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America's Best and Worst Contributions to Gaming

In celebration of the 4th of July, the USgamer team gives their thoughts on what the US of A has brought to gaming over the years -- both good and bad.

While game development is very much a worldwide affair, there's little denying that some countries have had considerably more influence than others over the years.

Japan is a powerful one, obviously, as is the UK, whose "bedroom programming" movement of the 1980s formed the basis for today's independent development community.

But what of the good old US of A? This 4th of July, we thought we'd rack our brains and contemplate some of the best and worst things America has brought to the world of gaming over the years. As ever, if you've got some of your own thoughts to share, let us know through the comments or notes, and the best, most well-thought out comments might just make their way into the article itself as a featured community contribution.

Let's kick off with Ol' Man Rignall, who may be British in origin but sure has plenty of things to say on the subject, being a longtime veteran of the industry as a whole.

Jaz Rignall Editorial Director

The Good

Being a video game history buff, the first thing that jumped into my head when I thought of "best contribution to video games" is one that I think is quite possibly the most important of all time -- and that’s the two-player space combat game, Spacewar.

I mean, when it comes to contributions to gaming, you can’t get much better than inventing them, and that’s what Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Witanen did at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in 1961 when they were thinking of ideas to demonstrate the power of the new DEC PDP-1 mainframe that had just been installed in MIT’s Electrical Engineering Department.

Spacewar fits the definition of a modern video game: it's a program running on a digital computer, displayed on a screen with clear graphical representations of objects.

It may not look like much now, but this game is indirectly the reason you're reading this site at all.

Sure, Mouse in the Maze and Tic-Tac-Toe preceded Spacewar by two years, and citing the 1958 two-player game Tennis for Two gets you extra bonus nerd points. But really, Spacewar -- inspired by EE Doc Smith’s Lensman book series -- clearly fits the definition of a modern day video game: it’s a program running on a digital computer, displayed on a screen with clear graphical representations of objects and a background that delivers a unique gaming experience. Mouse in the Maze was more of a demo, Tic-Tac-Toe was a digital representation of a simple paper-and-pen game, and while the two-player Tennis for Two really does deserve huge kudos as a pioneering invention, it’s essentially a hybrid of analog computer and oscilloscope display, and as such is really an electronic game, as opposed to a video game. Yeah, call me persnickety, but that’s the way I see it -- and I’m more than happy to argue the point.

In February 1962, following some 200 hours of programming, Spacewar was finally playable -- and became an overnight sensation. Since it was the first ever game, there were no peripherals to control it, so players used the dipswitches on the front of the mainframe to guide the ships around and fire. However, they weren’t really designed for that sort of abuse, and continually broke, so the enterprising MIT engineers wired joysticks into the switches, and thus created the very first modern video gaming system.

Spacewar quickly spread to other DEC platforms around the country (and indeed became the first ever “pack-in game” when it was shipped preloaded on new DEC computers). As it was copied from system to system, other enterprising programmers continued to refine and tweak it, adding such new features as a cloaking device, and even creating a cockpit-view version -- one of the earliest ever first-person shooters. Indeed, the game stood the test of time so well, the arcade machine company Cinematronics released a standalone coin-op version in 1977 that used custom hardware to run a refined version of the original game!

If you’re interested to see what the first ever video game looks like, here’s the original 1962 code running on a PDP-1 emulator in JavaScript.

The Bad

I’ve been racking my brains over hardware, software, and even coin-ops, but I just keep coming back to one particular game series that represents everything that can go wrong in video gaming, and that’s Postal.

There are a more than a few games that might be worse to play -- the 3DO's Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is mind-bogglingly bad, and the highly controversial “adult” Atari VCS game Custer’s Revenge is excruciatingly pointless, offensive and awful. But the Postal series ticks all the boxes for ineptitude, selfishness and disrepute. I’m not really a fan of gratuitous and senseless violence in games, but I can live with it when it’s either driven by a plot that makes sense or is part of a game’s greater context (such as zombies and so forth), is stylized to the point of ridiculousness (such as Mad World), has consequences, (such as the Grand Theft Auto series), or is laughably over-the-top (like Mortal Kombat).

