Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's 1981 All Over Again

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Andrew Glaister, Matthew Smith, Malcolm Evans, David Braben, Ian Bell, Chris & Tim Stamper, Jeff Minter, Eugene Jarvis ... all names from the early 80s, all famous to varying extents for single/double-handedly writing video games that were the stuff of legend. 1k Space Invaders, Manic Minder, 3d Monster Maze, Elite, Jetpac, Attack of the Mutant Camels, Defender. These were people that I recognised and even hung out with when I had my ZX81 and handcoded, in Z80, my first programmes. 200808241932.jpg

Later, new names came to the fore: Jez San (Starglider), Will Wright (The Sims), Warren Spector (Deus Ex) and, of course, Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario). Try, though, to name the names behind current mega-hit video games - Halo (1,2 or 3), Gears of War, Killzone, Guitar Hero and I'm pretty sure - unless you're really, really into it - that you'll draw a blank. And even if you can name one person, you probably know that there are dozens or even hundreds of people working alongside them. Game development - or, for that matter, any development programme, has long been a team sport. A big team sport. As I moved from ZX81 to Spectrum to BBC Micro to Atari ST and then to consoles, many of these names stayed relevant and equally famous; but the solo coders gradually disappeared and became far, far rarer. Production values got sharper, costs rose - but software didn't necessarily get any better. 1981 seemed like a long way away.

When I was writing code back then, it was common to meet up with people who were single-handedly specifying, developing and distributing their own software - be it games, sports applications or business systems. They'd be working with 16kb or perhaps 32kb of memory and shipping their products on tapes - oh the expectation as you waited for the tape to load, with that peculiar ZX81 interference-like loading screen (when Manic Miner first debuted on the Spectrum, and had a loading screen that didn't just show seemingly random lines, it was a big deal). Games in 1981 cost a few pounds, perhaps £5 or £10. Games now generally cost £40 or even £50. The consoles, for the most part, shut down the ability for individuals to produce games. The barriers to entry were too high.

And now we have two, independent, but maybe highly related vehicles where individuals can develop, publish and distribute their wares without leaving their arm chairs at home. Xbox's Live Arcade and Apple's iPhone. Both of these platforms now allow single people [relatively] easy access to huge markets - in the millions or tens of millions. Xbox is a little harder with all of the certification processes but those barriers look like they're being lowered as the SDK gets out. The iPhone Applications store looks to have very few barriers, as long as you aren't trying to break the conditions that you accepted when you signed up to buy an iPhone. Certainly the latter is already populated by dozens or even hundreds of games written by solo coders. And these games and software titles cost from nothing to a few pounds. It's 1981 all over again; except this time, Apple and Microsoft bring the market to you, handle the distribution, the money and everything else. All you've got to do is write the code and deliver the quality - no easy task.

Perhaps the first star of Xbox Live Arcade is Jonathan Blow, author of Braid; Author doesn't sound too strong a word - there's a whole story behind the game and the production values are incredible for a solo game. It could so easily have been Jeff Minter - he of Mutant Camels, Gridrunner, Hovver Bovver and numerous others from the 80s - with his awesome but difficult to follow (for non-hardcore gamers) Space Giraffe. It might even have been Chris Cakebread with Geometry Wars although he arguably had the backing of a big studio in developing his game, even if he did all the heavy lifting of coding.

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Who will the first star of iPhone games be? It could already be Nate True with his Guitar Hero-styled "Tap Tap" - reportedly over a million people have already downloaded this game already. Other games are already in the hundreds of thousands - Spinner Prologue for instance. Perhaps a surprise title is consistently at Number 1 for paid downloads, where "paid" means it costs you 59p or about $1 - Koi Pond (by Brandon Bogle apparently, but who knows). Just as back then, there are any number of poorly designed, poorly written, buggy bits of code - but feedback, on the iTunes Store at least, is merciless. And the "big team" developers have been no better historically- think of any game derived from a movie tie-in!

Just a couple of things for those people writing software (ok, ok, games), particularly for the iPhone but these thoughts perhaps apply just as much to Xbox Live Arcade, that would make them leagues better in my eyes:

1) I'm mobile, I have little time. I want the software to start quickly and be playable, if it's a game, very, very quickly. I don't much care about your logos, your branding, your studio names and whatever. Maybe you can display that the first time, but please don't doing it every time. Aurora Feint? 30 seconds to start? I'm already on the tube and off again before you've even started. If you must do something in the background, have a loading bar so that I know what's going on. But better still, load only what you need.

2) Autosave whenever I exit. If a call comes in, or I need to switch out to do a text or just need to hop off the tube, I want the last thing you do to be to save status just as I press the home button. I don't want to be at the end of a level, at a particular place or whatever, I just want it to save so that I can carry on when I restart.

But these are early days and the potential is enormous; new platforms can take years or more to come into their own - let's hope with the horsepower being applied to the iPhone and now to Xbox, that time period is massively compressed. In the background I'm downloading the 1.2GB Apple SDK. I haven't the faintest idea what Objective C is and I probably haven't got the time to figure it all out, but I wanted to get a sense of how it is, nearly 20 years on, now that PEEK and POKE are relics of the past. Don't hold your breath for my first code since probably 1983.

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