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A quick and dirty, incomplete and opinionated history of videogames and related technologies

Pre-1977

  • The Dawn of Time.
  • Pinball and other electromechanical games of skill are already popular in arcades, carnivals, and shooting galleries. In addition to pinball tables, there are games that mimic sports like baseball, bowling, race car driving, and military-themed games based on airplanes and submarines (Persiscope, SEGA, 1965). Most of these games are coin-operated, a dime or a quarter giving a credit for play, hence the term “coin-op”. These exist alongside traditional carnival games like dunk tanks, skee ball, whack-a-mole, tests of strength, and throwing games.
  • Willie Higgenbotham’s “Tennis for Two” demo (1958), played on oscilloscope. Often cited as the first “video game”.
  • The Mainframe Age. Games programmed by and played by computer scientists at universities, and scarsely known outside their world.
  • DEC PDP series minicomputer systems (PDP-1, etc.) are sold to large universities and corporations for business and research. Programmers on these systems develop games to run on them almost from the very beginning. They are “mini” compared to older computers, which could occupy an entire building, but still are large enough to occupy several cabinet-sized racks in a room.
  • Colossal Cave Adventure, Hunt the Wumpus, and similar games, mostly text-based played on teletypes and line printers, as most computers lack video displays. Text dominates for a few years, because graphics are incredibly primitive, limited, and expensive, and because keyboards and teletypes are far more common. Today there’s some (mostly) academic debate as to whether a text-only game counts as a “video” game, but it they are clearly computer games, and represent significant branch of the history, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s.
  • Spacewar (1962) developed on the PDP-1, often cited as the first videogame.

1972-1977

  • At home:  Magnavox Odyssey, Ralph Baer‘s “Brown Box” more or less invents controllable graphics displayed on a television screen (as opposed to oscilloscope screen or computer display).
  • Atari founded, dawn of coin-op (arcade) games.  There were arcades before Atari, with electromechanical shooting and racing games, with electronic lights, bells, and mechanical levers and switches, as well as pinball tables, shooting galleries, and carnival games of skill.  But videogames were a quantum leap forward, forever changing the landscape.
  • After first developing a ripoff of Spacewar in an arcade cabinet called Computer Space (which struggles to catch on), Nolan Bushnell rips off Baer’s Brown Box off, creating Pong, and with it, Atari has its first big commercial success.
  • Many pinball companies start producing videogames as well (Bally, Williams, Midway, Gottlieb).  It is a natural expansion for them, as they are already familiar with mechanical and electronic gaming and entertainment, with decades of experience and distribution. Joining them are Japanese companies like Taito, Namco, Nintendo, and Sega.  Each produces notable successful games, but Atari leads, innovates, and dominates them all in the videogame sector of the market, eventually becoming the fastest growing company in the history of the world, becoming acquired by Warner Communications in 1976 (just prior to the launch of the Atari VCS).
  • Some other minor oddball home games, mostly pong clones and dedicated hardware (plays a single game only, not programmable/reconfigurable).
  • Atari’s first cartridge-based home console, the VCS (later renamed the 2600) released in 1977.

