When one looks at the current landscape of gaming, there is a simple question that comes to mind: How the hell did we get here? Let’s really think about this: Video Games are practically the youngest form of entertainment in this day and age and have made a lot of strive over the last 30-40 years. What started off with Pong in 1972 has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. And during that time, what could we say were the true “Leaps and Bounds” for video games? The “Evolution” of Gaming if you will?

The first true arcade game. Can only go up from here.

To think what started with two paddles and a ball bouncing around would become something much bigger.

I know I am far from being a “Video Game Historian” and far from qualified to talk about such topics, but it can be a fun challenge to look at the peaks and bounds of gaming over the last 40+ years. To not only look at the important milestones but also to speculate where the gaming world can go from here. After the recent look at the current state of Live-Service Games (and we’ll briefly brush on that in a moment), I wanted to look back at the major moments of video games and see if it might give us a hint of what is coming up next.

1970s-1980s: 1) Arcades and 2) Home Consoles

In order for us to determine what the future holds for us, let us take a look back at the early days of video games. While Pong did get the ball rolling for what potential games could do, it would give rise to the age of arcades. Whether you were a fan of Space Invaders, Galaga, Pac-Man, or many other notable titles, the arcades did generate revenues that went into the millions (and later in the 80s, billions). So much so that by 1983, it had become the most popular entertainment medium that surpassed pop music and Hollywood films.

While pumping quarters into an arcade machine were the big thing for a while, other developers made the decision of taking games out of the public area and into your home with cartridge-based home consoles. At first, things went well with your Pong Consoles, Ataris, and ColecoVisions with you being able to bring the arcade experience back to your home and even with these “Exclusive games!” I mean, you just got through watching E.T The Extra Terrestrial in the movies and now there’s a video game coming at the end of the year?! How awesome was that…

You will believe a video game based on a movie would be seen as the root cause  of the video game crash of 1983.

The game that many would say caused the Crash of Video Games back in 1983.

It didn’t end well.

Yeah, the story didn’t end too well after the Crash of 1983. When you have a hundred companies putting out games (and the vast majority were not good… at all), it led to the market revenue of gaming dropping in value fast and a lack of consumer confidence in Atari. Kind of interesting to see the first example of gaming trends that tend to crash and burn when there is an oversaturation of something, huh? 

While Nintendo did help to bring it back in 1985, we got to see the first big steps of gaming begin to unfold: How people would engage with video games. You could go to the arcades and have some quarters ready. Maybe you go purchase a Nintendo Entertainment System and build up a personal collection of games like Mario and Castlevania. Or you could invest in this interesting device known as a “Personal Computer.” Get yourself some games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Might and Magic while learning what else this fancy new device can do for you like “word processing” and “Home Accounting.”

If we were to summarize the first steps in gaming’s evolution, the best word I could think of to describe it would be: Availability. Whether you went somewhere to play a game or bring the entertainment back to your household, there’s no denying that how you could play a game was important. And not just play, but to have access to a range of games to enjoy (whether it’s a row of arcade machines lined up or building your collection of classic games). How much more available can gaming get?

Early 1990s: 3) Portable Gaming and 4) Network Gaming

After the resurgence of video games in the 80s, the 4th generation of video games would be where things really started to take off. An age where Sega went up against Nintendo with the Genesis, new advancements made for more processing power and elaborate colors, and the US government got to chime in on how it probably wasn’t best for Little Timmy to see Sub-Zero rip someone’s spine out of his opponent. Good times, all around.

Sub-Zero ripping someone's spine out and changing the world of video games through an age rating system.

Kind of impractical to do in real life, but it was enough to help create the ESRB.

While we could talk about the advancements in technology being a big contributing factor to gaming (as it definitely was), there are two other things we got during this timeframe that was vital to the evolution of video games. After all, why would you limit yourself to playing at your home if you can take your gaming on the go? With the release of the Game Boy in 1989, video games were no longer stuck to one location. As the pioneer in portable gaming, Nintendo has kept it going for over 30 years between the Game Boys, DS/3DS, and the current Switch.

What better game to pair with the first handheld system, then the most popular puzzle game of all time.

Grab some batteries and get some Tetris going!

What was also fascinating about this generation was how we also got to see the slow rise of competitive gaming. Yeah, two players was such an amazing idea back in the day, but what if you decided back in 1993 to get four friends together and play some Doom? Whether we wish to call it Network Gaming or Local Area Network (LAN), we got to take our first step into the world where you can have people play on their own screens shooting each other. The rise of PC gaming has begun.

