Changing fortunes of electronic gaming platforms

1980s: rise of console & PC gaming

Atari‘s Visual Computer System (VCS) launch in late 1970s marked the beginning of the electronic multi-game platform. Its 2 most famous games were porting of successful Japanese arcade games: Taito‘s Space Invaders and Namco‘s Pac Man. Space Invaders gave players the thrill of shooting invading aliens before they come too close, all the while avoiding the shots coming down from the aliens too. Pac-Man gives the players chance to choose their own path in a maze to avoid lurking ghosts while running for the super power pill that gives the Pac-Man the ability to devour the ghosts. They were good fun. The ability to play these games in the comfort of your own home resulted in millions of unit sales for the gaming console as well as its hit games.

Later, IBM‘s entry into Personal Computer (PC) business in 1981 using Intel‘s 8088 processor and Computer Graphics Adapter (CGA) display specification lent the budding microcomputer industry a credibility. It was soon followed by mass of IBM-compatible PC producers. Being multi-purpose computers, microcomputers would soon offer the flexibility to make creative new electronic games with less restrictions than on consoles. Some of the earliest titles were the games that would later define the Role-Playing Game (RPG) genre, Origin’s Ultima and Sir-Tech’s Wizardry, both initially released on Apple II microcomputer platform before ported to other platforms. Both games allowed players to play the role of hero of a fantasy land who took on courageous quests to all corners of the land to save it from perils. A year later in 1982, Intel introduced the newer 80286 processor. This was used as basis for the new IBM PC AT (Advanced Technology) in 1984, which was running better looking Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) display. Intel then launched 80386 processor in 1985. All these meant that PC was getting more and more powerful to run computation required in complex games.

In 1985, Nintento released its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) into global market. One of its earliest games was the next version of Nintendo’s own arcade games, Super Mario Bros. It sets the standard high for fun game where Mario or his brother, Luigi, have to avoid or kill monsters and eat mushrooms to get super power (where did they get that idea?) in order to save the princess. Few years later in 1986, Nintendo released 2 important games: Metroid and The Legend of Zelda. Metroid gave the player the ability to be a super-soldier fighting aliens, while Zelda presented the player with vast area to explore and quests to take to make a better knight.

In 1986, MicroProse released a highly acclaimed attack helicopter simulation game called Gunship. Being attack helicopter, the player had to think about the engagement and not just fly carelessly on top of group of enemy ground units and helicopters. The player had to fly low and make use of hills to avoid detection and engage enemies at distance. Evading enemy missiles was harder as attack helicopters are slower than jet fighters, and so the player had to combine jammer/chaff/flare and evasive manoeuvre to do this. The large number of commands that the player can use in controlling the aircraft used many, many keys in the keyboard, plus alternate key strokes of the same keys. Good luck fitting that kind of complexity into console. By 1987, PCs could already be equipped with Video Graphics Array (VGA) display. By this stage, PCs were already able to dish out much more complex game than console gaming could hope to achieve. In 1987, legendary game designer, Sid Meier from MicroProse, released his highly regarded game called Pirates! This game allows players to sail the seas as pirate in search of treasure and fame and love, fighting other ships or towns or even duels. In the same year, another famous game designer, Will Wright from Maxis, released SimCity, where the player can act as mayor to direct the development of city.

In 1988, Sid Meier of MicroProse also released another important game called F-19 Stealth Fighter, where player can control a prototype stealth fighter jet in missions around world’s hot spots. In the same year, a game designed by Russian Alexey Pajitnov hit the PC gaming big time: Tetris. It was a simple but addictive game where player must arrange falling shapes so that every block in a line is filled up as much as possible. In 1989, MicroProse, already a PC gaming powerhouse at that time, released another hall of famer game called M-1 Tank Platoon, where the player can control a platoon of tanks (not just 1 tank) around missions. As another simulation game, the complexity required in controlling the tanks could only be achieved by using PC platform. In the same year, Intel released the more powerful 80486 processor to power faster PCs and Creative released its Sound Blaster sound card which provides PC with capability to produce richer sounds.