1977-1982

  • Sometimes referred to as “the Golden Age of Video Games” or the Atari Age.  The early 8-bit era, dominated by processors like the Zilog Z-80, MOS 6502, and Intel’s 8088/8086.
  • Space Invaders (1978) creates a coin shortage in Japan.
  • First color graphics in a coin-op arcade game, Namco’s Galaxian (1979).
  • Atari dominates in the of the arcade; coin-operated games continued to shift from mechanical or electro-mechanical (eg pinball, etc.) to fully electronic and digital.
  • At home the Atari VCS revolutionized home entertainment, tens of millions of units sold. Largely on the strength of home versions of their top coin-op titles, but many unique titles developed as original games.
  • Warner Bros. acquires Atari in 1977. Warner Bros. struggles with Atari to manage this success, and a uniquely Californian anything-goes business culture. Nolan Bushnell exits Atari. New CEO Ray Kassar takes over, immediately getting to work transforming Atari into a business and destroying much of the original culture (which was not in need of much help when it came to self-destruction, to be honest). Atari becomes the fastest growing company in the history of the world at the time.
  • Also-rans in the early home console market include: Fairchild Channel F (1976), Bally Astrocade/Professional Arcade (1977), Magnavox Odyssey2 (1978), and Vectrex (1982).
  • Later in this era, ColecoVision (1982), Mattel Intellivision (1979) rise to viable competitors to dominant Atari, but fail to unseat the king of console games. Arguably these later consoles belong to a newer generation to the Atari VCS.
  • To stay competitive, Atari releases its new 5200 console, which is hampered by poor controllers, lack of backward compatibility with VCS (an 2600 expansion module was available for the 5200, ColecoVision, and Intellivision, however) and limited library of mostly better fidelity ports of coin-op titles that already existed on the 2600 and other consoles) and soon flounders in the wake of the Crash of 1983. Atari struggles to continue supporting the new and older consoles, the massive install base for the 2600 sustaining the company through the upcoming Crash of ’83.
  • The rise of home computers: the Apple II, Commodore 64, Vic-20, Atari 400/800, the MSX, ZX Spectrum. These systems are all largely incompatible with one another, their hardware and software varying widely, but many successful games are ported to run on all of them.
  • Early personal computer games are dominated by text adventure games from companies like Infocom and Sierra On-Line.
  • Mainframe games still popular in computer labs and universities, and are now being ported to home computers, arcade, and home consoles in various ways.  The genre-spawning MUD (multi-user dungeons) the earliest ancestors to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, soon followed by Rogue, which spawns the rogue-like genre, including HackNethack.
  • Graphics range from primitive to very primitive, especially on business PCs (monochromeCGA and EGA graphics).

1983-85

  • The Crash.  Major downturn in the market as a glut of poor quality games causes a massive drop in demand by consumers. At the time this was misread by many to mean that videogames were a passing fad that had had their day, but really people wanted new, better games.
  • Many companies went out of business or shifted to other industries.  Out of the “Big 3” of the day (Atari, Coleco, Mattel), only Atari comes out of the Crash still in the videogames market.  The void left by Coleco and Mattel will be filled by Nintendo and Sega in short order. Atari readies its 7800 console, only to shelve it due to Warner’s sale of Atari to Jack Tramiel, owner of Commodore, who sits on the technology until years later Nintendo’s NES takes the market by storm, way too late for it to have a chance of being anything more than an also-ran system. Nintendo flirted with Atari, eyeing a partnership for a US launch of the NES as an Atari branded console, before deciding that they could do just as well if not better on their own (and they did.)
  • On the home computer front, Apple, Commodore, Atari remain strong gaming platforms, with increasing competition from generic IBM PC and PC-compatible clones.
  • Floppy disk-based software gives rise to a subculture devoted to hacking copy protection to violate copyright and distribute free copies of software, known as “warez“.  Underground BBS and FTP sites carrying warez and cracks on the rise.  Copy protection hackers start “signing” their work with “tech demos” to show off their skill at controlling the hardware, giving rise to the Demoscene, where circumventing copy protection and product activation goes by the wayside, and all focus goes into creating cool technical demos that stretch the limits of hardware to display killer graphical and audio demos, for lulz and bragging rights.

1985-1990

  • The late 8-bit era. The new “Big 3”: the venerable, obsolescent Atari 2600, NES, Sega Master System.  Atari, a distant third place by this point with its newly released 7800 home console delayed until it is too late to head off the exploding popularity of the NES, and aging 400/800/1200 line of home computers. The success of the NES effectively buries Atari and wins Nintendo a monopoly in home game consoles.
  • The golden age of the arcade has dulled to a “silver age”; arcade games are still popular, but are receding as many arcade locations go out of business, and the era of arcade games literally everywhere, including outside in front of convenience stores and gas stations, soon phases out.
  • IBM PC clones, Intel x86 and 286 hardware generations. DOS. The early years of the Apple Macintosh, still with only b&w graphics.  Pre-WWW internet consisted of things like Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), IRC chat rooms, FTP sites, Telnet, NNTP (usenet/newsgroups), Gopher sites, etc. mostly limited to people at large universities in technical departments (comp sci, physics, math, engineering, science) and home computer enthusiasts who direct-dialed to specific systems via modem to access a specific system, rather than dial-up ISP for a gateway connection to “the internet”.
  • Virtual Reality first conceptualized, as early flight and military vehicle simulators inspire a concept of “total immersion” (where the subject can’t discern a difference between real experiences and virtual ones) as the holy grail that VR R&D will strive for.  Nothing much as far as games technology at this point, but the Atari coin-op’s 1980 3D wireframe tank simulation game Battlezone is their great-granddaddy.

