History of Video Games: Timeline and Facts

If you could travel back in time to any point in history, where would you go? Would you visit ancient Greece and watch the first Olympic games? Attend a concert by Beethoven or Mozart? While those are great options, today, we’re retracting the video game history timeline: It may be shorter than most, but it’s very turbulent, and we’ll highlight the critical moments.

Buckle up! We’re about to go on a journey through time.

The Creation of the First Video Games

In October of 1958, the first video game was created by a physicist, William Higinbotham. It was called Tennis for Two, and was displayed as an exhibit in the Brookhaven National Laboratory open house.

A few years later, in 1962, came another landmark game, this time from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Spacewar! pitted two spaceships against each other in a battle to the death. The game was a hit with the small group of people who saw it, and it quickly spread to other small groups of people interested in games in other parts of the country.

Today, Spacewar! is remembered as a pioneer in the world of video gaming, among other things, because its creator made the first gamepad to make playing easier. It laid the foundation for many of the games we enjoy today, and continues to inspire new generations of gamers.

Video Games as Commercial Products

A decade after the creation of Spacewar!, the first commercial video game was released. It was called Computer Space, and it wasn’t very successful. However, just a year later, the creators of Computer Space – Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney – formed the future video game giant Atari and released Pong.

Another tennis game, Pong was made by Allan Alcorn, an Atari employee, as an exercise but ended up being so good it was deemed worth a commercial release. Pong was an instant success, and quickly became one of the most influential video games of all time. Over the years, Pong has been ported to many different platforms, including home television sets in 1975, and remains a beloved classic to this day.

First Home Video Game Consoles

At this point in video game history, people wanted a way to play video games in the comfort of their homes. So, after Pong’s initial port to television sets in 1975,  in 1977, the first home video game console was released – the Atari 2600. It looked like a squashed-down guitar amp and was a huge success. It also solidified Atari’s place as a significant player in the video game industry. Over the years, Atari would release many different consoles and games, but the Atari 2600 remains its best-selling product to date.

The Rise of Arcades

Our overview of the history of video games wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the big coin munchers of the arcade game industry. Although arcade games were present before the onset of console gaming, it was in 1978 that the biggest arcade hit was born: Space Invaders by Taito. It was a simple shoot-em-up game where players had to defend their planet from an alien invasion. The game was so popular that it caused a coin shortage in Japan, and remains one of the most beloved arcade games of all time.

In the early 1980s, arcade video games were at their peak. Games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Frogger were massive hits, and arcades were filled with people trying to beat everyone else’s high scores. Gamers of that age wanted to know who was truly the best, and thus the first gaming tournaments came to be, decades before anyone even thought of the term “esports.” If you could reach the “kill screen” (the final level ending) in popular games of the time, you were a deity among the gamer crowd.

The Great Video Game Industry Crash

The history of consoles is practically the history of their wars. The very first console war broke out between the Atari 2600 and Intellivision (Mattel Electronics’ 1979 console). This bickering lasted for several years, and eventually led to the collapse of both companies. The competition led to a flood of poor-quality games and an oversaturated game console market. The hype couldn’t drive sales anymore, and by 1983, the entire industry was in freefall.

It was a dark period of gaming history. The sector was experiencing a recession, businesses closed their doors, and families lost homes. It isn’t called the Great Video Game Industry Crash of 1983 for nothing, unfortunately.

The crash wasn’t the only issue for console creators, however. The advent of home computers and computer games also played a role, as they offered a more affordable and versatile gaming experience. Many people who had been buying consoles now switched to playing games on their computers, which further contributed to the decline of the console market. It was a tough time for everyone involved, but those who survived would go on to create some of the most popular video games of all time.

Beginnings of the Nintendo Era

Despite the advent of PCs, Nintendo released its first home video game console in North America in 1985 and completely changed the gaming landscape. The console was called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and its best-selling game was Super Mario Bros. The pixelated Italian plumber was a massive hit, and his adventures helped revive the video game industry. The NES went on to become one of the best-selling consoles of all time.

Aside from Super Mario, the most famous games from this era were The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy. These games would help revive interest in console gaming and make Nintendo the dominant force in the video game industry for quite a while.

Nintendo Goes Handheld

Nintendo made another big wave in the gaming timeline by releasing a portable console, completely changing how we play games. The console was called the Game Boy, and it came with a simple yet incredibly addictive game called Tetris. Although Tetris was originally developed by Alexey Pajitnov, a USSR software engineer, it was adapted for the handheld console and released together with it in the US. Both the Game Boy and Tetris were hugely successful, with units flying off the shelves: Over the years, Nintendo would release many different handheld consoles and games, of which only the Nintendo DS surpassed the Game Boy’s sales. The Nintendo Switch has been nearing this threshold in recent years, but it has another 15 million units to sell to overthrow its three decades older brother.

