As billions of people all over the world have been forced to stay home with limited options to occupy their spare time, there has been an explosion of videogame play.
I know this all too well, as my 22 year old daughter, Natasha has been locked in battle on Call of Duty Modern Warfare, FIFA world soccer and F1 Championship racing. Late at night (or rather early in the morning), or even midday, the glow and sounds of game play ricochet in our home. And this has made me curious about the culture of gaming.
Netflix is currently airing the limited docuseries ‘High Score” which over six hours tells the story (sort-of/kind-of) of the video game industry. It’s a story told in broad outlines – essentially a history of video games for Dummies – which is just right for me.
Here’s the short version: Beginning in the late 1970s, before the internet, before the ubiquity of personal computers, mobile phones and smartphones, nerds at places like MIT would sneak into the computer lab and learn programming code. They developed the first simple games like Pong. These were initially monetized as arcade games —- those big devices where you would play Pac-Man, and then a more “intelligent” version called Ms. Pac-Man. They were followed by games like Space Invaders the first shooter game, and then Tetris. Listing the highest score (and attempting to achieve it) became an intrinsic component of games. In Japan they developed the Nintendo game console with Donkey Kong, and Mario, and then game cartridges, which superseded consoles by Nolan Bushnell and Atari.
As the first personal computers began to take hold, adventure games and role playing games followed like Colossal Cave, Mystery House, and Final Fantasy. Sega came next with Sonic and John Madden Football. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter introduced a higher level of violence, blood, gore, and competition. At this point, computer and console graphics improved to the point of being able to render 3D environments setting the stage for multilevel multi-player games, such as Doom. And that barely takes us into the 21st Century.
In all this, as “High Score” makes clear, despite the public perception (and reality) of video games being primarily the province of teenage boys and filled with violence and gore, games have been created that speak to LGBTQ communities, in which women have won tournaments, where Black players have found a race-free world to compete in; and in which rather than merely destroy, participants build worlds, communities, learn real world skills and engage with history.
Video Gaming has developed so many iterations played on so many platforms and devices that gaming has seeped into almost every sphere of activity. Video games have migrated from computer labs, to public arcades, to home computers, to video game consoles, laptops, smartphones, and to stadiums.
Alone, in competition with others in the room, online with friends, with strangers, or in stadiums – as participants or spectators, games keep evolving. In every aspect the games have continued to morph alongside the speed of computing, graphics capability, internet speed, the quality (and refresh rate) of monitors, screens, and sound specificity and quality.
What’s striking to me is that video games have existed long enough that there are now several generations who have grown up with video games as a constant in their lives. So, for example, OG Arabian Prince (Kim Renard Nazel), one of the founders of N.W.A, recalled that he first got into gaming back in the 1980s when game arcades started appearing all over. “I was 14 or 15 years old, DJing around, making a little money and I would take the money and go to the arcade.” He knew all the patterns of Pac Man, Miss Pac Man and Donkey Kong. “This turned into an obsession when we started touring with NWA.”
As he explained, “Because of the controversy of our group, we really couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t go party…. The police are trying to kill us. The gangs are trying to kill us. The fans are trying to kill them. It was just a nightmare.” With time on his hands, Arabian Prince taught himself coding on a Tandy Radio Shack laptops and then a Commodore Vic 20 as well. Then portable gaming systems started popping up – and he saw that guys were playing for money and they would jump on the games more than the other distractions. “So for me being a business person at a young age, I’m like: I want to get into that.”
Similarly Jace Hall, who has starred in and produced shows about video games as well as being a game developer and CEO of Twin Galaxies (a game record registering site), calls himself “old as time,” says he was “practically born when video games were,” and has been involved in playing them ever since. “I just like the puzzle solving challenge, the goal setting, and the internal reward you get from it.”
“Our human history is steeped in playing games with each other,” said Hall. “The video game category and industry has continued to expand since it began and it shows no sign of slowing.”
“I call myself the Yoda of E-Sports,” OG Arabian Prince said, “In the late 1980s and early 90s, I used to battle all the cats in Quake.” (a first person shooter game) “As that grew into bigger things, I became not as much involved in the competitive side but more on the business side.”
“I saw very early that this was going to be a big thing.” OG Arabian Prince said, “I’ve worked on 100s of games between Fox Interactive Universal and a bunch of other companies.”
OG Arabian Prince sees his job today as being about social good, social justice and education. He speaks to schools and to parents about gaming telling them “Don’t get mad at your kid because he’s good at fortnight… There is a career path as a gamer, a producer, a tester – Gaming is something you can make a career out of.”
That gaming can be a career beyond being a pastime was something I heard from everyone I interviewed. Jake Fyfe, an avid gamer who is now an industry exec at Nant Games said “College E-sports are getting real big” he said, singling out University California at Irvine as having some of the most progressive sports programs. “There’s a lot of real opportunity for kids to build careers not just playing games but the whole infrastructure that’s grown around producing these productions,” Fyfe said.
