Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Personal Gaming History

One of my flatmates was looking through Ebay listings of old consoles today. He wanted to buy a Sega Dreamcast. Looking through the games included in the listing descriptions, soft cooing could be heard from behind his laptop screen while I cooked my dinner. We exchanged nostalgic gaming memories; I concluded I was most sad that I had sold my Nintendo 64, exchanging it for the GameCube which has lain dormant on a shelf for the past few years. He made me promise absolutely to bring it back with me the next time I go home. If I forget, I’m not sure I will be going home again…

The first computer game I remember playing was Commander Keen on my Mum’s PC. It was some years later that I got a Nintendo Entertainment system (NES) with a light gun and Duck Hunt. I remember the games being quite difficult. I even exchanged a game which I couldn’t get past the first level, only to watch in the store as the press start screen demo showed how to get past the bit I was stuck on. It was only later in my gaming life that I came to really enjoy difficult games.

Command and Conquer really got me into PC gaming. Although I had enjoyed many PC games before that, realtime strategy became my preferred genre for some years after that game. Its sequel, Red Alert, was the first game I made custom content for - the maps I made for that game were the start of a side-hobby of modding games that has continued to this day.

Everybody's favourite blue hedgehog in his heyday
But there was never a year went by I didn’t buy at
least a few games for my console. I played the Sonic games to death on my Mega Drive, but my fondest console memories are for the Nintendo 64. Having mates around to play the likes of Super Smash Brothers and Mario Tennis was an experience no childhood should be without. Of course, no talk of Nintendo 64 would be complete without a mention of Goldeneye, which really set the standard for compelling and diverse single-player first-person shooter experiences. I’m baffled to this day how I managed to get almost all of the stars on Super Mario 64 without any form of guide. The internet spoils us these days.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time set a benchmark for
adventure games that few were willing or able to follow
Looking back on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I feel it was the first game that really tied down everything I like in a game. A compelling plot and emotional attachment to key characters, challenging gameplay which sometimes required a bit of thinking and interesting environments enhanced by solid visual and audio production values. Those three benchmarks can be set to most mainstream games. In my opinion, only one game has bested that game.

Not a year has gone by since its release
that I haven't played Baldur's Gate 2
I’m not even sure why I picked up Baldur’s Gate 2. I got stuck on the first level (sound familiar?) and decided to pick up a walkthrough book. Before BG2, I barely knew what a role-playing game was. I have never read literature so compelling, never been so absorbed by a world in film or TV, nor played a game whose mechanics I have dissected so thoroughly to improve my play… as Baldur’s Gate 2. I could go on praising it, and I might just do that… but in another post. I have to move on.

As my gaming palate matured, my appreciation of gaming genres broadened. There really are very few genres I don’t enjoy sampling, even if I don’t have enough time or money to try everything the genre has to offer. Even my parents have got in on the act - owning a Nintendo DS and Wii between them; and we continue to regularly play board and card games as well.

To say that games in the past ten years have been less influential on me would only be partly true. I think the frequency of high production cost games (triple A games) has resulted in fewer games that stand out head-and-shoulders above the competition. Games I love from the current generation include Lost Odyssey, Bioshock, Portal, Dragon Age: Origins, Ninja Gaiden 2, Mass Effect, Guitar Hero 3… I could go on.

Ninja Gaiden 2 was renowned for its brutal difficulty. I guess I love a challenge!

Games continue to fascinate me. I only wish I had more time to play them. I asked my friend how long ago he sold his Dreamcast. He never owned one. Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Monday, 15 November 2010

History of Computer games 2000s

Videogames had been pacing along well enough for the past two decades. The gradual balance shift between arcade and console/PC gaming was barely a wave lapping at the bow of the ship compared to the boat-rocking that was to take place in the 2000s. Prominent among these changes were the rise in multiplayer gaming and the commercialisation of the “casual gamer” market.

World of Warcraft features a persistent world
where players may group with others
to fight monsters and complete quests.
All new consoles in the 2000s featured inbuilt or addon modems and offered services for matchmaking in games. Publishers displayed clearly on the box those games which could be played online and gamers began to expect titles to allow them to compete or co-operate online with their friends. Gaming became social.

Internet-dependant games became increasingly popular with Massively Multiplayer Online titles like World of Warcraft boasting more than ten million active subscribers by the end of the decade.

