A Brief History of Video Games
Retail and marketing buffs have exploded the popularity of the multi-billion dollar video games industry in the past decade. Nowadays, there are many thousands of clubs, magazines, conventions and other social events sporting a video game theme, and at the same time marketing a massive range of Tee-shirts, customized mugs, lunchboxes, school bags and knapsacks, to name just a few. Video game players have this incredible radar-like ability to find each other at gaming get-togethers and turn any conversation to a debate about video game consoles – whether Wii, PS or the Xbox – plus techniques, graphics, sound effects, and a host of related topics.
The origins of video gaming are good to know. Just as a movie fan needs to understand what made Citizen Kane so unique, avid gamers may want to know what video games were popular in the past.
Way back in 1964, Spacewar! was by today’s standards a pretty basic video game that pitted two opponents against each other. Armed with 2 spaceships and while warding off the constant gravitational pull of the sun (which some intrepid players used to lure their opponents into colliding with the sun), they had to fire tiny missiles from their spaceships at each other, all the while doing their best not to employ the hyperspace panic button to (sometimes) save themselves in emergencies.
Pong came along in 1972, many today still believing this was the first video game ever developed. Pong was made up of basic black-and-white visuals, and play consisted of easy back-and-forth table tennis-like motions, made easier if one had an aptitude for geometry angles. Mainframe computer games still predominated in the early-1970s. But it was also the era of home consoles such as Pong being launched.
Pac Man is arguably the most well known and popular video game of all time. Japanese developers designed Pac Man in 1980 hoping to find a game that might attract lady-players.
It seems Pac Man’s developers believed ladies loved eating and thus chose to create the Pac Man character, an ever-hungry yellow chomper who had to find and eat his way through a labyrinth, with temporary powers gained from eating certain “morsels” enabling him to consume the foes, four colorful ghostly globs who were constantly striving to end Pac Man’s existence (with the famous sound effects heard countless times the world over). This was one of the forerunners of Arcade video games played by the public internationally, pumping all their spare coins into the Pac Man machines to play game after game. The colorful gaming arcades, packed with machines offering a variety of games, were lit like casinos with flashing lights and game sounds, and reached their zenith in 1982. The new craze resulted in popular home console games being played on the likes of Intellivision and Atari 69. Then in 1983 the video gaming market collapsed, the cause being an oversupply of low-quality games which flooded and discredited the market, plus PCs becoming the preferred playing platform.
In 1993 Doom was introduced to intrepid gamers who were quickly plunged into ultra-violent blood-soaked battles with the demon forces of Hell. Doom II: Hell on Earth followed in 1994. This game has an amorphous quality given it did nothing to specifically represent a hero. Doom pioneered 3D graphics for an immersive experience by players, internet multiplayer gaming, and first-shooter gaming (which has since enjoyed ubiquity), where the gamer takes on all the action, while constantly monitoring a fluctuating health indicator, depending on how many times she/he’s been shot and wounded versus kills/injuries inflicted. The game was originally split into 3 episodes of 9 levels each, and was either sent by post or obtained via shareware. The Ultimate Doom sequelled in 1995, Final Doom in 1996, and became hugely popular with distribution across the world by retail outlets. Within two years of its release, Doom had been played by over 20 million gamers. Most computer games which followed copied this blood-spilling theme for some years.
In a remarkable about-turn from all the gaming violence, the year 2000 saw The Sims come out, a type of virtual reality game in which the player could work and construct his or her personal perfect home, family and lifestyle.
The start of the new millenium also ushered in the era of player-created modifications or “mods” and this article would not be complete without mentioning Counter-Strike (1999), which itself was a mod of Half-Life. Game developers came to appreciate how allowing players to add mods and custom content could be to their advantage, and so this phenomenon grew, including games like The Sims above, which ended up as the all time best-selling PC game mostly due to its universal and gender-neutral appeal.
Cellular phones first became gaming platforms with the launch of Snake by Nokia in 1997. Other mobile phone companies soon followed, to meet the demand for short games played while say, awaiting the train. Of course, at the time mobile phones had neither color screens nor much memory/battery capacity nor much processing power and they were vastly different to today’s smartphones; all these factors limited the games available on mobile platforms at the time. The Japanese were literally years ahead of the USA and Europe when it came to mobile games. By 2003, mobile gaming generated $1bn for the first time, and by 2007 this exceeded $5bn.
The banning of game consoles by the Chinese government in 2000 led to a massive growth in PC-played games, a multitude of copyright violations, and a huge grey market which still persists in making gaming consoles available to Chinese consumers.
In subsequent years the various generations of video gaming evolved, culminating in 2013’s launch of Nintendo’s Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, Sony’s PlayStation 4 plus PlayStation Vita, and Microsoft’s Xbox One as seventh-generation game platforms. Nintendo became the dominant player, with Sony and Microsoft competing closely, though still millions of units sold behind Nintendo’s Wii.
As HD video became the craze for full-immersion gaming fans, R&D budgets increased dramatically to meet the demand. The inception of cloud-computing being applied to PC gaming in 2009 allowed the growth of gamers “streaming” from cloud servers which handled the graphics end of things, always otherwise a challenge for players. It is estimated that revenue from cloud-streaming games online hit $8bn in 2017. Microsoft contributed with its Xbox 360 Slim which was among the first Onlive cloud-gaming systems from 2010.
Despite expectations for next-generation consoles following the “new-every-five-years” pattern of the past, it seems the gigantic cost of doing so and uncertainty of reasonable ROIs have put the brakes on the next generation for the moment. But, watch this space…