The game of our lives: The ever-changing world of video games
Change can be a slow burn in the video games industry – but when it comes it tends to be monumental.
It was almost 50 years ago that gaming became a part of our cultural lives, with the release of Pong, a sort of prototype tennis game in which a white dot was patted between two paddles.
That was followed by new and gradually improving gaming systems like the Atari 2600, and the following year the world was introduced to Space Invaders.
Over the next three decades that evolved into eight-bit, blocky representations of characters like Super Mario.
It all pointed to an experience which was far simpler.
They were also easier for your parents to understand than the complex labyrinths that make up today’s games – although mum and dad were making the same efforts to get you out into the fresh air as they are today.
Now games and the machines they are played on are so loaded with technical specifications that the thought of just plugging in and playing is more or less defunct.
But it is leading gaming into territory that is allowing them to create vast virtual landscapes that are thrilling for players.
Games like Warcraft – on a PC – and Minecraft laid down the ground that allowed users to construct huge, sprawling worlds in which they battle, compete and collaborate with other users who are simultaneously using their consoles in other countries. It is a vast, impressive, and sometimes mind-boggling change compared to the handful of bright, stuck-together colour blocks that made up the backdrop to Sonic The Hedgehog.
This week, the cream of the gaming industry came together in Los Angeles to consider where the sector can go next, and it points to a new direction for consoles.
At present, people still install games on their machine, and can then play them offline – although a huge number of users use online networks and stream games as they play, using the Cloud.
But times are changing, and the current mainstream consoles – principally the XBox One and the soon-to-be-superseded Playstation 4 – are likely to be consigned to the dustbin, and remembered in the same nostalgic reverie as the Sega Megadrive and the Super Nintendo.
Amidst the launch of a swathe of new games announced at the E3 Conference, there was also a suggestion that gaming itself could be heading in an entirely new direction.
Microsoft is planning to launch a new gaming system, called XBox Project Scarlett.
While details remain scant, that could point to the introduction of two new machines.
One would allow users to play games on their physical discs, while the other could be a vehicle for online games. Regardless, it’s likely to be a hugely powerful piece of equipment, and the graphics for the early release – the latest version of futuristic combat simulator Halo – look staggering.
It all points, if nothing else, to a lot more teenagers begging their parents for a bit of additional cash to splurge on games.
And Google wants to get in on the act as well, becoming the first new entrant into gaming since Microsoft launched the first Xbox 17 years ago.
Google will always be known as a search engine to some of its users, but the launch of its Pixel phone range in 2013 shows that it is now trying to force its way into the physical world.
Google’s Stadia system will allow users to play games wherever they like and on a variety of devices – similar to a TV streaming service. That would mean no updates and no downloads.
It’s a case of click to start a game and off you go – perhaps making it more like the classic consoles of old, even if the graphics and gameplay exist on a different planet altogether.
You could be on your mobile, tablet, or television – there’s no need for a physical console – and a player of that size could just lead its rivals to change their own direction of travel.
So those who still cradle their old computer cartridges with a nostalgic twinge may find that they are disappearing into obsolescence. All the while, enthusiastic gamers will find themselves entering a new world of online competition.