Before the end of the decade, in 1988, Sega launched its Sega MegaDrive console, and in 1989, Nintendo released Game Boy which pioneered the portable multi-game platform

1990s: arms race

Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), released in 1990, was set to fight Sega MegaDrive for dominance. However, the complexity of their gaming paled in comparison to what PC could offer. By 1990, Lucas Arts and Sierra have perfected their adventure gaming mechanics and released their master pieces in form of The Secret of Monkey Island and King’s Quest V, respectively. In both games, player talk to many characters, find out clues, and solve puzzles in engaging story line. Monkey Island, however, was notable for inserting really hilarious dialogues throughout the game. In 1991, Sid Meier released yet 2 more hall of famers: Civilization & Railroad Tycoon. In Civilization, player can aim to achieve global dominance by growing his or nation through expansion, war, and technology from early historical time until near future. The game introduces the computer game addiction concept to the masses. Railroad Tycoon successfully managed to bring business-oriented game to wide-spread acceptance. In Railroad Tycoon, player lays railroad to ferry passenger & goods profitably across cities, while fending off competitor’s inroad into the business, maintaining good stock price, and adopting newest rail technologies. In the same year, Psygnosis released the deeply engaging Lemmings, where player must guide mindless Lemmings through all sorts of danger to safety.

In 1992, Midway’s Mortal Kombat became one of Sega MegaDrive’s top game in fighting against Super Nintendo. Yet, the gameplay is way to simplistic compared to what PC can offer. On PC side, 1992 brought big changes in term of highly acclaimed 3D computer games: id‘s Wolfenstein 3D and Infogrames‘ Alone in the Dark. Wolfenstein 3D introduced the concept of navigable 3 dimensional landscape where the player plays as allied officer penetrating a Nazi compound. It cemented John Carmack’s name in the history of gaming and firmly established a new genre called First Person Shooter (FPS). Alone in the Dark is a survival game where a guest must survive the night in an unfamiliar mansion riddled with ghosts and monster.

The year 1993 brought a game that would establish the 4X genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate): Master of Orion from SimTex. In the game, player must find a balance between growing its own star systems, defending them, exploring other star systems, as well as investing in new technologies. The main aim is to become leader of Orion star system, which was ruled by ancient but very advanced alien race. Beside that, this year also brought back  successful sequel: Lucas Arts’ Day of the Tentacle. In the same year, Intel released its even more powerful Pentium processor which made faster PCs possible. In 1994, MicroProse released X-COM: UFO Defense, in which player plays the inter-governmental agency which is tasked to protect the earth from alien invasion. The game instills horror as every encounter with the alien is very tense. The agency develops its agents, pursues UFO with increasingly advanced aircrafts, engages aliens in cities and deserts and farmlands, and finally invades the alien base

Sony arrived at the console game business in 1994 and set to transform it right from the outset with their PlayStation product. It was a bold move considering the console gaming landscape was dominated by Sega & Nintendo at their time of entry. However, its innovation as well as new game approach slowly established it as the one who would de-throne Sega & Nintendo. Sega released their new Sega Saturn console in the same year, and it was to rely on Sega’s own successful arcade games like Daytona USA and Virtua Cop. PlayStation managed to bring console 3D game to mainstream success with Namco’s Tekken in 1995. Game play is still pretty much simplistic, especially compared to what is being produced for PC that same year: Westwood’s Command & Conquer and Activision‘s MechWarrior 2. Both games were results of years of refinement from Westwood and Activision. Command & Conquer introduced the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre to commercial success, with player controlling multiple military units taking part in battle in real-time. It was result of Westwood’s refinement of the mechanics they established in their earlier game, Dune II. Command & Conquer also popularised multi-player gaming, something that was only possible on PC platform as that platform has been enhanced so much to cater for networked business computing. To keep multi-player games fresh, Command & Conquer also provided map editor so players can customise their own multi-player battle field. MechWarrior 2 also gained great reception for giant mech sim genre, where player controls a giant military robots through all sorts of mission.

With built-in 3D acceleration inside its processor, PlayStation started to gain ground on technological advances compared to PC, even though only for a while. Nintendo released Nintendo 64 in 1996, but by then it was too late to stop the advances of PlayStation. In 1996, CapCom released BioHazard for PlayStation, which showed that 3D console game can be made more engaging than just fighting game like Tekken without compromising simplicity. BioHazard put nicely painted background as backdrop for its 3D action, making the game looks better overall than other 3D games of its age. The game puts player in the shoes of officers trying to survive zombie-infested area. In the same year, 3dfx released its Voodoo 3D accelerator, which slowly began appearing in gaming PCs. Also in the same year, Core Design released the critically acclaimed Tomb Raider for PlayStation and PC and other platform, with the PlayStation version ended up looking better than the PC version most of the times since 3D acceleration hasn’t come to mainstream use in PCs yet. In Tomb Raider, the player controls the soon-to-be-famous Lara Croft doing acrobatic moves across obstacles, defending herself from attacking animals, while trying to find important artifacts from many places around the world. The same year saw Blizzard‘s entry into Real-Time Strategy genre with its well-received WarCraft II game

