Electron Dance
26Jun/13Off

While the Tape Loads

Boy oh boy, in the romantic, halcyon days of the home computer, playing a videogame was arduous. Putting aside now antiquated ideas of difficulty like pixel-perfect jumps, black magic was required before we could actually play a game.

First, there was no downloading. Computer owners faced either a trip to a local computer store or filling in an order form and posting it off with a letter and a cheque in the post. Sometimes the latter was the only option, particularly if you were not an owner of a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 which were the leading platforms in the UK. Of course, there’s still a strong retail component today but I haven’t bought a physical copy of a game in years. Even though I hate PayPal, I still groan whenever a store page doesn’t offer a PayPal option because I have to get up, leave the room and find a debit card. Dude, wayyyy too much hard work. Games are supposed to be fun!

Of course, once I’ve downloaded the game, which can take anything from a few seconds to an hour depending on my broadband and the size of the game, it’s time to play. Not so in medieval times of yore. Nope, for the owner of an Atari 800 computer, it was insert cassette tape, turn on computer holding down the START key, press PLAY and hit RETURN. And then wait five minutes. Or maybe ten. Or maybe—BOOT ERROR

boot-error

Happy happy joy joy. Rewind and try again and maybe this time—BOOT ERROR

No one desires a return to the tape loading days. I mean, why would you? What could possibly be gained from waiting so long you might not have time to play the very game you’ve been waiting for?  

Today, the time between the moment I perceive the existence of a game to the moment I play can be less than a minute. It is astonishing how much time technology has saved us. We don’t have to worry about the “opportunity cost” of playing a game because if we don’t like it or we get bored or we’re having a bad Everyday Shooter day then we can switch to something else quickly. Playing has never been more efficient. Tutorials aside, developers are getting better at respecting our time.

Efficiency.

That would doesn't sit right with the word game, does it?

Do you think anyone just sat in front of the computer quietly waiting for a game to load? Probably not. Maybe they chatted with their friends, played an analogue game or read a book. Or watched TV if anything good was on. How likely was it that something good would be on? For most of 1980s, there were only four channels available in the UK: BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4.

What does it mean for something good to be on TV anyway? An episode of Doctor Who? An edition of Horizon about nuclear physics? How about The Computer Programme?

Only four channels. Maybe you had a VCR to watch something interesting recorded from a previous day, maybe you didn't. It was more likely you put the TV on anyway and watched what was on. You'd put up with it – and hey, who would've guessed a series about the Roman Empire was interesting after all and you could live without spaceships and nuclear physics.

That kind of moment happened all the time. Just four channels meant you discovered all sorts of television programmes that you would never have gone looking for. We didn't have choice, which is the mantra of the modern consumer industry.

Today, choice is infinite. Free channels are now in the double figures, pay channels I have no idea. PVRs are widespread – so we can stock up on more television than we can possibly devour. DVDs for every series and film can be purchased. Replay services like iPlayer and 4oD are available online. There's no reason to watch anything you didn't choose to watch. Thank God our lives are so efficient now.

The paradox of choice haunts us, though. There's still an opportunity cost when presented with a massive range of televisual experiences that you can watch here and now. Hmm... Persepolis or the next episode of Buffy? Hmm, Persepolis sounds a bit heavy, maybe another time. Buffy. Always Buffy. And so it goes.

I'd love to spend some time exploring Occult Chronicles (Cryptic Comet, 2013) but, damn, it sounds like a lot of work having to read a manual. But if I play Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007) or the Paranautical Activity beta (Code Avarice, 2013) I don't have to think too hard. Just shoot. Time is limited, no commitment required. Love it. I make a choice.

But while I play Everyday Shooter, part of me wonders if I should have tried to make more progress in Metro 2033 (4A Games, 2010), because that seems like an interesting game. Then everyone is hassling me to have a go at Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007). And, Christ, call yourself a games writer and you haven't played Pathologic (Ice-Pick Lodge, 2005) yet? What is wrong with you? Playing a shooter you've played many times before?

choice

Close the game. Play something else. But which one? Not that much time left to play something. How can I possibly choose which one I want to play? I'll just switch to Paranautical Activity and make myself feel good that I'm playing something recent.

