Analyst Digi-Capital predicts the world will spend $100 billion a year on videogames by the year 2017. An incredible amount of cash which is even more staggering considering the first video game ever made was a complete commercial failure.
The ten games below have one thing in common: big ideas that slowly changed gaming from a geeky hobby in the computer science labs of the Sixties into a world-conquering entertainment giant.
Computer Space (1971, Arcade)
The result: Commercial disaster
Computer Space was called Space War at first. It was designed in 1962 by computer scientists who traded it free with other universities. Ridiculous to see now, but the game ran on mainframe computers the size of FRIDGES.
By 1971, though, Atari's Nolan Bushnell bought the rights. He made a version for restaurants and pinball arcades that were built into cabinets with a black-and-white vacuum-tube TV and custom-built computer components. Computer Space never made much money. Bushnell blamed his marketing department.
But the stage had been set. Among Atari's employees was a young Steve Jobs. The company's next game, the iconic tennis title Pong, would prove a hit.
Space Invaders (1978, Arcade)
The idea: Star Wars in a box
Space Invaders earned $486 million: more than Star Wars
The creator of Space Invaders had to build his own circuit boards as off-the-shelf ones weren’t powerful enough. The fact that aliens and the gameplay accelerated as you played, in time with its eerie electronic theme music was too much for standard tech.
Designed by one man, Tomohiro Nishikado, Space Invaders took a year to create. In Japan, the machine ignited such a frenzy that it caused a shortage of the 10-yen pieces required to play it. In Britain, it was a hit, too. A young Richard Branson is pictured (right) playing the cult game.
Labour MP George Foulkes claimed that Space Invaders was ‘addictive’, and his 'Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games) Bill' was only narrowly defeated in the Commons.
Pac-Man (1981, Arcade)
The idea: Games with characters
The result: Pac-Man has been played for over 10 billion hours
Creators Namco feared that maze game Pac-Man would fail because it wasn’t about war in space, unlike the previously successfull Space Invaders and Galaxian.
Originally called Puck Man, the name was changed due to fears of American teenagers referring to it in rhyming slang. The cabinet was powered by a Zilog Z80 chip used in desktop computers, and its 16-colour palette was cutting-edge: it rapidly sold 350,000 cabinets.
It’s estimated that the game has been played for more than ten billion hours, but it was two decades before someone achieved a ‘perfect’ score (eating every single power pill, blob, ghost for 256 levels, without losing a life).
Billy Mitchell, whose prowess at classic arcade games is chronicled in the film, ‘The King of Kong’ said, “It was tremendously monotonous. I was afraid I was going to get lost inside myself.”
Manic Miner (1983, ZX Spectrum)
The idea: Super Mario with a dash of British eccentricity
The result: A recreated Spectrum, complete with Manic Miner, is to relaunch this Christmas
Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum was less powerful than its American rival, the Commodore 64, but was £125, while the 64 was £399.
Manic Miner, along with its sequel Jet Set Willy, (pictured) was the Spectrum’s signature platform series. It had an odd look due to the cheap computer's colour palette, which did not allow colours beginning with certain letters to appear next to one another on screen. The imagery of Manic Miner's 2D world was equally surreal.
The box advertised dangers including “Poisonous Pansies, Spiders, Slime, and worst of all, Manic Mining Robots.” Steve Wiltshire, of Elite games, who published Manic Miner, says, “Matthew Smith’s ‘Manic Miner’ for the ZX Spectrum is perfect. It’s so exquisitely crafted it’s now analysed and taught as part of undergraduate courses in game development.”
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Tetris (1984, PC, Game Boy)
A hit on Game Boy, Tetris broke records when it relaunched on phones, selling 70 million
Tetris first appeared on PC, but made its name on Nintendo's Game Boy, where it kicked off the handheld gaming revolution. It was bundled with every Game Boy console, and has sold millions of units on virtually every gaming platform ever since.
Thousands of fans reported having dreams involving the odd-shaped blocks. Psychology papers have attempted to explain why it is so compulsive, with the conclusion that it plays to our instinct to tidy up.
Its inventor, Alexei Pajitnov, did not receive a penny in the Eighties as Tetris-mania swept the globe. The game was “owned” by his employer, the Soviet government.
"You could always make a little more,” he says, “but I never seriously think about this stuff. I live as I live."
Doom (1993, PC)
The idea: Seeing through your character’s eyes
The result: Paved the way for every shooter since
“There was never a name for the marine in Doom,” said the game’s creator, John Carmack, “Because it’s meant to be you." Doom, released in 1993, is the grandfather of every shoot ‘em up played today.
Its 3D world was, of course, a con. The world and its inhabitants are actually two-dimensional, but both appear 3D to the user, which allowed the game to move much more quickly. The same trick is still used in games today. Doom became a cultural icon that appeared in Friends, in ER and even in The Simpsons.
