The peerless Edge Magazine made its debut 25 years ago. The very first issue contained a feature called ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ in which luminaries like George Lucas and Arthur C. Clarke gave their thoughts on the future of gaming. It's a seriously impressive roster of talking heads, so the obvious question is – how did they do? Let us turn the blazing eye of HINDSIGHT upon their desperate fumblings for future truth.
Arthur C. Clarke (sci-fi legend)
“I have an ambiguous attitude to videogames: they can be a good thing, but also very addictive – I myself was addicted – to SnakeBite on my Apple II about ten years ago. I regard the addictive nature of virtual reality as a real danger. Of course it could be a shortsighted view: if we are plugged into the whole universe, why should we unplug ourselves?”
I misread this quote at first and thought the legendary sci-fi author was admitting a penchant for snakebite and black, every young tough's favourite tipple. Instead he’s talking about an ancient (even in 1993) Apple II game. Considering Edge was meant to herald ‘the future of videogaming’, I’m sure the editor was thrilled with his bang up-to-date references.
Anyhoo, was Arthur right about virtual reality being a real danger? Well, the initial wave of virtual reality machines in the early nineties fizzled and died as quickly as a firework in a bath, so the danger wasn’t imminent. And even the current virtual reality 2.0 doesn’t appear to be leading to a generation who eschew real life for the wonders of virtual worlds, with sales so far being slower than hoped for. But if you read ‘danger’ as ‘household calamity’, then there have certainly been a few VR-related accidents as people bumble around their living rooms sheathed in a high-tech blindfold. Most notably, a man died last year after falling through a glass table while wearing a VR headset.
Still, as evidenced by Ready Player One, sci-fi writers continue to make a living by imagining a future world dominated by VR – even if the technology’s not quite there yet.
It's probably fair to say that, as one might expect of a genuine visionary, Arthur C. Clarke's predictions are still somewhat ahead of our times. The ideas he has about VR will surely, at some point, be put to the test – but even 25 years on, we're still not quite there.
Future prediction rating: TBD
Peter Gabriel (prog rock wizard, sledgehammer fan)
“It’s a new world. In about five years CD-ROM is going to absorb entertainment, education and information. There’s a growing palace of what I call enabling technology, which allows the consumer to think of himself as the artist.”
I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing - why on earth was Peter Gabriel, founder of seventies prog rock band Genesis, being asked his opinion of the future of video games? I’m guessing it was because he designed a musical computer game called Xplora1: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World to promote the launch of his 1992 album Us. Either that, or he was mates with the editor.
He was fairly correct in his prediction of CD-ROM ‘absorbing entertainment, education and information’ though. Certainly, in the education and information realm, Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia hastened the demise of traditional encyclopedias in the 1990s. But CD-ROMs were quickly replaced by the internet as the repository of knowledge, so one point deducted there for short-term thinking.
But Peter was pretty much spot on with ‘enabling technology’ – nowadays user content creation is all the rage, from designing and sharing levels in Super Mario Maker to making indie games with Unity. Sadly, however, I’m going to have to deduct another point for the casual sexism of 'himself' – this is about future predictions, after all, so it's no excuse to say times were different back then.
Future prediction rating: SEXY SEXIST SAGE
Mark Lewis (former president of Electronic Arts)
“Games aren’t going to be played by the thirteen year old shut away in his room; they’re going to be connective, interactive. I foresee a day when you go to a movie theatre, there’s about 300 people there, and between you, you all play the movie. From your seats, you control what happens. The technology is here today…”
At last, the opinion of someone who actually works in the video game industry. Although the casual sexism is still very much in evidence. One thing that these luminaries clearly didn’t predict is that in 25 years’ time, 41% of gamers would be women.
