To hear Ken Levine cite Ultima Underworld as the game that inspired him makes me smile. I miss the Ultima series, the Underworld games most of all. I even miss the "World of Ultima" spinoffs. Remember Savage Empire? Martian Dreams? I do. I also recall the ominous black and blue flier in the latter box advertising Ultima VII: The Black Gate, arguably the series apogee. I was playing on a 386sx/16 back then assembled by some IBM-cloner (remember when we called them all IBM clones?) long since R.I.P.
Forbes just fired a few questions Levine's way, including the following, which caught my attention:
What is the industry's biggest mistake?
...to which Levine replies:
I'm a real believer in industrial Darwinism. It's hard for an industry to make a mistake because the market tends to be self-correcting.
Qualification: I'm a believer in Ken Levine. He's a smart guy and I've had the pleasure of speaking with him face to face for several hours. He's one of the very few game guys who can take needlessly complex philosophical and theoretical ideas and distill them down to their essentials.
I am on the other hand not a believer in industrial Darwinism, if only because the market doesn't always self-correct (in practical timeframes) in favor of the brightest, smartest designs. For instance, would you say Microsoft Windows -- with us since 1985, and predominantly so since the early 1990s -- has always unquestionably been the very best operating system available?
In my experience, the market more frequently corrects in favor of "what people are willing to live with." Darwinian evolution takes millennia. The market, by contrast, can change capriciously (and literally) overnight. What's more, as an industry grows and production costs soar, risk-taking decreases. "Artful" anomalies like BioShock appear, but on balance, we're seeing increasing numbers of games that satisfy everyone a little bit instead of some people a lot. The pros and cons depend on your personal expectations.
That said, games do enjoy a slight edge over other media in that they're scalable. A game, uniquely, can be constructed to "play" according to personal tastes, without necessarily flattening or cheapening the experience. Movies and books certainly support different approaches, but in terms of what you're physically seeing or reading, they're one way in, one way out. *
Responding to the question "If you weren't making games, what would you be doing?" Levine calls games "the convergence of everything," but are they really? I think that's taking what they offer a bit too far. They're certainly the very public tip of a spear that's been aiming toward total sensory immersion by way of "virtual reality" for some time now, but games -- "safe" zones in which you test hypotheticals -- are simply one expression of that convergence.
* It's ironically to do with the authorial control issue Roger Ebert cites as why video games will never be "high art" in the sense certain films and books and musical pieces are. (Since I define "art" as simply "persuasive dissatisfaction," I'm at loggerheads with Ebert's entrenched reference to the "expressive" aspect of critic M.H. Abrams' triangle.)