Good news, instead of telling you what we think of the book (TL;DR: thumbs-up), we thought we’d let Meier himself spoil you with an exclusive Ars Technica reprint of a chapter. Most chapters of the book combine Meier’s personal stories with a focus on a specific game, and this one, about 2008 Civilization Revolutionis as much an explanation of the transition from PC to console as it is a lesson in the history of the game industry and game design.
My first foray into video games, like most people my age, was the venerable black and white tennis competition known as pong† There was a little restaurant down the street from General Instrument where some of us would hang out and dine after work, and at one point they installed this weird little table in the lounge with a television screen facing upwards under the Plexiglas surface. The idea was you could put your drinks and snacks on it while you were playing but it seemed disrespectful to eat on the surface of a TV so most evenings we just walked around to play a few rounds before returning to our normal, wooden tables. The most memorable thing about it was that one side of the case was somehow wired backwards, sending the little white line to the left side of the screen when the player turned the knob to the right. So we’d always agreed that whoever was more skilled should be on the broken side to compensate – perhaps my first experience of balancing gameplay.
Rotary knobs were sometimes called “spinners” in arcade hardware terminology, and true inveterate geeks recognized them as potentiometers or rheostats, depending on their function. But to the general public they were illogically known as ‘paddles’, because of their original table tennis associations. A year later pong‘s release, the first four-way gaming joystick — a word that, oddly enough, had its origins in early aircraft controls — made its debut in the arcade game. Astro race† It caught on quickly, and in 1977 the Atari 2600 home console offered a standardized plug that could support a potentially unlimited number of third-party controllers, in addition to the five different styles produced by Atari itself.
The market responded. A 1983 issue of Creative Computing Magazine featured a 15,000-word hardware review comparing 16 different joystick brands and eight unique paddle sets, plus eight converters for the less common plugs accessories may require. Some products were surprisingly progressive, such as Datasoft’s “Le Stick,” which detected motion via a series of liquid-mercury switches that were activated when the freestanding cylinder was tilted more than 20 degrees in any direction. It’s easy to see why it didn’t last long, but toxic metals aside, Datasoft deserves credit for being ahead of the motion sensor craze by a quarter of a century.
Soon, however, the third-party manufacturers dropped out and an evolutionary split ensued. On the one hand, the traditional buttons, buttons and joysticks of arcade cabinets were merged into a single proprietary controller for each console system. On the other hand, the PC industry started to move towards more established business peripherals, namely the mouse and alphanumeric keyboard. Major gaming companies tried to bridge the gap for as long as possible, but in late 1983 the North American console market collapsed, with previous annual revenues plummeting from $3.2 billion to just $100 million in 1985. The decline was so devastating for Atari in particular that the whole event in Japan was simply known as “Atari shock”. For various reasons, the Japanese market remained stable, and with every console company in America going out of business or turning heavily towards the PC, Japan emerged as the home console champion for the next 20 years.
MicroProse sticks its toes in consoles
Of course there were also ordinary computers in Japan. MicroProse [Meier’s original games publisher] had since released translations of almost every game F-15 Strike Eagle on Japanese machines such as the MSX, FM Towns and PC-98. Likewise, there were console owners in America who played English translations of games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda† But the culture of each format was firmly rooted in the respective country and very few games crossed successfully. It was like baseball versus cricket: you would find fans of each around the world, but rarely individual fans of both, and never professionals who played both, despite the relative similarity of their athletic prowess.
Mechanical differences played a part in the gap, at least from our perspective. It was difficult to mimic the subtle movement of a computer mouse with a console’s directional pad and the hovering cursor, or to fit so much text on the screen when console players usually sat several feet apart. Personally, I don’t feel the problem was mutual – we had more keys than buttons – but that’s probably not surprising considering half the industry I work in. Many people have argued that certain console games can never feel intuitive on a PC, and given our processing and graphics differences at the time, they may have been right. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve already recognized that I own at least as many consoles as I do computers.
silent service makes some noise
But the embargo between the two formats couldn’t all be attributed to controllers, as even games with simple interfaces often failed in their opposing market. It wasn’t until 1989 that MicroProse first attempted to convert silent service– which at the time flourished in 13 different computer formats – to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Western console owners were considered such a contender that we didn’t even bother with a Japanese version, despite the fact that translations are readily available from the PC-98. If Japanese fans were open-minded enough to accept our game on console, we’d have to hope they spoke English too.
I don’t remember if the NES version made any money, but I suspect it didn’t, as we ignored the platform again for the following games. Even gunship, which was successfully ported to five different computers in Japan alone, did not get a console release in any language. We ended up dipped our toe in the water a few more times…pirates! saw quite a successful conversion to the NES, and F-15 Strike Eagle II made a respectable appearance on the Sega Genesis. But meanwhile, the Super NES version of railway tycoon was canceled midway through development, and secret action went in the opposite direction and instead became our first port to Linux on the PC.