Mark definitely hit the nail on the head by saying that video games would be connective and interactive, as shown by the heady rise of online gaming. But he quickly heads off down a blind alley by banging on about interactive movies. It’s not particularly surprising – the games industry was obsessed with FMV in 1993, until everyone realised that ‘deciding what happens next’ in a movie amounts to a series of dull, binary choices that’s nowhere near as fun as actually playing a ‘proper’ video game. Looking back, I wonder whether the adolescent game industry had a bit of an inferiority complex with Hollywood, which is why people kept saying they were going to make games more like films.
Interestingly, you CAN play games in a cinema these days – Cineworld is one of several chains that allow you to book out a cinema screen to play console games. And despite the fact that it’s a terrible idea and no one wants it, people still keep trying to make interactive movies - recently, Netflix said it was planning to make a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’-style series, and in 2016, Mark Lewis’s dream came true when the game Late Shift was screened at cinemas and audiences voted on how the story would unfold using a smartphone app. So I guess that means Mark’s prediction was... exactly right? Erm...
Future prediction rating: SEER OF THE NICHE
Jez San (former MD of Argonaut Software)
Image source: Facebook
“Within a few years from now, we’ll start to see cable and satellite direct broadcast games where you’ll select from a menu of games and it’ll constantly download new parts of the game into your machine while you’re playing.”
Well, Jez got it pretty much bang-on regarding games being broadcast from satellites. In 1995, the Satellaview was launched for the Super Famicom in Japan, allowing purchasers to download select games during a fixed time slot called the Super Famicom Hour. But it was only ever a niche product, and it never saw the light of day outside Japan.
And there was a time in the late 90s when cable and satellite TV boxes came with simple games, so I suppose that counts. In fact, they probably still have games on them – has anyone checked recently?
But if we give Jez the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant to say ‘the internet’ instead of ‘cable and satellite’, then he’s one million per cent correct. We certainly do get new parts of the game downloading into our machines while playing, usually to fix all the bugs that the game shipped with. WELCOME TO THE FUTURE, PEOPLE.
Future prediction rating: SATELLAVISIONARY
George Lucas (lives in a galaxy far, far away)
“Telephone and cable companies will lay the information superhighway and it will be one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. But someone will still have to fill up the highway. It won’t be a new entertainment form, but a more sophisticated version of what exists now.”
Sigh, I miss the days when people referred to the internet as the ‘information superhighway’. It’s a real shame that phrase didn’t stick around – so evocative. Presumably, when broadband came along, the term would have been upgraded to ‘information superduperhighway’.
Anyway, George nailed it when he said the internet would be a huge deal – this was 1993, remember – and change everything. If we consider Twitch and YouTube, then that certainly qualifies as a ‘new entertainment form’, although perhaps not a ‘more sophisticated version of what exists now’. Unless you consider a man making insensitive jokes and chatting with his wife while playing PUBG to be high-brow entertainment.
Future prediction rating: STAR WHAT?
Nick Alexander (former MD of Sega Europe)
Image source: Facebook
“I think incredibly sophisticated virtual reality is the future. Experiences that somehow tap into the mind and are controlled by your thoughts, rather than any hardware, must come somewhere down the line.”
Nick Alexander founded Virgin Games and later became the first head of Sega Europe – interestingly, after this interview he moved to the start-up Pearson New Entertainment, which then bought Edge’s publisher, Future Plc, for £52 million in 1994. So with hindsight, when asked by Edge staffers about ‘the shape of things to come’, his perfect answer would have been “I WILL OWN ALL OF YOU.”
Still, he was onto something with virtual reality. We’ve certainly seen VR come on in leaps and bounds, although we’re not quite at the point where we can control games with our thoughts. Having said that, several gaming peripherals have been released with the claim that you can use your brain to move objects around – one of the most famous was the Star Wars Force Trainer, which ‘levitates’ a ball into the air using a fan by picking up signals from electrodes on a headset.
These toys are a long way off from actually reading your thoughts, however – they generally detect simple commands by interpreting electrical activity on the user's skin, but even then they’re far from perfect. Those early 90s dreams of ‘jacking into the matrix’ are still just that – dreams.
Future prediction rating: NOT QUITE YET