Regaining Status as a Form of Entertainment

So between gaming on the go and having big get-togethers to play some Doom and other LAN-Based titles that would be appearing soon, what exactly would we call this step of evolution? While it’s difficult to come up with a word, I think it would be easier to say this was the age when Video Games grew up as a media. After all, if Mortal Kombat was responsible for establishing the ESRB, it goes to show how the industry was growing.

It took a lot of work to make sure computers can properly connect together to play Doom, Starcraft, and other popular games that involve more than two people, but we could also say during this time, video games were able to re-establish themselves as what I would coin the term as “Interactive Entertainment.” Probably not the most “revolutionary term” to toss out, but really consider the following:

Whether we are talking about Movies, TV Shows, Radio, or so forth, you as the observer don’t really do much on your end. You are literally The Watcher. You aren’t doing much to influence the story as you would with a video game. And while we can easily point to games on the NES that do a fantastic job in storytelling, the 4th generation took that to the next level to show games can tell really complex and compelling stories.

Certain titles (especially Role-Playing Games), could tell stories that could run longer than your standard motion picture or an average novel. Seemingly countless hours of entertainment and you are the one who gets to unfold the story before you.

A Brief Look at the Fifth Generation: 5) Pixels become Polygons

Welcome to the Fifth Generation of Gaming: Where we fully dive into the third dimension, Nintendo had their games end with the number 64, and Sony joins the fun with their own PlayStation. While we can see a big leap in graphics during this timeframe, there wasn’t too much else happening during this time that could be seen as innovation.

The Fifth Generation felt like it was a time of experimentation to see what we can do with polygons and all this new technology. Mario can leap around in all directions, PlayStation showcases a new wave of games (and even this weird concept of having two control sticks) and we do our best to forget the existence of the Atari Jaguar, and the Virtual Boy.

Mario 64 starting off with pulling Mario's face

This blew people’s minds back in 1996.

Still, there’s no denying we got some fantastic games during this time. Feel free to mention which game caught your attention during this time in the comments since it is hard to pick a specific favorite. Symphony of the Night? Ocarina of Time? Final Fantasy 7? Golden Eye? Metal Gear Solid? Tekken 3? Resident Evil?

We had such fantastic games back in the day. But that’s kind of the point of the 5th generation. There wasn’t much of an evolution during this time; rather it was the time when we got to see some amazing titles coming out. It was great to see all these games, but not too much else beyond that. It wouldn’t be until the next generation that we will see the planted seeds finally sprout.

Early 2000s- 6) Network Gaming Evolves into Online

Welcome to the Sixth Generation of Gaming: Where Sega would bow out of the console game and swap places with Microsoft, Sony would launch one of the highest-selling consoles of all time, and the Gamecube had a carrying handle. Such innovations to be had during this time!

When Microsoft entered the scene with its giant box and controller, one couldn’t help but ask, “What exactly are the computer people going to bring to the table?” While Sony and Nintendo had their focus on making even more memorable games during this time, Microsoft’s Xbox did something remarkable: enable Network Gaming to work on consoles and go online.

Now, to be fair, we saw this with the Dreamcast as well to connect to the internet, but we could say it was ahead of its time back when we got it. For Microsoft however, we got to see how truly expansive it could get. Halo was certainly Microsoft’s best foot forward as people did set up LAN parties with their consoles and have 16-man deathmatches. What could be better than Lan Parties though? How about online play?

2002 would see the launch of Xbox Live, and with it: Online play would start to become the next big thing in gaming. While the original Halo did launch a year prior (and wouldn’t get to enjoy online play), Halo 2 would be the first of many titles to see just how expansive a player base can get when you get to invite the world to play.

PC’s Contribution to Online Gaming

Of course, Xbox Live wasn’t the only online gaming service out there as we would see other one other entity embrace online gaming: The PC community. The Gamecube and PlayStation 2 would have adaptors to enable online play (to some degree), but PC already had a nice library of titles where players could play against each other. There were still shooters, but Real-Time Strategy games like Starcraft dominated.

Quakecon 2005

By the time we go to the turn of the millennium, other companies had begun to experiment with other kinds of genres that could hit it big; and eventually, that is when we got the game service simply known as the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). Whether it was browser-based or required multiple disks to install, we got to see a wide variety of these games come out and have a monthly subscription charge for those who wish to dive into expansive worlds. It can be crazy to think that we are nearing almost 20 years for some titles, such as World of Warcraft (which celebrated 18 years back in November).

