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Split Screen: Sixty years of leaps and bounds

Has gaming progressed in any meaningful way in the decade between Morrowind and Skyrim?

Has gaming progressed in any meaningful way in the decade between Morrowind and Skyrim?

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

 twitter If you want more DexX, you can listen to the GameTaco podcast or follow him on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

14 comments so far

  • 10 years since Morrowind? Thanks Dexx. It's Friday morning and now I'm feeling genuinely old. :)

    As a side note, in fairness to Warcraft III, one could argue the introduction of hero units with abilities was the precursor to the DOTA style, and also tower defense popularisation, via mods.

    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 8:50AM
    • And to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Morrowind, Bethesda has gone and announced Elder Scrolls Online.... Alas, in the spirit of the article, an MMO really isn't a new idea.

      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 9:17AM
      • Ouch, thanks DexX.

        This reminds me of a comic from xkcd.

        It's sobering.

        In my rocking chair
        Date and time
        May 04, 2012, 9:41AM
        • I don't think the pace of change in games has really changed, it's just moved away from the AAA titles where the focus is on less risky projects.

          On the one hand you have the games that are released with creative tools so you can abuse the toolset in novel ways.

          On the other hand you have a huge influx of indie titles with novel mechanics and approaches, not to mention all the games on iOS with various mechanics, and the explosion of "social gaming" where interaction with other players is encouraged even in traditionally single-player settings.

          Why is it that when people bemoan the lack of innovation in modern games they so rarely look beyond what's on the store shelves?

          Date and time
          May 04, 2012, 10:06AM
          • Wolfenstein was 92?
            Why do I always seem to overestimate the age of games?

            I always equate the age I remember playing them, but it just never seems to add up.
            In 92 I was 10 years old, and based on that I remember around that time getting excited over Doom, which would have made me think Wolfenstein was earlier.
            Similar to KKND - I remember talking about C&C and Red Alert when I was in Year 7-8, and I believed KKND came out around that time, but it was actually 97.
            Goldeneye 64 was released in 97. That surprised me because I could have sworn it was released around the time I was playing Unreal in 98.

            I'm rambling, but basically most people seem surprised that games were released 10 years ago. My reaction seems to always be "Wait, I thought it was way older than that?"

            Lucid Fugue
            Date and time
            May 04, 2012, 10:09AM
            • Let me preface the following comment by saying that I'm getting older and everything was better 15 years ago.

              Yes, processing power, sound, graphics etc.. have increased to levels that are well beyond what 14 year old me could ever have imagined but shiny, loud things do not necessarily make great games. In my opinion gameplay and story will trump visuals 100% of the time.

              Now, I'm not saying that all of todays games are completely devoid of great stories and excellent game play, far from it. This generation has given me some of the most amazing gaming moments of my life. I just think that the current industry trend of releasing the same game every year is something that, with the exception of FIFA and others, did not happen in previous generations.

              This and the other current trend of releasing re-boots and re-makes says to me that the gaming industry is going the same way as the film industry and I don't understand why! It's a video game, there are endless possibilities to what can be done in terms of story. Why do we keep getting Battle-Call-Field-Of-Duty 8 or "-Insert Awesome Old Adventure Game Here - The First Person Shooter"?

              End rant.

              Dr Charlesworth
              Date and time
              May 04, 2012, 10:30AM
              • You could argue that the progress made in gaming over the last ten years has been in the multiplayer phase. Sure, MMOs started in the late 90s, Doom and Quake blazed the FPS multiplayer trail throughout the decade (culminating in Q3A in '99) and games moved off LANs and onto the net proper with the likes of Diablo 2 on Since then though, the always online game has pregressed in leaps and bounds. Remote multiplayer moved to consoles. Sports and racing games became something you could play with someone in another city. Skill level matching became a challenge accepted by the FPS and RTS developers. Companies can now get away with releasing games in an "always-online" format. MMOs (whilst mostly sticking with a grind formula) have discovered that their playerbase likes different things - casual, raiding, PvP, even advanced spreadsheeting for the EVE fans. Servicing these different elements of the playerbase successfully, either through a free-to-play or subscription model, has taken up a fair bit of developer and publisher brainpower.

                The Cow Level
                Date and time
                May 04, 2012, 11:39AM
                • I think it's a bit of both.

                  Don't forget the awesomeness of Syndicate ('93) and the Creatures games (Anyone know when offhand?).

                  In terms of processing power and what we can build in terms of environments, AI and the such, we've made massive progress.

                  I've been thinking lately about the QUALITY though.. Maybe it's the rose coloured glasses of nostalgia but most games seemed to rock back in those games. I'm a lot harder to impress these days..

                  Date and time
                  May 04, 2012, 12:09PM
                  • I think there is definitely an aspect of rose-tinted nostalgia shining through there, combined with age and general gaming awareness/education.

                    I reckon there were still heaps of terrible games back in the day, but (i) we didn't know any better (ii) we don't remember them 10-20 years on, and (iii) games were still dramatically pushing boundaries and genres and so every new game seemed impressive in its own way.

                    Also, don't discount the impact of and changes in gaming culture and online discussions and interactions. These days, gaming is everywhere, commercialism runs rampant and it seems easier to be critical of current games and nostalgic for those that we grew up with. I also think that polls and articles about the "best games ever" etc. gently encourage us to remember certain games more often than others.

                    Date and time
                    May 04, 2012, 1:46PM
                  • Perhaps, but I've tested this to a limited extent myself

                    Right now, I'm playing the original Syndicate through dosbox.. It's even better than I remember it. I still play The secret of monkey Island (The first 3 games) and the first 2 X-Com games (Whole series is on steam for like, $10). All of them are awesome if absolutely terrible.

                    I seriously think any company that rebuilds them for modern graphics leaving everything else the same will make a total bundle..

                    Date and time
                    May 04, 2012, 8:14PM

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