Video games have come a long way in the 45 years they’ve been published and marketed to consumers across the world on more platforms than most people would even believe actually existed. With each new generation, technical advancements have propelled this “hobby” so far into the mainstream that game development budgets within the triple-A industry rival that of Hollywood’s biggest block busters (and sometimes even rival their profits). “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” brought in a substantial $1 billion 16 days after its release, beating out James Cameron’s sci-fi epic “Avatar” by 1 day and becoming one of the single best selling entertainment products in history. gaming isn’t just a hobby, it’s not “just for kids” and the machines that play these games are certainly not “toys” by any means. It’s easy today to write off this industry as just something young people are interested in and not to be taken seriously, yet streamers and let’s players on YouTube, Twitch and various other platforms reign in millions of dollars not only for their networks, but for themselves every year. Mainstream media does its best to downplay these rising “internet celebrities” and sources with slanderous articles and biased journalism in the vain attempt to keep themselves relevant in a world rapidly losing trust in them over the past decade. It’s become a superpower in multi-media and it’s not going away anytime soon.
But, with all that said, where exactly did this all come from and where is it all headed? Well, for that, we need to dial things back a bit. Recall that I stated that video games have nearly fifty years to their legacy. For most people, when you ask them, “what was the first video game ever made”, they’re likely to answer “Pong”. This isn’t far from the truth. It’s at least relevant enough to earn the title, even if it isn’t quite factual. In reality, “video games” or interactive electronic games had existed before the advent of “Pong”, but the key thing to remember is that “Pong” was the game that popularized video games for the mainstream audience. “Pong” was a massively successful arcade game marketed to the public as electronic table-tennis and consisted of two rectangles (paddles) on a black screen that could move up and down on a vertical axis while a small square (ball) bounced between them. The point of the game was to bounce the ball past the opponent’s paddle and score a point. There was a tracking score counter (in most instances of the game) and someone was even clever enough to include a sound-byte that resembled a cheering crowd when a point was scored. “Pong” blew up in a big way that no-one could have predicted and with it, the first video game boom occurred.
Developers all over were pushing to come up with new ideas to sell to consumers and publishers were quick to snatch up these titles and develop cabinets for them. Publishers like Atari and Magnavox rapidly developed and pushed out home consoles so that people could play the games where they lived rather than having to get to their nearest arcade. With the market exploding and everyone wanting to jump onto the rising trend, we also experienced the first major hurdle.
It got to the point that everyone was developing for these systems and everyone was making their own cartridge, console and some rip-off version of what someone else had already done. That market was soon over-saturated and- while there was certainly quantity as far as the products -quality was rapidly declining with no major advancements in most cases. The video game “fad” was dying out and fast. The seeming final nail in the coffin was the subject of immensely bad timing. Stephen Spielberg’s sci-fi film, “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” had touched the hearts of audiences throughout and developers rushed to put out a game to cash in on its popularity. In 1982, the Atari 2600 got “E.T.” the video game and it was received extremely poorly by the mainstream consumers. With a such a beloved title, an over-saturated market and a less than exciting game, “E.T.” is often infamous as, “the game that almost killed video games” and “the worst video game of all time”. I’m going to put myself in the line of fire here and speak up for this little title. “E.T.” is NOT the worst game of all time and it’s certainly not the sole contributor to the 1983 video game crash that occurred. It was, as I have stated before, just matter of bad timing for a rushed-out game to cash in on something popular. If we look at the state of the market today, this lesson would seem to have completely gone over the heads of mainstream publishers as annual, underwhelming and often BARELY FUNCTIONAL games are shoved out year after year, despite immense public backlash over such practices. So I’m going to cut “E.T.” a little slack as far as its reputation is concerned…it’s still not a “good” game, but then how is it any different from anything else released at the time?
So with the popularity of video games falling rapidly and seemingly no future for the medium, how was it ever saved? Well, if you don’t know that then get the hell out- I MEAN -that’s likely something you’re already well aware of, but if not here’s what happened. One the other side of the world was a small island called Japan and in Japan there was a toy manufacture called Nintendo.