Late 2000s: 7) Mobile Gaming

The other big thing to come out during the turn of the century was the rise in mobile phone technology. Up to that point, the best you got for games was Snake.

Was it good? Yeah… But could there be more for your cell phones for gameplay? Not really with the limited screen. That is however until Apple decided to take the next big leap from computers and get into the mobile market with the iPhone. This little evolution of the iPod that could play music can now also play videos on a small device and act as a cell phone? What more could one ask for? How about Angry Birds and Candy Crush?

While things were slow to start, we would see in time (and a bit in the early 2010s) games slowly jump onto the iPhone and other related devices as developers found a new target audience that was not considered up to now: The Casual Audience.

Might not have been the first "Match 3" game, but it knew how to catch an audience.

Who would have thought this would be a big money maker?

Those who were not hardcore gamers, but did enjoy playing games to the side in the middle of their busy schedules. And with it, we saw a new move to get people to toss millions of dollars their way: Free-to-play. That in itself could also be an evolution of sorts, but Free-to-play and Mobile Gaming sort of go hand in hand as the idea would be to allow players to play as much as they want and if they run out of lives, they can either wait for more hearts to regenerate, or toss a dollar to refill and continue playing. Still a thriving market to this day, although the methods of monetization would become far more concerning in the following decade.

Does Horse Armor count as an Evolution? 8) Downloadable Content

The start of Downloadable content starts with horse armor.

Just cosmetic, but I guess people really wanted to bling their horse.

So before we go into our final leg, it would be fair to bring up one other important aspect of the evolution of games: The implication of Downloadable Content. Yes, we like to point towards the Horse Armor from Elder Scrolls Oblivion being a needless $2.50 cosmetic purchase, but this was effectively (more or less) the start of what we would see as the future of games. Games were no longer just a product on a cartridge or a disk. They could become something bigger without requiring a re-release or an “expansion pack.”

Now we would see games that would provide additional content from the online game store and for a small sum, you can get things like extra characters, random costumes, or even whole new levels or areas to play. Since this was such a brand-new concept, it was a bizarre time to know what would be worthwhile content and what would be a waste of money. It even got to a point where the content was behind a paywall even though it was already on the game disk. There it was, but the only way you could unlock it was to pull out the credit card and type the numbers in to unlock it.

Eventually, the discourse on downloadable content evened itself out, but not completely. There’s no denying the impact DLC has had on the world of gaming and continues to be to this very day.

2010s- 9) Competitive Gaming, and 10) Live Service Games

As we near the finish line of Gaming Evolution, there are just a few more steps on the path to look at that did do their fair sum of reshaping the industry as a whole. By the time we got to the turn of a new decade, we saw the emergence of a game from a small team called League of Legends.

Imagine taking some silly mod that Warcraft 3 players made and turning it into a whole new genre. Well, we call that Defense of the Ancients, and while DOTA 2 is also ongoing to this day too, League of Legends basically took the formula and said, “What if we were to broadcast these players playing to over 32 million viewers around the world?”

When video games hit the literal big leagues.

32 Million people watching 10 players play a video game. -2013

Streaming High-Level Competitions

It is hard to believe that Twitch did launch back in 2011 and that 2013 was the world’s first big taste of eSports when the third season of League of Legends did draw 15,000 in attendance and 32 million viewers watching online. And that number would only grow bigger over time as the League of Legends World Championship brought in over 60 million viewers in 2017 while DOTA 2 would hold a tournament in 2019 that had a prize pool of over $34 million.

Competitive games were certainly around long before League of Legends, but the games themselves never saw viewership that went into such high numbers. The best you could hope for is that people who set up LAN Tournaments got the word out, or your local arcade’s fighting game tournament had a good turnout. But now, we see various competitions around the world covering a wide range of titles. Leagues are set up and thousands of dollars (if not literal millions), are up for grabs. League of Legends might not be the first competitive game, but it certainly got the ball rolling for all that came after.

A Brief Summary of Live-Service Games

So while I could go into a whole spill on Live-Service Games and how the current landscape isn’t looking too good at the moment, it is still something worth bringing up. After all, it was the next step from Downloadable Content as it became something far bigger: A game that would see constant updates and evolve over time.

