Video games have been around for several decades now. Throughout this period, we’ve seen them evolve with the technological advancements of the day. In this piece, we’ll look at some of the major developments that brought gaming to where it is today, and get a sense of where the industry is headed next.
Let’s jump right in then.
Arcades were the first to bring gaming to the masses. Before them, games existed as science projects in academic institutions. The first big idea that changed gaming was that a user should be able to control a video signal on a television through their input in real time. Ralph Baer made the first ever gaming console, affectionately called the "Brown Box,'' to make this idea a reality. Baer's employer licensed the "Brown Box" to Magnavox, which released the first ever gaming console-the Magnavox Odyssey.
(Image of the Magnavox Odyssey courtesy of the Computer Museum of America)
Despite having a revolutionary product, Magnavox did not achieve outstanding commercial success due to mismanagement. The company had to shut down its operations in 1975. Regardless, Magnavox was a driving force in popularising gaming in the American market.
In 1972, the year Magnavox released the Odyssey, a company called Atari made its debut in the gaming market. This new firm was founded by Nolan Bushnell, who’s often referred to as the Godfather of Gaming. Atari skipped the home-gaming approach of Magnavox and focused on developing arcades. The company also carved a niche for itself by crafting games for its machines in-house.
Its first commercially successful arcade game was Pong,- a table tennis simulation game that was released in 1972. Due to the game’s popularity, it is often thought of as the first electronic game.
However, that title goes to Tennis for Two, a relatively obscure game created by American physicist William Higinbotham and video game developer Robert Dvorak in 1958.
It's apparent from these early games that developers were trying to mimic traditional sports in a digital medium. Maybe that’s a precursor to the metaverse aspirations of our current game developers. However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves...
Another favourite game of ours from the arcade era is Space Invaders, a shoot-em-up style arcade in which players fight off a fleet of aliens. While the game might appear extremely simple by today’s standards, it was considered a technological marvel at the time of its release in 1978. (Britannica)
Fun Fact: There’s an urban legend that Space Invaders caused a 100 yen shortage in Japan in the 70s.
However, it wasn’t until the release of our next title that gaming became a popular leisure activity around the world
If the competition is huge, just eat them.
Namco’s Pac-Man literally ate up its competitors and went on to become the most played arcade game of its time.
People used to visit local cafes, comic book stores, and restaurants to play arcade games in the early 1970s. Gaming was becoming an immensely popular shared activity as kids competed to reach ever higher scores on the arcade machines.
Still, at this point in time, nobody would have predicted that home-gaming would become a reality. That all changed with the invention of microprocessors by Intel, which allowed gaming companies to create "smarter" and more compact consoles.
In 1977, Atari launched the ‘Atari Video Computing System (VCS),’ also known as the Atari 2600. A new type of console system that came with an external ROM slot, which allowed gamers to play multiple games on the same device by just swapping a cartridge.The product received a lukewarm response in the American market, largely due to the limited availability of games one could play on it. However, the swappable ROM functionality of the VCS opened up the possibility for developers to design their own games for the console.The release of Space Invaders for the Atari VCS in 1980 proved to be the ‘killer app’ for the home gaming console. That year, Atari sold over 2 million units of the Atari 2600.
In 1982, cable pioneer William Von Meister came up with CVC Gameline, an innovative business model for the Atari 2600. He used the modem transfer technology to create a game distribution service that would allow gamers to directly download video games to their consoles. Players would use their fixed telephone connection to download games that could be played for free up to eight times. Unfortunately, Gameline failed to gain favour from dominant video game publishers in the industry and was eventually shut down. Meister’s Gameline was apparently two decades ahead of its time. It was a really ingenious business model that was eventually replicated by internet companies like Steam two decades later.
The arcade and the console market were growing at an unprecedented rate, and for the first time in history, a real community started to form around gaming.
Eyeing the success of Atari, countless firms entered the gaming market to make a fortune. While most went bust after releasing a series of disappointing consoles and titles, some surpassed even Atari. One of these firms was Nintendo.
Nintendo’s Entertainment System (NES) was one of the highest selling consoles ever. Besides gaming, the company also created one of the most iconic games in the history of gaming, Mario .
However, these select few companies making good games and consoles were not enough to keep the market afloat. Especially as the public's interest was moving towards an even more advanced medium that offered a more sophisticated gaming experience—the personal computer.
While the arcade and console markets were struggling to recover from the crash of '83, computers were thriving. Early PCs like the Commodore 64 and Apple II not only had more processing capabilities than gaming consoles, but they also allowed users to build their own games through BASIC.
Furthermore, computer owners could connect their devices with other players, a functionality that was missing in the early console systems. Game developers leveraged the networked multiplayer capabilities of the computer to create true multiplayer experiences for the players.