A first world problem that the modern player lives with is the game backlog. And it sucks the joy out of playing. We play to complete, to finish, to conquer and move on. Playing one game means you're not playing another. On Twitter, your friends tell you how much fun they're having playing a game you're not currently playing. You loser. So we play with a sense of anxiety, questioning each moment. At its worst, the fun becomes an interrogation. And we want to get games done so we can move onto more fun. Achievements beg us to play for the win, but the braying crowds of unplayed games squat at the back of our mind.

It's why I stopped buying bundles and sales. I have more than enough games and I would prefer to enjoy what I've got than rush through them, missing all that heavenly glory.

paranautical activity

But what I really miss is the discovery borne of four simple television channels. Sometimes it would be nice to have all that choice torn asunder, instead of reading twenty indie press releases and watching ten new teaser trailers each day. Give me a moment to think carefully about one game, just one game, that is someone else's choice, something I'd not have considered.

And that's why I love IndieGameStand. Selling just one game every four days, it's the only store front I take seriously.

Further Reading

  • My thoughts on quitting sales and discounts were shared in an awkward Star Wars-themed series, Resistance is Futile, over the last three years. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
  • I also wrote about moving away from short, free games in last year's Rehabilitation.

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  1. I think the relatively simple task of re-branding the “backlog” as a library helps. If I thought I had a backlog of music, I’d probably hate myself thoroughly each day, as that aspect of choice (and hobbyists mining history for us) means I may have already acquired more music than I have time to listen to in my lifetime.

    And I still keep getting more. If I don’t want to sort through 80s minimal synthpop, I can peruse A Viable Commercial or Systems of Romance for someone’s personally-curated collection. I have similar options with old RPGs via The CRPG Addict or Hardcore Gaming 101. I start filtering through my own likes and dislikes to narrow down what I’d actually like. Even if some racing game sounds really great, I know I’m not really into them. Though I am at a point where I need to either remember why I like turn-based JRPGs or discover that I have a lot of games to sell. At least they appreciate in value well?

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you don’t let it become one. I still dabble in recent indies while mining the PS2’s so-recent-everyone-forgot library. The only guilt there is in not writing about it, though giving Amanda Lange a view of Tales of the Abyss that she couldn’t find elsewhere might get me going again. I just underestimated how few people will play JRPGs without utterly loving or hating them from the get-go.

  2. Computer games taught me a valuable lesson – it’s fine to abandon things without finishing them if you’re not enjoying them. This has saved me many, many hours of my life.

    Also, the ‘backlog’ problem still happened for me back in the high piracy seas of the 1980s playground.
    I had such a pile of tapes, many of which went unloaded and unloved.

    That taught me that you value what you pay for.

  3. @BeamSplashX: Hmm, a couple of thoughts. First, I’m not sure it’s easy to wish away the anxiety by re-appropriating the backlog as a library. Music is a different thing because a single track is usually mere minutes in length and, nowadays, can be listened to wherever you are; PC games can take crazy hours if you want to explore fully (I spent 40-50 on Dishonored) and need special, bulky equipment.

    Second, why is our backlog the library? The backlog harkens back to the days where we had to “own something” and if we didn’t buy it, all the copies would sell and no more would be manufactured. This is so patently untrue now. Games are being kept alive on platforms like Steam and GoG, there’s no real expiry date. I contest that the library should be the portals and we should buy when we want to play.

    Alternatively, suppose we’re actually worried that we *intend* to play the game in the next few months, yet the discount is only available now. So you buy. And then don’t play. Rinse and repeat. Paying for games we’re not playing. So instead of paying $20 for one game we actually play, we spend $20 on ten games we don’t; the developer who actually gave us the most fun is short-changed.

    I contest that we should treat the portals as the library where we occasionally go to grab a new title. But we’re so lost in this “gotta buy now” which is divorced from the act of playing. We don’t own anything physical as a badge, or reward. It’s just a virtual key in a database somewhere.

    @CdrJameson: Yeah, I think I’m off to write about the ordeal of “having to finish” games in the next few weeks. I did start writing about the 1980s analogue to the modern backlog – the piracy splurge – but, on the surface, it seemed to undermine the point; having to stress that this was a different phenomenon took too much word-wringing and took the air out of the article’s sails.