1990-1995

  • Arcades still popular, but to a much lesser degree than the late 70s/early 80s; as coin op cabinets recede from literally everywhere to dedicated businesses, which are increasingly struggling as improving home console technology makes coin-op games less and less appealing value proposition by comparison. Many gamers prefer the lengthier, more complex style of play offered by home games, with puzzles and story lines, and adventure and RPG genres, simulation and strategy games gaining in popularity.
  • In the arcade mega hits Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat rejuvenate fading arcade market.  2P vs. fighter games and 4P side-scrolling beat-em-ups such as TMNT, X-Men, and The Simpsons very popular in arcades in the early 90s. Driving/sit-down vehicle games and light gun games also remain popular.
  • Movie, comic book IP licenses adaptations to videogame medium begin to increase in popularity, and fidelity to the source material. It’s increasingly common for a movie release to be accompanied by a video game version that closely follows the story, rather than just being about the character.
  • Nintendo GameBoy (1989) ushers in a golden age of handheld gaming, to be followed up in future generations by GameBoy Color (1998), GameBoy Advance (2001), DS (2004 and onward), and ultimately converging back to television-based gaming in 2017 with the Nintendo Switch. Previous portable/handheld electronic games were single-title LED-based hand held games that were barely videogames. Previous generations of handheld electronic games from the early 1890’s were insignificant (Tiger LCD games, Nintendo Game and Watch, Coleco LED based games, etc.) Atari Lynx (1989) and Sega Game Gear (1990) attempt to compete, but Nintendo dominates the market, continuing until the present day, despite efforts from others over the years such as the Nokia N-Gage, Sony PSP and Vita, WonderSwan, etc. Nintendo will dominate handheld gaming for the next 20+ years, challenged only by the rise of iOS and Android smarpthones and tablets in the mid-2000’s.
  • The 16-bit eraSNES, Sega Genesis, NEC TurboGrafx-16 home consoles in the early 90’s, giving way to Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation in the mid-90’s.
  • Game developer SNK straddles the arcade and home console market with its NEO GEO system (1990), popular in arcades as a modular coin-op platform, but too expensive for most home gamers, with individual game cartridges selling for $350 per title.
  • Nintendo makes an infamously huge business blunder by flirting with Sony to partner in developing a CD-ROM peripheral for the SNES, and then canceling the project after Sony had committed millions in development costs.
  • Betrayed by Nintendo, and committed to its investment, Sony goes alone, and the PlayStation brand is born, creating a massive new rival with deep pockets and very mature technical and manufacturing capability.
  • Just about every hardware maker except Nintendo releases a CD-based console: Philips CD-i (1991), 3DO (a 1993 attempt at licensed standard to be manufactured by various companies), NEC TurboGrafx CD (1990), Sega CD (1991), Sega Saturn (1994). Most of these are commercial failures, enter and exit the market without much fanfare, attempting to compete with Sony PlayStation, but too expensive and too weak game libraries.
  • By the mid-90’s the 16-bit consoles give way to 32-bit consoles and computers. Bus-width captures imagination of marketing, resulting in bizarre, distorted claims about the specs and capabilities of certain systems.
  • Sega’s poorly timed hardware releases keep the company off-kilter as they continue to struggle, dropping to 3rd place in the market. Sega 32x, an expansion module for Sega Genesis, and then Sega Saturn the following year, released in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Sega struggles with the design and timing of launch for its consoles, undermining their success by designing hardware architecture that is difficult to program for, and then too quickly obsolete to recoup investment.
  • Atari’s last gasp, the Jaguar (1993), fails and Atari exits the stage, ceasing to exist as a real company.  Sony replaces it; the Big 3 now are Nintendo, Sega, Sony.  Fun fact:  Atari continued producing Atari 2600 consoles and new games right up until 1992, making it by far the longest-lived home console of all time. Atari sells off intellectual property rights which pass through various companies that attempt to cash in on the early IP by re-releasing collections of classic arcade and home console titles.
