Experienced Points: The Game Crash of 2013?

 By Shamus Aug 6, 2013 44 comments

My column this week compares the situation today with the Great Game Market Fail of 1983. As I said on Twitter, I can’t think of a historical example where a business this big ($3.2 billion) fell this far (97%) in such a short time (less than two years) outside of war.

On a personal note, I notice I don’t really have nostalgia for those Atari games the way Nintendo fans love their Famicom games. They were novel, but they weren’t really all that good or interesting, gameplay-wise. When I pine for the good old days of videogames, I’m usually thinking of the stuff in the 1998-2002 range and not my childhood.


20204Feeling chatty? There are 44 comments.


  1. Zagzag says:

    The history side of this article along was interesting. I never realised that the decline was quite that amazingly massive!

  2. Gravebound says:

    Defender is sadly overlooked a lot in the shooter genre, but it’s one of my favorites… Of course, I was playing Defender 2 on the NES, because I was just one year old in ’83 (and, I guess, Rutskarn was -20).

    Man, the NES was awesome……….[reminiscing]…

    Have you ever thought of doing reviews of old console games that you missed, being a PC gamer and all? That could be interesting.

  3. Jeff R. says:

    I’m not sure that videogames were being replaced by ‘nothing’ in ’83. I suspect those dollars were moving instead into home computer games (mostly on the Apple II and C64; PC gaming took a few more years to take off) and the Arcades, both of which were technically far, far beyond the 2600/Intellivision/Coleco/Odyssey generation. And in fact the computers were more than a little (and the arcade rigs quite a lot) beyond the lost generation consoles like the 5200.

    • Daimbert says:

      Yeah, at about that time those sorts of computer system and especially arcade games were pretty much everywhere. Good luck finding an arcade anymore. I miss arcades, to tell you the truth …

    • False Prophet says:

      Yeah, 8-year-old me transitioned pretty easily from my long obsolete 2600 to a Commodore 128. Console gaming was far from being a lifestyle back then. Rather, it was something I did for 20 minutes or so before getting bored and then reading a book or playing outside for 5 hours. It was the steady supply of cracked arcade ports for the Commodore the other kids in the neighbourhood and I traded back and forth that comprised our nascent gaming culture back then.

    • Eric J. says:

      Exactly. The next generation of game consoles (which was coming) cost almost exactly as much as a Commodore 64, or at least a Vic-20. And it was way easier to justify buying a computer than a new videogame.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      To a large extent, that’s true, but while the shift did move to computer games, “the industry” as everyone knew it from Wall Street down to the kids just finding the games, was console games, and console games was Atari. Atari was pulling in $500million a year while Warner owned before and during the crash, so the revenue became the losses in essentially a year. Computers at the time were business machines that played games, not game machines. At the time, you could buy a used car for the cost of new Commodore 64 or Apple //e, a monitor and a couple of floppy drives, and almost nobody could afford one just to play games on, especially when you could pick up those Atari consoles for like 5% of the cost, and buy bargain bin games for a week’s allowance. That was a monsterously large step until … probably around 1985, when you started getting generational replacement of personal computers happening. At that point, the started to exist used computers that would be otherwise *idle* or scrap, instead of reporposed valuable machines. And clones started being a thing, so you no longer had to shell out $1600 to Apple for Apple hardware, you could buy a Lazer 128 that did the same thing for $500 and the price of monitors started dropping to maintain a position as “not the most expensive part of the system”.

    • Jeff R. says:

      Why, by the way, aren’t the consoles between the 2600 and the Nintendo considered a generation? The 5200, Intellivision 2, and 7800 all happened even if they didn’t sell all that well. (And the Odyssey 2, although I guess there’s a slightly stronger case for putting that in first gen.)

  4. I always find it quite interesting to hear of peoples tales of the big crash of 1983. Over here in the UK, that early 80s period was a boom time for microcomputers, most notably the Spectrum and BBC Micro.

    Whilst they were not necessarily designed for games, it’s certainly what my generation began to use them for. I was too young to really remember either boom or bust though, but my gaming experience began on the PC rather than consoles (though that was more down to my Dad buying a home computer for work).

