We’re probably not facing another game crash
In 1983, the video game industry crashed. Imploded might be a better term, honestly. A huge plethora of game consoles had popped up everywhere, and a lot of companies that had otherwise been getting invested in video games backed out. It was pretty extreme, something that most students of game history look back at with a certain degree of trepidation.
After all, it all collapsed once. It could all collapse again. Our hobby hangs on by the slimmest of threads, it seems, and all it would take is the slightest pressure for everything to come crashing down. It’s why you see articles about how the game industry is heading for another crash every few months, generally written by men and women who know quite a bit about how the industry works and has worked. The people who make games no longer have a passion for games or care about games, we’re past market saturation, the circumstances are all right. It’s going to happen again.
Except it hasn’t happened. The game industry has had hiccups, but we’re 31 years out from the last crash, and it seems likely that we’ll avoid hitting another one. For a few reasons.
Game consoles in 1983 were very expensive toys. If you wanted to play games at that point, you were buying a pricey toy. Then you had to buy a bunch of extra toys to make that original toy work better. And then a few years later you were expected to buy another toy to buy newer and better toys.
That hasn’t changed, entirely. Except that, for starters, you no longer need to buy a pricey toy if you’d rather not to. You have a computer, a smartphone, a tablet, maybe all three of them. Sure, you have to shell out a fair bit of extra money if you want a computer that can specifically play game, and not every phone or tablet is ideal for games, but you still have a massive number of options if you want to sit down and play games. More to the point, the simple novelty games have migrated to these platforms, while the games that require expensive toys are generally meant to be deeper and more consuming experiences.
As a result, the industry no longer relies on people buying an expensive toy just to see if they want to invest more heavily. You can try out games without needing specialized hardware, and if you find them a lot of fun you can start looking into getting more specialized hardware which can do other things. My PlayStation 3 is an entertainment unit as well as a game console; even if I couldn’t find anything to enjoy in the latter function, the former means that I didn’t really waste my money.
In 1977, video game consoles were unbelievable. It’s hard for people like me to really internalize that. I was born in 1983; games were part of my childhood, they existed, I knew about them. When the first home game console came out, though, it was something that no one had ever seen before. And you can ride a long crest of goodwill when you create something that people aren’t familiar with.
You see this pattern with a lot of things. Why did people flock to purchase copies of Action Comics when it first came out? Because it was something that didn’t exist before. No one had any idea what to expect, what it was, whether they would like it or not. People will jump on almost any new thing to see if it’s cool. Look at the runaway success of Magic: the Gathering (followed by legions of unsuccessful card games), of Dungeons & Dragons (followed by the entire roleplaying industry), of early silent films, on and on we go.
The crash hit partly because novelty only lasts for so long. You can see it in microcosm with Nintendo over the past few years. The Nintendo Wii made a huge splash when it was released because it was so novel. Retailers couldn’t keep up with the demand. But that didn’t translate to success with the Wii U because a lot of those Wii consoles didn’t become permanent and active features of every household; they were bought, they were played, they were explored, then people were done. People bought it on the strength of the novelty and then didn’t buy another one.
But the game industry kept going, because as a whole it’s no longer reliant upon novelty. We know what video games are. When someone buys a game console they are expecting video games, not buying a strange new toy and hoping that it’ll be fun to play with several years later.
Ask yourself a hypothetical question: if Hollywood exploded tomorrow, would movies become a thing of the past?
Leaving aside the obvious fact that there are a lot of production studios that don’t call California their home, obviously we’d still have more movies. People love movies. The demand is there. The expectation is there. Even if all of the existing studios and facilities ceased to exist, people expect movies to keep coming out. We’d fill in the gaps, because that’s what human beings tend to do.
I mentioned earlier that games were a part of my childhood. I’m far from the only person. For almost all of my readers, games are a part of our cultural landscape, something that we expect to be present. The loss of the current structures wouldn’t prevent the creation of new structures. Yes, there would be a painful transition period just the same, but even if every single company folded, we’d still wind up with people willing, able, and eager to start building up again. And there are consumers who would happily purchase what’s available.
A lot of people have pointed out that we no longer really have the same sort of core gaming culture that we did back when gaming was getting back on its feet. That’s very true. But there are a lot of gamers, people who enjoy playing video games, expect them to be there, and won’t be happy if they vanish. A loss wouldn’t mean the end of gaming; it would just mean that the industry swung downward a bit and then rebuilt itself.
Odds are that we’re not going to see a repeat of 1983. Not this year, not in five years, not ever. It collapsed once, yes, but it’s not an inevitable endpoint, any more that comics or movies or board games or television or music are doomed to crash again and again. It’s just a thing that happened, and after more than three decades, it’s time to stop being certain that the game industry is going to do it again.