When violence, controversy and stereotyping are baked into a game as a cynical part of its marketing strategy, I have a problem with that.

Postal: not so good.

But when violence, controversy and stereotyping are baked into a game as a cynical part of its marketing strategy, I really have a problem with that -- and that’s what Postal is all about. You can almost see the whiteboard in a conference room somewhere, with a long list of things that developer Running with Scissors brainstormed to ensure its games delivered maximum outrage. And they certainly did that with the first release in 1997 -- and its even more intentionally offensive sequel in 2003.

The Postal series is basically a developer willingly and deliberately giving gaming’s detractors a definitive example of everything that’s sick and evil about our industry, so that it can make a quick buck. There’s no consideration given to the industry they’re a part of, and indeed no respect given to the gamer, because the games themselves are poorly designed, buggy and aren’t much fun to play. It’s ultimately a selfish and cynical exercise in search of profit, and screw the consequences. It offers no contribution to gaming at all. Indeed, it’s nothing but detraction on all counts.

Jeremy Parish Senior Editor

The Good

Much as it may sound like a jingoistic, flag-waving cliché, my favorite thing that American sensibilities have brought to games is… freedom. I don't mean like liberty from tyranny, though; I mean freedom in the sense of openness. American game design has historically been defined by a love for player agency, of giving gamers a world to explore and a goal within that world, then leaving them to their own devices.

If E3 2012 was all about the ability to stab people in the neck with QTEs, E3 2013 was about going anywhere in a virtual world in order to find people to stab in the neck.

Grand Theft Auto, while originally the product of a Scottish developer, encapsulates the concept of "freedom" embraced by many American games nicely.

In the olden days, this sort of liberating ambition didn't always play well with technological limitations. Japanese games, with their more focused and guided sensibility, tended to work better with 8-bit sprites and 128Kb of storage. Most of the best American games throughout the '80s appeared on PCs: RPGs like Ultima and Pools of Radiance, free-roaming shooters like Bethesda's The Terminator, and so forth. As consoles and machines evolved over time, though, open-ended design spread beyond the limited parameters of the 8-bit days and seeped into other platforms and genres.

Sitting through the sizzle reels for the games of 2014 and beyond at this year's E3 really drove home just how influential that design philosophy has become. If E3 2012 was all about the ability to stab people in the neck with QTEs, E3 2013 was about going anywhere in a virtual world in order to find people to stab in the neck. I suppose the ultimate goal is the same either way, but gaming for me has always been more about the journey than the destination anyway.

The Bad

The flip side to the liberating design of American game mindset is also the worst thing about the medium these days: That relentless obsession with Hollywood. Since the beginning, game developers have suffered from an almost psychopathic obsession with the splashy linear narratives of traditional media. And since the beginning, they've been perfectly happy to compromise the innate strengths of video games in order to imitate films and cartoons. Whether we're talking about the Simon-like simplicity of Dragon's Lair, the Frankenstein-like choppiness of '90s "Siliwood" productions, or the "our game should not feel like a game" mentality behind Call of Duty, I always feel alienated by American games that attempt to recreate the Hollywood experience, but with occasional button presses.

I always feel alienated by American games that attempt to recreate the Hollywood experience, but with occasional button presses.

Press X to neck-stab.

Curiously enough, it's usually games from overseas that manage to get all Hollywood without feeling like the sacrifice their intrinsic game-ness. Say what you will about Hideo Kojima (for instance, "Dude needs an editor like no one's business"), what he lacks in concision and the ability to mask the influences he's biting off of (Ridley Scott didn't get a royalty on Snatcher, and that's ridiculous) he also manages to transmute Hollywood concepts into compelling game scenarios. Still, on the whole, the games I find myself most drawn to are the ones that embrace the fact that they're NOT movies and take advantage of their own medium's innate strengths and qualities.