    Related, the BBC made this TV special a few years ago about that era, starring Martin Freeman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIcAyFVK0gE

    • Shivoa says:

      Agreed, there seems to be a lot of articles penned (not to say this EP was) that indicate that there was some massive global bubble, rather than the extraordinary US bubble. When looked at from the European perspective of the Golden Age of the 8-bit and rise and rise of the home computer (at the time the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and BBC Micro defined 1982 onwards and later others like the Amstrads and then IBM PC compatibles arrived) then it looks like a really weird turn of events. Possibly formative for the software houses that formed at the time without as much English language competition from the US but certainly not something that felt like an implosion for kids of the time (I’m slightly younger, stating out with an Amstrad PC-1512 in the late ’80s, so this is all based on the tales of friends who were there before me) and I’d be interested to know the Japanese perspective (which possibly would also be that of a non-event locally that fed into Sega and Nintendo getting a lot richer and more ambitious by making hay from the failure of the US companies in the sector to launch the 3rd console generation).

  5. The Atari 2600 games I feel nostalgia for generally weren’t Atari’s. Companies such as Activision and Imagic back then were using sorcery to force graphics and gameplay out of the 4K of memory that just shouldn’t have been possible. I can still hear the Pitfall 2 music in my head with little effort.

    And I enjoy the commenter on your article telling you you’re wrong because you’re only seeing the tip of the “aisberg”.

  6. Smejki says:

    Seeing you mentioning Missile Command, Shamus, you might try 247 Missiles if you have some iOS thingie in the house.

  7. Mersadeon says:

    To be honest, when I read that tweet my first thought was “extinction events!”. Now, they never had a 97% rate, but they still came to mind.

    • MrGuy says:

      It’s much worse than most “extinction events.” For example, the famous Paleogene extinction (the one probably caused by an asteroid strike around the Yucatan) only wiped out about 75% of all the species on earth…

      • anaphysik says:

        Bah, you youngins have it weak and easy. Back in *my* day, we took our Great Dying and we liked it! That was a time when you could be *proud* to have survived an extinction event, before all this nanny-coddling.

      • Primogenitor says:

        It depends if you compare number of species or number of individuals. Since the 97% comes from value of sales, I’d say number of individuals killed in a mass extinction would be a better analogy – in which case a typical mass extinction is up to 99.95% or so. Total biomass might be an even better analogy, which would be much higher than 99.95% since bigger organisms tend to die more in mass extinctions.

        • bucaneer says:

          The “We Outnumber You Multicellular Lumps By Several Handfuls Of Orders Of Magnitude” committee of bacteria would like to remind you that it finds your number of individuals estimate pretty quaint.

  8. Zombie says:

    I think the biggest differences between then and now is that now, like you said, we have much more to fall back on, indie games, and smaller, more niche games (I’d say along the lines of EU4) to play if the big AAA publishers died. But we also have this experience to look back at and be able to say, yeah, right now, its not as bad as the 80s. Which is a big thing because we will also be able to know if we are heading in that direction again, and maybe get companies to get their act together so they don’t fall down, go boom.

    • Trix2000 says:

      Relatedly, it probably helps that anyone can be a game developer now if they put the effort and time into it, since the tools to do so are much more accessible and cheap (even free sometimes). If there’s one major benefit to the massive push for better graphics technology, it’s that older technologies get cheap enough for almost anyone.

      I think it also helps that the perception of what a gaming console (or gaming in general really) is has changed – it’s no longer just another thing to fill time, but an entire medium with it’s own significant dedicated audience. Even if publishers/developers go out of business, the market for games will live on without them to create new publishers/developers.

  9. Anachronist says:

    Back in the early 1980s, the arcade games way outperformed anything available on personal computers or home consoles, and they even used the same 8-bit CPUs for the most part. I was a big fan of the vector-graphic arcade games, like Asteroids and Battle Zone and Star Wars.

    I also loved the intensely focused chaos of Robotron with its independent move/fire direction controls. I got really good at that game. Home gaming systems with their wimpy controllers never came up to the level of Robotron for playability, IMO.