You could see the game start off small and with a bit of content to get you going (such as a full campaign to play through until you reach the end). And once you reach the end, you might have a few extra activities to play, but in the coming weeks and months, the game will get new updates.

Suddenly you see new characters, weapons, classes, maps, and more come in and not charge the player anything additional to play it. Of course, this could sometimes be with the contingency of having earned in-game coins to purchase it, or you can just break out your wallet and pay up, but now if you play the game, you get to see it become bigger and bigger over time.

As mentioned previously, for some companies, this has become like an inflatable balloon that got so inflated, it popped. And as of late, you don’t see too many of these Live-service games out in the wild as we used to as many have come to the realization that the cost of developing ongoing games can get expensive (especially if there might not be a player base to keep tossing money into the pool to keep it going).

Where do we go from here?

So to recap, if I were to do a summarization of the big evolution steps in gaming, it would be in three major ways: How you would be able to play games, how you could engage with said games by yourself and with others, and how technology evolves overtime to enable new ways to play.

The worlds of Minecraft can be simply gigantic.

Minecraft was also quite influential too. Nothing like letting the player build their own world from the ground up.

During this whole article, the only gripe I have was not figuring out how Minecraft fit into the evolution of video games. If I were to point towards the two biggest influential games of the 2010s, they would be League of Legends and Minecraft for the impact the two games have had on our world. The problem, however, is that Minecraft was more about enabling the creativity of the players themselves and letting them build whatever they want.

But that in itself leaves me to ponder what is the next step evolutionary step in video games. It is because of titles like Minecraft that we could very well see the next big thing happen when we least expect it. Will it be in the hands of the players who will let their creativity give us new concepts and new games? Or in the hands of the game publishers who are looking for the next million-dollar idea?

Of Metaverses and Fungible Tokens

In a way, there are two things we see in today’s world that seem like they are getting the push as the next big things in our world: The idea of the “Metaverse” and the utilization of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs).

One thing I have neglected to mention this whole time was the use of Virtual Reality (and to a lesser extent: Augmented Reality). They are certainly new ways to play video games, but we have not truly explored their full capabilities yet.

Meanwhile, the Metaverse is playing with the idea of having a virtual world serve as an alternative to the internet while using VR or AR to interact with it socially. But how it will be executed is something that is really unknown. And for the pitches we got as of late, it certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

The metaverse: Where you can hold virtual meetings and... how is this different from just a video call online?

The future?

We can say the same of NFTs: The belief of owning a digital certificate of unique assets of art or digital content could somehow carry over into the world of video games. That in its own right would be a nightmare to figure out unless those who are making these NFTs happen to also be creating the content to use them in. And there are recent attempts in making NFT games, but the end result is… complicated.

“It all started when Jimmy took a shot so atomic…”

Truly. The future of NFTs is here with Dookey Dash. Couldn’t you tell?

In case if you are interested in the original pitch for Dookey Dash, be sure to check out the video. Long story short, it was a game where you could get yourself a “Sewer Pass” if you own a monkey and if you get the highest score, you can get yourself “The Key.” And this key’s value is apparently set at (and I wish I was exaggerating the number) $3.7 million. Needless to say, this is quite the prize. It was also something that was prone to cheating too.

From Callum Upton

It is difficult to say what the future of NFT-related gaming will be. Who knows if it could very well be the next big thing to happen in gaming, or if this experiment will be dead on arrival due to the nature of NFTs themselves. Overall, let’s just say these are just a few tidbits of possible next steps; steps that many would hope will not become mainstream. It is already difficult to say where things will go in the future, but many would argue they would not want to see a future where it feels like innovation requires a high sum of cash or high risks attached to them.

In Conclusion

So what is the next big innovation? The next evolutionary step in video games that will change this industry forever? Your guess is as good as mine. Even after this whole time, I find myself scratching my head as to what we would need to see happen that will cause people to rush towards it like it was the next big Gold Rush.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind someone cracking the formula to make VR more mainstream. Not sure how, but some people feel like the closest we ever got to VR being peak was Half-Life Alyx. We still have a ways to go with VR even in this day and age. Meanwhile, the ways we see technology utilized nowadays feels less like fun and more for people to open up their wallets and let the whales toss their money to become powerful through money rather than playing the game.

In the end, we can only hope that when that time comes for the next big step, it will be a big leap rather than a tumble. But what do you think the next evolutionary step in gaming will be? Leave your thoughts down below and be sure to follow us here at Strangely Awesome for more on the gaming world.

Michael Solseth
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