A video game is a game played using an electronic controller to manipulate images on a display screen. The earliest video games merit little additional description; most were abstractions, blips on a black and white screen designed to simulate sports and board games. Advances in computer technology, however, have led to exponential increases in the conceptual and visual sophistication of video games, allowing players to inhabit elaborately detailed worlds and control digital avatars with a vast array of actions and choices.
The scope of video games
Like other games, video games have a clearly defined goal and are bound by rules, but unlike other games, those rules are rarely fully and explicitly stated. Rules in board and card games are abstract; little to nothing indicates them to the player. Video games, however, are represented by virtual worlds that usually imply at least some of their rules. Their visual representation, or graphics, is one factor that distinguishes video games from other types of games. The other distinguishing factor is their algorithmic logic. If a game were governed by database computer logic, a DVD screen menu could qualify as a video game if someone decided to create rules for it. The algorithm is a program containing the set of procedures controlling the game's graphics and sound, the input and output engaging the players, and the behavior of the computer-controlled players within the game.
The commonalities between video games ends there. There is a bewildering variety of video games. The dissimilarities between Dance Dance Revolution, which requires players to physically input dance steps on a pressure-sensitive playmat, and a word puzzle game on a mobile phone, seem far more obvious than the similarities. Thus, the need for categorization into both genre and platform.
Like other media, video games are sorted according to genre, but unlike film or literature they are usually classified independent of their theme or setting. Instead, gameplay is the main criterion for categorizing games. An action game is an action game, regardless of whether it takes place in a fantasy world or outer space. Within game studies there are no universally accepted, formal definitions for game genres, some being more observed than others. For a comprehensive list, see video game genres.
The emergence, evolution, and success of video game genres depends on both technology and the congenital behavior of producers and consumers. Companies naturally want to minimize risk, and it is safer to imitate a successful platform game or shooter than to attempt something different and risk commercial and critical failure. Consumers, likewise, tend towards what they know, rather than chance wasting their time and money on something they know nothing about. Game genres develop as technology progresses but innovation is moderated by commercial constraints and by the conditioned opinions and expectations of players.
Though numerous, video game genres are rivaled in number by the systems, or platforms, that video games are available for, which include home consoles, personal computers, arcade boards, and handheld systems such as handheld game consoles, PDAs, and mobile phones. Each type of platform has advantages and disadvantages. Handheld systems offer portability at the expense of larger screen size and better graphics and sound. Arcades are generally technologically superior to consoles but they are not designed for home use. Personal computers may be extensively customized to suit the player's preferences, but cutting-edge computer hardware is expensive and the vast number of options can baffle inexperienced computer users.
Due to these advantages and disadvantages, some genres are better suited to one kind of machine than another. Real-time strategy (RTS) games, for example, are well suited to the PC because of the mouse. Historical advantages also explain why some genres flourished or continue to flourish on one kind of machine--for example, platformers on consoles, since computers did not smoothly scroll horizontally at the same time that the NES did. handhelds for short games like puzzle games.
Platform prominently factors into the question of scope. In 1958, William Higinbotham designed Tennis For Two, an electronic game which simulated a tennis match on an oscilloscope. Years later, his testimony was called upon during legal attempts to break the Magnavox video game patent obtained through their development of the Odyssey, the first home video game console. The court ruled that Tennis For Two did not use video signals and so did not qualify as a video game. As a result, every company that entered the video game market was forced to pay a settlement to Sanders Associates, the company that supplied Ralph Baer, the "Father of the Video Game," with a team to develop the Odyssey.
A history of video games
- For a comprehensive history of video games, see History of video games
Magnavox may have enjoyed legal status as the creator of the first video game, but a less technical definition of of the medium includes a handful of older efforts, beginning with a patent for a "Cathode-ray Tube Amusement Device" filed in 1947. Although game enthusiasts, journalists, and historians disagree on what the first video game was, a clear contender for the title emerged in 1961 as MIT students Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Witaenem created Spacewar! on a DEC PDP-1 mini-computer.
Spacewar! was adapted by Nolan Bushnell, a fellow MIT regular, into Computer Space, one of the first commercial, coin-operated video games. The game flopped and Bushnell blamed his employer, Nutting Associates, for mismarketing the product. He quit Nutting Associates and founded a garage startup called Atari. "From this unlikely marriage—the computer lab and the carnival—the video game industry was born." Bushnell asked his company's first full-time engineer, Al Alcorn, to design a simple game of table tennis; they called it Pong. Bushnell and Alcorn installed it in a local bar, where it became an immediate success as a coin-operated game. Atari geared up to manufacture arcade consoles in volume, creating a new industry while also attracting competitors.