I am unsure whether it was this new social aspect of gaming or the increased computer literacy and abundance of Personal Computers that was the major cause of the commercialisation of casual gaming. I say “commercialisation” since casual gaming has always existed, but few games were specifically targeted at this market and those that were tended to be low-budget, low-cost games.

The Sims was massively popular among new casual gamers, totalling over 16 million sales in the first half of the decade. In the years that followed, Nintendo released the Wii, stating outright that their console “isn't focused on the core gamer”. Hosts of gimmicky peripherals and family- and party-friendly games boosted the Wii to the top-selling console of the generation, firmly cementing casual gaming as equally commercially important as core gaming. Microsoft and Sony have since taken steps to capture some of the casual market with their products.

Games like Guitar Hero feature new peripherals and
split screen modes to appeal to casual gamers
Although mobile gaming wasn’t new to the 2000s, mobile phone gaming was. As phones became more capable, so too did the complexity of the games offered to rival the dedicated handheld gaming devices.

With internet distribution channels like Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and the App Store, the need for publishers eroded still further and increasing numbers of independently developed games reached more gamers’ hands. These “indie” developers with small budgets diversified both the casual and core markets with niche games that rely on compelling gameplay above high production values.

But online distribution was not just used by small developers - additional paid-for downloadable content for popular games allows developers to generate extra revenue for games that are greatly enjoyed by their players.

Services like Steam allow people to purchase entirely
digital versions of games, cutting out distribution and
retail costs almost entirely
Many MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online are experimenting with abandoning the subscription fee and relying entirely on microtransactions to fund development of the game. Services like OnLive are even offering streaming gaming of existing titles for microtransaction and subscription charges.

Retro gaming and ported games delivered through Xbox Live Arcade and Wii’s Virtual Console highlights what made gaming classics so successful.

As the 2000s finish and we press into the 2010s, I feel the games industry has reached a curious maturity. Console manufacturers have chosen to hold back on releasing consoles in the immediate future: a decision which backs the strength of the games developers and their creativity. The next ten years promise to be really rather exciting.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

History of Computer games 1980s - 1990s

Like excited children with golden geese, the developers, publishers and console manufacturers of the early eighties couldn’t wait to try out their new toys. The only problem was, a goose made of gold doesn’t fly, it doesn’t swim, and bashing it over the head with the same old mallet will not force it to lay another golden egg. In fact, it’ll probably cause the gold to flake and tarnish. Which is exactly what happened.

Atari buried millions of unwanted
cartridges in a landfill after sales
 fell far below expectations.
Publishers were paying programmers poorly; some even disallowing credits. This caused programmers to splinter and develop their games independently. With no publishing rights for the games being created for their consoles, quality and quantity control was entirely lost. The market became saturated with disingenuous and iterative games, and in an attempt to compensate: redundant and unnecessary console upgrades. By 1984, swathes of interested parties had pulled out from the games industry or become bankrupt.

The video game recovery was largely due to Japanese manufacturers and developers, who were less affected by the crash than their North American rivals. Through the eighties Nintendo’s Entertainment System and Sega’s Master System vied for superiority with notable releases including Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and the Alex Kidd series.

Sega and Nintendo continued to hold strong positions through the nineties, releasing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Mega Drive (Genesis) respectively. The popularity of home video game consoles continued to rise, while the popularity of arcades diminished. Many arcade developers began to develop games for home consoles or port their existing arcade game to these platforms.

The popularity of Personal Computers grew through the nineties and consequently, PC gaming became a more commercially viable activity, where previously the consumer base had been too small. An increasing market size coupled with low barriers to entry for PC developers afforded an extremely diverse selection of games.

The highly contraversial DOOM game for PC
Specialist video game retailers began to appear, stocking games for consoles and PC, offering a wider selection of games than was typically available in the toy stores.

One of the most significant changes for gaming in the nineties was the transition to 3D games - games which displayed objects using points plotted in three dimensions connected with triangular surfaces. Although Elite, released in 1984, is widely regarded as the first 3D game, 3D games did not gain much traction in the console market until the release of the more graphically capable Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation platforms.

While at first these games were relatively ugly compared to their 2D counterparts, they quite literally added a new dimension to the gameplay experience. Some developers chose create new Intellectual Properties for 3D, some stuck with making decreasingly popular 2D games and others re-imagined their 2D characters and environments in the third dimension… with mixed success.

