The History of Computer Games

The History of Computer Games
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Early Days

While there are varying views on what should be considered the dawn of computer games, it is reasonable to believe that the very

simple game designed by Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann, for playing on a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) in 1947 marked the dawn of computer games. Conventionally, however, A.S Douglas who developed OXO, a graphical version of noughts and crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe), in 1952 at the University of Cambridge, is considered the father of computer games. Douglas developed this game to demonstrate his thesis on Human-Computer-Interaction, and it was played on the EDSAC computer. Despite its technological antiquity, Tic-Tac Toe is still popular in some age groups!!!

William Higginbotham, who, in 1958 created a game called ‘Tennis for Two’ on an oscilloscope is another individual credited

Tennis For Two

with the invention of video games. This game was created primarily to entertain visitors at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. This game shows a simplified tennis court from the side, where the player tries to play the ball over the net, against gravity pull. The game had two controllers, with a knob for controlling the trajectory, and a button for firing the ball over the net. Pong (discussed below), an innovation of Tennis for Two that found immense popularity in arcade and home consloe versions, was the first video game played by many people.

In 1961, a group of students at MIT, including Steve Russell, programmed a game called Spacewar! on the


then-new DEC PDP-1. The game pitted two human players against each other, each controlling a space ship capable of firing missiles. A black hole in the center created a large gravitational field and another source of hazard. This game was soon distributed with new DEC computers and traded throughout primitive cyberspace. Presented at the MIT Science Open House in 1962, it was the first widely available and influential game.

Following this, in 1966, Ralph Baer (then at Sanders Associates) created a simple video game called Chase that could be displayed on a standard television set. Baer continued development, and in 1968 he had a prototype that could play several different games, including versions of table tennis and target shooting. Under Baer, Bill Harrison developed the light gun and, with Bill Rusch, developed video games.

Golden Age: Arcade Games

The world’s first video game console, the Odyssey, was released by Magnavox in 1972. But in fact it was Ralph Baer, who, by 1969 had a working prototype console that hooked up to a TV set, and was used to play ball and paddle (Pong-type) games; and Ralph Baer had sold this prototype to Magnavox. Nolan Bushnell, who had earlier created a coin-operated arcade version of Spacewar, saw a demonstration of Odyssey, and then decided to start his own company, Atari in 1972. The first arcade video game was Atari’s Pong, and Atari managed to sell 19,000 Pong machines!!

Space Invaders - Taito

The arcade game industry entered its Golden Age in 1978 with the release of Space invaders by Taito. This game was a runaway blockbuster hit that inspired dozens of manufacturers to enter the market and produce their own video games. Also in 1978, Atari released Asteroids, its biggest best-seller. It replaced the game Lunar Lander as the number one arcade hit. Color arcade games became more popular in 1979 and 1980 (e.g. Pac-Man). Other arcade classics of the late 1970s include Night Driver, Galaxian, and Breakout. The Golden Age was marked by a prevalence of arcades and new color arcade games that continued through the 1980s.

Computing laboratories were still involved, with games like Zork laying the ground work for the adventure genre, and Richard Bartle creating Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) at the University of Essex. Eventually, the latter would lead to MUD being used to describe a genre of games where many users would interact using RPG mechanics in a persistent online environment. While text driven and bearing no visual resemblance to todays MMOs, the essential elements were in place.

1980s: Age of Genre-defining Games

The early 1980s marked the period of increasing competition among game publishers. Consolodation lead to some of today’s largest publishers (like Electronic Arts) while less competitive companies went under or got bought up. Games were also reaching a level of sophistication (and marketing influence) that led to considering games as being from one genre or another. While new technologies mean that certain genres come and go or evolve, we still refer to games as RPG or FPS or Adventure or whatever genre. Several genre-defining games started appearing on the scene in the face of severe cut-throat competition.

Some of the classic genre-defining games and events of the 1980s include:

Defender was the first scrolling shooter game with events taking place outside the player’s view, displayed by a radar view showing a map of the whole playfield (1980)

Battlezone was the first to to create a three-dimensional game world (arguably the first FPS) (1980)

Pac-Man was the first to popularize character-based gaming and stayed as the most popular character for a long time (1980)

Rogue (1980) and Wizardry (1981) set the trends for the first-ever Role Playing Games, developed with ASCII characters and cursor graphics

3D Monster Maze was the first 3D game for a home computer (1981)

Dungeons of Daggorath was the first to add various weapons and monsters to a game (1982)

Pole Position was the first to provide for the player’s view behind and above the vehicle, looking forward along the road with the horizon in sight (1982)

Dragon’s Lair was the first laserdisc game, and introduced full-motion video to video games (1983)

A slew of Adventure games, starting with Zork, led to the founding of Sierra-On-Line, a major producer of adventure games like the King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Leisure Suite Larry series (1983)

Quest series from Sierra King marked the beginning of modern adventure games with a player-controlled character moving behind and in front of other objects on screen (1984) - still with text commands

Snipes marked the beginning of the genre of multi-player shooters, subsequently popularized by the likes of Doom and Quake (1984)

Maniac Mansion from LucasArts was the first to introduce a point-and-click interface, followed by mouse-driven games (1987)

Final Fantasy was the first successful Role-Playing Game (RPG) with Console Graphics, modeled after Dragon Quest, to be followed by The Legend of Zelda introduced on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES); and these two revolutionized RPGs forever (1987)

Metal Gear on the MSX2 gave birth to the stealth-based game genre (1987)

Sweet Home released by Capcom on the NES set the trend for the Survival Horror game genre (1989)

1990s: New Genres and Multimedia Capabilities

With the increasing computing power and decreasing cost of processors like Intel’s 386, 486, and Motorola’s 68000, the 1990s saw the rise of 3D graphics, as well as “multimedia” capabilities through sound cards and CD-ROMs. The gaming industry started maturing and strategies for entertaining the gamers with movie-style technologies and designs started making their appearance on PC and Console in the 1990s.