The first home console arrived in the bulky form of the grandiosely named Odyssey, a soundless, primitive machine powered by batteries and sold with translucent plastic overlays that players could place on their television screen to simulate color graphics. It was also sold with dice, poker chips, and score sheets to help keep score in the manner of a traditional board game.
The Odyssey sold 250,000 units worldwide; its sales, while respectable, were a fraction of the ballooning arcade market's earnings, buoyed by releases like Taito's Space Invaders and Atari's Asteroids. By the late 1970s, though, computer technology and programmer know-how had advanced to the point that home video games began approximating the features of arcade games. Fairchild Semiconductor's Video Entertainment System, released in 1976 and later called Channel F, was a first for home video game consoles in three ways: It used a microprocessor, it permitted computer-controlled characters, and its games were stored on removable media (cartridges) rather than the console itself. These revolutionary advances were popularized by one of Channel F's competitors, Atari's Video Computer System. As video games moved out of bars and arcades and into homes, their design shifted in response. Arcade games exist to consume quarters; their short levels and rapidly increasing difficulty levels are profitable design. Home video games, however, yield no additional revenue once in the hands of consumers; consumers choose home video games based on, among other measurable values, their potential hours of play, so games became longer and developed a narrative ending.
Early game conventions and genres, however, were most defined by technical constraints. Programmers for Atari's VCS had to write an entire game, complete with graphics, gameplay, sound effects, and all the scoring in four kilobytes, the data equivalent of two typewritten pages.Pitfall! designer David Crane remarked that "a lot of the game features then were not what you could think of, but what you could actually achieve." For example, players' avatars were often simple geometrical figures because the limited number of display pixels severely restricted smooth animation. No more than two such animated figures could share the same screen space, rendering the cartridge adaptation of the arcade smash hit Pac-Man nearly unplayable. The game's disastrous reception heralded the coming crash of the home video game market. By 1984, the media had declared video games a fad and computers, which began making headway in 1982 thanks to their expanding features and falling prices, completed their takeover of the market.
Computers like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 offered equal gaming ability and since their simple design allowed games to take complete command of the hardware after power-on, they were nearly as simple to start playing with as consoles. Game designers took advantage of the greater flexibility of computers to explore new game genres, often inspired by complex paper-and-pencil role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, various board games, and Crowther’s Adventure. Interactive fiction was a particularly successful format on personal computers. Other games—such as the King’s Quest series by Sierra On-Line (1983), military simulations and role-playing games published by Strategic Simulations Incorporated (founded in 1979), Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth/Ultima series (1979), and the sports and multimedia titles of Electronic Arts (founded in 1982)—extended the simulation and storytelling capacity of computer games. "The promotion and availability of cheap computers in the UK in the 1980s strongly influnced the growth of the PC games market and wider development industry there." (The business and culture of digital games 18)
Meanwhile, Atari's decline had opened the market to new competition. Namely, Nintendo. "The success of microelectronics, manga, and animated films in Japan provided an important foundation for Japan's digital games industry as well as important social legitimization." (The business and culture of digital games, p 18). (and so it was that Japan came into its own as a huge force for and exporter of video games..Japan exported its culture along with its video games) The home console market rebounded with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System and its flagship title, Super Mario Bros. Mario's phenomenal success is partly attributable to its smooth scrolling, courtesy of the Nintendo Entertainment System's picture processing unit. Its graphics exceeded the capabilities of personal computers. More important, Nintendo introduced battery-powered storage cartridges that enabled players to save games in progress. Games such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, as well as Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy series, fully exploited the ability to save games in progress; they used it to provide deeper game experiences, flexible character development, and complex interactive environments. These qualities encouraged comparisons between video games and other narrative media such as cinema.
Like other computers, video game hardware technology has generally obeyed a laymen's formulation of Moore's Law: The capabilities of electronic devices--such as processing speed and memory capacity--improve at exponential rates every two years. Advances in hardware technology have led to roughly proportional increases in the representational power of video games. Increased representational power, in turn, has given rise to new genres and a third dimension. The 1993 release of Doom on personal computers was a breakthrough in 3D graphics, and Nintendo's Super Mario 64, released in 1996, became "the blueprint for navigating 3D space in video games." The faster graphics accelerators and improving CPU technology have resulted in ever-increasing levels of realism and complexity that characterize much of contemporary gaming.
