Ungainly Stories from Gaming History

Robert Bičovský

We all know, and some of us love, the video game industry, even if we acknowledge it but briefly in a prolonged period spent on a lavatory. But how did the youngest entertainment sector become the behemoth that now sits on top of the industry, amassing about three times more revenue than the closest second – the film industry – in 2019? It would be too easy to simply copy&paste a history of the gaming industry; what I’m going to give you instead is a selected handful of notable events that helped shape the industry in the form we know today.

E.T., Atari, and the crash of the entire western video game industry

Starting very, very low, the 1982 tie-in video game for the titular film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is still considered by many the worst game ever – not necessarily because of its lack of functionality or entertainment factor (although it did lack both), but because of what it effectuated. Being rushed out by unreasonable publishers and developed by underappreciated developers with not nearly enough time to finish it, the game was everything but ready for its pre-Christmas release. As a result, out of the 4 million cartridges made, about 3.5 million came back either unsold or returned, and Atari lost about 200 million USD (adjusted for inflation, worth almost three times as much today). Lacking sympathy for the publishers’ wishes, a lot of developers split and formed new companies for game development, ostensibly flooding the market with low-quality games in a very short time, so causing the public to disregard anything with the name “games console” on it. That was when Nintendo came along with their NES. The Nintendo Entertainment System (you’ll note the absence of the words “game” and “console”) took the US console market by storm, and the rest is history.

Duke Nukem For Never

At this point, I could very well write “game in development for 15 years turns out below expectations” and put my feet up, because everything I could say about Duke Nukem Forever is summed up in that sentence. If you’re out of the loop, Duke Nukem is a first-person shooter video game series with a problematic protagonist to say the very least. There are four games in total, dated 1991, 1993, 1996 and 2011. Yes, the entire time between the third and the last was spent developing the latter. No, it did not help. I’d say it was even to the game’s detriment. Nothing 3D Realms, and later Gearbox, (the developers) would put out after 15 years of development could ever live up to the expectations. Even though the development went on through the game industry’s most prolific and formative years (the rise of full 3D, open-world environment, the rising popularity of FPS, etc.), the design and mindset were stuck at 1996. Thus, a month after the release, the time when most copies should have been sold, the company had sold just half of its projections. The director of 3D Realms and one freelance programmer reportedly spent 20 million USD of their own money to push the game to launch in mid-2011 to mostly negative reviews.

The tragic tale of Telltale Games

We have talked about what happens when publishers get too arrogant. We have explored the effects that developers with too much time on their hands have on the product. Now let’s see what happens when self-publishing developers have dreams of living off of nothing but expensive leftovers from massively more popular franchises. If you aren’t familiar with it, Telltale Games was a video game development studio that took an interest in other people’s intellectual property and made licensed, story-based episodic successors to the old point&click adventure games. Notable franchises they bought a license for and slapped their trademark “gameplay” on include The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Minecraft: Story Mode, and The Wolf Among Us. Their 2018 bankruptcy is not simple to describe, as it wasn’t just one thing that led to it. It was caused by several factors, such as (you guessed it) pressure from in-house publishers to have the games ready sooner than initially anticipated, toxic management and denial of developers’ creative control. Also, they ostensibly created their own market and then flooded it. All that and much more contributed to the company being forced to fire about 25% of its staff in 2017, and about 90% the following year. Only a bare minimum stayed to finish the ongoing project. Those who know their way around the gaming industry may be surprised to learn that at the time of writing Telltale Games still exists. Although able to acquire the name, LCG Entertainment (real name of the current Telltale Games) was able to secure only a few of the licences Telltale had.

You may have noticed a theme running through all this. All the entries are failures. As is the case with many other matters, we learn most efficiently from errors, and I believe that moments of utter failure can be the most formative. That said, the current western market is showing signs of heading towards a crash not dissimilar to the one in 1983 after the E.T. debacle. Let’s hope that today’s AAA publishers have the benefit of hindsight and that they can reflect upon the causes and effects of the 1983 crash in order to prevent repetition.