The early life of videogames (which for our purposes, goes Spacewar! -> Pong) mirrors, to some extent, the life arc of a boomer child, who sowed his wild oats in LSD-fueled parties during his college years, then shed the tie-dye for a suit and stock options, and settled down to a house in a quiet, white suburb where he could berate his kids, way tamer than he was at their age, for smoking a little pot or talking back to a cop. Video games, like the hippie-turned-dad, either sold out or bought in, depending on your perspective. The only differences were cosmetic- in the place of hippies, video games had computer science grad students, and in place of LSD there were long hours staring at the slide rule. Same thing.
What does it mean to 'buy in,' or, more properly, be part of a culture that is selling out at breakneck speed? What trends were revealed by the regression from Spacewar! to Pong which would eventually come to dominate the entire industry?
When someone like Greg Mankiw (a new Keynesian, Bush II economic advisor and professor at Harvard) uses the textbook language of capitalist economics to describe his family's seeing a show in New York, he's really only half joking. He actually does believe that the world, abstracted, works in the way he describes the show working for him. Mankiw, even though he sounds ridiculous talking about how his family enjoyed "consumer surplus" by engaging with a piece of art, is doing something that is not any more ridiculous than what his colleagues are doing in their scholarly papers, or what gamers and publishers do on a daily basis on questions of DLC, sequels, pricing, and design. The adoption of conspiculously capitalist economic language and its application to art, specifically in this case video games, is what happened in the twenty or so years following the release of Pong.
Video games took a while to sell out completely, thanks to the fact that no cared about them for a very long time. This lack of respect was the sweetest blessing the industry could have asked for. During the time when no one was writing doctoral dissertations about games, when there were no large conferences, when people like Richard Garriot had to sell their games out of the back of their cars in plastic bags, innovation moved at an almost immeasurable pace. To take one example, wargames went from rudimentary board-game aids to full-bodied boardgame replacements to something that boardgames would never be able to imitate or match- in the space of a half decade. It's still the most incredible quantum leap in videogame history, and it was enabled because people at the time didn't think there was a future in video games, or any sort of profit, or any sort of respect whatsoever to be gained by making them. Nobody got into video games for any reason that did not have to do with the object itself. Taking another example: if you were going to take a degree in computer science and join Infocom, you were going to be out of a job in a maximum of three years. In that time you could have started at a much drearier job and worked your way up a few paygrades and gotten yourself a knockoff Porsche. And academically, there was even less reason to give a shit. The lady who wrote the first dissertation on video games (on Adventure, which she admitted to never finishing) did so in 1985 and then basically put the paper in a box and forgot about it. Even if there was nothing worth saying academically (i.e. nothing that could get you tenure) in the dissertation, it was still infinitely more worthy than whatever people are writing these days because it was made without the expectation of material reward or prestige. The object itself demanded to be written about, and that was it.
Now, of course, there were many experiments that fell on their face, and the overall quality of all video games was lower during the glory days. Today there are fewer completely worthless games- you can at least grimace through most of what comes out. But you also don't see the positive side of risk-taking and experimentation.
By the way, we can see echoes of this in today's indie scene, which is highly respected not on its own merits but because it pretends to negate the mainstream, and to get back to those early days when people were working out of their basements (Tim Sweeny sold ZZT from his parent's house) and just doing it for the love of the game. Obviously the indie scene is, like the conterculture of the 60's, ripe for 'buying in,' and even indie development as indie development can be wildly profitable, as it was for Notch. The fact that you have to really screw up to get people angry at you is proof not of the respect people have for the indie scene as it exists, but for the early days of game development it reminds people of. The fact that those days are conslusively dead and gone (and were never as good as we remember them), and that we have to figure shit out on our own now, is a pretty hard pill to swallow.
