I am constantly thinking about the history of the video game industry. It seems like many articles on N4G are written by "journalists" that either ignore history completely for the sake of hits or simply aren't old enough to remember it. However, I was there for its humble beginnings. I can recall fondly when I told my mother that I wanted an Atari 2600. Being a single mother, and a teacher with two kids, she had extremely limited funds (read: poor...but never KNEW it!) So, my mother went to the pawn shop and picked up something that was akin to a large telephone. Except, this “phone” had cords that you could plug into the back of the television. One flip of the switch and there it was, in all of its less than standard definition black and white glory...two bars and a blip. At this point, younger gamers are probably laughing at the thought of getting excited over these two bars and a blip. However, this was the FIRST time that I could play a video game on my television. It was a generic knock off of Pong! I was HOOKED!!!
Now that we have transcended into the 8th generation of consoles, I am questioning WHEN or IF there was a gaming renaissance? Now, I am not speaking specifically of the actual Renaissance that took place between the 14th and 17th century in Europe; a time where revolution and innovation was springing up in science, literature, politics, music, intellectual inquiry, and art. I am more speaking of an “age of enlightenment” in the video game industry.
The actual Renaissance took place after the Dark Ages. We all know that the Dark Ages or Middle Ages were the years when there was a general stagnation or even deterioration of cultural and economic expansion. There was a lack of literature, written contemporary history was on the decline, and there was very little artistic expression to be found. (Bear with me Historians and Theologians...I'm setting up a premise and NOT debating the misuses of the term "Dark Ages"!)
So, if a Dark Age precedes a Renaissance, then where does the video game industry fit in this?
I'm not sure if there was a true Dark Ages for video games. When looking at the industry, one might first latch onto the crash of 1983 as this point. However that crash, though huge and defining, only lasted for two years. Aside from those two years, there was a pretty huge boom in the 80's. This is considered the "Golden Age" for arcades. If you were alive then, you can attest to this fact. Arcades just sprung up overnight. The number of arcades doubled between 1980 and 1982 and this portion of the industry was pulling in over $5 billion a year! This does NOT include home consoles! Atari, Intellivision, and Colecovision were killing it in the beginning of the decade. What's usually NOT noted is that Microsoft released MS-DOS in 1981 and aggressively marketed to combat the home consoles. Which means that the 80’s were the humble beginnings of PC gaming as well. We ALL know at this point that there was a complete and total over-saturation of the market and consoles pretty much went dormant. However, during this time, it was PC gaming that "hobbyists" turned to. (Yeah, I said it...we hadn't really coined the phrase "GAMER" yet.) After the great third party over-saturation that lead to the crash, it was Nintendo and Sega who took the challenge of reviving and revitalizing the industry with the NES and the Sega Master System and then towards the end of the decade with the SNES and the Genesis. For a short period of time, the industry DID go dark. However, before and after the crash, there were some of the biggest moments of growth the industry has ever seen.
Now on to the 90's...which, arguably, could be that Renaissance that we were looking for. This was a decade where many of the "innovations" that we see today had their origins. Games went into an entire new space, literally, as we went from two dimensional gaming to 3D. Handheld gaming, though it started in the 80's, became more popular as the decade went on. This charge was led by the Nintendo Gameboy and followed by the Sega Game Gear. Many of the genres that we pine for today had their birth or their revolution during this period of time. First person shooters, platformers, real-time strategy, survival-horror, racing, fighting, stealth, and even the MMO were genres that sprung up or were vastly improved during this time.
Technologically, we jumped from sprites to polygons. That's HUGE for those of us that like to ogle or even argue about the newest and shiniest graphics. This is where they started. We went from the limited confines of the cartridge (Nintendo...I'm looking at YOU!!! LOL) to the less limited disc format. This not only allowed for a broader range of gaming experiences. But, it also drove the price of games down significantly. I can recall that my best friend paid $75 for a brand new copy of....Sim Ant on the SNES! We got memory cards (thanks Playstation) which pretty much became standard until HDD's showed their faces on consoles. Game controllers also evolved to include more buttons, analog (N64) and dual analog (PS 1) sticks, pressure sensitive buttons (Dreamcast), and force feedback (N64...then PS 1). We got interactive movies, which some see as the precursor to the cut scenes that we have today. Finally, we got online gaming on consoles at the very end of the decade with the Dreamcast. (Most underrated system of all time???)
If we take a look at the franchises that were a staple of the 90's we see a large amount of franchises, or at least primary examples of franchises, that are still very popular today. Here are a couple of examples.
