How I Met the Inventor of the Videogame

Ralph Baer, inventor of the videogame console, recently came to Berlin to celebrate the online launch of the "History of Video Games Timeline" by the Berlin Computer Game Museum. Quite an exciting moment for me, and probably the last chance to have a chat with the man behind the craze that touched our lives and changed the world.

After he gave a speech on his time at Sanders, where he started working on the Brown Box—the grandfather of all consoles—as early as 1966 and invented the light gun, I had the chance to have a brief chat with him.

He really is a likable chap. However, you can tell that he had to fight hard for recognition. If you asked a random person on the street who invented the videogame, the answer would very likely be: "Atari!"

As a matter of fact, though, Nolan Bushnell's inspiration for Pong came from a game included in the first video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, the 1972 commercial iteration of the Brown Box.

While Bushnell can be considered the inventor of the videogame industry, Baer was the inventor of its basis.

He has the documents to prove it, and he held the patents. Consequently, Magnavox not only succeeded in suing Atari for patent infringement but also Coleco, Mattel, Activision, and Nintendo.

Unfortunately he could not sue the public's imagination. As a result, he likes to remind everyone that it was in fact he who made the first step.

When I asked him to sign my copy of Steve Kent's Ultimate History of Videogames, he pointed out that he really liked the book because it presented his version of events. But even someone as invested in game history as Steve needed some persuasion to believe his story.

This is probably the reason why Baer never holds back when it comes to pointing out his numerous inventions and how much ahead of their time they were.

Asked if he considered the Wii the spiritual successor to the Brown Box and the Odyssey, given their family-friendly focus and use of peripherals, the first thing he told me was how he thought up a similar concept in the late 1980s.

But credit where credit is due: the patents he holds are indeed evidence of his visionary nature. He thought of delivering games via cable, entertained the idea of online games and invented other electronic games, such as Simon.

This was finally recognized by the American government in 2007, when was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor the US can confer for achievements related to technological progress.

He was still wearing the pin when he was in Berlin. It was an honour to meet him.


Off the Couch, On the Couch: Consoles' Future

There're two trends in video-gaming I've noticed lately: First, a shift towards more peripherals and consoles taking over more functions of computers—a development confirmed by the latest E3. One of the first companies to successfully introduce accessory-enhanced games into the mainstream was Sony with its Singstar and Buzz franchises.

Then there was the final breakthrough: Guitar Hero, first just being bundled with a plastic guitar, later even with a drum set. This step was a huge risk: Bemani games were pretty much relegated to a niche existence in the West, no one knew if people were willing to spend significantly more on a game with a toy guitar, and the competition for scarce retail space was intense.

The risk, however, paid off: People loved the new interfaces, which allowed them to immerse themselves in the gaming experience deeper than before. Dreams of a rock star career were easier to pursue with a plastic axe than with a joypad.

Apart from appealing to people who never might have played video games before, another advantage is obvious: Games can be pirated, peripherals can't. You want to play your Pirate Bay Rock Band with a controller? Sure, bore yourself to death.

We had also better get used to the thought of these new interfaces. Kids these days often play their first games on the Wii. As this generation grows up, it won't understand why it can't control FPSs in a similar, active way. The couch will be deserted, that's for sure.

But then again, a second trend might keep people right there: Increasingly, consoles take over the functions of computers.

Think about the Xbox, for example; it was basically introduced because Microsoft wanted to carry the dominance it had in the office environment over into your living room, a space which at that stage was mostly in the hands of the PlayStation.

Soon you'll be able to access your Facebook profile with it, update your Twitter status and listen to These are very significant developments. Microsoft might have won, we just haven't realized it yet.

This Offworld piece makes some very good points:

"The announcement that I thought was missed was the opening of the Xbox Live Dashboard interface to the internet," [industry analyst Michael] Pachter told Gamasutra. "Later this year, Microsoft will allow members to access and to select music, to access Netflix and instantly watch films/TV shows, to access Facebook and interact with other friends, and to access Twitter and post/read tweets."

