Looking back over the last 60 years of PC gaming, it’s hard to believe we’d ever reach where we are today. The first taste of computer gaming was experienced through extremely basic systems that offered up barely any functionality or immersion whatsoever. Graphically, they depicted simple dots on a screen and were driven by computers the size of your living room. Leap forward 50 or so years though, and gaming is one of the globe’s biggest industries, driving billions of dollars in revenue and reaching the furthest corners of the planet. Today’s gaming provides users with new levels of realism, with both graphics and gameplay being hard to differentiate from the real thing.
The evolution of gaming has been an incredible journey and one that we’ll be looking back over in the following article. We’ll be taking a look at how games went from simple dots on a screen and transformed into virtual realities that can be viewed through 21st-century goggles – otherwise known as VR headsets. We’ll also be looking at how the hardware that drives these games has had to evolve in order to keep up with the ever-growing demand these games require.
So, with all that in mind, let’s waste no further time and dive straight into the history of PC gaming!
We have to go back to the ’60s to get our first glimpse of what we today know as PC gaming. Before 1962, there wasn’t a great deal going on for gaming. However, that year, MIT students Martin Graetz, Alan Kotok, and Steve Russell, developed pioneer game, Spacewar – a multiplayer battling game where each player had to destroy the others’ spaceship in order to win. At the time of its creation, computers were enormous and miles away from what we have today. The PDP-1 mainframe computer it was designed to work with was primarily used for statistical calculations, making the game itself nothing more than a showpiece to boast the potential of computing and programming.
Later that decade, 1966 to be precise, HP decided to release their first 16-bit minicomputer, the HP 2116A – boasting 10 times the speeds found in other machines of its time. Despite PC gaming still being decades away, this was still the first real advancement in the quest towards domestic computer gaming.
The ’70s offered up an equally exciting year for gaming, with the first-ever competitive contest for gaming (a Spacewar tournament) being held at Stanford University. It was a one-on-one style tournament with the winner moving onto the next round of the competition. Whilst this was pretty revolutionary in the larger scale of things, soon becoming the catalyst for tournaments across the globe, it wasn’t nearly as influential as Pong – the instant classic that was released a mere six weeks after the competition at Stanford.
Pong was a tennis-style sports game that also came to fruition in 1972. Created by Allan Alcorn, the game was initially developed for arcade machines and was extremely basic in terms of graphics and functionality. Each player uses a paddle that moves vertically up and down the screen to hit a ball (the two pixels on the screen) back to the other. If you fail to return the ball, your opponent receives a single point. The first player to reach 11 points was declared the victor.
Whilst it was extremely simple in design, it still offered great entertainment for the time and even went on to receive several sequels from Atari later down the road.
Nearing the end of the ’70s, a number of text-based adventure games were released where players would interact with the game via commands sent from the keyboard. These games were developed for the minicomputers of the time, bringing an extremely basic level of gameplay to the table.
Despite game development moving pretty slowly through the ’60s and ’70s, thanks to a few hardware arrivals that were introduced in the ’80s, that was all about to change.
It wasn’t long into the ’80s when the first personal computer was brought to life, bringing with it the springboard effect that launched gaming into the global spotlight. Simply known as the IBM Personal Computer, this gaming machine was described by BYTE as an ‘excellent gaming device’ thanks to its revolutionary speed and sophistication.
Whilst it wasn’t perfect, it was still a step in the right direction and gave everyday consumers the potential to play games from their own home – without taking up their entire bedroom.
Early titles included Microsoft Adventure and Microsoft Flight Simulator, both of which were still extremely basic in design and function.
Just a year later, HP released the first mainframe desktop computer, the HP 9000 technical computer – catchy. It offered up the same power as the room-sized computers of the ’60s whilst being a fraction of the size – another step closer to modern-day gaming as we know it.
Other noteworthy arrivals in the ’80s included MS-DOS (Microsoft’s disk operating system), the creation of Dell, and the first-ever VGA video card – providing consumers with 640×480 resolution and outmatched the competing Omega console when it came to graphics.
By the late ’80s, the PC market was growing exponentially, with DOS computers dominating homes over the lesser impressive commodore and Apple alternatives. Dell, which was brought to life just 4 years earlier, increases its market capitalization from $1,000 to $85 million. Computer hardware was well and truly on the domestic map.
The ’90s offered up a whole host of exciting arrivals in both the hardware and gaming sectors. In 1992 Wolfenstein 3D was released and sold over 200,000 copies in just over a year. Whilst it has been credited for creating the first-person shooter genre, it was soon outshone by Doom which released just 12 months later.
After Doom’s arrival, it was quickly quoted as being the most influential game when it came to pioneering the first-person shooter genre. Whilst the graphics of both Wolfenstein and Doom were still a far cry from today’s standards, at the time, they were considered huge leaps forward in technology – especially when compared to games of the early 70s.
