In this retrospective article, Rishi Modha journeys through 25 years of video games. We look back at the fun of 16-bit consoles, the emergence of multiplayer gaming, the success of online and 3D play, and the potential of the immersive experiences of augmented and virtual reality.

I’ve lost many hours of my life to games. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Growing up, I postponed revision, chores and other immediate productive activities for just one more game. Even now, I can’t help but occasionally succumb to suspending reality for just a little longer than initially intended. The devices, platforms, and modes of interaction have changed over time, but looking back, the same magic has always been there.

1991: Speeding Through the Late 16-bit Era

Visually, games start to look outdated very quickly. Tracing back to 1991, where our retrospective begins, it’s striking how primitive graphics were compared to today’s standards. Though in terms of overall video game history, we may have skipped past Pong, arcade dominance and the growth of homebrew development on early personal computers, the overall landscape at this point in time is unrecognizable compared to now.

Nintendo and Sega were the dominant console manufacturers in the 16-bit era, and 2D scroll platform and combat titles were all the rage. Sonic the Hedgehog, the flagship Sega title released that year, was quite literally a blur - enchanting gamers for hours at a time with unparalleled gameplay speed. Who knew that the simple addition of momentum to running and jumping could be so engaging?

1992-95: The Emergence of 3D

The next dimension of enhancement was visual, with Wolfenstein 3D introducing the world to the first-person shooter genre in 1992. It wasn’t the most influential early shooter, however, with more fond memories likely to be reserved for Doom, which was released a year later and distributed widely as shareware. Doom captivated gamers by pioneering game mechanics which can still be recognized in today’s big-budget titles. The game was one of the first to include networked multiplayer modes and specific policies banning play during the work day had been put in place at Intel, Lotus Development and Carnegie Mellon University. It turns out that spending time virtually gunning down colleagues distracts from actual productivity.

1996-2000: Sony Enter the Market, Nintendo’s Golden Era

The next generation of console releases brought in an era of gaming that more closely resembles today, with ubiquitous use of 3D graphics and optical discs as the format media of choice. Sony dominated sales with their 1996 console debut, the PlayStation. Tomb Raider showcased the cinematic production values the new generation of consoles made possible.

Despite selling fewer units overall, Nintendo 64 arguably played host to a greater volume of classic titles. The likes of Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye 007 and Super Smash Bros are fondly remembered and still regularly played by gamers today… occasionally even in Cartesian’s own Boston office. Nintendo also dominated handheld gaming during this period; the release of the first Pokémon games in 1996 sparked a worldwide craze that’s been recently reignited. The release of the Gameboy Color in 1998 served only to reassert Nintendo’s mainstream dominance and represented the peak of their overall cultural and creative influence.

2001-2005: Online and Interactive

The next frontier for gaming was online: Microsoft’s entry into the market with the launch of the Xbox in 2001, accompanied by the first in the iconic Halo series, signaled the direction ahead. Growing availability of broadband internet services in the early 00s paved the way for Xbox Live to succeed where the Sega Dreamcast’s online efforts had failed. Though Nintendo and Sony both introduced online gaming capabilities on their respective consoles, Microsoft’s offering was more comprehensive and integral to the intended experience. Despite this, the Xbox was not the best-selling console of the generation. The PlayStation 2 capitalized on exclusives such as the Gran Turismo and Grand Theft Auto franchises to sell over 150M units[i] worldwide, which makes it the best-selling home console ever.

The Nintendo Gamecube struggled to make a dent, though this was offset by the incredible success of the Nintendo DS. Released in 2004, the intuitive touch-controlled dual-screened handheld console set the path for the impending explosion of mobile gaming a few years later.

On the PC, World of Warcraft made its debut in 2004 and has been going strong ever since. The subscription-based massively multiplayer online game has ensnared upwards of 100M users into its virtual worlds across its history and still continues to dominate today.

2006-2011: Everyone Can Play

The next few years saw gaming open itself up far beyond its traditional demographics, with the advent of casual gaming. Nintendo released the Wii, complete with motion control, in 2006 and allowed the whole family able to play games together. Wii Sports, bundled with the console, was made for different generations to go toe-to-toe and could be found in over 100M[ii] households, the greatest sales of that console generation.

The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 followed similarly from the previous generation, though the volume of exclusives began to decline, with most popular titles available on both platforms, such as the likes of the Call of Duty series. Sales volumes were similar and both offered strong online gaming experiences, catering to traditional gamer demographics.