  • All the other competitors exit after a few years of insufficient sales attract little third party development, resulting in weak game catalogs.
  • 1995 marked a transition from DOS to Windows 95 and ushered in the home internet era, with ISPs like CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy bringing dial-up access to the internet to the masses. No longer just a university/academic thing, the internet boom happens. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser integrated and bundled for free with Win95 results in massive anti-trust lawsuit which Microsoft eventually wins despite clear guilt as a harmful monopoly, as a result of shifting political winds after George W. Bush narrowly defeats Al Gore in a highly controversial 2000 presidential election.
  • IBM PC: DOS continues to remain popular with gamers until about the time of Windows 98 or 2000, as it is faster, more stable, and more tune-able for getting the most performance out of the hardware for a time.  Communities of hardware enthusiasts come together online to seek the ultimate performance tweaks and secrets for getting the most out of their system, resulting in a sub-culture of “overclockers“, many of whom go on to tech careers or become hackers of one stripe or another.
  • IBM PC: Intel 386, 486, and Pentium, Pentium II, chips rapidly increase the performance and capabilities of PC-compatible hardware.  CD-ROM drives started to become standard on PC’s in the mid-90’s, giving rise to larger games with greater multimedia content, pre-rendered video, etc.  The CD-ROM game Myst (1993) is a major mover of CD-ROM drives.
  • 1996 is a major milestone year as this is when the internet became popular and started to become used by developers to distribute games. Home dialup services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online bring internet access from computer labs and dorm rooms at university to the middle-class households across America.
  • On the PC, the addition of SoundBlaster soundcards and hardware-accelerated graphics increased the capability of PC games, giving rise to a new emphasis on 3D games, especially 3D first person shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, Marathon, and Duke Nukem 3D.
  • Microsoft studies Apple’s mouse-driven UI and desktop metaphor, and rips it off, releases Windows, initially a graphical shell that runs on top of DOS and is generally terrible, but runs a vast majority of business applications.  The sheer size of the PC install base makes it an attractive market for games, despite widely varying hardware specs from one PC clone manufacturer to another, and from one generation to the next.  The difficulty of programming games on such varied, yet standardized hardware means that compared to console and arcade games, PC game are mostly inferior tech-wise.  Console technology is so much more consistent in spec that developers can write code much more tightly coupled to the hardware, getting the absolute most out of the systems’ capabilities, resulting in far superior games despite the fact that console hardware generally has slower, smaller hardware specs.  It’s how you use it.
  • Apple struggles to survive, hanging in there thanks to very loyal Macintosh user base, and a truly superior user experience (although the underlying OS is still terrible), clinging to 1-5% of the personal computer market, and failing to make inroads against commodity priced generic PC-compatible hardware.  Macintosh moves from Motorola 68000-series CPU chips and NuBus architecture to IBM PowerPC based systems. Despite superior technology, they can’t get cheap enough to compete with the generic commodity PC.
  • Start of the Emulation scene, old hardware emulated in software to create a compatibility layer to enable play of software designed for older systems on newer platforms.  Emulation scene offshoots ROM hacking and homebrew game development.  (Still later in the 20-teens, game hackers will start experimenting with teaching AI to play old, emulated video games, via genetic algorithm and other machine learning techniques).

