By Samuel Peace
The video game industry has become a huge player in today’s multimedia market. It has integrated itself into mainstream society with big blockbuster titles such as Call of Duty making more money than top Hollywood films. Mobile and social gaming have also become sensations with advanced smart-phones and social networks offering new addictive and connected ways to play. This enables more people than ever to play video games as a dedicated gaming machine is not now required to enjoy these interactive experiences. Because of this it is widely foreseen by industry experts that the video game home console will go the way of the Dodo. This isn’t hard to believe either as current consoles are showing their age and are struggling to compete for sales as cheaper games are easier to find on other devices. However, the quality of a big budget, top selling blockbuster such as the previously mentioned Call of Duty series can only be found on a console (or its PC rival). While there are sometimes mobile versions (or clones), these are always watered down and have awkward controls which simply cannot give the same experience. Also console makers Sony and Microsoft are hotly anticipated to be releasing their new systems by the end of 2013. If designed well they should be able to offer everything their competitors can and more. In preparation for the next ‘generation’ of consoles let’s take a brief look at the history of home gaming…
Generation 1 (1972 – 1977) & Generation 2 (1976 – 1984):
It’s now been over 40 years since the arrival of a home entertainment system. Television engineer Ralph Baer conjured up the idea during the 60s where he was able to make a two player game called Chase. Two lights appeared on the TV screen which were controlled by two different people. Though simple it was a first for interactivity on a TV. Baer later sold his concept in 1969 to electronics company Magnavox. Then a few years later in 1972 the Magnavox Odyssey was born. This now primitive piece of hardware came with six special cartridges which gave the console different command codes when plugged in, which then activated the games which were built into the console. To go with these carts were special translucent overlays which were stuck to the screen and acted as graphics for the game. Unfortunately the original Magnavox Odyssey only managed to sell about 330,000 units, but the Odyssey 2 in 1978 sold 2 million.
Several other companies including world renowned retro kings Atari entered the fray not long after the Odyssey’s release. Atari first hit the mainstream when they created the game Pong for arcades in 1972. They followed this up by releasing a home version in 1975 which helped start the second generation of consoles. This new era (known as the 8-bit era) saw a flurry of machines trying to replicate the success of Pong. These systems all had microprocessors and cartridges with built in memory. This meant that the games were now on the cartridges instead of the console allowing for more games to be made available. The Fairchild Channel F was the first to use this new technology in 1976 but only sold 250,000 units. However it was the Atari 2600 who took the glory by selling a phenomenal 30 million systems (as of 2004). This monster of a machine came out in 1977 and fast became an icon of gaming’s past with retro classics such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man making their debuts on a home console.
Video Game Crash of 1983:
The future of home gaming was thrown into doubt when the video game industry crashed and went into recession in 1983. Company after company went bankrupt causing many of Atari’s competitors to vanish. There were many factors as to why this had happened. For starters the market was flooded with consoles all vying to become the next ‘Pong sensation’. With Atari doing stupendously well it was no surprise that other companies wanted a piece of that success. Unfortunately this along with a plethora of bad games and a surge in PC gaming over saturated the market and turned it sour, thus causing consumers to lose interest. The eroding market quickly needed a saviour.
Generation 3 (1983 – 1992) & Generation 4 (1987 – 1996)
In 1983 a Japanese electronics company named Nintendo decided to enter the unstable gaming market with the release of the Famicom (Family Computer) in Japan. They released their console in North America two years later under the new name of NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), and needless to say it took the world by storm. Managing to sell 61.91 million units (as of 2009) and creating one of gaming’s most iconic characters (Mario) the console almost single handily revived the industry. Its closest competitors included Sega’s Master System which sold around 11.8 million and Atari’s 7800 which sold about 3.77 million.
With the new revitalised game industry in full flow, the fourth generation was kick started with the introduction of 16-bit graphics. Following on from the NES, Nintendo bought out the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1991 (North America). Once again they dominated the market share selling a massive 49.10 million units. Although this was enough to win the generation, the biggest success story was Sega who’s Master System follow up the Mega Drive (Genesis in North America) sold 40 million units and created a new gaming icon by the name of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Generation 5 (1993 – 2006) & Generation 6 (1998 – 2013)
The fifth generation (known as the 32-bit and 64-bit era) probably had the biggest leap in graphical capabilities and gameplay since the very birth of gaming. The introduction of 3D graphics wowed people across the world and helped to create brand new gaming experiences. It also gave birth to a new competitor – Sony’s PlayStation. The console released in 1995 (North America) and blew people away with its modern technology and new IPs. The electronics giant used a newly developed CD-ROM for its games which held more data and was cheaper to mass produce. The popularity of the PlayStation saw it sell an eye watering 102.49 million units (as of 2007). Meanwhile Nintendo continued to decline slowly with the release of the last cartridge based console the Nintendo 64. It sold a solid 32.93 million but it wasn’t a scratch on Sony. Sega suffered too, but it was Atari who fell from grace as their Atari Jaguar sold a measly 500,000 units, thus the pioneers of home gaming bowed out of the hardware market.
Sega were in desperate need of a revival so they bought out the Dreamcast in 1999 to start the 128-bit era. Unfortunately only 10 million were sold so they too exited the hardware market. Sony once again dominated with the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000. The system sold a record 153.6 million units (as of 2011) and has to this day not been beaten by another home console. Nintendo suffered greatly this generation as its GameCube only managed around 21.74 million sales. Microsoft also entered the ‘console war’ in 2001 with the release of the Xbox. This marked a return for North America into the home console market .
Generation 7 (2004 – Present) & Generation 8 (2011 – Present)
Generation seven saw the most tightly contested battle yet as Sony failed to repeat the success of their previous two consoles. Microsoft jump started things with the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005. Using a one year advantage they managed to gain a good market share and have sold a respectable 75.9 million units (as of 2012). Nintendo also enjoyed resurgence as they decided to shake things up by focusing on new innovations such as motion control rather than improving the power of their console. The Wii which was released in 2006 became a worldwide phenomenon and has reached 99 million sales (as of 2012). While Sony has suffered a fair bit this generation, it has still surpassed 70 million units and could take over Xbox 360 sales due to a strong presence in both Europe and Japan.
Nintendo whose Wii was behind in terms of power decided to make the first move in this eighth generation by playing catch up. Their console matches the power of the PS3 and Xbox 360 but it has an innovative ‘tablet-like’ controller. Sony has also announced their new PlayStation 4 which is expected to hit shelves before Christmas 2013. Microsoft have yet to respond.
Despite being little over 40 years old, the games industry has a rich history, one which is too big to fit into one article. While home consoles have enjoyed a lot of success over the years, it is hard to tell if they can stay relevant when a huge variety of devices are now able to play video games. What we do know is that once again Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft will battle it out for supremacy, however this time they might not be alone.