From consoles to game genres, from lawsuits to graphics, these are the 30 big moments that define the videogame industry, from 1977 to the present day…
In 1977 the Atari 2600 launched and along with it much of what we know today as the videogame industry. How did we get where we are today? We have surveyed our history and chosen one moment from each year that defines who and what we are today.
1977: This is your hardware, now and forever
The wildly popular Atari 2600 gave us today’s modern console: a general purpose CPU, dedicated graphics and sound hardware, a standard audio/video output, generic controller I/O ports, an interface for swappable media, all powered by a wall outlet. For comparison, the battery-powered Magnavox Odyssey had neither sound nor color graphics and the Fairchild Channel F had an internal speaker and hardwired controllers.
Thirty years ago Atari cultivated the image of a console sitting prominently in front of a television, surrounded by stacks of games and spare controllers and happy people holding controllers. Nintendo uses nearly identical images with fewer wires to sell its Wii.
1978: Japan short on coins, Space Invaders to blame
Shortly after Atari put its first Pong machine into Andy Capp’s Tavern, the owner called to report the machine was broken. When Al Alcorn, creator of the Pong machine, arrived to examine and remove the machine he discovered the problem: overflowing coin container.
While Pong went on to be quite popular, its original money problems faintly foreshadowed the far more extensive difficulties that Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders caused in 1978. Players put coins into Taito’s machines so rapidly that Japan quadrupled production of yen coins to deal with the shortage. More importantly for the industry as a whole, its popularity across the world brought video games out of smoky bars and arcades and into more familiar establishments like department stores and restaurants.
When Space Invaders appeared exclusively on the Atari 2600 in 1980, it defined the arcade-to-console hit and the concept of a system-selling game. Such arcade conversions are less important today, but killer applications and system exclusives like Super Mario 64 and Metal Gear Solid 4 still drive the console and handheld hardware markets.
1979: Learning to Fly an Apple
Interest in Bruce Artwick’s 1976 articles on 3D graphics and flight simulation led him to the 1979 creation and eventual publication of Flight Simulator for the Apple ][. The realistic instrumentation ignited imaginations and the World War I dogfighting mode demonstrated the videogame potential. Cutting edge wireframe graphics dazzled everyone, driving Flight Simulator to be one of the best selling pieces of Apple ][ software in the 1980s.
Microsoft bought a license from subLOGIC and released their Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.00 in 1982. Twenty-four years later they’re still releasing new versions, although the graphics and scale have gotten a wee bit of an upgrade.
Runner-up: Speaking of simulations, in 1979 Mattel created more than a better football game for their new console, the Intellivision. Beyond the full-length quarters and the callable plays, NFL Football was an officially-licensed sports game. The Intellivoice add-on wasn’t quite up to color commentary, but John Madden would more than suffice once EA got into the game.
1980: Activision beats Atari on its own system
Forget women; try spurned programmers. After receiving no bonuses and no credit for creating games generating millions of dollars for Atari, a group of programmers — David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, and Bob Whitehead — broke away and created Activision, the first third party developer for a videogame console. That rebellion defined the third party system which dominates today’s videogame market.
The liberated ex-Atari programmers created a new experience for videogame players. By holding itself to a higher standard Activision created games free of the sprite flicker seen in Atari’s own software. Original games like Kaboom! and River Raid came to define the Atari 2600. Crane’s Pitfall! could be considered the foundation of today’s platform games. And programmer photos and messages in the game manuals no doubt inspired a generation of budding developers.
Runner-up: Programmer Warren Robinett found his own way around Atari’s rigid policies: he hid his name in a secret room inside Adventure, what one might consider the first graphical adventure. Through an elaborate process discovered after the game was released, players could access that secret room and the flashing words "Created by Warren Robinett". The world first easter egg surely puzzled many youngsters at the time, but consider how much less interesting our games would be without them.
1981: Back before they were called "gaming rags"
The article you’re reading right now and much of the writing on this very website owes its roots to the videogame press of the early 1980s, in particular to Electronic Games Magazine. Several terms we use regularly to describe games — easter egg, scrolling, and screenshot — were coined in Electronic Games editorials penned by co-founder Bill Kunkel. The magazine also created the sections we still use today to categorize content on videogame websites: news, previews, reviews, hints, and editorials. Only the letters section has fundamentally changed — we now call them user comments and they are published instantaneously rather than weeks after they’re written.
Runner-up: After the accidental success of his D&D-to-Apple conversion, Akalabeth, Richard Garriott set out to create a more polished commercial product. The result was Ultima, or what we know today as Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness. Ultimately Garriott did more than just create Ultima and its sequels — their popularity laid the foundation on which an entire genre of graphical role-playing games was built.