1996-2000

  • Nintendo tries to leapfrog everyone with it’s 64-bit Nintendo 64 (1996), but finishes 2nd place in sales to Sony’s 32-bit PlayStation. Nintendo sticks with cartridge format in its next-gen system , struggles to retain 3rd party developers as a result.  Many 3rd party game development studios move to support Sony PlayStation due to greater storage capability and cheaper manufacturing cost of the CD-ROM format.
  • Nintendo continues to garner a reputation for being a G-rated games company for younger children. This started with the 16-bit console wars between “family-friendly” Nintendo and the older teen/young adult market targeted by Sega, now Sony, and (later) Microsoft.
  • Demise of Sega as a hardware company, their final console the Sega Dreamcast (1999), initially to strong sales, only to be blown out of the market months later by the Sony PlayStation 2 (2000) and the Microsoft XBox (2001).
  • Emergence of the 3D First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, with games like Doom, Quake, Half-Life, and Unreal leading the way.  There were 3D first-person games before Doom, but the genre reached maturity and achieved dominance in the gaming market around this time, and has remained one of the most popular types of games ever since.
  • Apple comes as close to exiting the business as it ever will, before Steve Jobs returns from NeXT and reinvents the company with iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad over the next decade.  iOS platform becomes an important platform for game developers, with the App Store becoming an important distribution vehicle for indies and established studios alike.
  • Macromedia‘s Flash and Shockwave technologies make the web browser an important game platform during this time. Adobe later acquires Macromedia, in 2005.
  • Virtual Reality as a concept enters mainstream public consciousness, but remains very primitive.  Nintendo’s early VR console experiment, the Virtual Boy, is a notorious flop.  But VR as a concept gets a lot of attention from science fiction writers and Hollywood.
  • Rise of game modding scene, as game software architecture becomes more modular and therefore easier to modify and re-use. Companies develop engines that are used to drive many game releases. Game players get into the act by modifying published games, adding new life and replayability to them by creating new maps, items, in some cases entire new games, and sharing them with the online community.

2000-2006

  • Sony releases its PlayStation 2 console in 2000. Gamers camp outside of stores like Best Buy in the hopes of getting theirs before they sell out.
  • Microsoft XBox (2001) is released as Microsoft attempts to muscle their way into the industry. Microsoft was already strong as a gaming platform due to the popularity of DOS and Win9X as a gaming platform, XBox was a strategic move into creating a standardized hardware platform dedicated to gamers and home entertainment. Bulky and ugly, the initial XBox is essentially a Intel Pentium III PC with nVidia graphics, only with a gamepad as the only input, instead of a keyboard and mouse, running an OS based on Windows but stripped down in order to focus on game software. Macintosh-era AAA game developers Bungie acquired by Microsoft, who steal Halo from Apple fans and put it on the XBox.
  • Nintendo releases its first optical disk system, the Gamecube (2001), almost a decade after their original plans with the SNES fell through.
  • In the face of two competitors with very deep products and more powerful hardware, it holds its own, largely on the strength of Nintendo’s strong appeal as a first-party developer, with games like Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Kartand Metroid Prime.
  • Most internet gaming is done on PC, thanks to the emergence of widespread adoption of broadband internet in homes.
  • HDTV exists during this time but is not widely adopted yet, so consoles of the day do not yet support HDTV resolution. NTSC 480i or 480p are the best resolutions supported in this generation.
  • Consoles are still mostly not internet capable, for practical purposes, although there have been attempts throughout most of the previous generations to try to make use of networking capability in some fashion. (Even back in the early 80’s there were online services for consoles such as Intellivision PlayCable, Nintendo Broadcast System, Satellaview, Sega Mega Modem, and others, but these were too ahead of their time for most consumers to take notice of them, with very limited support for a tiny number of games, in limited markets.) This starts to change with the PS2 and XBox, but online gaming services for PlayStation Network and XBox Live will not come into their own for one more generation.
  • Rise of internet gaming and digital distribution for PC games.
  • Videogames starting to become increasingly respected by academics and critics as a valid medium/topic of academic study.
  • Valve launches its Steam platform in 2003, coinciding with the release of Half-Life 2. Steam will become a major player in marketing and digital distribution in the years ahead. Steam marks the rise of the “software as a service” business model.