The contemporary video game industry
Such complexity comes at a price: High-budget games' production costs can be greater than US$20 million and development teams larger than 100, with different studios for animation, sound, marketing, and so on. In the industry's infancy, however, programmers were individually responsible for creating every element of their games—the same person who created the concept was also responsible for the coding, the art, and even the sound effects. Hiroshi Yamauchi, former president of the world's largest video game manufacturer, Nintendo, established the distinction between game designer and game programmer when he asked a young artist named Shigeru Miyamoto to create an arcade game with the company's head engineer, Gunpei Yokoi. Their product, the absurdly titled Donkey Kong, was a stunning success. Not long after Donkey Kong's release, Masafumi Miyamoto (who bears no relation to Shigeru) founded Squaresoft on the premise that it would be more efficient to have graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers work together on common projects. Considering all of the elements that comprise a game--the graphics, the design, the sound, and so on--division of labor was a sensible, inevitable step.
Publication and distribution
As video games grew in popularity, division of labor necessarily expanded beyond their development and into their wider production process. The earliest video games were created and distributed on mainframe computers. As personal computer games went commercial, hobbyist game developers formed a cottage industry, selling their games by mail order or personal delivery. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series of games, briefly distributed Ultima's predecessor Akalabeth himself on floppy disks stored in Ziploc bags until a software company bought the rights to it and published it in 1980. Two years later, Silicon Valley entrepreneuer Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts, a company whose raison d'être was to publish rather than develop video games. The conception of the video game publisher established the dominant model of game production.
Hardware manufacturer > Game developer > Publisher > Distributor > Retail > Consumer
Much like the book business, small, independent developers who are not owned by or affiliated with a publisher generally need a separate publisher (for funding) or distributor, yet big companies perform all of these functions in-house. Publishers expand the user base for their games by releasing them in different regions and for different platforms. The former is done through localization, or publishing games abroad; the latter, through porting, or rewriting games to run on different systems. Both processes are problematic. In localizing games, publishers must not only translate them but also adhere to legal or cultural norms; in porting games, they must account for differences in system attributes and architecture. To alleviate the burden of localizing and porting games, publishers often outsource those tasks to smaller developers suited for the job. And to simplify both development and porting, PC games, and, to a smaller but growing extent, console games, are usually built around a central piece of software known as a game engine.
Recently, new market models have threatened to supplant the old one: namely, digital distribution, a term encompassing multiple business models. Retail services such as Direct2Drive and Download.com allow users to purchase and download large games online that would otherwise only be distributed on physical media, such as DVDs. Other services, such as GameTap, allow a subscription-based distribution model in which users pay a monthly fee to download and play as many games as they wish. In this way, the video game industry is on the verge of a fundamental restructure....(http://www.mcvuk.com/news/36665/Square-Enix-Consoles-set-for-extinction)
Video game manufacturers have sought to capture a wider market through not only simplified distribution, but also accessible design. Games like Guitar Hero and Wii Sports, designed to be unintimidating to the casual player or non-gamer, represent a recent industry-wide push to court untapped demographics. Such a lucrative market is bound to attract: The economic enticement of the video game industry has drawn some of the biggest companies in the world to join the fight in the so-called console wars. Often they are electronics companies (like Sony) or toymakers (like Bandai) or both (like Nintendo) since their R&D divisions are suited to video game hardware development.
Unlike other media players, video game hardware only runs proprietary software. A DVD can play on any DVD player, but a Nintendo game can only run on a Nintendo system. Nintendo could expand their user base by developing their games for other systems as well, but then consumers have less incentive to purchase a Nintendo system; hardware manufacturers recognize this dilemma and so insure--through internal game development or exclusivity deals with third-party publishers--that they have games available only for their system. The industry's manufacturers could collectively adopt a universal hardware standard and share the spoils, but the current market structure enables them to collect handsome royalties from game publishers. This is necessary because the video game industry has adopted the model of the razor business: Give away the razor to sell the blades. Sony will sell you a PlayStation 2 at a loss, in the hope that it will make a steep profit on the games.
Video games in public discourse
Gamers have established a subculture that has been supported by and expanded through the Internet. There now exist thousands of online discussion forums dedicated to video games. Like members of many other subcultures, gamers have developed and use their own jargon, with an especial fondness for initializing the names of games, platforms, and genres. These forums almost always include a board for "off-topic discussion," or anything not directly related to video games.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft are inherently social endeavors because cooperation is necessary to progress. As Tom Chatfield writes in Prospect, "[the game] Eve Online involves players ganging together to build spaceships. One of the first of the largest class of such ships took a consortium of around 22 guilds—just under 4,000 players in total—eight months to complete, a task that involved complexities of training, materials, role allocation and management that would put many companies to shame."
- An exception to this rule is the survival horror genre. The term does entail certain gameplay features, but it is primarily concerned with aesthetics.
- Computer Space is often mistakenly referred to as the first commercial video game, but Galaxy Game preceded it by two months.
- The video game crash of 1983 is sometimes, although less frequently, referred to as the video game crash of 1984 because the effects were most apparent in the year following the crash.