The Ugly

Tin-eared parodies of American culture and politics. Video game writers: You are not, generally speaking, very good satirists. It's funny that many Americans are fat, entitled, and boorish, but you manage to miss the mark every time. I am just totally dreading Grand Theft Auto V's "satire."

Brendan Sinclair Contributing Editor

The Good

Video games themselves. We can argue about who made the very first video game, or had the idea for it, or sold it, but 99% of the candidates to argue about were building the industry in the United States. In the early days, gaming was as American as jazz or pinball. Ralph Baer, Willy Higginbotham, Thomas T. Goldsmith, Jr., Steve Russell, Nolan Bushnell, Atari, Magnavox, Fairchild, RCA, Mattel, Coleco. The industry soon grew to a global medium with blockbuster hits out of Japan like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man, but the US is gaming's Mesopotamia.

The US is gaming's Mesopotamia.

Ping? Pong!

The Bad

Without a doubt, America's worst contribution to gaming is the modern military shooter. Rainbow Six, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and their ilk may be fine games, but their popularity combined with their lack of a conscience have done as much to pad quarterly reports as they have to hobble the artistic and cultural growth of the medium. Where books and films and music about war often make an effort to say something about them, military shooters often strive to avoid saying anything, to just be fun games. But you can't avoid communicating, and in the attempt these games wind up saying nothing more than "war is awesome."

Mike Williams Staff Writer

The Good

North America's best contribution ever is the Western RPG. Back in the day, RPGs were separated into two different platforms and two different genres. On consoles, you got Japanese RPGs, led by the best-selling Final Fantasy series. Don't get me wrong, I loved many of those games, including Grandia, Lufia, Lunar, Breath of Fire.

But on PCs, you had a whole different type of role-playing game, many of which were based loosely on ideas found in popular pen-and-paper RPGs. Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Baldur's Gate, Ultima, and Might & Magic. While JRPGs were primarily linear affairs, computer RPGs played around with choice and consequence, adult themes, and non-linear gameplay. Some of these ended up on consoles, like a few entries in the Wizardry and Ultima series, but they weren't as popular there as their JRPG counterparts.

Western RPGs played around with choice and consequence, adult themes and non-linear gameplay.

Skyrim is the latest in a long line of successful Western RPGs that have dwarfed -- no pun intended -- their Japanese counterparts.

Until Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The game married Bioware's well-tested CRPG gameplay with the Star Wars license, and most importantly, came out on the original Xbox. It was the beginning of a strong run by Bioware, including Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, all original RPG worlds created by the company. Another classic CRPG developer, Black Isle, folded in 2003. A number of developers from the studio formed Obsidian Entertainment and developed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, also on consoles. Bethesda Softworks took a chance and brought The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to Xbox 360 and Fallout 3 came to Xbox 360 and PS3. Now Western RPGs are more widespread than their Japanese counterparts.

The Bad

Tie-in games. Dear God. These games are based on movies, television shows, and comics, and for the most part, they suck. Picking up a game with the title "Anything: The Game" or "Anything: The Movie: The Game" is a recipe for instant failure. Some of the worst titles ever have been tie-in games, including Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game, Fight Club (featuring Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst!), and Superman 64. E.T. for the Atari 2600 is infamous for being so bad that a ton of copies had to be thrown in a landfill.

Luckily, with the rise of mobile gaming, tie-in games tend to be bolted onto tried-and-true gameplay and shoved out the door. That means fewer bombs on consoles! Huzzah!

Star Trek: The Game. No. Just... no.

That's not to say all tie-in games are bad. The Walking Dead, Spider-Man 2 (based on the Sam Raimi film), Chronicles of Riddick, Goldeneye for Nintendo 64, Aladdin for Sega Genesis, were all stand-out titles. But for every one of these games, there are ten horrible games. Many developers lose sight of what makes the source material great, or the source material isn't that great to begin with (see Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters). And yet, we keep on trucking.