    • MetalSeagull says:

      You’re right about that. I feel a lot of nostalgia for arcade games like Dragon’s Lair, Sinistar, DigDug, Joust, and a personal favorite that I don’t see mentioned often- Tempest. I know there are emulators but it’s just not the same.

      What a let down to go from arcade Donkey Kong or Pac-Man to the home game version. Also, I was one of those who had the ET game. I can still taste the disappointment. It was so, so terrible. And the worst part was it was so expensive that no way was I going to get another game anytime soon. It was an example of blatant disrespect for the customer.

      • My memory of playing E.T. at the time was that it was a “falling into pits for no apparent reason” simulator. Thanks to the one-man deathmarch dev cycle (and zero QA) the game’s collision detection was broken. A modern day ROM hack / fanpatch fixes the worst issues, and allows us to see what the game could have been like if Atari had actually cared about it.

      • Anachronist says:

        Ah, yes, I forgot about Joust. Loved that one too, although I’ve seen decent PC clones of it. I enjoyed Sinistar too; I remember feeling the adrenaline and heart rate go up when it roared.

        Dragons Lair, well, that was an RPG on really tight rails, no real choices to make, so I never got into it. But that one strikes me as a game that would port easily to a PC or home console. It was basically video clips accessed as a consequence of joystick movements. Basically a game consisting of nothing but cutscenes. You didn’t need much of a controller for that.

        Tempest is something that needs a wheel control that spins freely with no stops. I suppose you can get such controllers, but most of them seem to favor joystick and buttons. A trackball might work well for Tempest though.

        There’s a building at the Google campus (I live near it) that has a free arcade with some classic games. There’s a Robotron and a Tempest machine there, among others. I spent a pleasant hour or so reliving my youth with a friend who works there and invited me in.

        I notice a fundamental difference in design philosophy between those arcade games and PC or console games. With arcade games, it’s “let’s design a good game and then build a controller specifically for that game.” With consoles, you have “let’s design a game around the restrictions of the controller that users are likely to have.”

  10. Mintskittle says:

    TV Tropes link incoming!

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheGreatVideoGameCrashOf1983

    I swear, TV Tropes has a link for everything.

    Is it bad I look to TV Tropes for info on stuff instead of Wikipedia?

  11. TheMerricat says:

    You know, I remember the crash in 1983 with fondness. It was a heyday for my brother and I, rummaging through all those bargain bins looking for games we had only wished we could have gotten just a year ago. And while the games may have been subjectively crap, the only one I ever regretted purchasing wasn’t due to it’s quality, it was due to the fact that it was the second game to that damn ‘Earthworld’ series Atari never finished and someone had already stolen the comic out of the box.

    I remember my mom buying something like a box of thirty or so games, sight unseen, on the theory that she could dole them out to us as rewards for good behavior. Lasted us a good time, up till my brother saved up for an NES.

    That might have actually been one of the reasons why grew up so stingy with my video game budget. I learned early on, if it’s selling for $30-$60 today that just meant I would be able to drop by a year from then and pick it up for $10-$20 (or it’d be so crappy that it’d drop out of sight and I wouldn’t have to worry about buying it after all).

    Now we have Steam… damn Steam, short circuiting my value system…

  12. hborrgg says:

    Darn it, my game just crashed again.

  13. RTBones says:

    I don’t know that I would say that nothing replaced the Atari and its ilk. In addition to early personal computers, this is right about the time of the rise of arcades, which have all but died as we can now get far better games at home on the PC (and XBox, and Playstation). The early big name games were there already (Asteroids, Defender, Space Invaders, etc) At the time, arcade games were far superior than anything you could buy on a console of the day. Star Wars (you can do the trench run!!), Galaga, Spy Hunter, Dragon’s Lair (laser disc – cool!), Pole Position – all came out right about this time. Movies of the time – notably Tron and The Last Starfighter, centered around video games and arcades. There was even a popular song (Pac-Man Fever…its driving me crazy!) about an arcade game.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      It was also a HUGE time for pinball machines as the shift from what amounted to “electro-mechanical with a computer chip for scoring and some state data” to full-on programatic pinball with integrated, play-sensitive soundtracks and digital audio was just beginning in the early 1980s, and lasted up through 1998 or so, when we entered the endgame of the Return of the Console as the hardware began not being the limiting factor anymore. So if there was a place people “moved to” at the demise of Atari in 1983, it was into the arcade and ten years or so of coin-op dominance. Because there, it’s OKAY to spend $2000 on hardware to play a game. Because that game will earn it back in a year.