Between ’91 and ’95 DOS pretty much took over the gaming world, accounting for between 91-94% of all computer-game sales during this time period. A lot of the popularity was thanks to the 486 PC processor which ran much faster than competing consoles at this particular time.
As we near the end of the decade, Valve releases their debut product, Half-Life. The game was an instant classic amongst gamers and became one of the most popular first-person shooter titles to hit shelves. It was so popular, several fan-made mods were created off the back of the game, including a competitive combat shooter that would make Valve a global name.
Before the end of the decade, Unreal is finally released, spawning the creation of Unreal Engine and a new way of designing games. Whilst it was still early doors, this would ultimately become the blueprint for greater levels of realism in the next generation of gaming.
By the ’00s, gaming graphics and hardware were increasing (in complexity) at an exponential rate. PCs were in most households across America and gaming was becoming hugely popular across the face of the globe. By the end of 2000, Counter-Strike gets released by Valve and quickly becomes one of the most popular competitive first-person shooters of all time. It goes on to sell over 25 million copies worldwide and sparks a competitive gaming scene that was about to explode over the next 15 years.
A couple of years after the release of CS, Valve introduces the Steam platform to the world of gaming. It quickly becomes one of the most popular gaming platforms out there and offers thousands of games to its loyal following.
Alongside first-person shooter glory, the ’00s can also lay claim to one of the greatest MMORPG games ever made, World Of Warcraft. The game gets released in 2004 and quickly climbs the global subscription ranking figures. By the end of the ’00s, World Of Warcraft has over 12 million subscriptions, becoming the most subscribed to MMORPG ever.
By this time, faster graphics accelerators and improving CPU technologies result in much higher levels of realism in computer games. Nvidia and RADEON both offer up high-performance graphics card options, allowing developers to increase the complexity of modern-day game engines.
After the 00s, gaming was one of the globe’s biggest industries, evolving on a year by year basis. AMD and Intel are now in a constant battle to outperform each other, with a similar story being seen in the graphics industry between RADEON and Nvidia. Gaming has now reached new levels of realism and is starting to become close to what we know by today’s standards.
Unreal Engine 4 is finally released after 11 years of development, quickly establishing itself as the pinnacle of 3D graphics capabilities. Despite the engine initially being designed for first-person shooters, developers successfully used it for a variety of other game genres which included fighting games, MMORPGs, and RPGs.
By 2015, thanks to the increase in competitive gaming, GFINITY opens the first dedicated esports arena in the UK. The arena hosts a bunch of events throughout the year, covering a number of different games and attracting over 58 million viewers.
PLAYERUNKNOWN’s BATTLEGROUNDS is released near the end of the decade and quickly sells over 10 million copies, instantly launching itself into the top 10 best selling games of all time.
As we enter into the modern era of gaming, it’s hard to look back over the past 60 years and believe where gaming is today. Graphics are now at an all-time high, providing gamers with new levels of realism that were never thought possible. PCs are now a home staple, with custom PC building being a huge industry across the globe.
GPUs are more powerful than ever before, costing as much as $1,600 and providing levels of realism that are hard to differentiate from the real thing. There are literally thousands of games now available, with most displaying what I class as ‘modern-day graphics’.
Competitive esports now drives millions of dollars every year, with professional franchises recruiting young, upcoming stars to their ever-growing game rosters. Furthermore, virtual reality is also now at its most advanced, with immersion and graphics hitting impressive new highs that aren’t a million miles away from what you see in the sci-fi movies.
The Future Of Gaming
Overall, the last 60 years of gaming has been a real journey, to say the least. Whilst no one can predict what the future of gaming holds, it’s hard to see graphics and gameplay advancing much further than where we’re at today. Ultimately, the initial spike in graphical advancements we’ve seen over the last several decades will sadly flatten out – unless something radical changes in the way we develop games.
That being said, with the arrival of Unreal Engine 5 becoming more imminent by the day, we’ll most likely see greater levels of detail in light, shadows, and overall LODs (level of detail) across the gaming scene. Other highly productive development tools will also allow creators to bring new levels of realism to a player’s movements and interactions. Whilst these changes may be subtle, they’re a definite improvement when compared to games of the last 10 years.
As far as hardware is concerned, CPU speed will probably plateau over the next couple of years, with speeds not surpassing the 5+GHz we see in modern processors. That said, we will probably see simultaneous multithreading become widespread, with processors boasting 4 threads to every core – double what we have today. GPUs will undoubtedly use ray-tracing more frequently, especially in the rendering of light, shadows, and reflections – whilst naturally ridding ourselves of pre-baked shadows and cubemaps. Finally, we’ll likely see a generous boost in 3D audio as well, with surround sound technology becoming much more accurate.
All being said, we actually don’t know what the next 60 years of gaming has in store. However, if it’s anything like the last 60 years, it’s safe to say gaming will continue to be one of the biggest industries the planet has to offer.