Siracusa on the end of humanity

John Siracusa, Accidental Tech Podcast #70, 5:34-9:28:

Are video games more like apps or more like movies? I mean this in one specific respect that I don’t think we touched on. Although we didn’t bring this up in the show specifically, the whole “personal computers are like trucks” metaphor that has been discussed that I think Steve Jobs wrote up many years ago, and that people don’t need a Mac Pro to post to Facebook and read websites and check their email and stuff. Despite the fact that the Mac Pro does all of these amazing things, they’re probably not going to use them.

The amount of technology we have and the features available far exceed what any person is ever going to want to to with it. That’s why I say it’s like apps, I guess I should have said is it more like a computer where we know personal computer technology is available now that is far beyond the needs of what regular people want to do with computers.

I’m comparing that to movies where the technology available to make movies has gotten better by leaps an bounds. You could take the crappiest blockbuster movie like Transformers back in time fifty years and show it to somebody, and on first viewing they would not have been able to compute how terrible the movie was because they would be amazed at the visuals. They would be like, “This is magic. I don’t understand where this came from. This must be an alien artifact,” because they wouldn’t understand how we put all those visuals on the screen.

I think (in movies anyway) the mass market appetite for increasingly amazing things is not satisfied. It’s not like, “Well, you know, once we can do reasonable practical effects like Raiders of the Lost Arc, that’s all we’ll ever need. There’s no upside to making it better. People don’t need the Mac Pro of movies, they’ve got by perfectly fine with the iMac. Stick with the feature set that’s available on Raiders of the Lost Arc. No need for Jurassic Park. No need for the advances in CGI we have today. No need for all of the CGI used in television shows to do backdrops and stuff. Sets are fine. We’ve pretty much got this set.” I don’t think that’s the case.

It’s not like the only people who care about more features, more technology, more amazing stuff are the people who are super into movies and the casual moviegoers are like, “I don’t need CGI, practical effects are fine with me.” I think the appetite is essentially unlimited for amazing visuals in movies, setting aside the stupidity of scripts and all the other stuff that have always been the same. It’s not as if movies got good enough and people are like, “Nah. You don’t need to improve them anymore.” They keep trying to improve them. It doesn’t mean everything they try to do is better. 3D is an attempt to improve it and may or may not be better. Maybe people don’t like that. Higher frame-rate, same deal. High-definition television, I think that’s an improvement that people say, “Yes. We do like that better.” They don’t say, “Standard-def’s good enough. I’m not a power user of television. I don’t need high-definition television.” No. As soon as you see high-definition you’re like, “Screw that old thing. We want the new thing.”

The question about video games is what are they more like? Are they more like the PC where increasing power is like, “Nah. I don’t need that.” Or is it more like movies where there is seemingly infinite appetite of the mass market for making them better in ways that involve technology and money. I think for video games so far (I don’t know if this will always be true), they seem a lot more like movies to me in that any time people say, “What about when a $99 puck gets as powerful as a PlayStation 4, then we’re all set, right?” No, because people will still want the power that the PlayStation 5 or 6 offers. Why will they want that? Because they always want that. Because their appetite for better games and better graphics and things that more power can do is unlimited. It’s not like a computer where it’s like, “You don’t need all that technology in that Mac Pro. You just want to check your email.”

Games are different. If you can have a vast, fully realized, realistic looking city with amazing draw-distances and amazing physics and everything, people want that. They don’t know or care how it works, they’re playing the game. It’s much different than using the computer to do something.

I know the appetite isn’t exhaustible, but we haven’t exhausted it yet.

We never get to the point where games are good enough and then it just stops and stays that way. There’s always something more you can do. Even for stupid 2D genres and stuff like that, you can always do something more with more technology, with more memory, with more sensors, with more “who knows what.” That more than anything is going to keep the $400 boxes alive for much longer than I think people think.

Marco adds a bit about how he doesn’t know anyone that cares about the best graphics except people who self-describe as gamers.

Siracusa continues:

It’s not just better graphics. That’s the whole problem. Ya, maybe only the self-described gamers care about this and purchase on it, but there’s enough of them to sustain the market. For everything else, as that technology increases, new types of games become possible. You couldn’t do live-action Lord of the Rings without computer effects. You just couldn’t film that. You could do it with puppets maybe or people in costumes but it just would not have the kind of appeal. You don’t need to know or care about the technology involved in making that to appreciate Lord of the Rings. Not to get hung up on the high-def versus standard-def but it’s about what’s on the screen. You can do different kinds of things.

