50 years of gaming: from ‘Pong’ to PS5
The year is 1973: The Boar publishes its first ever newspaper in October, the Sydney Opera House is opened, the USA pulls out of Vietnam, and Pong is the best-selling video game. In the 50 years The Boar has been in print, the world of gaming has evolved significantly from two paddles passing a ball back and forth. But how far have we come from the world of arcades and Atari? Let’s take a look at the last 50 years and discover how a few pixels became fully-realised 3D worlds the size of the actual Earth, and graphics almost indiscernible from real life.
The 1970s – The Breakout Years
The world of video games was very scarce in the early 70s. But in 1973, Allan Alcorn, a trainee at Atari Inc., had accidentally created one of the most famous games of all time as a training exercise. Pong’s simple premise led to massive success, and while it was originally limited to arcade machines, Atari took Pong in 1975 and created a machine that allowed you to play it at home! A huge step to bringing gaming into the home, and a massive relief for table tennis paddles across the country. From here, the success of Pong was noted, and endless variations and outright rip-offs were spawned. Atari themselves developed Breakout as a single-player alternative, as previously one player controlled a paddle each. In 1977, the Atari Video Game System became one of the first successful home games consoles. Any mention of the 70s would be incomplete without mentioning Space Invaders – originally an arcade-exclusive but taken to home consoles with an army of imitators, including Atari’s Asteroids. At the end of the decade, the success of such hits led to companies rushing to push out similar products to cash in. The video game industry was growing, but was this unnatural growth a bad sign for the future?
The 1980s – I Wanna Crash with Somebody (Who Loves Me)
It’s the 1980s and arcades are still very popular (you knew that already though, thanks to Stranger Things). That being said, a swarm of new home console games were flooding the market. Production of video games was up 175% by 1983, and the market was very oversaturated, with many similar and poor-quality games ruining consumer trust in the market. The most famous example of this approach is ET for the Atari 2600 console. Supposedly a tie-in game for Spielberg’s classic, this game was almost unplayable, with an alien-like figure wandering around blocky screens with no obvious goal. This game has become somewhat of an urban legend for having contributed to the 1983 Video Game Crash.
The Crash was a massive recession in 1983, due in part due to an enormous surplus in video game stock. Retailers had no room on the shelves and were returning games en masse to publishers who didn’t have the money to refund them, and so many publishers went bankrupt. This led to games being sold off for prices as low as $5, down from the usual $99 of the time (almost $300 today). A rush of cheap, low-quality games had ruined the newly emerging video-game business. As for ET, a story emerged that the surplus cartridges were buried in a landfill in New Mexico; this legend was confirmed in 2014 when diggers went and uncovered 728,000 video game cartridges. Not all of these were ET, but the game was among them.
After 1983 gaming was running out of lives. One company would come in and change that: a small, relatively unknown, Japanese company called Nintendo. Now, I’d be willing to bet a reasonable amount anyone reading this could tell me at least one Nintendo game, but in the 80s, they were complete strangers outside of Japan. In 1985, Nintendo released their Famicom in North America as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo had a strict licensing policy, so only games that got the official Nintendo seal of approval were published on the system. This stood in stark contrast to the market of the time, flooded with cheap knockoffs. Add to that the fact the NES went on to house some of the most iconic games of all time, with Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda being the heaviest hitters. Nintendo stood at the top of a revitalised market, mostly uncontested until the ‘Console Wars’ officially began in 1988 with the release of the SEGA Genesis and their headline game Sonic the Hedgehog, a mascot designed to rival Mario himself.
The 1990s – The Console Wars
The 90s were characterised by a new level of competition in the gaming industry. Nintendo and their consoles stood mostly on top due to the name recognition and game quality from their flagship franchises, but SEGA kept pace all the way through the 90s.
Gamers were also treated to an entire additional dimension. Home console games had traditionally been limited to the 2D platformer style. ‘3D’ had technically existed since the arcade days, but google Battlezone and win a prize if you can begin to tell me what that game is even about from just the photos. 1996 saw Nintendo leading the way again with the N64, which was powerful enough to render Nintendo’s classics in the third dimension. Super Mario 64 is regarded by many as the best jump from 2D to 3D ever, with Mario able to explore entire worlds instead of just the short 2D stages of his past. At the end of the 90s, the console wars saw a major shift as the SEGA Dreamcast failed to find its feet. In 1994 Sony promptly filled this gap with the release of the first PlayStation, and the modern console wars began in earnest.
The 2000s – Here Wii Go
2001 saw the release of the original Xbox, a console almost impossible to look up thanks to the release of the Xbox One more than a decade later. From then on, the big console war was between Sony and Microsoft, with the two companies constantly trying to one up each other. In this era, our collection of gaming icons is completed, with games like Assassins’ Creed, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto emerging.
With the two big console providers digging their trenches, Nintendo opted for a different approach. In 2006 they released the Wii, a less powerful machine than its direct competitors but with a unique selling point in the form of its motion controller, which allowed for games with easy-to-master controls anyone could enjoy. Its flagship title Wii Sports is the fourth highest-selling video game of all time, a testament to the Wii’s popularity, despite winning no awards for technical fidelity or power. Nintendo had taken their position as the ‘third way’ in the console wars, targeting groups of gamers who felt left behind by the increasingly complex and gritty games being released for other platforms.
Ushering in the modern era was the launch of the Apple App Store in 2008 for its new iPhone devices. Mobile gaming now accounts for around half of the gaming industry’s total worth, which is estimated to hit $321 billion by 2026. Some critics view the mobile scene as being bad for the health of the industry. Mobile games are often repetitive, simplistic and addictive, often with unhealthy monetisation schemes thrown in to siphon your wallet. But it certainly didn’t start this way, and the joy of classics like Cut the Rope and Crossy Road is timeless.
The 2010s – Trendy
In the 2010s, gaming fully entered the mainstream. Sites like YouTube and Twitch started to allow people to make a career out of their love for games, and this amplified the gaming audience.
The so-called ‘Triple-A’ companies (big-name developers) were captivated by trends. The success of World of Warcraft led to a boom in the number of MMOs, although many have failed to stick around. Games started following a worrying trend of being less about a one-time purchase for a full experience, and rather a ‘live service’ with constant updates, paid downloadable content and in-game purchases which often give players more cosmetics for an in-game character, in-game currency or even powerful upgrades. Games also keep getting bigger. The first Assassin’s Creed would take around 15 hours to see through. The newest entry – Valhalla – takes at least 60 hours to finish, and that’s just focusing on the main quest!
Luckily, mainstream developers were not the only provider of gaming experiences in the 2010s. Videos and streaming becoming so big allowed smaller, ‘indie’ games to reach massive popularity, with huge runaway hits like Minecraft. Indie games have provided a comforting contrast to the Triple-A gaming scene, often being about more compact experiences made with love and care. If you have a friend you want to get into gaming, show them Stardew Valley and with any luck you’ll create a new fan.
It’s hard to say where gaming will go next in the 2020s. Will we keep going bigger and better, creating games hundreds of hours in length? Will indies take over as consumers start to lose interest in bloated and shallow Triple-A experiences? Will every single game be in Virtual Reality by 2030? Whatever direction we take next, it’s clear to see gaming means something entirely different from what it meant to The Boar readers of yesteryear.
As I finish writing this, I’m about to sit down and complete World of Warcraft’s newest Raid alongside 25 people living across the planet, all playing simultaneously together in the same virtual world. If you told that to a predecessor of mine writing for this paper 50 years ago, they’d probably tell you that was ‘far out, man’ but they’re ‘totally psyched’ for you.