Anyway, what separates Spacewar! and Pong besides a few years? The purpose with which each game was conceived and made to satisfy are very different. Spacewar! was made, like the dissertation-to-no-one, for the personal gratification of the people involved in its development. It was a spectacular time-waster, a distraction from the legitimate daytime work of a bunch of computer science professors and graduate students. It was not made in a vaccum (ho ho), it was made on a machine and by people who were paid for with Defense Department dollars, and their day jobs were typically aligned with the interests of the US government and its interest in increasingly effecient warmaking, but it was made in a much purer way than Pong, which seems to have been made to provide entertainment along the way to providing money to its creator. Production for profit.
Profit dictated nothing to Spacewar! since Spacewar! was never sold, so it could develop in whatever direction its designers wanted it to develop. The game was made continually more complicated and nail-biting with each additional update, and even today its physical models are sophisticated enough that they at least can stand next to contemporary games without slouching. Compare the snail's pace and nonexistent physics of recent indie Flotilla to Spacewar! and you'll find that even games made today, with an entirely new dimension of space, still sometimes fall short.
Notice how the game is turn-based even though there's no reason for it to be. Combat Mission had to be continuous-turn-based because there were anywhere from ten to a hundred individual units on the screen who had to be accounted for in an infinite variety of possible tactical situations. Giving someone a long pause every thirty seconds in a game where you manipulate four or five units is a pretty gross amount of overkill, especially when you have less to worry about to begin with.
Now notice how both players from the start are not only worried about each other but also spend their time frantically adjusting their orbit so as to not slam into the sun. How awesome must it have been to play Spacewar! after its latest update in a sweltering computer room on hacked-together controls with a bunch of smelly students screeching all around you? Not that awesome, but it's a much better game anyway.
And compare either of those games to Pong, which is a relatively simple geometry exercise that only becomes challenging at super high speed, and doesn't demand nearly as much strategic thinking and reflexes as Spacewar!, and the dilemma becomes clear. When games are developed for something else and not for their own sake, they obviously don't do as much as they could for the artform. That's how we reached the point where a game like Flotilla, unabashedly simpler and slowed-down from its predecessors, could be made and expected to do well (I don't know anything about its actual sales figures). That's why the lengthy obscurity of the games industry was such a blessing, and why its commercial and academic popularity is such a curse.
How is commerializaiton a curse? Let's come back to Grew Mankiw and his Broadway show. He describes himself as experiencing 'consumer surplus,' which is an economic term meaning 'I would have paid more for this, its so good.' First of all, how many gamers say that precise thing about a game that's already overpriced? Secondly, and more insidiously, how many gamers place their enjoyment of a game in terms that would reduce to the kinds of economic concepts Mankiw makes a living teaching? MMO players are especially prone to this kind of thinking when they reduce their experience with the game to a division problem, with the price of the monthly subscription in the numerator position and the hours of playtime in the denominator. If the quotient passes a certain threshold (say, the price of a movie ticket divided by the length of a movie) then the gamer confidently declares himself satisfied. Similarly, gamers frequently describe DLC and expansion packs just as 'new content,' more stuff to shove down the gullet, to prolong the apparently homogenous experience of the base game, to generate more utils, more happiness as measured in hours of cover-shooting. The real question of an expansion pack- the degree to which it changes the mechanics and makes the entire experience, not just the extra hour or so, more interesting, almost never comes up. In fact, in the ideal commercial world there's no room for design at all, and all games are really reduced to their unit of plot/setpiece per hour ratio.
The massive silence on the part of commercial development on design questions points to something we already know about commodities other than videogames under capitalism: they don't have to do what they say they do, and in fact, it's better if they're completely useless relative to their advertised purpose. Head-On and bottled water are great products because they cost almost nothing to produce and high prices (relative to their use, which is zero) can be charged because people have been convinced that they do something other than what they actually do. Games, which, if distributed digitally, have only a single fixed cost and potentially infinite profit potential, are perfect, as long as they can be consumed quickly and discarded, and never returned to again. Design just gets in the way, in prolonging the life of individual games and in increasing their costs. The ideal commercial videogame would have no brain power whatsoever behind it, be of no duration, and be extremely expensive. How close are we to the ideal?
We're not that close. But the beginning of the asymptotic swing towards complete uselessnes starts with Pong, and with the idea that video games have some other reason for existence besides themselves.