Pachter argues that the gaming media entirely missed the significance of this announcement, which puts the 360 firmly in the same territory as Apple's AppleTV, only with a library of awesome games. With so many 360s already installed around the world, MS have a good chance to become the default choice for web media on your TV.

The author adds:

If the 360 does start to support all these things (there's no confirmation as to whether Last.FM will be able to run in the background as a soundtrack to your games), it'll become the kind of gaming machine that I want to spend my time with for more reasons than just because it has some games that my PC doesn't.

It will become a device that has more of the networked infrastructure, and more of the media tweaks and toys that I take for granted as part of my desktop computer.

The thing is: This development does not only apply to stationary consoles: Just think of the iPhone and its growing success as a gaming device. People play on it because they always take it with them and it combines pretty much everything you can ask for: wifi, email, surfing the net, games, etc. Before my iPod Touch was stolen (donations welcome!), I totally neglected my DS, simply for the fact that the iPod combined all my entertainment needs.

The PSP is taking the same direction; its new incarnation, the PSP Go, will come with an app shop (albeit without a touch screen).

When thinking about these developments, keep in mind the falling price of the 360. As the Offworld piece points out:

Rather than having to release a new console, the 360 just gets cheaper, and makes more sense, to more people, because it does something that it didn't do before: Guitar Hero, Last.FM, Twitter, motion-tracking control... A spiralling feature list, a net that gets bigger and drags in more people.

The Xbox indeed develops back to its PC heritage and becomes increasingly flexible. It fulfils a PC's functions, but with the convenience of a console. Sony does have a lot of competition on their hands, and yet they don't seem to do much about it. In view of the PS3's impressive hardware architecture, it's difficult to say if they are able to lower its price, but that would be a first step in the right direction.

All this doesn't even take into account the effect of cloud computing. Maybe the 360 will be the last console you ever buy, because the rest will be done in the cloud. Not only would this apply to applications but also to gaming.

This demands the questions: Will one platform be obsolete one day? What will happen to the PC? Surely it won't disappear, but it will suffer. Eventually you might simply end up with another Microsoft product.

What do you think? Are consoles the future of computing?


Is the Videogame Industry Recession Proof?

Will the US fall into a recession? Maybe. Will the videogame industry? Probably not, reports

According to The Wall Street Journal, "strong holiday sales of its Wii video game console and Nintendo DS portable game device helped Nintendo (OTC: NTDOY) nearly double its nine-month net profit and raise its sales forecasts for the third time this business year." In other words, there is no recession at Nintendo. Figures out of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT)'s device division would also indicate that there is no slowdown in video console sales. Nintendo raised its forecast for Wii unit sales for the year ending in March to 18.5 million from 17.5 million.

One of the questions Wall Street is asking is where the consumer will draw the line on purchases. Expensive products like cars are likely to get hurt. Fast food numbers seem to be fine. A video game console is a $200 to $500 purchase, with Nintendo's products being at the low end of that range.

One advantage video games have over other products in a downturn is that consumers can use them for hours a day, not unlike a TV. That puts the "cost per hour" of owning a video game products at pennies for avid users.

Does that make video games recession-proof? Probably.

So there you have it: Games are a safe bet in these uncertain times (thank you casual gamers!). What I would really like to know though is how the game business developed since the writer's strike started.


What if the Primary Candidates were Consoles?

Gigaom posted witty a piece comparing the Primary Candidates of the Democrats to game consoles:

Barack Obama is the Nintendo Wii: The multi-racial candidate who was first dismissed by Washington insiders for not having enough power or third-party backers — but has gone on to draw immense popularity, not just from hardcore party faithful, but from the young and old, independents and Republicans alike. Instantly appealing like the Wii, Obama is popular not because of his library of policies, but because he is changing the way the game is played.

Hillary Clinton is the Microsoft Xbox 360: Backed by the most money, seen as a reliable and established brand, Hillary appeals most to the Democratic base, much the same way the 360 is most popular with hardcore gamers. Transitioning from her husband’s Xbox era, she offers not revolutionary change but steady, reliable content.