    With the piracy backlog, I don’t think many of us ever expected to play every single game because, egad, there was some right crap in there. And it did become a library as BeamSplashX posits – because if you didn’t have it, you’d not have the option to play it. So it became an obvious thing of picking and choosing what you really wanted to play. But we don’t intend to buy crap and so the modern backlog is a very weird consumerist thing. What I’m really wondering is how this is distorting the economics of game development. We have an industry reliant on people buying games they don’t play.

    (I also dropped out the lucky households that lived in the fast floppy disk lane, as ours did halfway through the 80s. I am nothing but selective in my words, it’s so evil.)

  4. I should point out that I was a great collector of Atari 2600 cartridges in the 1990s. I consoled myself that I was going to play them all but many of the games remained quite unplayed. (Games like Solaris and Secret Quest were never finished.)

  5. I think this is a very important topic, especially with regards to the skewing of economics, and one I’m sure most of us can relate to.

    About the anxiety thing: I really feel it between games and when I’m flagging hopelessly with a game I’ve sunk a lot of time into but perversely not prepared to ditch. That’s when I start looking around going “Shit, I could be playing that. Or that. Or that. Or what about that? Arrgh.” Or worse: “I could be reading that, or watching that, or listening to that while doing that. Arrgh. I’ll go on Natural Selection 2 instead of worrying about it.” Ever since you mentioned the paradox of choice, it’s haunted me. It fascinates me and scares me. It’s the ‘first world problem’ writ large.

    As someone who was raised on the ZX Spectrum, those trips to the Post Office to pick up a tape with my brother were really special and the minutes leading up to a game loading were like psychedelic journeys into other worlds. The thing is, those journeys made you all the more grateful for the experience when you got there, regardless of what it was. There were two levels of investment to playing a game for us: the trip to the shop and the pocket money payment, then the epic loading times, so we tended to really play a game before throwing it on the pile and buying another. We cherished what we bought when we bought it. These days there’s none of that outlay or investment. As you say, you can be looking at, downloading, playing then discarding a game in the time it takes you to brew your tea and if it doesn’t float your boat, move along, there’s plenty more where that came from.

    I like your comment about treating the shop/portal as the library, so very true, and yet I’ve bought several games in the last couple of months that I’m yet to play. Know that your sentiments weigh heavy on my mind during such transactions, and after this even more so! You’re like my good conscience.

    It’s dizzying how much there is out there to consume and experience. (And what about creating?) Regardless of how efficient we are we’ve only got time for so much, so it’s a faceoff between wallowing in an experience that could be enjoyable at some point (you’ve heard it’s great so for God’s sake get great already!), or ditching it and fluttering off to something else to give the same treatment. Idiot slow down. I can only imagine what it’ll feel like in 20 years time when I still haven’t played Baldur’s Gate. We’re fraying at the edges — perhaps without knowing it. Sometimes I just wish I had the brass to unplug the internet and forget it existed just for clarity of mind; just so I’ve no capacity to know what I’m missing so I can focus on what I have. Turning the TV off many years ago partway through uni was one of the best things I’ve ever done, perhaps the net’s next. I’m gonna miss you guys.

    I mean, fucking hell, I’ve just started my new job with the council and there’s a sports centre connected to the building so there’s all sorts of activities going on all the time, conveniently next door at a subsidised price. I’ve done bugger all in the way of exercise over the last 10 years so I’ve jumped at almost every opportunity to get involved. Badminton, rounders, cricket, quick cricket, volleyball, netball, basketball. Numerous injuries later and I’m still happy to keep plugging away at it all. Then there’s gardening which I’d like to do. And do some travelling. And more walking. And I’d like to get back into life drawing and pottery. And those game ideas I’ve had for years… And I’ve seen people on Facebook saying things like ‘I’m bored, what do you do on your day off?’. ARRGH. And what about having kids? How are they supposed to fit into all this? My auntie and uncle say they don’t, you just have to make ’em!