DOOM (PC; 1993) Tomb Raider(PC)
Super Smash Bros. (N64; 1999) Command & Conquer (PC;1995)
Starcraft (PC; 1998) Warcraft (PC; 1994)
Diablo (PC; 1996) Resident Evil (PS1; 1996)
Donkey Kong Country (SNES; 1994)Rayman (SGA; 1995)
The Elder Scrolls (PC; 1994) EverQuest (PC; 1999) Sonic, The Hedgehog (SGA; 1991)
Fallout (PC; 1997) Harvest Moon (SNES; 1996)
Gran Turismo (PS1; 1997) Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (PC; 1998)
Grand Theft Auto (PC; 1997) Unreal (PC; 1998)
Mario Kart (SNES; 1992) Soulcalibur (ARC; 1998)
Mario Party (N64; 1998) Mortal Kombat (ARC; 1992)
Medal of Honor (PS1; 1999) Silent Hill (PS1; 1999)
Need for Speed (3DO; 1994) Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (PS1; 1999)
Pokémon (GB; 1996) Star Fox (SNES; 1993)
Warcraft (PC; 1994) Ace Combat (ARC; 1992)
The 2000's saw a few new innovations and a LARGE amount of refinements of older ideas. I consider this a period of evolution more so than revolution. Which, in and of itself, is NOT bad. First and foremost, we saw a refinement of techniques that took polygonal images closer to the realm of believability. Gone were the days of often rigid polygonal characters. In came characters with more fluid animation than we had previously seen. Along with the change in characters, came a change in their environments. Immersion was a prime directive for developers. Advances in AI and physics allowed for greater immersion and interactivity within these digitally created worlds. Our consoles became more than just places to play games. With connections to the internet, ability to play visual and audio media, and later with various apps, consoles (really console makers) yearned to turn consoles into entertainment hubs. The rhythm game fad came...and went. But, most of us can admit to at least enjoying dancing like idiots while playing Dance Dance Revolution, or releasing our inner rock god while playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Let's not forget our inner DJ's with DJ Hero. We saw controversy, which means that gaming was becoming culturally more relevant, in the "HOT COFFEE" mod and gaming’s link (no matter how superficial) to the Columbine shootings. In fact, at this point, we saw how far video games had reached the mainstream as movies (no matter how BAD) started to pop up again. The crowning achievement, in terms of global sales, was Lara Croft: Tomb Raider which grossed $274 million. Technology became more about the natural evolution of things. We went from CD-ROM to DVD and then to Blu-ray, simply because developers wanted more space to create larger games. Hard drives became standard, because gamers needed more space to save more things that couldn't be saved on just a couple or several (depending on who you are) memory cards. HDD's allowed developers to "fix" issues that might have shipped with the game for console. (For better and for worse) Also, it opened the door for digital games on console. Consoles became more complex (relative to other consoles PC master-race!!!LOL) because more was expected out of them. High definition became a "thing" as the consoles and PC's pushed gamers away from standard definition and into HD TV's and monitors. Let's not forget wireless controllers! (No more Spot running by and killing your console...well unless he pees on it!) It brought motion control gaming with the surprise success of the Wii (no disrespect, but YOU didn't see that coming Nintendo fans! LOL) and with Kinect and Move trying to create competition in that space. Finally, it brought social networking to the consoles. With Xbox Live and PSN, you no longer had to wait for your friends to come over to play co-op or competitive games. You had "friends" that you would play with in a touch of a button. As the 2000's have continued, we've seen further refinements of most of these aspects. But, have yet to really see a real revolution. Will there be one?
So I've painted (color by number and with a limited background in art ...okay 10th grade doesn't count) a picture of the ever evolving history of video games. I've listed what I think were the revolutionary ideas and what I believe were the evolutionary ideas. But, I am still at a crossroads with my initial question. Has there been a video game renaissance? As I pointed out, the mid-to-late 90's and into the early 2000's seems like the sweet spot for gaming where past ideas were converging with the technology that allowed them to come to fruition. With that in mind, I am unsure of what the future holds. With the current instability of the industry and the relatively (in comparison to the past) stagnant evolution of new ideas, there is a possibility of the industry retracting. Studios could continue to close, consolidate, and restructure. Major players could become...well...less major...or not even players. (We've all seen the articles that claim to know which one and why! Give you a hint...it's all three!!! LOL) In direct contrast to that, the industry could be in for a boom. Consoles are flying off the shelves. Independent developers are pumping new life-blood, in terms of creativity, into the industry. Kickstarters are taking development, and costs, into their own hands to circumvent large publishers and their often Draconian contracts. All of this on behalf of gamers that choose to support their game. New innovations on the horizon like cloud technology and its various applications, increased efficiency of development and programming to the metal on consoles and PC could indicate that there is still a LOT of room to grow.
Though I started this blog with a quest for answers, I am happy to have gone back through the history of this great industry because it is such an important part of my own history. I grew up gaming. My mom got me my very first home video game. I stole my second one from my deadbeat dad (an Intellevision...funny because he was about the age that I am NOW when I took it! Sucks to be him!!!) I watched as stick figures on cathode ray tubes became fully animated and more human creations on HD televisions. I've seen terms like 'FANBOY' go from meaning any hobbyist that was interested in video games and the industry to anybody that doesn't agree with me! (LOL) I've seen terms like 'hobbyist' turn into 'Gamer' and that badge being worn with honor instead of skulking in the corners of society waiting for acceptance. (a little dramatic...but still true!!!) Mostly, I've been able to be a part of something that has rapidly become one of the greatest forms of entertainment today. If we look at the trajectory of cinema, literature, and music, then it's easy to see that this industry is still in its infancy. I probably won't be around when it reaches puberty, let alone full blown maturity. But, I am SO glad that I was able to witness even this tiny portion of its life.
Now…back to arguing about framerate, downgrades, lazy developers, and console strength! ;)
Seriously, I hope that this reminds us that this industry is preciously new and frail. With that, it’s never going to be perfect for everyone. It probably won’t be perfect for ANYONE. BUT, it is ours to respect, nurture, and grow. As consumers, we control where it goes and more importantly where it doesn’t. Peace and gaming!!!
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