In 1997, nVidia managed to crack through PC’s 3D accelerator in big way with its Riva 128 product. As opposed to using a normal video adapter plus Voodoo 3D accelerator, nVidia Riva 128 bundled the 2 functions into 1 adapter. With multiple players in the field, PC 3D accelerators’ quality increased quickly and would soon eclipse console’s 3D capabilities. Also this year, Intel released the more powerful Pentium II processor. However, 3D acceleration was not all the rage, as people still understood that game play was more important than visual look of the game. In 1997, 2 breakthrough PC games entered the market: Blizzard’s Diablo and New World Computing’s Heroes of Might & Magic II. Diablo created a new sub-genre called action RPG (Role-Playing Game), where quick response is just as important as gaining new abilities for the hero that the player controls. To top it off, Diablo also gave the player ability to use some really awesome magic spells like fire wall, flame wave, and chain lightning. With Diablo, Blizzard also popularised internet multi-player gaming with creation of Battle.Net, where you can play co-operatively with any other strangers in the world, hacking & slashing through the monster-infested dungeons. With strings of megahits, Blizzard was slowly establishing itself as industry power house. Heroes II brought back huge interest in turn-based game’s suspense. In Heroes II, the player controls heroes of a kingdom in castle building, army gathering, exploration, might & magic, as well as conquest wars. In 1997, simulation game made a strong come back with arrival of Jane’s Longbow 2 from Origin. Attack helicopter realism was focus of Jane’s Longbow 2. Hence, the game incorporated ground hugging flight between way points, on-demand radar with adjustable range and arc to minimise detection by enemies, the ability to fire salvo of Hellfire missiles with each missile targeted to different enemies, and even accurate trajectory of Hellfire missiles (death from above, since top armour is thinner) which was really satisfying to watch. The missions was also realistic, with multiple friendly and hostile ground and air units involved in any one mission. The missions also varied, from Close Air Support (CAS), escort, scouting, to high value target painting for heavy bombardment by fast movers (Air Force F-16 or A-10 jets).

In 1998, PlayStation staged another coup with the release of gorgeous 3D game from Konami called Metal Gear Solid. The game packaged stealth covert operation actions in engaging way. In the same year, Sega released its Sega DreamCast console, but it wasn’t enough to push back PlayStation’s console dominance. On PC front, the biggest game of the year was Blizzard’s new RTS: StarCraft. Beautiful graphics, well-balanced and interesting tripartite rivalry consumed so many people’s waking hours. The game took internet multi-player game to another level, where you can fight & ally with multiple strangers over internet to rule the map.

In 1999, console gaming was facing the strongest challenges from the PC platform. It was the year when Intel released Pentium III processor and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) released its competing Athlon processor. The Athlon & Pentium III rivalry very quickly escalated into what was to be knows as Gigahertz war, where both players took turn in outdoing each other in fast pace in releasing the fastest processors. By the end of the year, both makers were already producing processors running at 1+ GHz clock rate. PC gaming was getting more processing power than necessary, something that can be used to make PC games outshine its console counterparts. The year 1999 brought 2 new innovations to PC gaming. The first one is new tactical FPS sub-genre in form of Red Storm‘s Rainbow Six, where after careful planning of anti-terrorism raid, player commands and issues control to up to 3 teams consisting of up to 4 operatives each in co-ordinated attack of enemy positions. The second one is Sony’s ground-breaking EverQuest, which introduces the graphical Massively Multi-player On-line RPG (MMO RPG) to the masses.

