27-11-2013

60 years of video games: A success story of digital entertainment

It began as almost all things computer and IT-related appear to do have done from a present day perspective: fairly small and modest. The beginning of video games was during a time in which those few computers around didn't boast much more than the large amount of space they inhabited. They took up entire floors and were primarily used by secret services, the Pentagon and a handful of universities. The processing power was comparatively modest and nobody would have thought that computing could become a global, billion-dollar industry within a few decades.

Let us turn back the wheel of time: The past 60 years have seen previously undreamed of developments in the areas of computing and video games, as well their pricing and how to pay for such games.

1952: General Eisenhower of WWII becomes president of the USA; the Allies still occupy Austria; Helsinki is the host of the Summer Olympic Games, participated in by athletes from 69 countries; in Great Britain a jet plane takes off with paying passengers on board. And at Cambridge University, a valve computer is running the first-ever video game: a text-based version of the classic game Noughts and Crosses, also known as Tic-Tac-Toe, as well as OXO due to the letters used in the game: O (for noughts) and X (for crosses).  And because these letters were also graphically displayed, OXO counts as the first-ever graphics-based video game. Well... it was a start at least.

The next milestone was passed in 1958 with Tennis for Two. This was a sports game played in profile and developed by the US physicist William Higinbotham at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York. Spacewar (1961) was also created in the USA, this time by a student. What all these attempts had in common was that they stood practically no chance of being distributed. How would it even have been possible in a world in which computers (and video games) remained almost exclusively in the domain of laboratories, universities and secret service agencies?

Towards the end of the sixties, it was not the home PC but the console which took the first tentative steps into people's homes, particularly in the USA. The first of these bore the poetic name Magnavox Odyssey – and others followed. The seventies saw the supply of consoles with games software as slowly becoming the norm. It was during this time that the video tennis game Pong was developed, which some people might still remember.

What followed, in rapid succession, were the first golden age of consoles (including from the manufacturer Mattell - which most people nowadays associate with Barbie) and the collapse of the video games industry in 1983.  Revenues shrank from 3 billion dollars in 1982 to 100 million dollars the following year. So what happened?

Dazzled by the rapid expansion of the industry and the successes of the previous years, masses of low-quality games were produced which missed the mark of consumers' changing expectations and gaming habits. The effects of market purge that followed can still be felt today. Because it was from this collapse that the Japanese specialists Nintendo and SEGA emerged even stronger. Starting in North America, but then around the world, they brought a new dimension to games. Following in their wake, even Commodore and Atari enjoyed a certain amount of success.  And there was another development: Namely the home computer, which thanks to the addition of sound and graphics cards, allowed them to be used for more than simply spread sheets and writing letters. This led the PC to become a serious competitor to consoles in the eighties.

A turning point in the history of video games themselves was the arrival of Super Mario Bros. in 1985. The new options it brought with it revolutionised the gaming world and triggered a new boom for the entire industry. 1989 saw the launch of the first handheld consoles and the following years brought enormous advances generally: better graphics, sound and more complex settings thrilled gamers around the world. PC and console games consequently converged to an ever greater degree, which was no wonder, considering the synergies of their joint development and marketing.

In the mid-nineties, the PlayStation brought 3D-capable graphic cards into the mix and marked the beginning of a whole new generation of consoles. The era of motion control revolutionised consoles once again. For PCs, in contrast, it was the internet that proved itself as the driving force behind the trend of multiplayer games. A development which eventually led to games on social networks and the arrival of game designs that forgo self-contained game narratives and which can theoretically be played throughout a person's life. Furthermore, the cost of games is now no longer a barrier to enjoying them. The freemium model, which has become standard, allows players to step into a game's world for free and thereby allow them to decide for themselves if they wish to spend the typically small amounts required to enjoy certain advantages.

This has meant that new ways of paying online have also gained relevance. After all, you don't want to pay for a new lightsaber or a new tractor for your virtual farm with your credit card or by bank transfer - especially if you want to be able to use them right away. Intelligent payment solutions are an absolute necessity here, which is so-to-speak Austria's contribution to the story, in the form of paysafecard: the locally developed and now internationally used prepaid payment method, AKA "online cash". Available from local newsagents, paysafecard is accepted as payment at almost all the usual online games, including Facebook games, in which it is particularly widely used.

Online games are also becoming more and more mobile. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are the gaming platforms of the near future. Nowadays, you don't need much more than such a device and a payment service like paysafecard to be able to be a part of the gaming world which began very simply with OXO in 1952...