Nintendo had been picking up on the rise in gaming popularity and had started work on several of its own products. Taking an immense risk, they sought to release their own console in the West, the Nintendo Famicom (short for Family Computer). But after seeing the hit games had just taken, they were just a bit hesitant. Some clever marketing at the time changed up the name of the device to partially cover up what it was and maybe slip it under a few radars and thus, the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES) was born. Though it was a bit of a downgrade from the initial ideas they’d had for the home console, it shipped and sold unprecedentedly well. Gamers all over the world welcomed the 8-bit console into their homes and a whole new boom in video games occurred, saving it from a very recent crash and decline.
To say that Nintendo “raised an entire generation of gamers” is about as accurate a statement as you can get in this industry. To this day people hum the melody of “Super Mario Bros.”, recount their adventures in “Zelda” and praise the progressive development of the space bounty hunter, Samus Aran, in “Metroid”. Renovation was the name of the game now, not just what you could sell and how much of it, but what you could really DO with the new hardware that was being developed. I’d say more during this period than any other were the limits of gaming technology was tested and pioneered. Nintendo released truckloads of peripherals for their “entertainment system” from interactive robots that could play the game with you (poorly) to light guns and even wireless controllers. A lot of this didn’t catch on immediately, because it was too much too soon without the right tech to back it up and some were obviously just gimmicks (again, remember me saying this, it’s coming back). Games were back, in a big way and the industry was eager to move forward.
Let’s get into some of the real meat here and talk about the “console wars”. There was a span when Nintendo simply owned gaming, it was the only key competitor of note and nearly everyone had its product. Fast forward to 1988 and suddenly that changed when someone new stepped onto the scene in the form of Sega’s Megadrive (called the Sega Genesis in the US). It was a home console with a slew of advancements to make it faster and graphically more impressive than Nintendo’s 8-bit system. Sega further pushed itself by creating a rival mascot to Nintendo’s Mario with the appearance of Sonic the Hedgehog in his 1991 video game debut. Probably the most memorable portion of this period was the battle in marketing and how Sega attempted to dethrone its competition with that 90’s attitude, “Genesis does what NintenDON’T!”
Make no mistake, this was WAR! Fights broke out on the playground and everyone was shouting about their “blast processing” and all the new EXCLUSIVE (remember this too) releases. Nintendo took it all in stride, biding its time as it worked on something new and eventually pushed out the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) which was a brand new 16-bit system and an immense advancement since the NES. The fight was on and you were either in Nintendo’s camp or Sega’s at this point.
This hilarious and sometimes shocking display of console peacocking went on for a span of years. Video game exclusivity became more prominent as publishers wanted to keep people dependent on them with their favorite franchises and while I said the biggest period of tech experimentation came previously, I’d say for sure the biggest exploration of GAMING happened here. With the SNES and Genesis we also have some of the most memorable and innovative games to have ever hit the market (and that may still be the case today). People were immersed in the story and character of “Final Fantasy VI” (not going to lie, I teared up during Gau’s storyline). People were dazzled by the stunning visuals of games like “Starfox” and “Donkey Kong Country”, and were utterly (if you believe any news outlet at the time) desensitized by the graphic violence of “Mortal Kombat,” the game that almost single-handedly invented the Electronics Software Ratings Board (ESRB) and the current game rating system for video game audiences.
Gaming was a powerhouse, it wasn’t going anywhere. This was the period when some of the strongest push-back happened against the industry (as with the previously mentioned “Mortal Kombat” franchise). At the same time some of the biggest pushes forward occurred as well. “Street Fighter” created a competitive scene, leading to tournaments and cash prizes for players that could best all the competition, ROM hacks gave players the ability to make their own levels in the engine of “Super Mario World” and more and more NEW franchises started to gain momentum…but all of that would have a bit of a hang-up in later years. You see we moved on through the generations with new publishers tossing in their hats. The Playstation (PS1) from Sony became a competitor and while the Nintendo 64 (N64) held its own, the Playstation 2 that came out a generation later really seemed to win over the crowd over Nintendo’s own Gamecube. During that same time, Microsoft released its own console, the Xbox, which brought us “Halo: Combat Evolved” and set a new standard for first-person shooters (FPS), re-popularizing it over Nintendo’s own “Goldeneye” (on the N64) and even the likes of Id Software’s “Doom” and “Quake” franchises (mostly due to accessibility in the home console market, I think).