  14. Klay F. says:

    I think you are misrepresenting the breadth of the crash here Shamus. The crash was pretty much only localized to the US. The rest of the world didn’t know or care that a crash had happened. As stated above the popularity of the Amiga and ZX Spectrum and the like in Europe pretty much made the crash inconsequential. The MSX had the same effect in Japan.

    When people say the industry is headed for a crash, they mostly mean the triple-A industry, although I think the term crash is a misnomer. The triple-A industry is much too massive to just end. It’ll be more like two glaciers colliding. The only reason the massive publishers are still afloat is because of inertia. Every year they shed more and more studios. And every year the vast majority of them post net losses.

    If I said five years ago that THQ wouldn’t exist in the future, people would have called me insane. Yet here we are. The other publishers aren’t any smarter than THQ. Its just that their IP has more net worth, so that the money sponge can be wrung out for longer.

    • Shamus says:

      I wasn’t “misrepresenting” it. I was just talking about the US. I did start off with a first-hand kid’s eye view of the problem and not a discussion of global economics.

      • Zock says:

        I’d say this is a good example of failed communication. I feel you made a generalized assumption about the audience which didn’t hold.

        The article left me confused as well. I read the article, and it left me wondering: “What crash? Why don’t I remember it?” Then I checked the comments, followed a couple of links, and found out that the crash was pretty well contained within the North America. After reading your reply here I reread the article in Escapist, but the original article still seemed to have a wrong scope. Thus I ended up writing this comment here.

      • Klay F. says:

        Yeah, okay thats fair. Sorry. I wasn’t aware you were just focusing on the U.S.

  15. CTrees says:

    The first response that comes to mind to “I can’t think of a similarly massive crash” is the Danish tulip bubble. One of those events everyone should be taught in high school, but which few are.

  16. rgove says:

    Shamus: you should talk to the Escapist about their layout. Every time I read one of your columns, I get to the bottom of page 1, think “well, that was a little abrupt”, and close the page. The link to page 2 is unobtrusively buried in the comments section underneath.

  17. If a AAA crash happens, it will probably be closer to the comic book crash of ’96. Some companies went down while others had to scale back on their most ridiculous extravagances like hologram covers and other such nonsense. EA, SquareEnix and Ubisoft along with the others aren’t the entrenched institutions that Marvel and DC was. Marvel had to sell its more popular character rights for income until it could get stabilize itself. It didn’t wipe comics off the map like the ’83 video game crash did, but it took a huge chunk out of the business and still hasn’t fully recovered from it today despite the success of super hero movies.

  18. MadTinkerer says:

    “On a personal note, I notice I don’t really have nostalgia for those Atari games the way Nintendo fans love their Famicom games. They were novel, but they weren’t really all that good or interesting, gameplay-wise.”

    There are actually a few good reasons for this:

    1) The industry was eleven years old (Pong in 1972 to the crash in 1983), and most companies producing games were only a few years old. A lot of people were just new to making games and lacked the experience necessary to make great games.

    2) The game development cycle was measured in months, sometimes weeks. A lot of games simply weren’t given the time to “cook” properly, especially when the “gold rush” hit and even companies that theoretically knew better ended up rushing out bad and even broken/unfinishable games: Pacman and E.T. on the 2600 being the most notorious examples.

