The Exigent Duality
Gaming transition - 10:53 CST, 11/24/07 (Sniper)
This thread reminds me of a conversation I had with Ellyn yesterday. In the thread lies a debate about whether people would have preferred a new 2d Mario on the Wii as opposed to Super Mario Galaxy. But the thread eventually takes a turn where the real question isn't so much 2d versus 3d, but Era 1 versus Era 2 game design.

First, let me define the terms: To my knowledge, Era 1 game design began with or around Pong, but eventually lost out broad mainstream appeal after the introduction of Super Mario Bros. on the NES. Era 1 game design style focused on a simple concept with a very defined and limited set of constraints placed on the player. As an example, there are only three things a player can do in Asteroids: move, teleport, and shoot. The game didn't have an end, it just went on until the player failed a set number of times.

Due to the limited nature of their design, successful games of this style must be exceedingly fun and replayable in order to draw the player back to play over and over again. Era 1 games are sort of like paintings-- on the surface there isn't a whole lot to experience, but the more one partakes of the work the more depth that is revealed. In the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, this game design paradigm was ubiquitous and mainstream, but stagnation in the creativity of this style led to the video game industry crash of 1983.

Super Mario Bros. popularized a mode of play more akin to novels or movies. The objective of the player was to go from point A to point B. There was a definite end, and there was even a limited narrative to drive the player's progression. I call this Era 2 game design.

From 1985 to 2005, game design underwent a gradual transition where fewer and fewer Era 1 games were created and more and more Era 2 games were created. As well, games morphed to include elements of both Era 1 and Era 2, but leaned more and more on Era 2 design as time passed. For example, Sonic the Hedgehog, a platformer from 1991, is of an Era 2 design, but the game only takes 45 minutes to defeat, and focuses on fun and replayable game dynamics. Sonic Adventure, a followup platformer in the series which was released eight years later, focused on extensive narrative, had a wider range of gameplay dynamics (such as fishing and shooting stages), and took upwards of 15 hours to defeat.

Outside of the RPG genre (which is the only genre that was as lengthy and narrative-driven in 1989 as it is in 2007), anecdotal evidence says that casual and hardcore gamers alike actually prefer games that are more Era 1-leaning in design. For example, the best selling PC game of all time, The Sims, was attractive to casual gamers because it smacked of Era 1 design. And the Nintendo DS, the fastest selling system of all time and a console known as hardcore and casual alike, is attractive because it has a plethora of Era 1-biased titles, such as Nintendogs, Brain Training, and New Super Mario Bros.

Clearly there is a lot of money to be made offering Era 1 style games. Yet why does popular opinion state that games of this type should be restricted to handhelds like the Nintendo DS, or online services such as Gametap, Xbox Live Arcade, or Nintendo's Virtual Console? People were willing to pay $60 for Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, yet popular opinion says that they would be unwilling to pay $60 in today's money for a game of Era 1 design, no matter how fun or replayable it may be. I question whether this assumption is in fact true.

Consoles from 1989 to 1995 have a huge popular following. Sales of games from this time window on Nintendo's Virtual Console are outstanding, and the majority of today's game re-makes are of characters and worlds from this era of gaming history. These consoles are still popular because they successfully straddled the line between great visuals, audio, and a perfect meld of Era 1 and 2 game design, but with a bias towards Era 1 design.

Personally, the 3DO is my favorite video game console of all time because it was the last console that was dominated by Era 1-leaning game design and therefore has better audio and visuals than all other Era 1-biased consoles. Games like Return Fire, Road Rash, and The Need for Speed emphasized repeatable arcade-like formulas but with modern-day polish.

Once the less powerful Nintendo DS is phased out to be replaced with more powerful hardware like the Sony PSP, which is a predominantly Era 2-oriented experience, will Era 1 game design be exclusively relegated to niche services like Xbox Live Arcade? Will this style of game design eventually die altogether? Or will it see some sort of dramatic revival and rise to ubiquitousness?