Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No More Local Heroes

One of the biggest differences between gaming then and now is that today the market is seriously global. Of course, not all games get released in all territories, and titles sometimes arrive in censored/amped-up versions targeted to whatever the publisher believes are regional tastes. But when it comes to gaming platforms and hotly anticipated blockbuster titles, North America, Europe and Japan are generally all on the same page. Super Mario Galaxy? Resident Evil 5? Every gamer, everywhere, knows about these titles.

This was definitely NOT the case back in the early 80's. Video and computer games as a concept were everywhere, but the markets were very fragmented and almost completely local.

In the US, Atari, Mattel and Coleco dominated home videogaming, with Magnavox keeping things interesting, and the 8-bit Apple II, Atari 400/800 and Commodore 64 were the home gaming computers of choice. Games were generally expensive, as ROM cartridges were not cheap to physically manufacture and disk-based computer games were ambitious in scope and (relatively speaking) budget, aimed at a still-small hobbyist market.

Meanwhile, in the UK, 8-bit computers dominated, led by the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, with the Acorn, BBC, and Amstrad machines also in the mix. Games were distributed primarily on tape, often at cheap mass-market prices, making expensive consoles and cartridges less appealing. Many big UK hits like Head Over Heels, Manic Miner, Elite and Jetpac were virtually unknown in the US.

The rest of Europe tended to follow the UK's lead, but there were unique regional computers like the Finnish Sarola Fellow, and regional preferences -- the Amstrad line did much better in France than elsewhere, for example.

Japan was more arcade-oriented, augmented by a variety of home computers supporting the MSX standard, where series like Konami's Castlevania, Snatcher and Metal Gear first appeared, years before they would be seen in the US. Nintendo's Game & Watch dedicated LCD game series was very popular, establishing the appeal of portable gaming long before it was technically feasible. But console gaming hadn't really taken off yet -- Nintendo's Famicom would pave the way in the East, patterned after the US Colecovision to some degree.

As time went on and technologies changed, the smaller players dropped out and consumer electronics giants moved in. Consolidations and bankruptices hit hardware makers and software publishers hard in the US during the mid-1980's videogame crash, shrinking the pool dramatically. Later, as games outgrew their novelty phase and more players became interested, the industry matured. Today, as game budgets have grown substantially and it's become harder to compete in the hardware race, the market seems to support two or three viable global consoles at any given time, plus the IBM PC standard which waxes and wanes as a gaming platform but never really dies out (but may be replaced by browser-based gaming as time goes on). Modern games are expensive to develop, so they have to have global appeal, and global marketing.

Fortunately, there's still room for small, independent games on the Web and on the downloadable side of the market -- and now that we're all running on the same hardware, we have more opportunities to sample what's been happening across the pond.

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