John Carmack’s 1993 FPS ‘Doom’ was one of the first games to realise the multiplayer potential of PCs, making it an instant hit amongst the players. Other popular multiplayer games from the era include Mortal Kombat II, Duke Nukem 3D, Blizzard’s Diablo, and Quake. However, this was just the beginning of the social aspect of gaming.
Internet and LAN
The next big milestone for gaming was the use of local area networks (LAN) and later the internet to allow gamers to sync and enjoy games with other players. People used to get together, usually in a cramped space, sync their computers through LAN routing and play epic games. These gatherings were later called "LAN Parties. While most modern gamers might find the idea of a LAN party bizarre, the thrill of shouting at your friend sitting across the room during an exhilarating deathmatch is something only LAN OGs can attest to.
Early Internet Era
In the 1990s, gaming powerhouses like Nintendo, Atari, and Sega were prepping up for the next big thing—the Internet.
The Internet opened a world of possibilities for gaming. Now, players are no longer required to confine themselves to the same location to compete against other players. It also allowed developers to spread their work across the world in an instant over the internet. Novel communication options were now possible through the internet. People could enter chat rooms and ‘meet’ their gaming buddies who lived 5000 miles away from them but shared the same love for games that they did.
In 1995, Nintendo launched a satellite modem-based accessory called the Satellaview for its popular console, Famicom. The device enabled players to download games, magazines, and cheat guides to their Nintendo console. However, Satellaview never saw the light of the day in the global market.
Other attempts made by these big players were similarly disastrous. Their failures were often attributed to the internet being a really slow and expensive technology. I think I have recently heard this argument used for an equally revolutionary technology ([email protected]). Tech experts rightly pointed out at the time that the internet was only going to get better, faster and cheaper. It’s just a matter of time.
And it did.
The beginning of the millennium saw the release of Runescape, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) that allowed millions of people to simultaneously compete, play, and interact with their peers. The game outstandingly demonstrated the internet's potential to take gaming to a whole new level.
In the 2000s, gaming was propelled to new heights by the breakneck speed at which the internet and the computational power of modern gaming machines were growing.
Steam popped up in 2003, fulfilling the vision of William Von Meister of allowing gamers to directly download and purchase games onto their machines through the internet. However, it took the platform a decade to fully realize that vision
Gaming consoles also saw a renaissance. Tech giants such as Sony and Microsoft learned from the mistakes of those that came earlier on the console scene and launched gaming-specific devices that were powerful and came with built-in internet support.
Multiplayer game modes such as "deathmatches" are now a staple in first-person shooter games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Medal of Honor, and Counter Strike.
Some of the legendary games from this period are: GTA San Andreas, Prince of Persia, Hitman, Resident Evil 4 and God of War, NFS Most Wanted.
In 2007, right as we thought gaming had peaked with the release of God of War 2, Steve Jobs announced the Iphone.
Apple’s introduction of the App Store was another big milestone for gaming. Previously, developers could build games for mobile, but they had to be an employee of the mobile company to get their game published. With the App Store, the playing field was wide open and developers had the opportunity to create games for the fastest growing technological device since the personal computer.
Mobile phones make games more accessible to the masses. They are like a supercomputer compared to the gaming devices we saw in the early 90s and 2000s. Their smaller size, relatively low cost, and endless functionalities have made them extremely popular among modern users. According to Statista, over 6.5 billion people use mobile phones across the world today.
You can bet your bottom dollar that at least every single mobile user plays games on their device in some form or other.
Modern Gaming (2010-2020)
Between 2010 and 2020, the social aspect of gaming grew dramatically. This was due to the rise of media platforms like Instagram, Youtube, Twitch, etc. that allowed gamers to access a worldwide community of like-minded people.
Hundreds of millions of people used these platforms to create content, share their stories, and form communities around their favorite games. What’s even more amazing is that people are starting to make gaming their career. New monetisation models and the reach of social media platforms allow gaming enthusiasts to make money while indulging in their favorite hobbies such as gaming.
The trend of continuous technological developments continued to drive gaming to higher levels. The hardware we use for gaming is more powerful than it's ever been, but we’re starting to hit some hard physical limits that we’ll need to overcome if we wish to make them any better.
On the software side of things, ingenious game development tools like Unreal Engine 5 now allow developers to create photorealistic virtual worlds.
Some of the noteworthy games from this decade were: Red Dead Redemption, Batman Arkham City, Skyrim, GTA 5, PUBG, and Fortnite Battle Royale.
There is no doubt that gaming has become more mainstream than ever, and we can now enjoy some of the most engaging and immersive games in history. However, not everything is as it appears in Wonderland.
Throughout this decade, the business practices used by many game developers have become more and more exploitatory. Some of these practices include unnecessary microtransactions, pay to win, cutting content from the core game to later sell as DLCs, etc.
An argument can be made that most of these problems exist because games are too centralized. Game developers exercise a disproportionate amount of control over the projects compared to their gaming community.
