A brief note on hip hop and videogames and the cost of assets

by Darius Kazemi on June 21, 2013

in hip hop,history,industry

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that videogames in the late 90s and early 00s were at a “sweet spot” in terms of the cost of producing assets, technological capability, and the expectations of the gaming public when it came to things like graphical fidelity and polish. This is what allowed games like Deus Ex and Jagged Alliance 2 to get made: both games were, technologically speaking, pretty crappy even for their time, but the cost of making an open world game with a fairly massive branching stories and voice acting and all those other things was very low compared to today. (For example, both games got away with using people from around the office as voice actors, which is something you can’t really do today. People did notice that the voice acting in Deus Ex was really, really bad, but also, nobody seemed to care that much.)

Here’s a half-baked thought I had on the way to work. In addition to being obsessed with this “sweet spot” in game development, I’m equally interested in late 80s and very early 90s hip hop. Specifically, this was the “golden age of sampling”, right before the 1991 lawsuit that forced artists (or their publishers) to pay for the use samples. This was a moment, much like the transition to high-fidelity 3D graphics in games, when the cost of asset production increased, although this time due to an immediate external stimulus (a lawsuit) instead of a more gradual technical progression. It suddenly became prohibitively expensive to (legally) create and distribute a record like¬†It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.¬†Much like videogames were forced to adopt new designs (newer RPGs deemphasizing, for a time at least, the massive open worlds and long, long, expensive-as-hell dialogue trees of late 90s RPGs), many hip hop artists were forced to abandon the psychedelic sample-pastiches of, say, early Native Tongues releases, and move on to other styles.

Note that I’m not particularly complaining that these changes happened. I’m just noting that they did happen, and that maybe there’s a parallel (at least in terms of my enjoyment of similar eras in both videogames and hip hop — maybe I like ‘throw everything against the wall and see if it sticks’ game design and musical composition).


Cameron Kunzelman June 21, 2013 at 3:00 pm

What’s interesting to me is the next step–hip hop responded, albeit 15 years later, with the creation of the internet mixtape where you sample whatever the hell you want and release it for free.

Chris Bateman June 24, 2013 at 3:10 am

Late 90′s were the sweet spot for game development? By 1999 (when “Discworld Noir” was released) the sweet spot was already passed and the insane push for 3D was well under way. Personally, the sweet spot for me was 1984-1985 when all the early playground worlds were created. There was more inventiveness in these two years than ever since! If you never saw it, here’s my post on the topic from 2006:
*waves from afar*

Darius Kazemi June 24, 2013 at 7:48 am

Heh. I mean, I certainly thought about Elite when writing this (which was exactly in your 84-85 ‘sweet spot’!). I mentioned “technological capability” in my first sentence because I think that’s what differentiates early playground world games like Elite from more modern ones. Don’t get me wrong, Elite is beautiful and abstract and evocative — but part of what makes the late 90s a sweet spot for me is that the technology allows for less abstract representation: voice acting, lots more content (including story-text), and of course more simulation power.

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