2006-2012

  • The HDTV era.  Increasing popularity of HDTV enables consoles to move from NTSC TV resolutions to 720p and 1080p.
  • Home consoles: Sony PS3, Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii.  The Wii notably does not support HD resolution, but the PS3 and XBox 360 do.
  • These newer consoles are increasingly internet-integrated, many games rely on the internet to work at all, to validate the license, download updates, connect to multiplayer and social/community servers, etc.
  • Games increasingly go digital for distribution; physical media and brick-n-mortar retail decline.
  • The Wii dares to innovate with motion controls, Sony, MS follow suit half-heartedly with PS3 motion controller and Xbox Kinect. Despite the weaker hardware specs, the Wii outsells both Sony and Microsoft, regaining the market lead.
  • The mobile gaming era.  Introduction of iPhone and Android platforms, smartphones and tablets.  Rise of touch screen technology creates new input and control opportunities.
  • Rise of indie developers. At first doing direct sales through shareware business models, DIY e-commerce.  First Global Game Jam (2009), Ludum Dare (2002, but not widely popular until this period) events happen in the early part of this period, paving the way for countless other game jams to follow.
  • Curated “walled garden” marketplaces (Apple’s App Store, Google Play, Steam, etc.) welcome indie developers, early adopters who initially are rewarded, followed by hordes of also-ran developers who struggle for any attention at all, resulting in “Indypocalypse” by 2015, as shifting business models and reduced barriers to entry create business and marketing challenges that most are unprepared to face and incapable of handling.
  • Rise of Valve’s Steam service, introduced in 2003 with Half-Life 2, as an increasingly important distribution platform for AAA and indie developers alike.  Indie studios especially depend on Steam to release, distribute, and market their games. Steam Greenlight program allows indies to reach wider audiences more easily than previously possible.
  • Steve Jobs’ refusal to support Adobe Flash player on iPhone is the harbinger of death for Flash-based web content, although the end won’t come for a good decade and more.
  • Rise of “retro” style games that harken back to the 2D era and simpler styles of games, hook into gamer nostalgia.

2012-current

  • Nintendo Wii U (2012), Sony PS4 (2013), Microsoft XBox One (2013), and Nintendo Switch (2017). Wii U is a short-lived failure for Nintendo, but the lessons learned from it give rise to the hot-selling Switch. HDTV and internet now mainstream and assumed to be standard features of nearly all games.  UHD (4K) TVs exist, are already relatively inexpensive, increasingly common, and gaining support from PS4/XBone.  Nintendo continues to take a “less is more” strategy, opting for innovative design and popular IP to sell less-expensive hardware of significantly lesser capability.
  • Indypocalypse in full swing.  Humble Store introduces the Humble Bundle, pay-what-you-want business model for a bundle of popular indie titles that had already sold well. It is a viral sensation and generates millions in revenue despite the fact that you can get the bundle for free; a “beat the average price paid so far” incentive for an extended bundle does the trick.  In the mobile world, a race-to-the-bottom approach brings prices for many games to free or nearly free; revenue streams from in-game advertising, in-game purchase, “DLC” (downloadable content) packs, subscription-based licensing etc. struggle with varying success to replace revenue lost from retail sales of copies of physical media. Steam announces end of Greenlight program in 2017.
  • Nearly 100 yers old, Ralph Baer dies in 2014, marking a point at which videogame history begins shift from a period where everything can still fit within living memory to a phase where history will increasingly consist of what can be recorded and preserved.  Historical preservation efforts by Jason Scott at the Internet Archive, increasing scholarly attention by notables such as Ian Bogost, Henry Lowood, and others.
  • Maturing HTML5 technologies finally start to erode Flash marketshare, resulting in Adobe announcing in 2017 the sunset of Flash is in sight, currently slated for 2020.  Future of preservation of Flash-based games uncertain.
  • VR and AR (augmented reality) technologies start getting better, but still very niche.  Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass, Google Cardboard, etc. Pokemon Go (2016) is an early standout augmented reality title, and briefly one of the most popular videogames of all time.

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