    3) The lack of patents/proprietary hardware and software in the most popular systems. This is a long story, and something I only found out recently from “retro gaming” podcasts, but I’ll try to convey the gist of it:

    Atari could not legally stop manufacturers from creating Atari compatible cartridges because the Atari consoles were made from entirely “off the shelf” parts such as the Motorola 6800 (the processor that allowed for the home console and home PC revolution in the first place). This also led, for a time, to things like adaptors for competitors’ consoles such as the Atari 2600 adaptor for the Colecovision. There was also a brief period of consoles that are internally exact replicas of the Atari 2600 and other consoles (which was legal), but they all suffered the same fate during the crash because they were just replicas.

    Imagine a LEGAL adaptor that you could plug into a Playstation 3 and play XBox 360 games. Oh, and all you needed to make games work on said colsoles was the hardware to burn HDDVD or Blu Ray, no going through any approval process. Yeah.

    (One fondly-remembered exception to all this madness is the Intellivision, which had a copyrightable, license-able operating system and an unusually high proportion of good games to bad, thanks to said OS.)

    The crash was inevitable because even though Atari learned the hard way to stop producing crap games, and Activision (and a handful of others) took pride in superior quality games from the start, they couldn’t stop other fly-by-night companies cranking out low quality, sometimes barely functional, games.

    As a result, you have far more people who enjoy, for example, M.U.L.E. today than had heard of it at the time, simply because the greatest games of the time were getting lost in the sea of shovelware. All that shovelware at full-price burned too many parents too often. E.T. was a significant disaster, but Atari and the better third-parties would have recovered if all of the third-parties had cared about quality over quantity, or even just basic production of good product.

    (And also Atari would probably have needed to put a Nintendo Lock Out Chip style chip on their next big console. The chip, Nintendo Seal of Quality, draconian licensing rules, and so on that Nintendo implemented on the NES was basically to avoid the same situation. And it worked. One of the very, very few times DRM actually turned out to be in the overall best interest of the consumer.)

    4) Developers hadn’t yet realized the significance of Nintendo games and why they were different (and also, some of the best Nintendo games didn’t exist yet). Nintendo was around a while before the NES. Not just in the arcades, but there was something like a dozen pre-Famicom Nintendo consoles that were released only in Japan (several being licensed, legal clones of American consoles). Atari got a head start by being the first, and some companies like Namco were starting to realize the marketing significance of memorable characters, but it was Nintendo, particularly Shigeru Miyamoto who was one of the first to realize how important storytelling was in videogames.

    Donkey Kong told you the part of the story of three characters, leaving the player to decide the ending via skill. Although there was no end to the game itself, because the stages looped until the Kill Screen, players could reach a satisfying conclusion by getting further, getting a higher score, getting closer to rescuing Lady/Pauline and beating Donkey Kong for good in their imaginations.

    Eventually Super Mario Bros. came along and introduced plot twists and an actual conclusion you could get to, but that was post-crash. There were plenty of other games with finite levels such as Adventure on the 2600, but it utterly failed to have any character or plot development (the main character is literally just a square). Pacman had a story of sorts, but it wasn’t connected to the action in the maze. A particular Colecovision game I forget the name of was tremendous fun to play, and even had some plot (escape the city taken over by robots) but had so little character that the main character was literally called “your guy” in the manual.

    Until the NES era, most stories that existed in relation to games were either disconnected from the action, or the stories were connected to the action but the characters were one-dimensional to zero-dimensional. There were non-Nintendo exceptions, but thanks to Miyamoto, Nintendo was the first to try to convey story through gameplay with memorable characters in every game they made. And players loved it because they weren’t just controlling a likeable character, but they were determining what happens next in that character’s story: often being forced to stop at “Game Over” because of a dearth of quarters or skill, or giving up before the end thanks to “Nintendo hard”, but always having the potential to get to the good ending as well.

    But in 1982, that fact wasn’t nearly as obvious as it is today, or even the late 80s.

  19. Yeah, I think that in terms of video games as serious artistic construction we have to start with the NES era. I don’t just say that because I’m a child of the NES era (I hope); I just think that, objectively, the old Atari games just don’t hold up very well. My roommate and I have been playing NES, SNES, etc. games. Some of the NES games also are very problematic (unclear directions, lack of information, etc.), but the SNES games are great. We played Clock Tower and that shit be freaky.

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