1982: E.T. stuck in a hole, Atari too
At the end of Summer 1982, the Atari 2600 dominated the home console market and Atari obtained exclusive rights to a game based on the box office smash movie, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. All they had to do was program the game, package it up, and enjoy the profits. On a five week deadline, they enlisted Howard Scott Warshaw (who had spent four to five months on the hit game Yars’ Revenge) who designed the game in two days and then coded it up in the remaining time. Without time to test the game with real people, Atari produced 4 million cartridges and started shipping to retailers.
The problem? Few people enjoyed flying E.T. out of those damned holes long enough for him to phone home and Atari only sold 1.5 million cartridges. Making a stinker of a game is one thing, but being left with 2.5 millions extra copies is quite another altogether. From the E.T. debacle and other missteps Atari went on to report a half billion dollar loss the next year and was ultimately sold off in pieces in 1984.
It’s not hard to see smaller versions of Atari’s hubris and fall throughout history: Romero’s Daikatana, Nintendo’s spurning of Sony’s CD-based console design, the death of 3dfx. At this point, it’s probably best that we tastefully avoid mentioning the PlayStation 3.
1983: Big patent lawsuits had to start somewhere
For many, videogame patent lawsuits may seem a new development, but their roots actually go back to the dawn of the industry itself. One of the first big fights involved Coleco’s Expansion Module #1 which played Atari 2600 games through a ColecoVision. Atari sued in December 1982 for patent violations and unfair competition, asking for $350 million in damages. Plucky Coleco upped the ante and countersued for $500 million. By March 1983 they’d reached an historic settlement: Coleco would pay to license Atari’s patents, continue making their Expansion Module #1, and produce the Atari 2600-compatible Gemini console.
Since that time no console manufacturer has tried to make its system compatible with its competitors’ games, although Bleemcast and Connectix Virtual Game Station are third party software solutions that come close. The real lesson here is how these disputes are typically resolved: mutual agreements between the two parties. Look no further than the recent Immersion vs. Sony, in which Sony finally relented and licensed Immersion’s force-feedback technology.
Runner-up: While Dragon’s Lair was functionally little more than a Simon Says video player, the gimmick of its amazing graphics carried it through to fame and fortune. It pioneered the storage of games on optical media and more than any previous game showed the potential for what videogames could be, graphically at least.
1984: A sandbox in space
Before Grand Theft Auto III made three-dimensional sandbox games fashionable, David Braben and Ian Bell created one of the first and certainly one of the most influential such games: Elite. A player start as the harmless Commander Jameson, owner of 100 credits and a modest trading ship, and determines his lot by how he lives and works. He can take on military missions or mine asteroids or simply trade as an honest member of society. On the darker side, the player may take to piracy or become a bounty hunter. The player was granted something quite special — the ability to choose, and then to live with the rewards and consequences. To create a suitably rich sandbox on limited 8-bit machines, Elite used a procedurally generated universe, creating 8 galaxies from a seed and a random number generator.
1985: I see blocks falling in my sleep
It began on a PDP-11 clone in Moscow, where it quickly spread to IBM PC computers. From there to Hungary, then Britain and the United States and then the world. Not a virus, but Tetris — which has proven nearly as debilitating to work productivity. Surely Alexey Pajitnov, a mathematician, had no idea just how powerful his falling-block creation would be, but even today variations show up on practically every new consumer device with a screen and a couple of buttons. Is there any videogame that people played in 1985 whose graphics and mechanics haven’t changed, but people still play obsessively?
Runner-up: In the mid-1980s life rarely got any better than raiding a dungeon with your D&D friends. More than a few teenagers dropped pen and pencil and rushed to the arcade to play Gauntlet and act out their fantasies with color graphics and booming sound effects. Today we play more sophisticated games — Diablo II and World of Warcraft come to mind — but the mechanics of hacking and slashing are still there.
1986: Nintendo, industry savior
Today it sounds ridiculous, in late 1985 Nintendo had to cajole toy retailers — painfully stung by the 1983-1984 videogame industry crash — to stock its new Nintendo Entertainment System. By the end of 1986 the industry had begun to turn the corner and Nintendo grasped the North American videogame market with an iron fist that would not be significantly weakened until the 1990s. The new age would bring many wonders — Super Mario Bros., Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, und so weiter — and millions upon millions of dollars into Nintendo’s coffers.
As we will see in future decades, Nintendo has always been experimenting with controls and the D-pad on the NES controller, appropriated from Gunpei Yokoi’s Game & Watch devices, is still with us more than 20 years later. No system since has had a controller without such a directional pad. In addition to this new control method, Nintendo offered a light gun and R.O.B. and would later offer the Power Pad, a sort of electronic Twister pad which today’s kids would assume was for Dance Dance Revolution.