Doom 2 - FPS Genre

Shareware became a popular method of distribution, and games in the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom became immensely popular with reach to large masses in 1992-93. FPS games generally refer to games where the player has full control over a specified character and can interact directly with the environment; almost always aiming and shooting with multiple styles of weapons and ammunition. The multimedia effects in these games were quite astounding for that period.

The genre of Real Time Strategy** (RTS) games** really took off after Dune II in 1992. The RTS is characterized by an overhead view, a “mini-map” of the whole playing area, and the control of both the resource and military aspects of an army. Two styles of RTS play were being advocated by publishers - one in which you first access a building, and the options for construction of different units are visible after that; and another style where construction of different units were allowed by simply clicking options directly from the permanently visible menu itself. RTS games like Warcraft earmarked the first style, while games like Command & Conquer followed the second style. There is still close competition between these two styles in RTS games.

Alone in the Dark set the trend for the multimedia survival horror genre, and led to CD-ROM based consoles in 1992. Myst, published in 1993, raised the bar for puzzle-based adventure games. With its pre-rendered 3-Dimensional graphics, video and audio the game demanded more storage capacity, and hence became the first among PC games to be published solely on CD-ROM. Thus Myst was, for some, responsible for the adoption of CD-ROM drives on PCs. With 3dfx releasing the Voodoo chipset in 1996, 3D rendering became the de-facto standard for a whole generation of games, particularly in the FPS genre, with games like Quake storming the markets.

Online gaming grew alongside the internet through the 1990s. Quake in the FPS genre, together with RTS genre games like Microsoft’s Age Of Empires, Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starfcraft series and turn-based games like Heroes of Might and Magic started gaining ground on the World Wide Web.

New Trend: ‘Mod’s

One of the more recent trends, made popular in the late 1990s, and persistent well into the new millennium, is the concept of gamers introducing ‘modifications’ (aka ‘mod’s) in games. Mod or modification is a term generally applied to PC games, especially FPS games, RPGs and RTS games. Mods are made by the general public or a developer, and can be entirely new games in themselves, but mods are not standalone software and require the user to have the original release in order to run. They can include new items, weapons, characters, enemies, models, textures, levels, story lines, music, and game modes.

It is generally accepted that the earliest mod was Castle Smurfenstein, for Castle Wolfenstein. Eventually, game designers realized

Counter Strike

that custom content increased the lifespan of their games, and so began to encourage the creation of mods. Half-Life spawned perhaps the most successful mods of all time, with a squad-based shooter entitled CounterStrike. Since CounterStrike, many games have encouraged the creation of custom content. Other examples include Unreal Tournament, which allowed players to import 3dsmax scenes to use as character models, and Maxis’s The Sims, for which players could create custom objects. Team Fortress, one of the most popular mods ever, was originally a Quake total conversion. It has been so popular that a sequel, Team Fortress 2, has been developed. Similarly, Trauma Studios, which developed the popular Battlefield 1942 mod Desert Combat, was bought by Digital Illusions CE to work on Battlefield 2. Both Desert Combat and Battlefield 2 are in modern settings.

MMOs and MMORPGs: The Latest Craze

Though there is no universally acceptable definition of what constitutes a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game, it is generally believed that MMOs support hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously. Thus, these games are necessarily played on the

Neverwinter Nights

internet and feature at least one persistent world (a virtual world with an element of permanence about it). The most popular type of MMO, and the sub-genre that pioneered the category, is the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), which descended from university mainframe computer MUD and adventure games such as Rogue and Dungeon on the PDP-10. These games predate the commercial gaming industry and the Internet, but still featured persistent worlds and other elements of MMO Games still used today. Realm Online, Ultima Online, and EverQuest were the early MMORPGs, that debuted in the 1990s and popularized the MMORPG genre. While Neverwinter Nights had been limited to 50 simultaneous players

Worl of Warcraft

in 1991 due to technology constraints, the number of simultaneous players on most MMORPGs now runs into thousands.

Some of the most popular MMORPGs include World of War craft, Lord of the Rings, Eve Online, Final Fantasy XI- Game Lair, Warhammer Online, Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea etc… The intense penetration of the Internet has literally created a borderless world, with gamers from the entire globe playing MMORPGs and becoming friends online, without having seen or heard each other.


What we have seen is a quick summary overview of the history of computer games. Technology has, indeed, made a big difference to the world of gaming, and one needs to understand the genres in detail to appreciate the evolution of games. We have not touched upon certain genres of games here, such as educational games, games like chess, which have a history of their own. Do come back for more in-depth coverage of each of the genres of games.

This post is part of the series: History of Computer Games

Any attempt to write about the history of computer games is difficult considering the innumerable genres of games. Each genre, such as arcade games, Role Playing games, Horror games, Mystery games, etc.. all have a history of their own. This series will cover the history of each genre one by one…

  1. History of Computer Games: An Overview