    Anyway, great piece as always Joel. Now I’m going to bury my head in some Natural Selection 2 ;-)

  6. By the way, that Computer Programme vid you posted was terrific. My my, how things have changed. Amazing.

  7. @HM:
    The issue with the store as the library is that we’re not paying for membership- signing up for the most popular ones is free. We have limited means to try anything out, too. I can sit in the library and read through something, but outside of scheduled free weekends and ever-rarer demos, games are not as easy to just try. I guess I’m thinking more along the lines of a library as a collection of books one had at home, though I guess that was added to based on what you liked enough to keep.

    I certainly bought plenty of games because they were on sale, but it’s not like buying too many throw pillows or knickknacks for a shelf. That I’m able to play something I think I would like is less anxiety-inducing than the inability to do so. As someone with their finger on the pulse (certainly more than me), I can see it weighing more heavily on you, but perhaps that’s just bound to be the great issue for anyone that’s concerned with keeping up.

    Also, the DRM of Steam might reduce the feeling of ownership, but you’re entirely free to put whatever you get from GOG or directly onto whatever media you want. Buying a game with its own case and disc isn’t much more like ownership than that, especially if you back up the disc images in case something gets damaged. It’s difficult for owned data to feel real.

  8. @Gregg: Yeah, I know you guys on Tap have problems with your backlogs – you had your “Log of Shame” challenge running awhile last year – so I’m not surprised you found this hit a nerve. What I keep worrying about is actually not spending enough time on a particular game. This goes right back to The Second Game, where I want to engage with deeper, meaningful experiences – but it’s that bloody opportunity cost that dissuades. More importantly, what about those games you don’t want to play but probably should have a go at? I’ll probably touch on this topic again in the w********** series.

    I used to watch The Computer Programme. I advise everyone to watch it! Not to marvel and laugh at the past, but to get an idea of how alien the concept of home computers were at that time. For all the talk of the internet revolutionising our lives, the early 80s was another moment when everything began to shift.

    @BeamSplashX: One of the other problems with hoarding games is that they stop working. I bought a copy of Mass Effect a few years ago from some online store and did not try to install it for ages… and discovered eventually it just didn’t install properly on my Win 7 build. I ended up having to buy it again, for cheap, from Steam. An old copy doesn’t seem to promise preservation or the ability to play one day when your hardware/OS keeps moving forward. My yonks-old copy of Outcast doesn’t install either. So it’s like a library built on a solid foundation of mud.

    It’s true that videogame writers feel an urge to keep up with things and experience more games quickly. However, the true videogame journalist lets developers send them press copies =) I’d also add there is a “real problem” considering the success of sites like backloggery. Perhaps we should invent a name for it, like a syndrome. Hyperactive Compulsive Consumption Disorder.

  9. @HM:
    I’ll admit that being locked into the PS2 and Windows XP for so long has skewed my views a bit. Hopefully I never get a game that’s borked on Windows 7 but needs a processor faster than 2.2ghz on XP. And games from GOG only mostly work on modern machines without tweaking, but that’s not an awful investment if you don’t mind holding on to a dated laptop.

    And, all things considered, your backlog didn’t stop you from digging into Starseed Pilgrim. Or Polymorphous Perversity. SSP has gotten its fair share of publicity, but most of the choir hasn’t really espoused solving all of its mysteries, instead just vocally recognizing it as “a big thing”. I agree that this has negative implications as a consumer phenomenon, but I think the urge to peer pressure isn’t so great among writers that acknowledge just how much is out there. I’m sure your opinion of Mass Effect, a game I intend to play, would be interesting. But your analysis of Pilgrim, which I would bounce off of in no time, was, I dunno, “worth” more? There was no overlap with anything I’d heard before, so it was all fresh and perspective-building and paradigm-buzzword.

    So, I won’t be upset if you actually never write a Mass Effect piece. But if you don’t get around to Final Fantasy VII I SWEAR TO GOD I’LL have the same reaction.

  10. @Beam: My backlog has stopped exploding since I stopped looking at sales and bundles and I’ve made a point to only buy new games if I’m going to play them “soon”. Even then, I still have problems. I bought Miasmata immediately on the strength of Steerpike’s impressions piece but still haven’t found the moment to even install the damn thing. I’m supposed to write about Teleglitch soon but since buying it I’ve only played it the once (I played a lot on the demo).