So Natasha’s playing video games obsessively is like a job internship? That makes it so much better!
In the evolution of gaming, originally computing speed and power was paramount and then graphics, both of which increased, as well as internet speed and the ability to stream, but over time, sound has continued to be of critical importance.
In “High Score,” one early segments features Hirokazu Tanaka, Nintendo’s star sound composer. And it’s true: Imagine Pac Man without sound. Or as Jace Hall put it, “When you go see a movie like Star Wars, when you think of a light saber, you think of the noise it makes – and without it’s not a lightsaber.”
We’re just getting to the point now the technology to create surround experiences spatialization so your brain can perceive location just based on the audio – and the technology is getting smaller and smaller – so instead of sitting in a large movie theater filled with speakers on all the walls, you can now wear headphones, developed with the game companies in mind (and sometimes in partnership with them).
OG Arabian Prince said. “I like to have the best gear, if you are pro gamer – the best mouse, the best refresh rate on your monitor – the best every little thing. Arabian Prince built the M Classic, a plug and play dongle that upgrades the graphics. As for headphones, “I’ve tried dozens if not hundreds… over the years trying to find that perfect sound.”
One gaming executive told me: “For anyone playing a game like call of Duty it’s about creating a triple A blockbuster experience like you’re playing in a Michael Bay movie. So creating 3D audio that can inform where you are with this space and where enemies are you from is extremely important.”
All these gamers who are serious about becoming competitive [and] having a competitive advantage are going to invest in better tech,” Jake Fyfe said, “because it’s an arms race when you’re trying to be the best. And headphones can give you an edge.”
From my conversations the standout headphone currently is Audeze’s Mobius headset. “They are the best headphones that I’ve used for gaming – ever,” OG Arabian Prince told me. It is also among the most expensive of headsets. At the same time, Audeze being a very high end headphone company where headphones can retail in the multi-thousands, the Mobius is one of their least expensive and best-priced items.
I spoke with Audeze’s CEO, Sankar Thiagasamudram, who surprised me by saying that Audeze started as a side hustle. “From 2008 to 2012, I thought of it as a business hobby,” he told me. He and his partners had discovered these flexible circuits which were originally made for the Space Industry, and were looking for commercial applications for them. After first considering using them for outdoor speakers, they decided to use them to make high end planar headphones.
To keep this simple, all you need to know is that planar headphones use well placed magnets and a thin electrostatic flexible material to transmit the sound with more precision and range. In Audeze’s case they not only had these innovative flexible circuits but they also designed new magnets that make the headphones lighter.
Audeze headphones were first introduced to professionals at events like the NAMM show, and they caught on at first through word of mouth. They were expensive but audiophiles loved them. At the same time, Audeze began to look for where they could innovate and what new market segments they could address.
As gaming exploded, they felt they could stand out in the gaming space because of the accuracy of the sound they deliver. The precision of their sound and the inclusion of 3D audio grants certain advantages in gaming – a better sense of location (where you are in the game, and where your opponents and teammates) and a better ability to react fast – all of which proved invaluable in gaming. In addition the headsets have a microphone and the ability to chat and comment during game play fosters competition but also community during this time of pandemic lockdown.
At the same time, Audeze realized that they needed to bring down the cost. They looked to what parts of the manufacture could be automated without compromising quality which they could do because they are so intimately in control of their own manufacturing. The resulting Mobius headphone, although expensive by gaming standards are much less expensive than your typical Audeze headphones (As I mentioned earlier there was not a person interviewed who didn’t consider the Mobius headphones best in class).
As to what is on the horizon? “You are starting to see a migration to wireless – the barrier to which has until now been input delay,” one gaming exec said, “they don’t want to feel any delay between what they are seeing in the game – but the experimentation with head tracking and directional audio are now entering gaming.”
To that point, Audeze will soon release a new gaming set, to be called “Penrose,” made specifically for the new X-box and Playstation platforms being released this fall.
As for the future, one gaming executive predicts that, “In the gaming world, as with all corporate entertainment, there are fewer companies in the marketplace with more power, making more sequels and derivative works rather than investing in new properties. At the same time there is a growing focus on streaming rather than hardware, and there will be a great push for subscription-based services even for casual and mobile games.”
But there are still those like Jace Hall who remain optimists. Hall believes that to extent that video games capture human interest he fully believes games can be used to promote social good or to promote culture, saying that the idea “that there’s an app that encourages book reading is a very viable way to reinvigorate some aspects of culture that seem to have been pushed aside.”
Now, there’s a game I can’t wait to play! In the meantime, and as long as the pandemic keeps me home. I’ll be building up my skills on Valorant – that is if Natasha will lend me her Mobius headset.