computers as a means of gaming may have been a factor. But, for the most part, these companies had no one but themselves to blame.
Oh, and just to refresh your memory, this catastrophe wasn’t a two week fluke like Katie Holmes career. This depression went on for TWO YEARS. Not only was it solely responsible for the death of Atari and the extinction of the video game arcade, but ’83 saw America thrown from the top of the video game heap. It took a Japanese company and their drugged-out plumber to shock the industry back to life.
So where am I going with this? If life is cyclical, would it not stand to reason that there could be another video game depression in the foreseeable future? As in 1983, the industry is embroiled in a console war. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft continue to produce a high number of games while simultaneously trying to undermine each other. By comparing the conditions that led to the crash in ’83 with the conditions we are living in now, it might be possible to shed some light on the future of the gaming industry.
Just as the Atari, ColecoVision and Intellivision feuded decades before, so now do Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft wage war on the electronic battlefield. To date, the three companies have sold nearly 100 Million consoles worldwide (with Nintendo outselling the nearest competitor 2 to 1). This doesn’t even account for handheld sales or PC gaming. Meanwhile, work has begun on the next wave of consoles. As far as software, first and third party developers have produced thousands of games for these platforms and show no signs of stopping. As in the 80’s, the market is flooded with products. How long before public interest begins to wane?
Then there is the question of game quality. Games like ET: the Extraterrestrial and Pac Man proved that Atari didn’t care how shoddily the games were produced because they figured the public would buy anything. Modern companies are no less susceptible to this trap. For every good game there are five mediocre ones. Yet, with sales as high as they are, it can be very tempting to churn out ‘just another game’ to make a quick buck. And what about replay value? I could play Mario or Galaga for the rest of my life and they would never get old. How many games do you own now that you have played once and sold back, or that just sit on your shelf collecting dust (i.e. Bioshock)? Is this all sounding scarily familiar?
Now everyone calm down. I’m not suggesting that the end of the video game world is nigh. I’m just providing a kick in the balls to make sure you’re still paying attention. If the Video Game Crash of ’83 has taught us anything, it is that, like the government, there needs to be a system of checks and balances. The companies must continue to push the envelope as to keep consumers from becoming stagnant. On the other hand, the consumer must continue to ensure that the industry sells quality items. As soon as they stop innovating or we stop investigating, the system breaks down. Companies: If a game sucks, don’t sell it! Consumers: If a game sucks, don’t buy it! If we follow these rules, we can ensure that the past will never repeat itself.