How was Nintendo surviving with such legitimate threats? That’s easy to explain, actually. I think it was thanks largely to a little something they released in 1989 as a successor to their portable Game & Watch device, the Nintendo Gameboy. Gameboy was a handheld, cartridge console that allowed you to play as you go. Sound familiar? Today mobile games are a huge market and with Nintendo pushing the Gameboy and later the Gameboy Color in 1998 with its staggeringly popular “Pokemon” franchise, Nintendo wasn’t going anywhere. It has since embraced this mobile market even more with the release of the Nintendo DS and later upgraded to the 3DS for full 3D, polygon games. Even now its newest release, the Nintendo Switch, embraces the idea of combining a home console with a portable machine that some would argue is even better mobile than stationary. This company has been around long enough to know how to keep itself alive, that’s for sure.
But moving away from this history lesson and these publishers in particular, what about the game industry as a whole today? That’s a complicated one to pin down. You see, today the market is experiencing many of the same problems it did previously, with publishers seemingly unwilling to acknowledge the lessons of the past. One need only look at the Early Access and Greenlight platforms available on Valve’s digital distribution application Steam to see what over-saturation looks like. One need only experience the sometimes bugged-to-the-point-of-unplayable releases of Ubisoft to witness the folly of pushing release dates too soon. Then there’s one of the worst examples, the over-hype and flat-out dishonest practices of some publishers who will market more than they develop and sell you something that barely resembles what they promised and not give the slightest care as they bring in the profits because no-one monitors this industry for any sort of quality control besides the people putting out these faulty products to begin with. Where the industry has flourished (and suffered in many cases) hasn’t been in technology (as new consoles are little more than less powerful PC’s these days) but in the independent developer branch, where people outside of the mainstream giants have been embracing the idea of a well-made product and innovation (“proper” innovation and not gimmicks) over the triple-A mindset of quantity over quality and the mindset of “sell it now, fix it later”, which seems to be the norm these days.
Do I think the industry is going to collapse? Not a chance! Video games are too big for themselves even these days. You’d be hard pressed to find a publisher than wouldn’t push millions of dollars into a project because they seemingly want to emulate Hollywood’s bloated film industry for…reasons I’ll never fully understand. As bleak as things look sometimes with the lies of “No Man’s Sky” and the glitch messes of “Assassins Creed” and the blatantly offensive antics of “Ride to Hell: Retribution,” I will say that there’s still this shimmer of hope to be had and even within the big publishers still. Square Enix (previously Square Soft) was pleasantly surprised to find that their turn-based roleplaying game (RPG) “Bravely Default,” sold as immensely well as it did and recalled a time when those sorts of games were what had made them popular in the first place. Nintendo seems to have done away with a lot of its needless gimmicks with the new Nintendo Switch and embraced ideas that break the common mold with some of their older titles, OR re-visited innovative ideas from those old titles, such as the open-world qualities of “Zelda: Breath of the Wild”. There’s hope and still lots of time. Where are games headed today? I can’t tell you, no-one really could. There’s so much happening so fast, so many new ideas and rejuvenated old ideas in this constantly shifting medium.
Games are here. I imagine they’ll be here forever and I can only hope that we the consumers can push them to take the old lessons to heart, keep their audiences close and never be afraid to try something new, but not just for the sake of it being new. I want games to continue to grow up with us, because they’ve been like family to many of us and they’ve seen us through some of our hardest times, able to distract and pick us up when we needed it, to stun us when weren’t expecting it and to make us feel more with something totally interactive that just isn’t offered anywhere else in the entertainment industry. Here’s to the last 45 years of gaming and to the next 45 to come!