    I like to write about stuff which isn’t well-covered (proud to have gone into Leave Home and qrth-phyl with such enthusiasm) but I often worry I’m might be turning popular games into some strawman because I haven’t played them. “Oh all FPS games are like this” having not realised FPS games for a year have a “murder counter” or something like that, whatever. That sort of thing.

  11. BTW, here’s a bit of “behind the scenes” on the writing of this article: I’m not happy with this one.

    It’s one of those where the writing became schizophrenic – is this an article about the backlog or an article about the loss of discovery? It was meant to be about discovery and IndieGameStand but once I started writing about ye olde days, the backlog problem seemed related… except I think it diluted the punch of the article. Successive drafts didn’t resolve and eventually it was too late to fix. I don’t think the resulting blend works all that well and I try to hide the fact that I’m discussing two topics at the same time. Aside from the opening shot, the image work doesn’t even work that well, it just looks ugly.

    It sometimes happens that an epic, nuclear Armageddon revisions is necessary. The post about Jonas Kyratzes & Greenlight was completely different in the first set of drafts – at one point I scrapped the whole essay and started again from scratch. “While the Tape Loads” needed some serious retooling that it didn’t get but that’s pretty much because I wrote it all in one evening.

  12. I sensed allusions in your article to the loss of discovery; the lack of choice leading you– forcing you, even– to experience things you may otherwise have dismissed. Conversely the expanse of choice today tends to marginalise your experiences because you have to be selective and we all naturally gravitate to certain things more than others eg. I like pony simulators so I’ll check out different pony sims. (I think that’s where your “More importantly, what about those games you don’t want to play but probably should have a go at?” came from).

    Anyhow, I meant to comment on this myself but also came off the rails and into the backlog ditch. Clearly it’s easily done! They’re very closely linked topics as far as I’m concerned.

    I’ve got a few unfinished articles in my drafts where I’ve written a fair amount then realised something that entirely undermines what I’m trying to say. That nearly happened with my latest article on Tap (which, unbelievably, I wrote in an evening) but thankfully I was able to rejig it.

  13. Sounds a lot like Bundle Fatigue to me! As I said in the rant, I had thought the restrictions imposed by my operating system and the bundles would focus my efforts as well as give me the thrill of discovery, but as the bundles themselves have proliferated there’s been less and less of that.

    And then again for me part of the problem is that games are demanding. I’ve already complained about how most of them want me to shut myself off from the world when I play them, which does not always fit my life the best. And so many games seem to be so damn long. There’s something about getting stuck into a system which maybe I don’t get from a two-hour experience like Dear Esther or Thomas Was Alone (Proteus maybe doesn’t count because I have to replay it) but things like VVVVVV and Fishbane and Braid teach me systems in under ten hours.

  14. @Gregg: They are related but I’m not really sure it makes the article a better read. The ending is a leftfield “oh remember the channels? IndieGameStand” without quite leading the reader that way. Too much time on oodles of choice and not enough on discovery. The tough deadline each week sometimes means I can’t iterate as much as I’d like.

    (I’m probably going to write the spiritual companion to this piece next week.)

    @Matt: I almost included a link to your recent bundle fatigue comments. But it goes further than bundles, into the mind-numbing levels of choice that are permanently baked into what we call gaming today. Free games are more of a nightmare because there’s no good reason NOT to download and play. How severely this affects you, of course, is related to time constraints. But I’d wager everyone who hangs on sites like RPS has their own private backlog.

    “Getting stuck into a system” – I like that.

  15. Yes, I didn’t mean to suggest that you had Bundle Fatigue specifically, more that Bundle Fatigue was my version of the issue. That even an extraordinarily limited approach to buying games still gives me a drink-from-the-firehose excess of games. (Though free games tend to be less of a problem for me since so many of them are Windows-only.)

    Anyway, since you didn’t do it I will: Bundle Fatigue rant. Keep scrolling down in the comments oh hey I need to post my secret theory of SpaceChem in the open thread.

  16. Stay with the Mac, less temptations Matt! I just got a smartphone. An Android device, of course, not one of them iPhone things with billions of games.


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