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Wherefore Art Thou Mario?

Kris Schnee

The video game industry was originally a land of startups. The earliest games tended to be programmers’ stunts like Core Wars, a program which teaches valuable virus-writing skills as players’ lines of code battle each other. Pong was an experimental machine installed in a bar, which surprised its builder when it “broke” from being jammed with quarters. Richard Garriott (a.k.a. Lord British, founder of Origin) wrote his first professional computer game before going to college, and sold it on cassette tapes for the Apple IIc (and later on 5.25” disks).

Those early days offered a lot of experimentation and novelty to the fledgling market. Now the industry has come under the control of a handful of corporate giants, to the detriment of the people who play the games they make. The Nintendo Corporation started out as a maker of traditional Japanese playing cards. Under the leadership of Hiroshi Yamayuchi, Nintendo hired a few artists and inventors to create toys like the extendible claw-arm, then branched out into running a chain of electronic shooting galleries. In those days the home video-game market was run by Atari, a few Americans who built arcade games by hand in a converted roller-skating rink.

The weakness of the game industry was an excess of ideas; Atari’s market collapsed under the weight of mediocre, unprofitable games. (It’s rumored that Atari buried thousands of unsold game cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico.) After offering in 1984 to let Atari sell its new game system under the Atari label, Nintendo stepped in. Even though the market collapse was recent enough to scare away corporate giants like Warner Communications, Nintendo was determined to sell its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in America. A small company had made a difference and saved an industry.

Nintendo’s game designers didn’t follow stereotypes; they created them. The Mario and Zelda series set the standard for entire genres of games for decades to come. But when Nintendo became the 800-pound gorilla of the world video game industry (Donkey Kong), the company became power-hungry and ruthless, an enemy of competition. Nintendo tried to block all third-party developers from the NES and its later systems unless they signed a crippling licensing deal. The company’s propaganda magazine, Nintendo Power, was accused of making or breaking developers through its game reviews and selective coverage.

Even in the Nintendo’s heyday, rival companies were still able to make a living. The Neo-Geo and Turbografix-16 systems lived for a while, while Sega controlled a small but substantial share of the game market. Sega was home to the memorable Sonic, Ecco, and Phantasy Star series, and the popular EA Sports games. The underdog offered consumers game play experiences they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Then Sony, the global electronics company, decided to invade the game industry. Almost overnight, the Sony Playstation captured the dominant position in the market from Nintendo. Meanwhile, Sega slowly died, no longer able to claim even second place. Sega has stopped making new hardware, and some of its games are coming to the PC and even Nintendo’s (stupidly-named) GameCube.

Nintendo is about to become the smallest of the major players in the video game industry, and we now have a real corporate giant stepping into the industry. Remember that Microsoft is the same company which modified the cross-platform Java programming language to create a version that would only work on Microsoft machines, and it is the same company still threatened with dismemberment by the government for antitrust violations. What do Microsoft’s business practices mean to the video game consumer? The first clue is already on display, months before the X-Box’s expected November release -- a “special” deal offering the system bundled with three games and accessories for $500. This the only deal being offered by at least one major electronics chain. (You can also get the system in any color you like, so long as it’s black.) This particular deal may not be Microsoft’s direct fault, since the official starting price is “only” $299 (versus $200 for most systems released in the past several years) but, considering the frenzy over the release of Playstation 2, it seems the mega-companies have a free hand to control supply and manipulate their customers. Will it be good for consumers when two of the industry’s big three are conglomerates whose primary focus is not games?

Sure, the games have gotten better since the days of Pong and Pac-Man. But the game industry has lost some things in that time: an openness to new talent and new ideas, and the focus on game design as a way of life instead of as one division of a corporate empire. Will there be new Marios and new Sonics designed by a few talented people, or only imitations spawned by someone’s marketing department?

Maybe we need to play “Sim-Game-Industry” to find out.