The competitive multiplayer mode, known as "death matches”, paved the way for the online shoot ‘em ups such as Call of Duty that would dominate the next two decades of hardcore gaming.
The Sims (2000, PC)
The idea: Creativity unleashed
The result: 175 million sales, two Guinness World Records
For decades, the idea that women “didn’t play games” wasn’t a sexist statement, it was fact. Then along came The Sims, where the development team were 45% female themselves.
The result was a surreal, suburban 3D soap opera, described as a "life simulator", which had an unsettling focus on characters needing the toilet. It rapidly became the best-selling PC title ever.
Rock star fans (such as The Black-Eyed Peas and Christina Aguilera) would boast of the boring, humdrum virtual lives they created in-game. Normal players would create distinctly odd Sims. Its success was down to its scope for creativity: it's a blank canvas where you can change just about anything in your Sim's life.
Will Wright, creator of The Sims, says, "Did you know that when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote 'Treasure Island', the first thing he did was draw a map of the island? The story emerged from his imagination when he looked at the map. That's what happens in The Sims."
World of Warcraft (2004, PC)
The idea: Online 'worlds'
The result: Has earned £6 billion
The 'massively multiplayer' game World of Warcraft was the first virtual world to really make it big, hitting a peak of 12 million players, all paying a £9 a month subscription. Millions still play now, ten years on, but the world has evolved around them, with developer Blizzard adding new ideas, removing unpopular ones, and selling new expansions over the past decade.
Devotees refer to the game as “warcrack” due to its addictive nature, and a clinic briefly opened in Holland to treat gaming “addicts”, most of whom were 'victims' of Warcraft.
It was by no means the first “online world” but somehow its blend of tongue in cheek humour and “keeping up with the Joneses” by collecting magic armour worked perfectly. Player numbers are dwindling now, finally, but having earned £6 billion over the years, it’s the highest-grossing video game of all time.
Halo (2001, Xbox)
Space Invaders goes epic
Halo 3 was played online for five billion hours
Halo was the game which made Microsoft's Xbox a hit. It took away the geeky, number-crunching elements of previous shoot 'em ups, and focused on a film-like drama where you played a gruff cyborg.
The game also showcased the power of the Xbox, with high artificial intelligence in the game’s enemies, who shout warnings to each other if you throw a grenade.
It also pioneered Hollywood-style opening weekends, complete with actors in suits, and city-centre light shows, to highlight the fact that the game was beating the takings of cinema blockbusters. Halo 3 took £180 million in its first week, beating any film that year. Taken together with its sequels, Halo has been played online for 235,182 years.
Call of Duty (2003, PS3, Xbox 360)
Keeping it real
COD Black Ops 2 earned $1 billion in 16 days: James Cameron’s Avatar took $17 billion
Call of Duty effortlessly conquered a genre that was already saturated with dozens of games, and dominated it for the next decade.
The first game was based on the software that powered space shooter Quake, but added a beige colour, well-known battles, and realistic World War II weaponry. Every previous shooter had relied on ludicrously over-the-top weapons.
COD’s developers realized that detail was the key. A difference of half a second when you are reloading a rifle is actually huge. They sampled the sounds of tanks. They talked to veterans. The developers even stood next to an armoured vehicle while people shot at it, just to capture the “feel”.
The grit, dust, and focus on detail has meant COD remains the king of online shooters, even now.
Angry Birds (2009, iOS)
Games as free downloads
More than one in ten of Earth’s population has played Angry Birds
At its peak in 2012, one-tenth of the £3 billion Britain spends each year on games went on one title: Angry Birds.
Its success was largely down to how perfectly it took advantage of the gesture-control of touchscreens, just as the iPhone swept the world. For makers Rovio, it must have come as a surprise. They had made fifty unsuccessful games before they struck gold.
A big part of its legacy was the business model, known as “freemium”, where a trial version of the game is free, but you pay for extras, such as a Mighty Eagle, which swoops in to help you beat levels you’re stuck on. Angry Birds has been downloaded a billion times, with celebrity fans including David Cameron and Angelina Jolie.
Destiny (2014, PS4, Xbox One)
The idea: Space Invaders for the 21st Century
The result: A "shared world" where you can explore the entire Solar System
When the first footage of science fiction shooter Destiny was shown off at the E3 game show in Los Angeles, it got a standing ovation.
From the creators of Halo, it feels remarkably similar to play, and the look of the meticulously designed aliens and planets should reassure gamers that developer Bungie “still has it”.
Players meet and play together, but fights are fast and furious. It plays like a mix of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, and the added depth could herald a new chapter in gaming.