Tempting as it might be to imagine that history just plods along on a linear course, with great advancements magically popping into being at their appointed times, the reality is that it always takes a single, bright spark of an idea to get the wheels of progress moving – mainly by convincing others to steal said idea and improve it.
It’s the same with videogames; look at their history as a whole, and it looks like one long, unbroken chain of gradual evolution. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that every last one of the useful features we take for granted today had its origin in one single, (sometimes) brilliant trailblazer that pioneered a new idea and made it appealing for everyone else. These games all introduced something that would irrevocably change to landscape of gaming in the years that followed, and it’s high time the important evolutionary steps they brought about were recognized.
Above: Image by Electronic Entertainment Museum
Important because: Look, we all miss arcades. But do you really want to spend all your time in one, waiting in line to pump quarters into simplistic games that you can’t hear because the volume on LA Machineguns is cranked to “deafening?” Or would you rather be able to hog your games for hours on end in a dim room somewhere? Game consoles – which predated gaming PCs by a few years – made that possible.
Actually, scratch that – the first game console even predates arcade games (or, at least, successful arcade machines, seeing as 1971’s Galaxy Game and Computer Space were a single machine and an overcomplicated flop, respectively). TV hookups, wired controllers, removable predecessors to the game cartridge, an add-on light gun and even a putting controller – all were available to the public in 1972 with the Magnavox Odyssey, the brainchild of inventor Ralph Baer.
Above: Sort of like Pong, but not
While it set the template for what a home console should be, though, the Odyssey itself was kind of a failure, thanks to poor marketing and public confusion over what the thing was and whether it would only work with Magnavox TVs. It also included something that wouldn’t be imitated later: color overlays that stuck to the TV screen with static, to simulate an actual color game screen around the Odyssey’s black-and-white onscreen paddles. An interesting idea, but one that the success of the minimalist Pong would prove was completely unnecessary.
Legacy: Like we said – it set the template for what a home console should be, even though it didn’t do so well (and even though its “cartridges” weren’t really cartridges at all, but circuit boards with switches that teased different functions from the hardware). Every console we know and love, from the Atari 2600 to the NES to the PlayStation 3, can ultimately be said to take after this thing. And while they might have still happened without it, Odyssey and Baer were the proverbial mutants that passed on their traits to successive generations.
First seen in: Pong (1972)
Important because: This seems too obvious to count as an evolution, right? Sound is an integral part of gaming, adding audio feedback that makes the onscreen action more involving and interesting. Outside of text adventures and hastily assembled Flash games, who the hell would even think to design a videogame without sound?
Well, prior to Pong’s introduction in 1972, everyone. The first game – whether you think it was Tennis for Two, SpaceWar or OXO – was completely silent, and even the Odyssey (released months before Pong) lacked any sort of sound capability. It wasn’t until Atari engineer Al Alcorn figured out how to tease a few blips and boops out of his own custom-made hardware that sound was even considered as a possibility, much less taken for granted.
Legacy: Every game ever to use sound (about 99 percent of all games) owes a tiny debt to Pong and its pioneering use of lurid bloops. Do you like hearing guns firing, crowds cheering and enemy heads exploding? Then you should know it started right here.
First seen in: Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), Adventure (1979), Ultima I (1980) or Elite (1984), depending on how you define “open world.”
Important because: Open-world or “sandbox” games are, for many of us, the ultimate expression of gaming’s potential: big, open worlds we can explore freely and do whatever our whims dictate in a consequence-free environment. Series like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls might have been what made free-range dicking-around simulators mainstream, but enormous, persistent, freely explorable game worlds were around for decades before those franchises even hit the market.
Which one gets the honor of being called “first” is up for debate, however, and that debate largely centers on how you define an open world. Does a huge series of interconnected rooms that exist only as text descriptions count? Then the first open-world game would likely be Colossal Cave Adventure, a fantasy-tinted romp written (and continually re-written for ancient mainframe computers and inspired by Kentucky’s real Mammoth Cave.
If you demand graphics, however, and a bunch of static screens that can be freely explored count, however, then we’d have to give it to Adventure, the Atari 2600 game about a square who’s trying to find an arrow so he can murder a terrifying duck.
Really, though, early game worlds don’t get much more open than that of the first Ultima, one of the earliest computer RPGs and the game that put Richard “Lord British” Garriott on the map. Not only could you wander its enormous landscape freely (often without any clear goal), but you could discover and explore 3D dungeons, and even fly into outer space to fight aliens in first-person space-fighter sequences. You could also rob and kill townsfolk with impunity, something relatively few RPGs have allowed since.
Or, if you absolutely must have a 3D space that allows for full freedom of movement and opportunities to shape your own morality, Elite would probably count as the first. Widely considered the grandfather of “space trader” sims and free-roaming games in general, it gave players a 3D, wireframe-graphics-filled universe to explore, with hundreds of randomly generated planets and tons of optional missions to give your space-merchant wanderings some structure.
Legacy: You mean besides the thousands of worrywarts fretting about games that train kids to kill prostitutes? These early examples of sandbox gameplay showed us that games could be more than just simple reflex tests like Breakout, Space Invaders or Donkey Kong, and could offer experiences that went far beyond linear trudges toward one singular goal. They could be new worlds to explore and conquer while wielding abilities that would be unattainable in real life. Preferably while fleeing the cops at extremely high speeds through crowds of pedestrians and destructible scenery.
First seen in: MUD1 (1978)
Above: MUD1, aka British Legends, is still alive at british-legends.com
Important because: MUDs (multi-user dungeons) were the precursors to Ultima Online, Everquest, World of Warcraft, and every other modern MMO – games that now compose a huge and unique segment of the industry.
These text-based games were the darlings of the early internet - they weren’t a new genre, but an entirely new type of game, and they were the first step toward the majestic cyberspace we dreamed the internet would one day become.
The first known MUD, often called MUD1 to distinguish it from the genre at large, was written at Essex University by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle. Trubshaw named their creation “Multi-User Dungeon” in homage to ‘Dungeon,’ the alternate name for ‘70s text adventure Zork.
Above: MadRom, a modified instance of DikuMUD, is just one of the many MUDs which still exist today. If you’re so inclined, get your Telnet on at mad.rom.org: 1536
The official instance of MUD1 was still running until 1999 when CompuServe, which licensed the game in 1987, shut it down. But in the meantime it spawned a phenomenon which generated hundreds of variants, more-often-than-not run out of the bedrooms of hobbyists. The worlds ranged from absurdist geek-culture hodgepodges to serious role-playing servers and fan depictions of fictional film, literary, and TV worlds.
Legacy: By the early ‘90s, graphical MUDs began to take hold, and in a short span we were calling them MMOs. Their growth exploded in the late 90s when games like Ultima Online and Everquest popularized the category, and since then hundreds of MMOs have been developed by big studios and independents.
That’s right: World of Warcraft owes it all to ASCII art and four-directional movement.