The Video Game Crash And Can It Happen Again Header Image

The header image for this post was created by Unsplash user Tina Rataj-Berard the original can be found here

I was talking video games with some developer friends of mine over on the CodingBlocks slack, a few days ago and the topic of PoundLand

the equivalent of a dollar store

announcing that they are going to start selling video games for less than £5 came up. I ended up commenting:

The equivalent of dollar stores in the UK are going to start selling used video games.
The industry is a LOT stronger than it was in the early 80s, but this is one of the things that brought about the video games crash.
Another thing which brought it about was flooding the market with low quality, copy cat games.
Which is another thing that’s been happening recently.

A few of us got talking about early access games and the Video Games Crash of ’83.

The What?

A lot of you whippersnappers

if google analytics is to be believed, at least

may not have even been born when the video game crash of ’83 happened. Heck, I wasn’t even born when it happened (I was born a few years later).

There were a lot of things which went into the video games crash

which was also know as “Atari Shock” in Japan

but most of them can be boiled down to bad management decisions and flooding the market with cheap, low quality, copy-cat games.

Sound familiar?

Early Access

You know these, they’re the games you can get on Steam which are incredibly cheap but aren’t finished yet. They’re cheap because the developers are hoping that the early access offering will be enough to garner interest

and, lets face it, publicity

in order to make loads of money with an unfinished game, which they will “use to finish off development of the game”. Most of the time, these games are pretty low quality precisely because they’re unfinished.

I can see why they do it, mainly because development costs can sky rocket these days, especially if you’re outsourcing the actual development of the game to an external company and you need a quick injection of cash in order to stay afloat.

That last bit is a little unfair, being a developer myself I know how easy it is for schedules to slip and how expensive it can be to fix certain types of bugs and errors.

Still, a lot of these games get out of the door way before they’re ready to see the light of day. Over on the slack channel that I mentioned earlier, Jack had this to say:

early access seems like a scam to sell prototypes
the only ones that are any good are the ones that didn’t need it in the first place
it’s a low commitment thing for novice studios
you can tell because of how many direction changes they do in production

Which, pretty much, hits the nail right on the head.

Darren jumped in with:

Here is my point of view: as a developer, if I am already getting money for an unfinshed product, why would I finish it?

Making games is very expensive (even if you do it in your own time, using free tools, as a hobby project). So why not spend a little bit of money making a dodgy prototype then offer it as an early access/open beta, then take the money and run?

To be fair, this hasn’t happened as often as I thought it would have by now. One of the more controversial ones was when Ant Simulator was cancelled after a whole truckload of money was raised on Kickstarter.

Remember when I said:

flooding the market with cheap, low quality, copy-cat games

self-plagiarism is all the rage now, you know

Well, take a look back at some of those early access games…

Now think back to E.T and the Atari Landfill where the 728,000 copies of E.T were buried because they failed to sell, and Atari wanted to hide their failure from the public.

Could It Happen Again?

I think that we’re past the possibility of another complete crash happening. One reason for this is that the video games industry is a way too big. I know that sounds awfully like “too big to fail“, but I genuinely feel like this could be the case.

Back in the early 80s, which was before Nintendo got into the business, there were really only a few companies involved in the nascent video games industry. As such, when Activision was started by ex-Atari employees, everyone started to undercut each other. Which lead to the other publishers scrambling to get as many developers to make as many games as possible, so that they (the publishers) could release them as quickly as possible at ridiculous prices.

… kind of like early access, really.

Except that most of the money made by the big game development companies is made by either retail sales (when you pop down to Best Buy, or whatever, and buy the game) or online sales (via Steam, the Xbox store, Playstation network, or something). Until the big game development companies start offering early access, I feel like the industry will be OK.

We have bigger things in video games to worry about right now, like loot boxes. Other, much better, writers have covered loot boxes and how they prey on certain people

so much so that Jim “jimquisition” Sterling has an entire series of videos and articles about it

As such, I wont go into them right now.

When Games Weren’t Games

As Al Nielsen mentioned on his recent interview on the Arcade Attack podcast

you do listen to Arcade Attack, don’t you?

until the late 80s and early 90s video games were classed as toys. If this is true (and I’ve no reason to think he was lying about this), then it would make sense that a bunch of specific toy manufacturers could go out of business by flooding the market with their products. And since they were seen as toys, the toy industry saw these newcomers as muscling in on their territory.

But these days the video game industry has the support of the toy industry and vice versa, through a mutually beneficial market

games developers give toy manufacturers something to make and vice versa

The games industry even extends out to fashion, and not just via cosplayers. Video games went mainstream during the late 90s

no, youngsters. It wasn’t anything that you lot did, it happened during my time

meaning that it became accepted that video games were both different to toys and should be taken seriously – even if they didn’t take themselves seriously from time to time. All of this means that I can walk into most clothes stores

we’re not talking high fashion here, folks

and find something in each department with a video game character or a design related to video games.

The market that the video games industry has created for itself is absolutely massive – as anyone who has visited one of the multi story arcades in Japan

Like I did in 2008 when I visited Canal City in Fukuoka

will attest to. There are too many industries which have built up around video gaming for a repeat of the crash of ’83 to have such catastrophic effects.

I don’t think that they ever would, because one broken alpha would ruin the reputation of even the biggest player in the market, but even if one of the video game development giants decided to start offering paid early access to their games on a large scale the consumers

that’s you and me

would kick up such a big stink about it that the decision would be instantly reverted.

Then again, PUBG is a pretty big deal and that’s essentially an early access game. So what do I know?


What do you think about early access games?

Were you a gamer during the lead up to the crash?

I’m legitimately interested in what you have to say if you were

Do you think another crash could happen? If so, what do you think will bring it about?

Let me know in the comments and lets keep this conversation going.

Jamie is one of the Waffling Taylors. He spends a lot of time blogging about things sometimes related to programming and sometimes not.