Before the decade ended, Chris Sawyer released a really entertaining game called Roller Coaster Tycoon that still proved that game play was more important than visuals. In the game, the player takes control of a theme park and try to grow it to certain size by certain time by re-investing profits in building new rides and keeping the park clean and safe as well as keep visitors happy. 1999 was also the year when Origin tried to re-invent its Ultima series by making use of 3D acceleration in Ultima IX: Ascension. It enabled player to look around the medieval fantasy world on bright sunny day or rainy day or beautiful dusk or even dark night, be it capital city, pirate cove, wizard town, snow capped mountain, middle eastern town, or just caves. All these made the heroic quests the player were on to feel even more immersive. With more and more games allowing deeper customisations to prevent the players from getting bored, some players became really creative at making game mod(ification)s. One of the stand out mod in 1999 was Counter Strike by Minh Le & Jess Cliffe, based on Valve‘s Half-Life. Even though multi-player FPS games had been around for years, Counter Strike stood out by having more sensible counter-terrorism missions, more vulnerability to gun fire, and absence of non-sensical player resurrection (spawning) in the middle of missions.

New millenium: convergence & emerging new platforms

Convergence of PC and console platforms

In 2000, ATI released its new line of 3D graphics card called Radeon to compete bitterly with NVidia’s. This further escalated the pace of innovation in 3D graphics arena on PC platform. In this year, a number of excellent PC game titles were released. The first one was Ion Storm‘s Deus Ex from famous designer Warren Spector. It’s hard to overstate the freedom that this game gives the players. There are so many ways of solving a problem like facing an enemy or getting from one place to another. When facing an enemy, the player can take the violent way, or incapacitate the enemy, or walk softly around and far away from the enemy to avoid detection, or put on an invisibility shield and walk right past the enemy. When getting from one place to another, the game always provides multiple routes to a destination, plus the ability to create your own shortcut by enhancing the leg power so that the hero can jump or fall incredible heights, or by increasing the arm power so that the hero can lift and move big stuffs around to form a new path. The second one was Monolith‘s The Operative: No One Lives Forever. At a glance, this looks like any other FPS game, but the variety of the mission as well as the hilarious dialogues all around the game made a very entertaining FPS variant. The third one was Electronic Arts‘ much refined Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. For the first time, the character of each car in racing game was attuned to mimic the real one and there was a damage modelling in the game. Add that to the story line which tracks the history of Porsche, plus car trading business made the game really interesting.

In 2000, Sony also released its new PlayStation 2 game console, with faster processor and more capable graphics. Nintendo followed the same pattern by releasing GameCube in 2001. The increasing computation power of PC, coupled with the proliferation of broadband internet, opened up a new market of browser-based games largely running on Flash platform that was indeed designed to make web browing more interactive. In 2001, PopCap released Bejeweled, a very succesful browser game that helps kick-start the mushrooming of multiple browser game makers in the following years. With highly increased capabilities of both the 6th generation gaming consoles as well as latest generation PC, convergence begins to take place even for high-end games in both platforms. This was made clear when Remedy released its well received Max Payne on PC, PlayStation 2, and XBox platforms in 2001. A year later in 2002, Microsoft decided to enter gaming console business by releasing XBox, which was based on widely available components from Intel and nVidia and even contains hard disc. The entrance of Microsoft provides new game variety for console, with Bungie‘s Halo: Combat Evolved as the spearhead to propel XBox’ sale.

The coming convergence is further proved by release of Ubisoft‘s Splinter Cell in 2002, IO‘s Freedom Fighters in 2003, and Electronic Arts’ Need for Speed: Underground 2 in 2004 on multiple platforms. Splinter Cell puts player in the shoe of a high-tech covert operation agent in missions around the world. Freedom Fighters gives the player real-time command of a squad of freedom fighters in fighting the oppressor. Electronic Arts re-invented its long running Need for Speed series by including free-roaming mode in Need for Speed: Underground 2, and hence added the relaxing joy of just driving aimlessly on top of the fun racing modes.

Around the same time frame, Blizzard was key in 2 important releases: the mod called Defense of the Ancients (DotA) in 2003, based on its Warcraft III game, and its own highly anticipated MMO RPG, World of Warcraft, in 2004. DotA was result of hard work of a number of dedicated Warcraft III players. It modified the typical multi-player RTS game mechanics by eliminating the need to build base and focus on the development of heroes in defending the base and attacking enemy base. This gave rise to a new game genre called Multi-player On-line Battle Arena (MOBA).

Portable comes back. Arrival of smartphone gaming

By 2003, smartphones were getting more powerful as well. They could do more than just making phone calls. Many had the capabilities to take photos, browse internet, and yes, even play simple games. Nokia, the king of smartphone at that time, tried to capitalise on this trend by releasing N-Gage. Several big game developers put their effort into developing games for smartphones in anticipation of a coming boom. This includes UbiSoft which made Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Team Stealth Action for N-Gage and numerous ports of PopCap’s Flash games to Windows Mobile platform. They were right that smartphone will be a credible gaming platform alternative, but it was not until later that this strategy will work out in bigger scale.

