From Humble Beginnings: A History Of Gaming

Friday, September 10, 2021

Have you ever learned about the history of gaming?

In this article we’ll talk you through some of the major turning points for video games since their inception and follow the path that has made them what they are today. 

Gaming has come a long, long way since its humble beginnings. Commercially, it began very much like a technical novelty at a science fair in the 1940s. Since then the industry has grown exponentially year after year until we have the modern day, where billions of pounds are exchanged in the market every year. 

Whereas once upon a time, there was an opinion of gamers as geeky people locked away in their basements playing in the dark, now they are so widespread that people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities are playing video games.

Where did it all begin?

There are many a wives-tale about the origins of gaming, however there is one particular point that is widely recognised as the first example of a game machine. This pivotal moment in time came at the New York World’s Fair in 1940, where Dy Edward Uhler Condon exhibited his game machine. This particular machine played a variation of the ancient math game, Nim. During the time that the game was on display, it is estimated that roughly 50,000 people played it. Supposedly, the computer won over 90% of these matches as well.

However, it was not until a few years later, 1967, that the video game made its commercial leap into people’s homes. The ‘Brown Box’ was the work of Ralph Baer and his team. This prototype system was a vacuum tube-circuit that people could connect to a TV. Once connected, two players were able to control cubes that chased around the screen. Alongside this, there were a number of other games that were available for to be programmed into the Brown Box to play, these included ping pong, checkers, and four other sports games.

Particularly impressive for its time, there was also some sophisticated technology that allowed a person to add an accessory to their ‘Brown Box’. Two of the most advanced ones were a lightgun that let people play a shooting game, as well as another attachment that meant a person could play a golf game. 

Eventually, the ‘Brown Box’ became licensed by Magnavox, they officially released the system in 1972 under the name Magnavox Odyssey. What is interesting here is that a lot of people credit the Atari as the first games console, when in fact, the Magnavox Odyssey was released a few months before the Atari.

Unfortunately the Magnavox Odyssey didn’t sell as well as it needed to for the production run to continue, with approximately 300,000 consoles sold. Despite the end of this console in 1975, it was the start of gaming as we know it.

Moving Forward To Atari And The Arcade Gaming Boom

There were two companies that were first able to get the public to pay attention to video games,  these were Sega and Taito. They released a couple games that became very popular, these were Periscope in 1966 and Crown Special Soccer in 1967. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that Atari came to the forefront of the gaming industry, where they set a new standard for the gaming community. 

Alongside the amazing work Atari did pushing the development of their in-house games, they also managed to create an industry that hadn’t been seen before, the arcade. In 1973 arcade machines entered into the wide world, with shopping malls, bowling alleys, and bars becoming the machines’ new home. It wasn’t long before people realised that they were onto a great idea, because of this 15 more companies began creating video games between 1972 and 1985. 

How The Modern Day Multiplayer Started

By the end of the 1970s, arcade machines had become a huge success. Chains of restaurants were buying them to put into their sites because people were coming from all over to play them. The types of games that were on offer created a lot of competition amongst the people who were playing them. The games were scored and the players with the most points would get onto a leaderboard, with their initials next to the score. Alongside this, people were able to play together, or against one another, by sharing the screen.

When we think about multiplayer gaming now, most of us will think about players with their own separate screen. This type of multiplayer gaming first came about on the PLATO network system in a game called Empire in 1973. In Empire, up to 8 people were able to compete against one another in a turn based strategy game. 

This era of gaming is one that a lot of stereotypes about gamers have been created in. The majority of people gaming was popular with at this time was the youth. Kids and teenagers would crowd around an arcade, looking to see who would get the highest score on the most popular machines. Despite the popularity of it within the younger people at this time, few could have predicted how far it would come in the future.

Gaming Moves Into Peoples Houses

One of the biggest determinants of gaming becoming more sophisticated and accessible is technology. When gaming first came around, computers were not something every household had. However, throughout the early 1970s, technological advancements meant that computers were more accessible, the trickle down effect of this was that more adnaced gaming consoles became much more accessible to people.

Atari released the Atari VCS in 1977, however the public didn’t adjust to the new technology and as a result, sales were way lower than they expected. However, this laid the groundwork for future consoles to be imagined. The Atari VCS had 10 games programmed into it to play, but what really excited developers was that there was an external ROM slot that let cartridges get plugged in. This led independent developers to start creating games on their own that could be played on the Atari VCS.