John Edwards is the Playstation 3: Formerly the Democratic frontrunner of the previous generation, Edwards now offers a greatly enhanced library of positions with far more ideological power — which few except Edwards’ die-hard fanboys seem to be buying. Unsurprisingly, the candidates are now polling about the same as their next-gen analogs are currently selling, with the Wii capturing 44 percent of the vote, the 360 pulling in 36 percent, and the PS3 trailing far behind with 20 percent.

Of course one might want to add some qualifications here and there, e.g. the public eventually realising that only changing the way the game is played might not be enough – just like Wii might face a difficult 2008 once everybody has one and the content comes to the foreground. Nevertheless: Both cases, Wii and Obama, show the public's tremendous desire for change from the status quo. Also Hillary 360 Clinton is actually more revolutionary than her Wii counterpart on a couple of issues, especially socialised medicine. Still funny and though provoking stuff though.

One commentator of the piece linked Ron Paul to old school Nintendo games. I'd rather like to think of him as early 80s Atari: old school and half visionary, half crazy.


Wii really can’t argue with reasons like this

Fanboys, that scourge of mankind, number 8 on the list of the worst consumer tech trends and blind adherents to corporations that (optimistically) feel about one tenth of the passion for them that they do for their gadgets.  No one wants to argue with them unless they have a fetish for insults.If you can't resist though, here're five reasons why the Wii is saving the videogame industry. Nothing one hasn't heard or read a hundred times before, but nicely and concisely summarized. I'd say: Nothing to disagree with in there. While I still doubt that casual gaming will help videogames realize their full potential (in terms of conveying emotions and storytelling and all that jazz), it is certainly refreshing to see one of the major players in the business break through the dominant mindset of the industry, encouraging simple fun and wholesome play for everyone. The widening of the demographic for games is definitely something to be encouraged; after all most game-haters and moral panic-mongers have their roots in misinformed circles who have never even touched a controller. And hey, the Wii has the potential to transform even hardline anti-gaming moms into game devotees!


How To Ruin Your Life By Not Playing Video Games

My friend Jay is fucking amazing at video games. Supernaturally good. For the past six years, I've been telling him that he should quit school or his job and take up video games full time. For a while, I told him that he should move to Korea to do this, but it turns out that North America has a video game league. Players are making hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships and prize money, and I'm really disappointed when I hear that Jay is focusing more on law school than on games. Even if he doesn't go pro (turning his back on cash and chicks), there are still a ton of other benefits to gaming. I've always been convinced that Jay's gaming ability had something to do with an inherent pattern recognition skill, and that he should at least be playing the stock market. While this hasn't been proven, Techdirt points us to an article showing that other people seem to agree with me on this.

A recent article on a South African technology site seems to say that video game players are destined to be the leaders of tomorrow (found via Slashdot). The article is part of a study that found "that 80 percent of managers in the US under the age of 35 had significant video game experience and that gamers had a more positive outlook on life than non-gamers."

Another post from Techdirt points us to similar information, saying that video game players are better strategic business thinkers.

Once when I asked a friend how Jay managed to drive 12 hours straight through heavy rain and darkness in the southern United States, my friend said "he just turns it into a video game."

And to confirm my belief that in any given driving conditions, I'd rather have Jay behind the wheel than anyone else I know, this article from the BBC news website says that video gamers have better visual skills than most of the population.

So Jay, if you're reading this: Drop out of law school and start playing more games. To anyone else: Send Jay a message on Facebook and tell him to pick up a controller. Then go out and play some games of your own. It'll be worth your time.

-Parker PS: Although it probably doesn't surprise anyone, one of the hottest television shows in Japan right now is a reality show about a guy playing some of the hardest video games ever made. It is already in its 8th season.

