How could we best recount the history of digital game design? Although genres seem to provide a framework for discussing the progression of various designs, are the categories being applied reflective of actual historical forces, or merely convenient collections of otherwise spuriously connected games?
A recurring but often unnoticed problem in game studies is the inability to discuss the historical lineage of a title, or only being able to do so by assuming the validity of often dubious genre categories. For the most part, the obsession with research that “smells like science” has reduced historical investigations to a lesser status. This is unfortunate: a culturally-situated critical discourse about games could enrich game studies immeasurably.
There are numerous complications. The direct influences on any game designer are often unknown, plus many other team members on most projects have input towards design considerations, making it impossible to unravel a chain of antecedents. Similarly, any commercially successful title is affected by and has effects on the expectations and assumptions of players (including those players who make future games) that affect which titles succeed, and this applies differently in each region of the world. The ZX Spectrum, for instance, directly influenced British games development (including the Grand Theft Auto franchise) but was not a part of the local game histories in the US or Japan.
Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.
An alternative approach can begin by considering the historical constraints that acted on any given title, grouping games by common constraints into related clusters. The considerations that follow from hardware are along similar lines to what Montford and Bogost discuss in Racing the Beam, but this is not the only (nor even the most important) constraint to be identified. For many games, market, cultural or contextual factors had a greater effect on the design. We can call the former hard and the latter soft constraints on the design.
For example, 8 bit arcade games from 1980-1984 share hard constraints in terms of computing power, display technology and control devices, as well as the soft constraints of an arcade coin-op: for commercial reasons, games were required to be of short average duration to drive many coin drops per hour. Galaxians and Pac-man belong in the same cluster on this approach, despite the obvious differences in genre. Gauntlet, in 1985, marks a change in conditions, away from one coin, one play and into a many coined ‘pump and play’ cluster, fostering multiple coin drops in each game (what could be called the original microtransaction model). Gradius/Nemesis straddles the two clusters, originally one-coin but later modified with a continue to encourage multiple coin drops per game. The change in soft constraints here is more significant than the change in hard constraints, and this is frequently the case.
Throughout the nineties, the most significant shift in hard constraints resulted from the increasing focus on polygonal 3D representations. Here, the hardware development was lead by a demand for 3D graphics so there is a sense in which the hard constraints were driven by soft constraints. The 2000s were marked by a radical increase in touchscreens, first with the DS (about to become the best selling console of all time) and then with the iPhone, iPad and all the copycats since. Once again, soft constraints led hardware: a correctly perceived need to simplify the intensely complex controllers that resulted from the constraint history of the preceding decade produced the DS.
Other hard constraints have grown up more organically. Despite all the efforts at creating online entertainments in the early 2000s, the technology was not up to speed until the middle of the decade. The easing up of constraints on bandwidth moved clusters of games that had grown up in LAN play, such as the multiplayer FPS format codified in Quake, into the open internet. This brought significant new soft constraints into play, including the ongoing shift to games-as-services that has emerged from the mass market demand for easy-yet-fun games coupled with the hard constraints of browser-based, persistent content.
The rise of browser-based games also highlights the significant transformation in hard constraints in recent years: the specifics of physical hardware now matter less than ever before, since content is defined for software platforms (such as Flash) rather than specific hardware. Although some hardware-exclusive games are still made, the number of these is vanishingly small next to multi-platform or platform agnostic titles. Software is the new hardware, or at least the origin of the new hard constraints affecting game design.
This historical approach to game design offers a broader understanding of how various constraints, both technical (hard) and circumstantial (soft) have shaped the development of the contemporary digital games industry. Grouping games into clusters based on common constraints provides an alternative way to present the history of games without resorting to ad hoc genre categories. I have not found any better approach for game design history, and I am convinced that without something of this kind, game studies is lacking a vital piece of the story of games.