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The Internationalisation of Gaming or: History being written by the Winners

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by Mr Creosote (2013-02-16)

From the perspective of someone living in Western Europe, the world seems very 'global'. At least if you don't really think about it, because what seems to be 'global' is just the North American hegemony in most areas of popular culture. Going to the cinema? You've got the choice between… various Hollywood movies. Using the Internet? Chances are you're visiting a US-based and operated website. Wait, that picture is interesting – while the example countries of Western Europe show a clear dominance of US websites, Russia and China are completely different. No sign of globalisation there. Without straying into the area of censorship, it seems the world is not nearly as homogenous as the European view might suggest. It is the same with movies: The largest movie producing community by far is located in India. Just that it's not as visible internationally. What the Russia/China/India of video gaming is, would be an interesting subject for another day. The question for this article is: When, how and why did Western Europe lose its independent gaming industry?

The Computer Monoculture

First, let's have a look at global (i.e. truly worldwide) market share of computer systems:

The diagram shows the sales figures (source) of different systems (in thousands), 'PC' covering all 'IBM PC compatibles'. While this might seem quite one-sided already, this becomes relevant when taking two factors into account:

1. The geographical distribution of market share between North America and Western Europe.

2. Since we are focusing on gaming here, the purpose of the computer bought.

Going in reverse order, it is generally accepted that since their inception, IBM PCs dominated the business market. Other computers could be found primarily in people's homes (hence the term 'home computer' was used in the 1980s). So the overall market share graph needs to be normalised. Assuming an initial distribution of 90% business market versus 10% home market for IBM compatibles in 1984 and a generous increase of 5 points per year for the home market (i.e. 15% home market in 1985, 20% home market in 1986 and so on) and assuming a neglibible percentage of business market for other computers (arguably incorrect for the C64, but its overall share was already declining during that time), we get the following graph which shows a slightly more heterogenous world:

From here, we enter the world of heresay and speculation, unfortunately. Anectdotal evidence makes it clear, though, that after the C64, the IBM compatibles immediately conquered the North American market while there was one intermediate step (mainly Commodore and Atari) in Western Europe. So the local market share of computers used at home was quite different: Nobody in Europe had an IBM to play games in the 1980s.

Another interesting aspect to consider here is the meaning of the term 'market share'. It denotes the distribution of sales within a field within a specified time range. Although it is related, it is not identical with the existence of an installed user base.

Sales of computers used for business was and is very much driven by taxes. Once the office equipment's costs have been deducted (i.e. milked) as far as possible, new ones will be bought. With a computer for home use, this is different: They stayed in use for as long as there was a use for them. And, as the mere existence of a software market for seemingly 'obsolete' computer systems well into the 1990s showed, this was a much longer period than common in the business world.

Let us assume an average time of use of a business computer as three years and that of a home computer as six years. Taking into account the assumed distribution of business versus home use of IBM machines as described above for this lifecycle/retirement span, we get a new distribution showing the active userbase of each system per year.

What does this tell us? In fact, the installed userbase of the C64 was still very significant up until the early 1990s! It just never got a followup machine which was equally successful. However, while the Amiga and the ST are pretty much seen as pure 1980s computers these days, their userbase still showed quite a healthy growth in the 1990s as well. A growth which, globally seen, was simply overshadowed by an explosion in the IBM field.

The Console Market

Home computers are still only part of the picture, of course. While Europeans replaced their C64s and Spectrums with Amigas and Ataris, Americans bought IBM compatibles for the office and Japanese game consoles for their homes. Looking at total sales of the console systems relevant in that period, the distribution of sales (in millions) between Europe and North America is striking (source):

North AmericaEurope
Game Boy43.1840.05
NES33.498.30
SNES22.888.15
Mega Drive15.988.39

The Game Boy figures show that it wasn't so much that the overall market was smaller in Europe. Especially the NES was a huge hit in North America while it remained relatively minor in Europe. The games sales figures for the system paint an even clearer picture (source):

North AmericaEurope
Super Mario Bros.29.083.58
Duck Hunt26.930.63
Super Mario Bros. 39.543.44
Super Mario Bros. 25.391.18
The Legend of Zelda3.740.93

What was the reason for the global success of the Game Boy? Unlike a stationary gaming console, it offered something extra even to users of home computers which could be used as gaming platforms just consoles: the mobility. The Game Boy was really the first mobile gaming system with exchangeable game modules which offered a decent battery life, making it truly 'mobile' – as opposed to Atari's Lynx or Sega's Game Gear, both of which not only had larger physical dimensions (significantly so in the case of the original Lynx), but could hardly sustain autonomous operation over the time of an average train ride. Thus, the Game Boy had something to offer for owners of both game consoles and home computers.