As would be expected of a platform gaming superstar,
Mario cleared the jump to 3D in style
As the nineties were drawing to an end, internet connectivity was rapidly increasing and playing games over the internet was becoming increasingly popular. Improvements in the speed and reliability of internet services allowed real-time games to be played with gamers across the world. This phenomenon started in PC gaming, but the Sega Dreamcast pioneered in the console market with an inbuilt modem that gave a taste of what to expect from gaming in the 2000s.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Update 2

As the excitement of starting university (again) wears out, its time to knuckle down and I have found myself spending a lot of time modelling. The current projects are to construct an old building from reference (pictured) and a project set by third-year mentors: to create a modern day weapon (still a work in progress).

I particularly focussed on the textures on the building project - trying to get the best pixel density and most believable surfaces possible on the building within the specifications of the brief. I’m happy with how they turned out, though I fear my rendering techniques do not showcase them at their best. Something to work on.

It certainly hasn’t been a conscious decision to prioritise modelling over drawing and digital painting, given it is my aim this year to really improve in these more traditional skills. I wonder if it is telling that I am leaning this way naturally? Or perhaps it is because I am outside of my comfort zone with the drawing and digital painting?

Nothing could be more out of my comfort than a twice-weekly time-restricted digital painting exercise. It would be fair to say I have had very mixed success, but I hope just getting the hours in will help me improve. Today’s exercise used the randomly-generated theme “a metalized puppet assembles”. Grammar robot are fail. 

Seeing the incredible posts that coursemates in the second and third years (and even some first years with digital painting experience) are making, it is very clear to see that practice makes perfect. It inspires envy both loathesome and pitiable.

While I have been a little lax with the blog lately, you can expect a bunch of games history posts while I catch up on the blog assignments in the next couple of weeks. I have been struggling since the start of this post to find the pun to fit the following picture, but fortunately as I write this sentence it has finally come to me. Handy timing.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

History of Computer games 1950s - 1970s

When pondering what I thought the very first “computer game” to be, I expected some sort of primitive text adventure game might be among the contenders. I missed the mark by more than 20 years! I was considering which games would require the least processing power, but early computer games had more to worry about that just the number crunch. The graphical fidelity to render text was extremely limited and alphabetic keyboards were not typical input devices.

From what I could see, there is no absolute on the first computer game, so I will break down the early games with their significant landmarks:

1947 - Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann develop a missile simulator game, the first use of a computer for entertainment.

1950 - Claude Shannon devises a chess game in his paper, demonstrating the first artificial gaming intelligence.

1952 - Alexander Douglas creates the first digitally displayed computer game, OXO - a noughts and crosses simulator created to study human-computer interaction.

 1958 - William Higinbotham exhibits Tennis for Two, the first multiplayer computer game, displayed on an oscilloscope.

1962 - Spacewar is created for the DEC PDP-1 mini-computer by MIT students and is the first time a computer game is designed not as a simulator for an existing game or scenario.
Computer games continued to be the preserve of students with access to university mainframe computers throughout the 1960s.

The increase in availability of mainframes in academic and business institutions, coupled with the rising populatity of computer games fuelled the growth of personal game projects undertaken by pioneering programmers. Games such as Spacewar were even ported across platforms and later distributed with the mainframes themselves.

It wasn’t until technological advances in miniaturization and cost-effective production of electronic components made the hardware accessible in the home. The first home video game console was the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972 which sold 330,000 units in its three year production cycle. The console used any of 30 separately-sold game cartridges to play the games on a home television set. It was this console and business model that paved the way for the entire video game industry to follow.

In the same year, the coin-operated arcade version of Pong was released by Atari to massive commercial success. I find it interesting to think that tennis inspired Tennis for Two, which inspired Pong, which by my reckoning appeared to inspire air hockey, coming full circle to a physical game again. A testament to the circular and self-referential nature of games to follow?

By the time popular titles like Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroids (1979) hit the arcades, the appeal of arcade video games was clear: they were affordable, fun and addictive entertainment. At a time when televisions were not commonplace and consoles were extremely rare, arcades were a place to meet and play games with friends.

Through the 70s, mainframe games proved to be the catwalk by which coin-operated arcade games and late-70s consoles and personal microcomputers followed. By the end of the decade, video games had become a multimillion dollar industry on an upward trajectory.