When the Atari VCS (now renamed the Atari 2600) included a new microprocessor, it opened the door for Space invaders to be released in 1980. When Space Invaders came out, a hugely significant point in the history of gaming was hit. Alongside this, the Atari 2600 finally began to sell as people who believed in it thought that it could, in 1980 2 million units were sold.

With the multiple strands of gaming, in the arcade and at home, both gaining hugely in popularity, the gaming community also began to define itself. This was aided by magazines starting to get published in the late 1970s and 1980s. These magazines gave enthusiasts stuff to talk about and discuss, beyond when they were directly playing the game.

Computers Get More Advanced, Leading The Way For More Sophisticated Games

When the 1980s kicked in, personal computers were coming into much wider use by the public. What was so influential about this was the improved processing power within these computers compared to the consoles that had preceded this point. With the increased computing power that these computers gave, games were able to become much more advanced and move away from the linear model that most had been following up until that moment.

By the late 1980s people were able to connect their devices and play against each other in a variety of ways, including the Macintosh and the Atari ST console. The Atari ST was released on the MidiMaze which even allowed up to 16 consoles to be linked. While the actual application of this didn’t always work, it was a window into the future of what gaming would become.

It wasn’t until 1993 when Pathway to Darkness was released that the multiplayer gaming scene exploded with ‘LAN Parties’. By 1996 games like Quake had been released, as well as Windows 95, which made multiplayer LAN games much more accessible.

Gaming Moves Online

There have been many important moments in the history of gaming, but arguably the internet is one of the most pivotal. However it wasn’t all plain sailing, over the course of three years between 1993 and 1996, three of the biggest gaming companies tried to enter the online gaming market, Sega, Nintendo and Atari all failed.

The Sega Dreamcast was the world’s first console that was capable of properly integrating with the internet. However, despite how revolutionary the console was, it ended up being a financial catastrophe for Sega. This is partly because the cost of accessing the internet in the 2000s was very expensive and Sega, in the end, had to pay the bill of its users that accessed the internet.

In 2001, Runescape was also released. The MMORPG allowed millions of people around the world to play with and against each other. This was another pivotal moment, where the scale of the internet was visible and the potential for what online gaming could be became clear to people in the industry. 

The Modern World of Gaming

Once the internet was understood by the major publishers and console manufacturers, they started to incorporate it into their devices and games from the start. This issued in a new era of gaming that was propelled forward by advancements in computing technologies. This was also a time when the internet became so much more accessible for people around the world.

As more and more people used the internet, online storefronts rose to prominence such as Xbox Live and the Wii Shop Channel. On these storefronts people could buy their games and download them from the internet, without the need to purchase a disk.

The internet rapidly changed the gaming landscape as we know it. With simply a few clicks, people were able to play their favourite games against people all over the world. In a lot of situations now, the online part of the game is the main reason people play it, instead of the downloaded element.

As more and more people were playing video games, people started to form teams, known as ‘clans’ This is basically a group of people that you will play a game with. This can vary from a few close friends to groups that have thousands of people in them. Often these clans will compete against another to battle it out for dominance.

The World Goes Mobile

Potentially one of the biggest milestones in terms of getting gaming to the widest possible audience was when smartphones got powerful enough to support games.  The first smartphone was released in 2007, and with that a new form of game soon followed, allowing a whole new audience to enjoy gaming.

Particularly in the console market, gaming is dominated by a handful of companies. What was fantastic about mobile gaming was that it gave smaller teams and publishers a gap to find an audience too. Mobile gaming allows people to play anywhere and at any time, which is a fantastic time killer on journeys or when you are bored. Originally the games were very simple in comparison to console and PC games however as phones have got more powerful, so have the games played on them.

Where next?

The sheer size of the gaming industry means that there are a lot of extremely interesting developments going on. VR gaming has been around for a few years now, but there is still a lot of potential for that to develop further. Arguably the biggest development for the gaming industry is when 5G is widely adopted and devices are equipped to make use of it. The amount of data that can be transferred over 5G offers huge opportunities for mobile gaming. 

While we can’t exactly predict the future, we can be more certain that the rapid technological development of the gaming industry is not going to slow down, particularly when we consider the amount of money that the market generates. As we move forward, it will be very interesting and exciting to see what the latest innovations are.