The release of the iPhone in 2007 and the later resultant ubiquity of smartphones paved the way for an explosion of mobile gaming. Angry Birds, first released in 2009, is a textbook example of the simple, yet addictive gaming capabilities available on mobile devices, which coupled with distribution through app stores, culminated in over 2B[iii] downloads. The growth and ubiquity of smartphones as gaming devices would later erode Nintendo’s strong handheld market position.

Minecraft, released first in beta on PC in 2009, was a significant non-traditional game that reached mass audiences. The open-world sandbox construction sim is the second best-selling game of all time, with over 100M[iv] copies sold after its full release in 2011.

Gaming Market Size.jpg

[v]

2012-2016: Gaming Today

Growth in production and marketing budgets has seen gaming on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One begin to rival film as the dominant form of big-budget entertainment. Grand Theft Auto V, released in 2013, had an estimated total budget of $265M[vi]. Diminishing returns on graphical improvements have seen greater emphasis placed on narrative depth, with 2013 release The Last of Us obtaining widespread acclaim for effective storytelling and emotional impact previously unseen in the medium.

Mobile gaming remains popular, with the likes of Candy Crush and Clash of Clans remaining addictive for hundreds of millions of people. For some, low development costs have resulted in extreme success. Flappy Bird, created and launched by Nguyen Ha Dong over the course of a few days in 2013, quickly went viral. The game was soon generating $50k[vii] revenue per day, until it was pulled from app stores in early 2014.

Adjacent forms of entertainment, such as eSports and Let’s Play videos, have emerged and rapidly exploded in popularity. Tournaments for popular free-to-play games, such as League of Legends, garner massive audiences and offer multi-million dollar prizes. Top YouTubers, such as PewDiePie, rose to fame providing commentary whilst playing games. Today, he holds the top ranked YouTube channel with 14B video views and nearly 50M subscribers[viii]. Gaming and related entertainment is bigger than ever.

The success of Pokémon Go in 2016 showed the magnitude of scale that mobile-based augmented reality games can realize. In addition, it demonstrates a potential route to future success for Nintendo. They can capitalize on the strength of mobile gaming through brand licensing from its wide range of popular title franchises and continue to innovate with new formats. This sentiment is contrary to their recent performance in the hardware market. The Wii U struggled to make as big an impact as its predecessor and the growth of smartphone gaming has severely impacted the overall handheld market size. Despite this, their future still appears positive, even if they are no longer in contention to be the leading hardware player.

The Future

We are beginning to see gaming move into augmented and virtual reality. In 2016, the Oculus Rift had its first commercial release and Sony launched the PlayStation VR. It will take some time for this shift to gain widespread traction, but the future is clear.

This presents a significant opportunity and offers a range of exciting possibilities. Gaming is uniquely appropriate to serve as the narrative medium for storytelling in virtual reality, given the need for interactivity for full immersion in a virtual world. Feeling fully present in a virtual world seems fanciful, but we’re surely not too far off from that point. Maybe within the next 25 years. Either way, the fun and magic that games provide will certainly continue. <>

To mark Cartesian’s 25 years in the telecoms, media, and technology sector, we asked our consultants to reflect on industry topics and write about how they have changed over the last few decades. Click here to receive your copy of our anniversary eBook: 25 Years – A retrospective on innovation in the telecoms, media, and technology sector


Notes:

[i] Ewalt, David M. Forbes: “Sony PlayStation 2 Sales Reach 150 Million Units”, February 2011.

[ii] Robertson, Andy. Forbes: “Wii Sports Club Brings Record Breaking Top Seller to Wii U”, September 2013.

[iii] Cramblet, Gavin. Forbes: “Why is Wii U a Failure?”, February 2014.

[iv] Parfitt, Ben. MCV UK: “Minecraft sales pass 100m units”, June 2016.

[v] Credit Suisse, Euromonitor, iResearch, KOCCA, UKIE.

[vi] Villapaz, Luke. IBTimes: “GTA 5 Costs $265 Million to Develop and Market”, September 2013.

[vii] Hamburger, Ellis. The Verge: “Indie smash hit ‘Flappy Bird’ racks up $50K per day”, February 2014.

[viii] Mogg, Trevor. DigitalTrends.com: “PewDiePie says he’ll ditch his 50 million YouTube subscribers on Friday”, December 2008.