The History of Computer Games

An Atari 2600 four-switch "wood veneer" version, dating from 1980-1982. Shown with standard joystick.

The exact year of the first game played on a computer is a little hard to pin down. Many people think that it was “Adventure”, a text game that appeared on large main-frame computers in the late 1970’s. The game was pretty simple, consisting of commands such as “look at tree”, or “move north”. Little did the designers of this game know that it game would set the precedent of text-based adventure games for years to come.

Meanwhile, 1977 was the year the Atari 2600 took the country by storm. Games such as “Burgertime” and “Pac-Man” were finally available to play at home, and parents were all-too-happy to buy their kids a 2600, thinking that it would have to be less expensive than shelling out quarters in the arcade.

Starting in the 80’s, computer game companies began forming like wildfire. Epyx, Broderbund, Sierra On-Line (then called “On-Line Systems”), and SSI all were formed in the 80’s and started publishing games.

In 1981, home-computers started to gain popularity. Apple’s, Atari’s, and TRS-80’s, were the leaders in the market, with dozens of games being produced for them. Also in 1981, the switch was being made from distributing the games on tape (which was the dominant medium at the time) to 5 1/4 floppy disc. Like the change from floppy to CD-ROM in the early 90’s, the 5 1/4 disc was chosen because it was faster (programs would actually load in a few seconds, compared with minutes with the tape) and could store more data.

The newly formed companies kept producing more games in 1982. “Zork I” was published for the Apple II, “Choplifter!” was produced by Broderbund, and even a young Microsoft got into the action, releasing “Olympic Decathlon”. Microsoft’s foray into the computer gaming field was not very successful, which may explain why Microsoft didn’t publish another game until just a few years ago. Gaming companies that are producing the hits of today were formed in 1982. Access Software, Electronic Arts, and Lucasfilm Games (now LucasArts) were founded in this year.

1983 was the year where the popular Apple II computer began to lose ground over a new competitor–the Atari 400 and 800 (the 800 was my first computer). The Commodore 64, released in 1982, also started to gain in popularity in this year.

Electronic Arts, publishing their first games this year, produced a memorable ad that ran in many magazines. The ad, sometimes called “the ‘image’ ad” for the computer gaming industry, started out with the statement: “Software artists? It is a name these people are uncomfortable with. ‘I’m not so sure there are any software artists yet’, says Bill Budge. ‘Maybe we’ve got to earn that title.'”

With dozens of great computer games published in a little under 15 years, there is no doubt that these few that founded EA did, indeed, earn that title.

In 1984, the cartridge based systems (the Atari 2600 and Colecovision, for example) became suddenly un-popular. “In 1983 the video game industry hit the skids and by 1984 had gone over the cliff”, says Computer Gaming World magazine.

While the video game industry was falling, Commodore and other disk-based systems were gaining ground. The C-64 and Atari 800 were chosen over the older cartridge based systems because of the same reason computers are chosen over video games systems today–you could do other things besides games with the new systems. My dad swears that our Atari 800 “bought this house” because of a financial program he wrote in BASIC.

Meanwhile, IBM released their PCJr with little fan-fare. It combined an early version of DOS with a 5 1/4 disk drive and two cartridge slots. Unfortunately, while this computer was technically more advanced than the others at the time, it was too expensive and very few companies would support it. Needless to say, the PCJr failed so badly that IBM had people lining up for their money back.

Home-computers kept gaining in popularity in 1985, with the Commodore 64 outselling the Apple’s and Atari’s. When everyone figured that the industry had leveled out, two new competitors showed up–IBM and Commodore’s Amiga. But developers were un-decided on which platform to publish on: Electronic Arts took out ads in magazines declaring their commitment to the Amiga, while others insisted on the IBM. It would be a few years until one came out as a definite winner.

1986 and 1987 showed how the software companies were handling the situation of multiple platforms: They would simply release a game in many formats; Apple, C-64, IBM, and Amiga. While this increased the cost of producing a game, it ensured that it would reach the largest audience. This technique of “cross-platorm” releases is still used today.

Adventure and role-playing games were games of choice in 1987. Origin’s “Ultima IV” and Microprose’s “Pirates” topped the charts.

In 1988, games started to move away from their 4-color CGA graphics to 16-color EGA graphics, with Sierra On-Line making use of this new graphics mode first. While this was the obvious next step in computer graphics, it was only around for a year.

1989 was a year dominated by many “firsts” for the gaming industry. The first game that used 256-VGA graphics was published this year. The first sound cards, the Adlib and Soundblaster, showed that games could have better music and sound effects than the “beep” of the internal speakers. The first games that could be played over the modem were also published this year. And of course, 1989 also saw the first CD-ROM game–“The Manhole” by Activision.

Without these advances in 1989, the computer gaming industry would not be what it is today. Can you imagine a game that didn’t come on a CD-ROM? How about a game that didn’t have at least VGA graphics? I remember that after I bought my Sound Blaster in 1990 that I refused to get a game that didn’t work with my sound card. After games started appearing, I started to buy any game that did work with my sound card.

With the graphics and sound gaining in complexity in 1990, computer companies began working on “user-friendliness”. LucasArts introduced their now-famous “point-and-click” interface, which made the old text-parser interface obsolete.

SimCity, the first computer game I bought for my new computer, an IBM 286, was released this year.

In 1991, many publishers were faced with the predicament of producing games for CD-ROM. First of all, many companies didn’t want to make games exclusively on CD-ROM, because of the large share of the market that didn’t have CD drives yet. Also, designers didn’t really know how to use this new technology, so as a result, the first year or so of CD-ROM games were pretty bad. Designers used the added space of the CD-ROM to include videos that didn’t add anything to the game–“eye-candy”, and many CD-ROM’s were simply the disk version of the games “shoveled” onto the CD. It took a few years for game designers to realize the full potential of the CD-ROM.

Some of my favorite games were published in 1991. “Wing Commander” actually told an intriguing story along with it’s great gameplay. “The Adventures of Willy Beamish” used traditional hand-drawn animation in a game that looked and felt like a Saturday morning cartoon. “The Secret of Monkey Island”, and “Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge”, are, in my opinion, the two funniest games ever made for the computer.

In 1993, more quality games came on the market, as did advances SVGA graphics and sound. “Day of the Tentacle” was released, which refined LucasArts’ SCUMM game engine. X-Wing was a hit among simulation and Star Wars fans alike, allowing the player to pilot his or her own X-Wing fighter.

Games became even more complicated in 1994. “Wing Commander III” was the first game, in my opinion, to use CD-ROM video technology to it’s fullest–the game included videos starring real actors. The videos in WC3 actually advanced the on-going story. “IndyCar Racing” was the first game to accurately simulate the sensation of driving an IndyCar. “Magic Carpet” was probably the most stunning game graphically–the player could fly around dozens of worlds on a magic carpet.

1994 was also the year that a first-person shoot-everything-that-moves game called “Doom” was released by iD. To make a long story short, “Doom” was a run-away hit in just a few months. The way “Doom” was designed gave it almost limitless potential–gamers could alter the game in any way–making new levels, weapons, and enemies. Even today, “Doom” still has millions of fans around the world.

Sound cards rose to the next level in 1994. A technology called “Wavetable Synthesis” and “General MIDI” made in-game music sound as if it was being played by a real orchestra. The small size of MIDI files made it a perfect sound format for games.

1995 was the year that CD-ROM’s totally conquered disks as the medium of distributing computer games. Newer, faster CD-ROM drives gave designers more options in graphics, sound, and video. If you didn’t have a CD-ROM drive in 1995, you really didn’t have a wide-array of games you could buy.