If you were to take any current game developer and say, “What if I gave you 100,000x the memory, the bandwidth, the whatever, what could you do?” They wouldn’t just make their existing games with more polygons and higher-res textures. They would be like, “With that, I could make make a different kind of game. I could make a hiking simulator that people will love.” At a certain point you get to the holodeck. There’s different categories of games, especially with physics and materials. With a lot of the things you do in games, everything feels like a set where it’s just a rigid polygon with predefined destructive things. Once technology gets to the point where you can do real, arbitrary destructibility, whole new… people who weren’t so interested in games before suddenly be interested if they can realistically take a baseball bat through a showroom of super-cars and it doesn’t just feel like you’re triggering a bunch of destruction animations.


We’ll have to rethink cities.


There’s different categories of games you can have. The hiking simulator thing is a joke I had when I was a kid but I’ll bet there probably is a hiking simulator now. We’ve gotten to a point where the visuals in games are enough that people who are only interested in visuals would never have been interested in 16-bit games and NES games and Pong or anything like that. But suddenly, when games start to pass some threshold of realism, whole new categories of people become interested. Even if it’s only like the “dear hunter” simulator type things. Those people were not interested in playing Super Mario Bros., but once you can simulate dear hunting in a way that they find appealing, suddenly you open up an entire new market.

I think the insatiable appetite for better technology for games isn’t because people know or care or understand the technology, it’s the same as the insatiable appetite for increasingly ridiculous visuals, again Transformers, despite the fact that the rest of the movie is terrible, people go see these movies because the visuals are amazing. You say, “They’re amazing now but they can’t get anymore amazing. Surely, ten years from now, the visuals will be exactly the same and no person will ever go into a movie and be wowed.” I don’t think that’s the case. I think people will always want to see something amazing. I think people will always want to play something amazing. I think increases in technology will only open the market because you’ll be able to do different things, not just the same things we’re doing now, but fancier.

Marco adds a bit on risk and the marginalization of power vs. affordability/portability. He uses the example that box offices sales are getting worse as people have more to do than just see a movie.

Spreading attention is one thing. No one can help if suddenly too many things are going on and people just get spread too thin. That could happen to anything: TVs, movies, anything like that.

The one thing video games has going for it is,  conceptually if not into the specifics of a box that you connect to your TV, games are basically at the end of the line, tapping their foot impatiently saying, “You guys can do whatever you want, TV, movies, live theater, music, all that other stuff, but we’ll be here in the end when you’re all gone because our logical conclusion is the holodeck which will sort of end humanity.” Because once you can realistically simulate anything and not distinguish it from real life, we’ll just be dead in our little virtual-reality sensor-tubes within ten years.

That’s the endgame. The endgame is omnipotence; the illusion of omnipotence. Know everything, do everything, indistinguishable from reality. That’s going to come out of gaming. It’s not going to come out of television, it’s not going to come out of live theater, it’s not going to come out of music. Gaming is trying to get there. It’s not going to get there in our lifetime (obviously), but way out, thousands of years in the future, games are the only form of anything and eventually destroy the entire human race.

Gaming has that one good thing going for it in that it’s not going to go away and if we do get spread to thin because of other factors, it’ll come back because it’s at the end of the line waiting for all of us.

There have been many arguments about the term “video game” and what it actually means in today’s world. Many “games” no longer incorporate elements of games (e.g. Journey), causing critics to coin terms like “interactive experiences.” I think Siracusa’s talk shines light on a better word for modern games (especially first-person design) that has been right under our noses: Simulations.

There are games (e.g. Super Mario Bros., Uncharted), there are simulations (e.g.. Journey, Dear Esther, Gran Turismo), and there are those that incorporate both (e.g. Halo, Mario Kart). The problem is that no one wants to hear the term “simulation.” For most, simulations have been boring since Flight Simulator 2000. On the other hand, games have been fun for centuries.

As we move closer to an Oculus future, we move further away from “video games.” If anything, I’d argue that the term “video game” does more harm than good for the industry’s larger appeal, carrying the baggage of a childish activity regardless of what studies show. “Simulation” may not be perfect the perfect term but it’s a word that should be incorporated more often.