Impacts

Market

European developers were producing games for the systems which people in their own countries owned. Globally, these systems finally lost out and disappeared – the collapse of the home computer market left many developers without a job as they had put their money on the 'wrong' horse.

Two large European game publishers remain these days: Infogrames (renamed to Atari after they bought the name rights) and Ubi Soft. European companies in name (not even that in the case of the new 'Atari'), their game output has been 'americanised' long ago.

Game Styles

Quite a number of things were lost in the process. American game companies had been known for professionalisation early on. This was pretty much a prerequisite in a console oriented market, because those were closed platforms: To be technically able and legally allowed to develop on such a system, there were relatively high entrance barriers. On the home computers, exactly the opposite was true: The distinction between users and developers didn't really exist. The hardware for development and playing was the same, so development was 'free' – only the step of actually marketing one's own software remained.

So up until the early 90s, Europe's game output still mostly came from small, independent development teams. Many of them excelled at technology, pushing the audiovisual capabilities of their development machines to the limit. In the new IBM-centric world, other qualities counted – it was less the idea of a game than the amount of hours put into the production. The low-cost market vanished without a trace. Productions got bigger, smaller teams could not compete anymore. So they disappeared. Making the gaming ecosystem into even more of a monoculture.

Distorted History

While a consolidation is nothing surprising in a relatively new market per se, one big impact can be seen on today's Internet: While a couple of sites like this one try to preserve and document the history of gaming, this view on the world as it was is severely distorted.

Remember the world map showing people's surfing habits? Europeans use American sources almost exclusively. They don't document or research their own history. And even if they do, younger Europeans don't read about gaming history on European websites, but on American ones. So they see hundreds of comparisons between Double Dragon and Streets of Rage (two hugely successful games in North America), but hardly anything about the history of, for example, Graftgold. They talk about the Genesis, although that console was never available under this name here.

It's not just younger people, though, but also many veterans who should know better. What does it mean when Germany's most famous gaming journalists of the 1980s proclaim that it would have been better to 'play Japanese' already in those days, because the average output on the consoles was so much better than on the home computers? If they, too, think so, it must be right?

The problem with such a statement is just that they, too, restrict their view only to very few genres: They might be right when it comes to shooters and Jump'n'Runs. The home computer market, however, offered so much more. Yes, the average quality on the tightly controlled console market might have been better – but did it have the interesting gameplay experiments? The varied genre mixes?

As so often, this turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy: What there is already a lot of information about, there will be even more as Internet sources replicate themselves. Those things which are seldomly found dwindle away, because they are not deemed 'representative' or 'typical' anymore by people who were not around to witness those times themselves or who don't remember very clearly anymore. This manifests even in other mainstream media, like this recent Disney film Wreck-it Ralph which claims to be a foray through gaming history, but actually reduces it to the usual few suspects.

Video game history isn't just Mario, Sonic (and maybe Tetris) on the consoles and then real time strategy, 'ego shooters' and The Sims on the PC, though. Maybe the most significant difference compared to what came afterwards was that the market was not nearly as formulaic. Maybe not as polished and extensive usually, maybe not as close to technical perfection, but nevertheless often very fresh and interesting in the sense of being surprising.

Setting the Record Straight?

Unfortunately, setting this record straight is a pretty thankless task. Due to the same effect of 'the winner takes it all', documenting (meaning: a little more than collecting disk images in some anonymous torrent) aspects of gaming history of the early home computer world doesn't have much of a target audience simply because hardly anyone seems to have noticed that this is a topic on its own.

One advantage there is these days compared to back when this site started is technical evolution. Back in the last century, people were actually still using MS-DOS and its offsprings (Windows 95/98/ME) natively on their computers. So they played games they considered native for their environment and they were not interested in the daunting task of getting other stuff to run. These days, with Dosbox, it's all emulation anyway. Whether you emulate an older IBM machine running MS-DOS or an ancient Vic-20, it's the same technical process and required level of expertise.

So the difference has already been reduced to cultural perception, i.e. a purely subjective phenomenon. Relevance of things not part of one's own history can be shown very effectively as the current prevalence of the US market being mirrored as a European interest shows. This does not need to be reversed; yet there should still be more than enough people here in Europe who do remember how things actually used to be and who could add to the picture, i.e. complete it. To these people, I would like to say: Let's make our history a relevant topic!

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