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Split Screen: Sixty years of leaps and bounds

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It was the gaming news that made a generation of 20 and 30-something gamers feel old. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is 10 years old (or at least will be in July).

It seems to be a good year for classic games to have round number anniversaries, as it was only back in March that I was observing the 20th birthday of one of the most influential games of my teenage gaming years, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.

I also remembered recent anniversary celebrations for the arcade favourite Frogger, though that turned out to be a little belated, as that famous frog first dodged traffic in 1981. Curiosity piqued, though, I had a look at 1982's gaming releases and was astonished by the arcade icons that made their debuts that year: Joust, Zaxxon, Xevious, Pole Position, and Dig Dug among others.

Looking over these releases, it occurred to me just how unevenly gaming technology advances. Comparing 1972 with 1982, 1982 with 1992, and so on, it seemed that some decades saw radical change in the games we were playing, while others primarily saw refinement of old paradigms.

We can actually take this all the way back to 1952, when a noughts-and-crosses game called OXO was written for a computer at Cambridge university that filled an entire room. 10 years later at another university, this time MIT, a bunch of enthusiastic students created Spacewar on a minicomputer which was only the size of three or four fridges side-by-side.

Even in these two early examples, the rapid pace of technological advancement and mechanical sophistication is evident. In 10 years we went from tic tac toe to a fast-paced action game in which two players would pilot spacecraft around the gravity well of a star, trying to shoot each other. (If this sounds familiar, it's probably because the classic Star Control series used the same combat mechanics many years later.)


10 years after this, the major advancement was in hardware form rather than gaming software. The newly-incorporated Atari released Pong into arcades, a rudimentary tennis simulation, to be sure, but in a small stand-alone cabinet rather than a gigantic mainframe on a university campus. Pong not only achieved significant mainstream recognition and popularity, it also triggered the gaming world's first lawsuit.

The problem was that in 1972 television manufacturer Magnavox released the world's first video game console for private homes, the Odyssey. One of its built-in games was simply called "Tennis", but it looked enough like Pong for Atari to sue.

Following the massive international success of Pong, arcade games entered a golden age, with significant investment and rapid technological advancement. By 1982, games were in colour and consisted of far more complex actions than simply batting a pixel back and forth.

One of the biggest commercial successes of the 1980s was released that year: Pole Position by Namco. There had been racing games before, but Pole Position established the template for many years to come - the back-view of the car, and the road tapering to the horizon. I find it incredible that 10 short years took us from Pong to Pole Position, not to mention the first resource-management god game. Utopia on the Atari 2600 was the great-grandparent of Sim City and Civilization, in which two players would compete to develop industry on their islands while feeding their growing populations and sabotaging their opponents.

While not really relevant, it's interesting to note that 1982 was the year movie tie-ins were born, with Tron and Empire Strikes Back both receiving the licensed game treatment. The rather forgettable Empire Strikes Back on the Atari 2600 also snagged the title of first Star Wars game, pipping the iconic sit-in arcade cabinet of two years later.

1992 was an astonishing year for games, with no less than four titles being released that either invented whole new genres or defined the standard for future games in their genre. Wolfenstein 3D was arguably the original first person shooter, and Alone in the Dark is generally considered to be the first survival horror game. Dune II was not quite the first real-time strategy game but certainly created the template that would be copied for decades after.

Finally there was Ultima Underworld, a genuinely 3D gaming experience in a year when most games that claimed the label were glorified 2D. Setting aside its impressive technology, Underworld was ahead of its time in many other ways. Monsters encountered in the dungeon were not necessarily hostile - many could be talked to , bribed, and bartered with. Players could also manufacture their own items, combining spider silk and a stick into a fishing rod, for example.

1982 to 1992 is the period that covers the most rapid change, I think. This is a period that took us from Pole Position to Mario Kart, from Empire Strikes Back to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and from Q*Bert to the incredible Flashback. Games moved from arcades to homes, and in doing so became an everyday part of our lives.

1992 to 2002 saw rapid growth in the power of our gaming hardware, but the games we were playing changed very little. Ultima Underworld gave way to Morrowind, a more complex and open world, but otherwise mechanically similar: explore, meet people and creatures, and either help them or fight them. The genre standardised by Dune II culminated in WarCraft III, with 3D graphics and a strong story, but otherwise the same resource-gathering, structure-building, and army-commanding. Wolfenstein's first-person shooting grew into Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Battlefield 1942, and Metroid Prime, but most of the conventions remained intact.

Still, fundamentally new ideas were still being introduced, most notably the sandbox. 2002 gave us Mafia, Grand Theft Auto III, and GTA: Vice City, games that blended exploration of large, realistic cities with fast-paced driving through AI-controlled traffic and plenty of gun-toting third-person action. Looking back at the games discussed earlier, I find it incredible that third-person sandbox games in this mould have only existed for 10 years.

I think it shows how closely game developers will hold on to proven formulae. New technology will allow brand new ideas to be tried out, but when something works well it tends to stick around. With so many genres firmly established, the trend over the past decade has been to refine and perfect what we already have.

What do you think readers? Has the pace of change in our games slowed down, or is change happening in more subtle ways? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

- James "DexX" Dominguez

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