It's Not About Manhunt it's About Video Games

Manhunt 2, the latest brainchild of scandal-ridden developer Rockstar, got a hard time all over the world: the English BBFC rejected the title, Ireland and Australia followed suit, while the American ESRB issued a preliminary rating of AO (Adults only) which basically amounts to a ban since most US retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, refuse to carry software rated AO. Accordingly Rockstar decided to temporarily shelve the title.I played the first Manhunt and found its snuff aesthetic sickening. Games like this definitely deserve a high rating and shouldn't get into the hands of minors. Also the whole principle of the title, "its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing" (to quote the BBFC), seems indeed questionable in a more and more "economised" environment with its out of control individualism. But: do these elitist worries justify a ban? Shouldn't every (grown up) individual be able to decide for himself what he wants to consume? Despite having to play the game the censors apparently are still alive and well… What worries me most though is the fact that the distribution of AO games, thanks to the conservative attitudes of corporate America respectively the elitist protection instincts of classification boards is pretty much impossible. Add to this the fact that the console manufacturers (in this case Sony and Nintendo) won't allow AO rated games on their machines. The thing is: through this form of censorship the full development of the medium of digital games in hindered since they are denied the rights of expression traditional media have. Art must contend boundaries, it must resist its industrialisation, and games as a form of art must do so in order to cover the whole range of human emotions – not only when it comes to violence but also to sexuality, one of the most neglected subjects of digital games. The works of the Marquis de Sade are considered classics these days, games on the other hand don't even get the chance to explore similar territories under current circumstances. Sex in movies isn't an issue, also this medium has its erotic classics – a game equivalent of something like The Last Tango in Paris however is unthinkable (though the question remains of how to design a game that conveys these intense emotions). The problem of digital games is that they are trying to strive for respect and artistic expression in an industry with a questionable political economy that is surrounded by moral panics due to the game-illiterate public/ media/ politicians. History tells us that with time this resistance wanes. Let's hope that this is also the case in the sensationalist 21st century.


Casual Gaming vs Innovation

If you had a look at the Japanese sales charts lately you could get the impression that hardcore gaming is coming to an end in the land of the rising sun. Nintendo rules with an iron fist and it seems that it can only be a matter of months until the whole country owns a DS and/ or a Wii. Meanwhile, Xbox 360 sales are still a total disaster which when you think of the games for it, combined with some Americanised corporate ignorance, isn't really much of a surprise. Also Europe doesn't seem too impressed with Microsoft's game culture. Actually the only market the 360 really appeals to is the action-obsessed US with its competitive culture. And even though Sony would like you to believe that if Jesus was a console he would be a Playstation 3, the great unwashed masses don't seem to have gotten the message yet – sales just pretty much suck everywhere.So what can be made of this? It's great to see that Nintendo is tapping a new audience with its approach and finally brings videogames to the mainstream. Which was about damn time considering that the industry had about 30 years for that. Male fantasies of bikini girls with machine guns are complimented with content (ed. note: What's wrong with bikini girls and machine guns?). Also your girlfriend can enjoy the system, as the innovative Wii control scheme allows for intuitive and interesting concepts that don't force you too learn the layout of a 16 button joypad by heart; cheaper development costs (potentially) mean more innovative and daring games. Sounds good, doesn't it? There are issues though. Will people stay interested in the casual games Nintendo offers? Is the five, ten minute distraction compelling enough to keep players coming back for more? Also: Can these games really innovate the medium? Maybe in being different when it comes to certain forms of content and in their control scheme. But it takes more to create something completely epic and new. Innovation is also always linked to new, more powerful technologies. More powerful graphics can make for a better narrative architecture, i.e. a powerful narrative with the help of an immersive environment. Superior calculating power can help to create a better A.I., an area that definitely needs improvement, holds huge promises and could potentially compel games to a new level. Casual gaming is a step in the right direction and a necessary completion. It would a shame though if hardcore gaming completely disappeared or just played a minor rule because this would severely diminish chances of future epic masterpieces. So let's hope Sony and Microsoft get their act together – you might not always like them (for very good reasons I might add!) but without them the future would be bleak.