A year later in 2004, portable gaming made a come back with announcement from 2 console leaders: Sony PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS. With purpose-built gaming components inside of them, including 3D accelerators, the portable came to gain more market share than smartphone gaming. Given the restriction that comes with portability, the portable game consoles were certainly aimed at younger market. But that didn’t stop major developers from also piling into the portable console platforms. Grand Theft Auto franchise, for example, produced games for PSP in 2005 titled Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and Nintendo DS later in 2009 titled Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

Angry Birds
Angry Birds

iPhone’s arrival in 2007 presented a very powerful smartphone platform for the world. Not only did it have fast processor, nice big screen, accelerometer (to measure the movement and orientation of the phone), but it also had multi-touch screen capable of interpreting gestures made by finger(s) on its screen. Game developer saw the potential. One of the first smartphone game to reach global success was Rovio‘s Angry Birds in 2009. It’s amazing how addictive it is flinging multiple kinds of birds at fortified pigs.

Social gaming and next developments

Meanwhile, the convergence of PC and console gaming platform keeps on going. In 2007, Crytek released Crysis on PC platform, with its porting to other platforms not released until 4 years later. Crysis breathes new air into FPS genre by putting the player in the shoes of a super soldier, clad in high tech armour that can also provide temporary invisibility, strength boost, faster movement. In 2007-2008, the RPG power house, BioWare, released its latest interstellar RPG, Mass Effect, for XBox and PC platforms. In the game, player controls Commander Shepherd, who can be accompanied by 2 other squad members, in missions across the galaxy. As typical BioWare game, story line was really intricate, and player spends a long time interacting with many characters in the game to slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together. From time to time, the game will break out into real-time third person shooting that is exciting but not overly relying on fast reflex.

As social network gained global acceptance, intrepid game developers started seeing new way to sell their games, as well as new ways to make money from gaming. In 2009, Zynga released FarmVille as a Flash game for the Facebook social network. While players can tend to their own farm without paying Zynga, certain items to make the farms grow faster can be purchased with real-world money from Zynga. It was a clever trick that quickly earned Zynga millions of Dollars from its large pool of players.

In 2009, Prototype was released by Radical on multi-platform. The game was ground breaking in the number of ways the player can choose to resolve a challenge. Say the hero is confronted by an enemy. There are multiple ways to resolve the situation: punch the enemy to obliteration, pick up the enemy and throw him/her away, grab gun and shoot at the enemy, grab a car or building Air Conditioning unit and throw at the enemy, eat the enemy (yes, eat), steal tank and shoot or crush the enemy, steal helicopter and shoot at the enemy, ask nearby military personnel to shoot at the enemy, or just run away or even up a building to escape. Another multi-platform game was released in the following year, Obsidian‘s Fallout: New Vegas. In the game, the player, alongside a small group of companions, try to survive in a lawless post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with multiple competing factions, carefully choosing which ones to ally with and which ones to fight.

Candy Crush Saga
Candy Crush Saga

In 2011, PopCap, one of the pioneer of browser-based Flash games, was acquired by Electronic Arts. It marked the passing of an era where stand-alone browser games were losing their appeal to social browser games. In 2012, King released an unexpected social game megahit: Candy Crush Saga. Following basically the same money making strategy as FarmVille, King was quickly able to rake up more than 1 billion Dollars in annual revenue from this very simple game. King also made another move which is quickly becoming the norm: to merge social gaming platform with smartphone and tablet gaming platform by releasing the same game on all those platforms


In 2012, Arkane released Dishonored on PC, XBox, & PlayStation platforms. The game gave players freedom in achieving objectives by providing multiple paths to reach certain place as well as non-lethal options in fulfilling them. Coupled with ability to tele-port to different spot, see through walls, stop time, and possess other beings meant that the player can choose their playing style while going through the game.

By 2014, although the world’s 3 largest gaming companies still prove the strength of PC & console convergence (Activision at $4.6b, Electronic Arts at $3.7b, and Take Two at $2.5b), King with its simple games is not very far behind at $1.9b, a testimony to the strength of social & mobile gaming platform convergence


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