The return of the Sinclair Spectrum is a curiosity, but the story of computer games tells us something far more important.
A new version of the Sinclair Spectrum called the Sinclair Spectrum Vega is being released. It will cost £100 and come preloaded with 100 games. That is to say 100 old Spectrum games produced in the dim and distant days of the 1980s.
Experts have projected that the video games industry will enjoy a turnover of around $82 billion a year in 2017. That is at least 100 times more than the market’s turnover during the era when the Sinclair Spectrum was popular. But here is the greatest irony, back then there was a view, popular in the City and among the national media, that the best days of the computer and video games markets was behind it – that it was set to go out of fashion like flared trousers, hoola hoops and space hoppers.
How wrong they were.
They were wrong for precisely the same reasons that those who predicted doom for Apple during the aftermath of the dotcom crash were wrong.
Technology creates opportunity. The more powerful that technology becomes, the greater the opportunity. At least that is how it can work.
Given the limitations of technology, computer games in the 1980s were remarkable and the UK certainly boasted a dynamic, albeit small, sector. It revolved around early computers such as the Spectrum, Acorn’s BBC Micro and Electron, Commodore 64, the Amstrad CPC machines and then the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.
Yet the games were slow, took an age to load, graphics were pixellated, and sound (especially on the Spectrum) was almost non-existent.
In the early days of Sinclair machines, we had the ZX 80, then the ZX81 and then the Spectrum. The market grew rapidly and the national media were full of stories about teenage computer games programmers driving around in Porsches. Then the market became overcrowded, profits dwindled, and the view spread that the industry was dying.
This was an erroneous view. It failed to take into account the way in which hardware was about to change. As graphics and sound became more life-like and processing power grew, games became more popular. They were transformed from showing little blocks that looked a little like men, making bleep and ting noises, to the all-immersive, stunningly realistic games we see today. That is why the industry is around 100 times bigger now than it was 30 years ago.
It is a similar story with Apple. Until ten or so years ago, Steve Jobs’ vision for merging computers with consumer electronics and applying the coolest designs was not practical. Thanks to the homogenisation of computers and the march of Moore’s Law this changed. Once technology was capable of applying Jobs’ dream, Apple went from struggling for survival to the world’s biggest company in just ten years.
Technology is like that. For years it can seem cumbersome, frustrating to the point of despair, and cynicism about its relevance grows. However, once technology rises above a certain level, things suddenly become possible and its impact can be truly dramatic.
Video games still have far to go. Virtual Reality will add a new dimension and the market will carry on growing. It may even take over from TV as our main form of entertainment. Who knows, video games in a virtual reality setting may become so compelling that we won’t want to do anything else.
In the meantime, consider some surprising side-effects of the computer game industry.
Firstly, it has created talent. In technology circles, they used to say that if your first computer was a Spectrum you were more likely to become a computer programmer. If your first computer was a BBC Micro, you were more likely to become a hardware engineer.
What we can say is that those who work on the cutting edge of computer games programming are very clever, and they do things with computers that really do push the technology to its limit. It may be no surprise that many former computer games programmers now work in Artificial Intelligence (AI). To name but one of these, Demis Hassabis, founder of DeepMind, which was bought by Google in early 2014. It is a classic example of convergence. Software engineers who developed a skill set for one purpose – computer games – are now working in AI and developing technology which is beginning to blur the distinction between man and machine.
Another surprising effect of computer games has been in creating a more collaborative culture. In iDisrupted, we talk about a more collaborative mind-set that seems to apply to the Millennial Generation – that is to say those born within ten years or so of the turn of the century. This is leading to the sharing economy and a more social way of doing business that few business leaders understand. Companies that do not learn how to embrace this collaborative way will be as common as dodos in a few years’ time.
But why is the Millennial Generation more collaborative? It may be that the two factors that have influenced them the most are social media tools and computer games in which games players collaborate with others, often forming collaborative networks spread all over the world.
Computer games are helping to change the world. You may or may not think these changes are for the good, but they are happening all the same. In the evolution of computer games, the Sinclair Spectrum is synonymous with that moment in the story of mankind when an ape learned to walk on two legs.