The Rise and Fall of Sega

Shortly after Nintendo, another Japanese console manufacturer entered the market. It was Sega. Of course, this sparked another console war. The fight was over which system was better, faster, and more interesting to the average gamer. Sega had better hardware, but Nintendo had more popular games. The companies went at each other’s throats with the advertising campaigns, most notably Sega with “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.”

As the history of gaming teaches us, in these wars, there’s always a sore loser, and its employees bear the brunt of the damage. This particular altercation lasted for several years, eventually leading to the demise of Sega’s console business.

Sega’s final console, the Dreamcast, was released in 1998. The Dreamcast was ahead of its time due to its networking features and is still considered one of the best consoles ever made. However, it was not enough to save this front of Sega’s business, and the company eventually left the market entirely, focusing on games publishing instead.

The First 3D Action Games

On the PC front, things looked completely different. The games created for them were of a different kind, often made with hardcore gamers in mind and meant to push the limits of PC hardware. One of the most prominent titles from this time was Castle Wolfenstein, a game released in 1981, which became the foundation for one of the most famous game series of its time.

The original studio that made the game was called Muse Software, but it disbanded in 1987, after releasing a sequel to the original game. However, the title was then overtaken by a future household name – id Software. Id Software released Wolfenstein 3D in 1991, and it was a massive hit that helped popularize 3D gaming. It also established id Software as one of the most important developers in the industry; the company would go on to create Doom and Quake, both incredibly influential – and controversial – games of this era in the video game timeline.

Doom is a sci-fi horror game in which a nameless soldier (later known as DoomGuy) fights demons in an attempt to save the world from an apocalyptic ending. Doom had its fair share of controversies: From its graphic violence to satanic imagery, the game has been accused of just about everything. None of that seems to have hindered its popularity – and some might say it even contributed to it, as evident in Netflix’s High Score documentary. Doom, along with Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, was also why video games got the age rating stickers on their boxes.

The Rise of Sony PlayStation

In 1994, amidst the war between Nintendo and Sega, Sony released its first home video game console called the PlayStation, again altering the course of the console game history. This console used CDs instead of cartridges, featured powerful sound and graphics processors, and featured many exclusive games. It was a huge success, propelling Sony to the very top of the video game industry.

With thousands of games and highly competitive pricing, the PlayStation would become one of the best-selling consoles of all time. It was the first console to break the 100 million units sales threshold.

Microsoft Enters the Fray

At the dawn of the new millennium, in 2001, Microsoft released its first home video game console, the Xbox. It was the most powerful console at the time and featured Halo: Combat Evolved as its launch game and major exclusive. More than the console it was released for, Halo helped sell the Xbox, and it ended up becoming the gold standard for how console shooters should be made on the way. This is what makes Microsoft a significant part of the video games console history, despite it being a primarily PC-oriented company.

Microsoft formed Xbox Game Studios and, over the next two decades, acquired numerous high-profile studios to develop games exclusively for Xbox consoles and PCs. As is tradition, this fueled the fires of console wars even further.

The Rise of Indie Gaming

In the early 2000s, a new type of game started to gain popularity. These games were developed by small teams or even individual game developers, and they were typically released for personal computers. The rise of indie gaming was fueled by the creation of digital distribution platforms such as Steam (first opened in 2003), making it easy for people to find and purchase these games.

Some of the most popular indie games include Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Minecraft. These games have helped broaden the appeal of gaming, showing that there is a market for games outside of the traditional AAA market. Today, indie games and studios continue to lead the innovations in gaming, winning many awards along the way. What’s more, with the rise of platforms such as itch.io, which make indie games much more accessible, the market for bringing passion projects to life has never been more vibrant.

The Current Console Generation

Much has changed in the gaming landscape, but the three console manufacturers remained. Nintendo leads the sales charts with its lineup of Switch consoles, Sony is pushing the hardware limits with PlayStation 5, and, soon, with PlayStation VR 2, while Microsoft split its console offering into the Xbox Series X (for high-end tastes) and the more affordable Xbox Series S.

All these consoles are extremely powerful and offer new features, such as social networking, digital distribution, and streaming services, effectively turning consoles into all-encompassing entertainment systems. Some of the best video games of all time are available to play on these systems. Nowadays, video games are considered an art form, and, with VR technology becoming more affordable, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible in this realm of creative expression.

FAQ

Who was the first gamer in history?

Dennis Fong is considered to be the first professional gamer. Fong went by the nickname “Thresh” and had dominated Quake tournaments for many years, including winning a Ferrari convertible at the Red Annihilation tournament in 1997, thanks to his skills.

What was the very first video game?

Tennis for Two is considered the first real video game ever made. It was also the first multiplayer game, as two players competed head-to-head.

Where did video games originate?

The United States was the birthing ground for video games, specifically the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where Tennis for Two was made in 1958.

What’s the history of video games?

Video games have a long history, starting with simple programs on mainframe computers. Soon after, an industry formed around them, with manufacturers shipping the first consoles and opening arcades around the globe. Despite the game crash in 1983, the industry stood back up and is now stronger than ever, beating other entertainment industries in annual revenue.

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