As 1982 ended, video games were booming. By the end of 1983, video games were practically dead. This was because of the video game crash, or Atari Shock, and it was an important milestone in game history. There were multiple things that lead to the crash, and there are some worrying parallels with the way the industry is heading at the moment.
One of the key reasons for the 1983 crash was an over-saturation of consoles being overshadowed by more powerful computers. Despite gamers having then Atari 5600, ColecoVision, Mattel Intellivision and several more to choose from, the introduction of cheap and powerful computers heavily hit the sales of consoles. Being able to do simple word processing on a machine that can play made it a very easy purchase decision for entire families, rather than buying an expensive machine for what was still designated a "kid's toy" by many.
I feel that we're beginning to see something similar arising. As is, we have three main consoles in the WiiU, PS4 and XBone. Sales for each are strong, and normally you wouldn't think anything could damage a console juggernauts sales figures. However, later this year we are going to be hit by the arrival of Steam Machines, smaller computers built for use with Valve's Steam platform in mind. While the prices for these machines do vary, it is going to provide stiff competition for living room space. A Steam Machine offers you a more powerful machine, with a bigger library of games and more uses, as well as the tools to create your own games. This competition could also lead to an over-saturation of living room options, and a decline in console sales.
During the run-up to the crash, many developers weren't credited at all for their works. Eventually, many agitated developers went and formed their own, smaller studios. This lead to a large amount of games being released, with no real control measures to stop the bad or exploitative games coming through. When people went to a shop, they were confronted with several remarkably similar games of varying quality. Because of this, the reputation of gaming as a whole was damaged, and people found it harder to find games which were worth buying.
When you look at the blockbuster game market of today, the amount of originality is spread extremely thin between them. There's your faux-realistic first person shooters set in a war with a strong multiplayer focus (Call of Duty, Battlefield) and your open world combo-based adventures (Assassin's Creed, Batman Arkham Series) - with many other big hitters being a variation of those two types. While there are big games that come out that break away from those formulas, the majority of the biggest sellers each year fit neatly into one of those two categories. There's nothing wrong these games individually, but as a whole they show that the innovation as stagnated. Having so many similar games on the market will cause stagnation, which will cause the average consumer to grow bored.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the issue of budget. It's estimated that a development budget could be anywhere in the region of $60million, not including marketing. When these kind of figures are being thrown around, each game needs to sell a completely unrealistic amount in order to be considered "successful". Alien: Isolation sold an impressive 2.11million copies, but was seen as a failure. Hitman Absolution shifted 3.6million, but was still unsuccessful in the publisher's eyes. When you combine out of control budgets with a stagnant industry and bored consumer, you get E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, the game that is widely attributed to causing the original 1983 crash.
It's a scary prospect, but I would remind you this is a hypothetical musing. While there are similarities to be drawn, I don't think we're going to see a crash as devastating as the one in the eighties. But I think we are going to see a change in some way. The current development system of blockbuster games is unsustainable, and we're reaching the point now where it's impossible to make a game that will make a profit. Personally, I think the blockbuster system could do with a jolt to the system so we can get back to concentrating on being creative and innovative, rather than making more of the same.
Jamie also writes a weekly videogame blog for Hiive, a website dedicated to helping creatives in the UK meet and find work. Check it out here!