Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? [re-post]

by wsampson

A re-post from the Preserving Games blog, October 22, 2009.

Y. Aoyama and H. Izushi, “Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? Technological, cultural, and social foundations of the Japanese video game industry,” Research Policy 32, no. 3 (2003): 423–444.

This 2002 article (written 2001) looks at the success of the Japanese video game industry and attempts to illuminate the unique factors behind its success. Japan’s video game industry is especially remarkable given the dominance of “English language-based exportable cultural products” and the origin of the video game industry, which began in the US with Steve Russell’s programming of Space War for the PDP-10 and Nolan Bushnell’s subsequent creation of Atari to market and sell such arcade games.

Mega Man, hero of the early NES platformers. The design has characteristics of the <i>manga</i> style.

Mega Man, hero of the early NES platformers. His design has characteristics of the manga style.

The authors give a history of the industry and observe Nintendo’s very early interest and involvement with electronic toy games. This began as early as the 1960s with the emerging popularity of shooting games with optical sensors. Nintendo was able to recruit technical expertise from consumer electronics and provided them with early successes like Game and Watch and Color TV Game (totally cool old ad at gamepressure). But Nintendo’s historic rise in the console market with both the Famicon and NES was due in no small part to its attention to quality software; the company made sure to foster in-studio works (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers) and hold alliances with outside game developers.

After the mid 90s Nintendo falters by retaining cartridges for their games rather than the CD-ROM; this among other factors allows Sony to rise in the market. The authors continue the brief history up to the approximate time of the article, but one main point can be drawn from the narrative: hardware and software are intricately linked and related; success frequently hinges on a deep synchronicity between the two engineering pursuits. The authors go on to elaborate this point, emphasizing Nintendo’s early collaboration with domestic electronic consumer goods firms.

The article describes three types of software publishers:

  • in-house publishers of platform developers (e.g. Nintendo)
  • comprehensive software publishers with in-house capability for most development (e.g. Square)
  • publishers that act as producer/coordinator and outsource most functions (e.g. Enix)

The types are distinguished by varying levels of intimacy with the platform developers. Platform developers can provide all sorts of guidance and information to game-makers: early prototypes of the platform, guidance on formats, and provisioning of development tools and platform operating systems. It’s clear then that hardware naturally informs software and that game development projects can benefit immensely from an intimate knowledge of the hardware.

The authors next examine the cultural landscape of Japan and how this informed its massively successful video game industry. A robust cartoons and animation industry (manga) with broad acceptance allowed the game industry to draw artistic creativity from a domestic source. The authors note that it is Japan that introduced human and animal characters into video games, a dramatic break from the war (Space War) and ball (Pong) games in the US, and that it was a Shigern Miyamoto, influenced by the landmark cartoonist Osamu Tezuka (the “god of manga“), who was inspired to create characters like a rampant pet gorilla (Donkey Kong), a blue-collar construction worker (Mario), and a captured girlfriend (Princess Toadstool). The cultural legitimacy and artistic breadth of cartoons in Japan facilitated effective cultural crossover into the video game industry. This is compared to the comics and cartoons industries of the US, which could not claim such pervasive influence.

The authors conclude:

The developmental trajectory of the video games industry revealed a complex interplay between hardware and software technologies from its origin, and more recent trends represent a transition from hardware, engineering-driven to increasingly software-centered industry supported by artistic creativity drawn from cartoon and animation film industries.

I think this trajectory is accurate, but it’s important to note that the power balance between hardware and software is always subject to change. The iPhone has emerged as an extremely capable, popular and even innovative gaming platform, and Apple has chosen to retain full control over the game software available for it.

Regardless however of the power dynamic between the two disciplines, they are always and inextricably related. Any game should be understood with an understanding of the hardware it was developed for and on. Narrowing the scope from industry to a single game, I think it would be interesting to understand more about how specific projects were informed by the hardware constraints of the time.