The problems mentioned above are not limited to the gaming industry but can be seen in nearly every centralized platform.
But now we have blockchain, a technology that allows us to fairly distribute the ownership of projects with predefined rules of conduct that cannot be changed by anyone. First it was used to decentralize global finance; now it's making its way to industries like social media and gaming. The potential impact of blockchain on the gaming industry is likely to be as big as the internet's.
Blockchain unlocks several new features for gaming, such as financial incentivization, community-led development, digital asset ownership, etc. Let’s break these down to get a better understanding.
- Financial Incentivisation: Traditionally, the flow of capital in gaming has been unidirectional, i.e., the money flows from the pocket of the gamer to the developer/studio. However, web3 games give players the opportunity to earn and retain value for their effort and time invested in the game.
- Digital Asset Ownership: People are spending more and more of their lives inside the virtual world. They buy lots of assets: items, characters, skins, etc. However, buying digital assets on a centralized platform is worse than building your house on rented land. Web3 games use tokenization to give digital ownership rights to the players.
- Community-led development: Web3 games decentralize their ownership by auctioning their governance tokens to the community. This gives the community voting power over the major decisions a game or project takes. If the community feels the business practice of their project is unfair, they can vote it out.
One of the most popular web3 games in recent years has been Axie Infinity. It was the first game to come up with a "play to earn" model that allowed players to earn while playing. Unfortunately, play to earn is not a sustainable business model and eventually leads to the devaluation of the game’s token.
Web3 games are playing with some innovative models right now, such as PlayFi, Free-to-Own, and Play and Earn. It’ll be interesting to see which model ultimately catches on and becomes the industry standard. Regardless, it’s clear that web3 tech such as NFTs and Fungible tokens will serve as critical infrastructure for future games.
Some of the best web3 games in 2022 are Big Time, Blankos, BR1-Infinite, and MetaOps.
Gaming in the Future
Gaming has become a behemoth of an industry. Its yearly revenue dwarfs that of the music and movie industries combined. The rapid development of our technological capabilities and the way our culture is becoming more accepting of digital media make the future of gaming appear promising.
Let’s look at some of the new technologies that could revolutionize gaming in the near future.
In the foreseeable future, it's entirely possible to play your favorite high-end game on a cloud streaming service. In fact, it's happening right now, albeit at a more rudimentary level. Console giants Microsoft and Sony have both released their cloud gaming services. Even Google is getting in on the cloud gaming action through its new service called Stadia. The idea is that players would be able to stream games that'd run on someone else's server just like they stream TV shows and movies on Netflix. The biggest challenge against cloud gaming right now is to provide a smooth gaming experience to the players, until then there’s no mainstream adoption for this tech.
Much has been said about the dangers of AI to humans in the real world. But what about the virtual? For several years now, AI has been dominating us in classic games such as chess and Go. Technology will soon kick our backsides in regular games too.
The AI will make NPC characters within games much "smarter." In a few years, instead of running into your gunfire straight away, AI enemies in games will coordinate and strategize to bring you down. Now that’s a scary visual, isn’t it? Don’t worry, game developers would need to put limits on how creative the AI can get, otherwise the game will be no fun. Just like it's no fun to play a 3000 rated chess engine.
VR, AR, and the Metaverse
Virtual reality is often thought to be the next frontier for gaming. The potential of a complete, immersive, high-fidelity virtual reality gaming experience has captured the imagination of game developers for decades now. However, it’ll take us a lot of time and significant breakthroughs to make true VR a reality.
VR is also a critical piece of infrastructure for entering the Metaverse, which is defined as immersive virtual environments. The Metaverse in its current form is quite underwhelming. I guess most technologies/platforms are like that in their nascent form. To determine if Metaverse can become a reality, we must first crack VR.
Augmented Reality-AR, while being in the same technological limbo as VR, has a win over its twin. The technology has been used in a game that was a worldwide sensation—Pokémon Go. The list of AR’s accolades ends just there. The bottleneck for these technologies is currently at the hardware level. Once we get past that block, designing effective software solutions should be relatively easy.
What makes these technologies interesting to us is the fact that some of the brightest minds in the world are betting big on them. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, for example, spent $10 billion last year on VR and AR research and development.
Games that have successfully incorporated VR and AR tech include Second Life, Decentral Games, The SandBox, and Decentraland. Out of these titles, we feel that Second Life has the best graphics, gameplay, and community, largely because it has been around for more than two decades now.
Gaming has come a long way from its humble beginnings. But it feels like we're just getting started. Each time a new trend comes, it completely reinvents the industry. We can see this pattern throughout the history of gaming. It’s definitely fun to speculate about what technology will be the next big breakthrough for space, but it's pretty difficult to point something out with certainty. Another thing that is very difficult is to select which technology has had the greatest impact on gaming. These were our picks. If we missed any important ones, do let us know.