Luckily, with the rise of mobile gaming, a number of tie-in games tend to be bolted onto tried-and-true gameplay (like endless runner Temple Run) and shoved out the door. That means fewer bombs on consoles! Huzzah!

Pete Davison News Editor

The Good

The thing I'd like to talk about is something of a double-edged sword, so I'll do my best to contemplate both sides of it. The thing in question is the matter of video game budgets, a topic which is very much on everyone's mind at present after Double Fine revealed its ambition had gotten a bit too big for its budget -- even though it had scored considerably more from Kickstarter than it initially asked for.

America played a leading role in pushing games forward into becoming a "mainstream" medium. American developers were willing to invest bigger budgets into games than their counterparts elsewhere in the world -- particularly in Europe -- and thus started producing some of the most impressive games on the market.

American developers were willing to invest bigger budgets into games, and thus started producing some of the most impressive games on the market.

This was amazing at the time. Still kind of is.

The clearest example I can think of this was Origin's Wing Commander series, led by the one and only Chris Roberts, who is now working on Star Citizen. Wing Commander always pushed the boundaries of what people thought possible through interactive entertainment, providing a fun (if rather clichéd) interactive branching story, impressive graphics, dynamic music and some memorable characters.

With Wing Commander 3, the team at Origin took gaming to a whole new level thanks to the involvement of live-action actors that people had heard of -- people like Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill, John "Gimli" Rhys-Davies and Ginger "I Was In a Lot of Porn" Allen.

Wing Commander 3's $5 million budget may sound laughable today, but it was big news for gaming at the time. Here was a company willing to spend big bucks on making an impressive game that, while it didn't quite match up to movie-quality, certainly was one of the most impressive offerings available at the time. Wing Commander 3 and its subsequent sequel -- which cost about twice as much again to make -- showed developers that games didn't have to be made on the cheap; they could be treated as "blockbusters" just like movies, and blow everyone's socks off in the process.


The Bad

That brings us to where we are today, where the big budgets of blockbuster games have spiralled out of control to such a degree that some companies consider selling 4-5 million copies to be a "failure" somehow. This problem is by no means a purely American problem, but it is American developers and their obsession with Hollywood that Jeremy mentioned above that has left us in a somewhat difficult situation. Triple-A developers and publishers want to continue making bigger, better, more expensive games, but the bigger, better and more expensive something is, the more copies it needs to shift to become profitable -- or even to break even in some cases. This leads to unnecessary feature creep, and the desire to make bland games that appeal to as wide an audience as possible, rather than embracing a niche who loves something specific.

Triple-A developers and publishers want to make bigger, better, more expensive games, but the bigger, better and more expensive something is, the more copies it needs to shift.

Dead Space began as a niche horror title, but grew into a triple-A monstrosity that tried to appeal to everyone, losing what made it special in the process.

The business as it stands is unsustainable. It is unreasonable to expect consumers to foot the bill for poor budgeting decisions, because it's not their fault. The fact that budgets have gotten so out of control over the years is largely -- though not exclusively -- the fault of American developers and publishers desperately trying to emulate Hollywood, and often failing. Not every game will sell tens of millions of copies, so that should be considered during development; I'd much rather play something smaller in scope that works well than play something sprawling, overly-ambitious and so expensive it needs to sell unfeasibly large quantities to be considered a "success."

There's nothing wrong with big-budget games, of course, but somewhere in the course of the last 10 years or so, certain publishers and developers have let budgets run away and get way out of control. We need to find a way of making games cheaper to produce -- something which is probably going to be difficult as we adjust to a new console generation -- or simply scale back to a more manageable level.

Will either of those things happen? Difficult to say right now, but there could be trouble ahead if they don't.

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