A Brief History of Games Technology
As arcades boomed, moving from simple games of Pong and Pacmon to exciting arcade games… as children clamored for the high tech of ZX Spectrums and the Commodore 64, and the PC was the computer your parents would buy to help you with your homework. And do the household accounts on. And, if you were very lucky, occasionally leave alone for you to play Minesweeper on.
Truly, those were the days. Thankfully, they’re gone. But you can’t truly appreciate what we’ve got now, without knowing just how far we’ve come since then. Take a trip with us back to the dawn of a new PC.
1980: Dawn of the PC
The first IBM PC was released in 1981, and for the next few years, if you had one, this is what you’d have gotten for your wheelbarrow full of money. A monochrome green-on-black screen (somewhat ambitiously referred to as Hercules graphics), or possibly the more advanced Color Graphics Adaptor that would haunt your dreams forever more. Between l6k – yes, k – of memory, and 512k fitted as standard, up-gradable to a then-phenomenal 640k; as in ‘should be enough for anyone’. A floppy disk drive whose disks actually were floppy; 5,25 inch black platters that broke almost as soon as you looked at them. And a processor that ran at just under 5MHz. In 1983, you could bolster this with a 20MB hard drive. It was more than anyone thought they’d need.
It would be a very long, grueling road from there to Crysis. As far as games went, you had three choices; staring at the screen and pretending something exciting was actually happening in text adventures, such as Infocom’s Zork series, or using incredibly simple graphical games like Chess, made up of ANSI symbols. The final choice was to use a mix of solid color, dotted color, and symbols like the ubiquitous Smiley Face, developers could create incredibly simple graphics. They’d have to do for several years. Looking back, the word that springs to mind is: ouch. But the real torture was about to begin.
The Rock and the Ice
CGA was PC gaming’s first real graphical standard – and its worst. The good news: you could finally draw proper graphics. They were low-resolution – 320×200, with some clever trickery allowing a bit higher in monochrome – so the art wasn’t desperately impressive, but at least it could finally start rendering the castles and maps and spaceships necessary to play games.
The catch was the colors palette. CGA could produce 16 colors, but only four at a time. The first official palette was cyan, magenta and white. The second, green, brown, and red. Games either looked like they were taking place in an eye-popping winter wonderland, or had been carved out of algae on a particularly ugly rock. Very careful programming could squeeze a little more juice out the system, such as switching palettes during a screen update, or dithering colors together. A particularly clever hack was plugging in a TV screen, using its blurriness (sometimes referred to as ‘poor man’s anti-aliasing’) to smear dots into new colors that weren’t normally available.
In short, CGA was horrific, and its death a time of great celebration. However, it pointed the way for the PC’s greatest asset – ingenuity. This is one of the main reasons the platform has lasted so long, and every dev who’s ever squeezed that little more juice out of it is partly to thank for that fact. CGA continued to be supported until EGAs (Enhanced Graphics Adaptor) 16 colors at once out of a total of 64) showed up in 1984.
Finally, VGA appeared in 1987 and showing off 256 colors. A thing of beauty, if you could afford it, but it wouldn’t be the standard for years. This was the era of graphic adventures and combat-heavy RPGs; genres perfectly suited to the PC’s lack of horsepower. RPGs focused on ‘dungeon crawls’ and harnessing the PC’s maths skills to fight monsters and retrieve loot. It would be many years before story and character really became important.
Adventures were a different story. These days, they’re largely looked down on as old-fashioned, and have failed to keep up with the Joneses as far as technology goes. That’s a new development. For most of the PC’s history, they were what you looked at to see the state of the art Graphics. Sound. Complexity. Nothing got close, and it all started with husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams in 1984, with the release of King’s Quest- Quest for the Crown. Ken took the lead on technology, Roberta handled the design. For the first time, players could walk around a fully animated world, exploring a physical world. It used every trick in the book to try and immerse players in the world, from the television method of squeezing 16 colors out of CGA, to using text-based commands to interact with almost anything on screen.
In 1988, the King’s Quest series scored another first: its fourth game, The Perils of Rosella, was the first major PC game to support a dedicated soundcard – specifically Adlib. Up to this point, games had relied on the built-in speaker, having to play everything from sound effects to background music in a series of atonal, squeaky, bleepy farty little noises guaranteed to drive everyone in the house borderline insane. By comparison, plugging in an Adlib card felt like plugging in a whole orchestra. Its time at the top was short-lived.
Creative Labs hit the market with Sound Blaster, which could do everything Adlib could, but also play digital sound effects – anything from gunshots to speech. Origin, creators of Ultimo and Wing Commander, even released ‘Speech Accessory Packs’ for those games, stunning the world despite only covering a handful of characters, and a mere smattering of spoken text in each game.
It took time for developers to switch from Adlib, especially as the first SoundBlaster had pretty crappy sound quality, but by the release of SoundBlaster 2.0 in 1991, the winner was clear. The only real challenger until soundcards began being built onto motherboards directly was Gravis, whose UltraSound range brought surround sound to PCs just in time for a little game called Doom.
Doom remains the single most important game ever released on PC. It was a great game in its own right, but never before had a game so absolutely shown off the platform’s power. It wasn’t an adventure game you could find on Amiga and Atari ST. Its 3D graphics were jaw-dropping in terms of speed and detail, especially compared to the simple, stodgy 3D games that had preceded it, including id’s own Wolfenstein 3D, and its own predecessors, Catacombs 3D (later remade as The Catacomb Abyss, featuring wall textures so hideous, people have gone insane looking at them…) and Hovertank 3D.
What’s most interesting about Doom is that it wasn’t even close to being the first, or the most technologically advanced 3D game out there. The previous year’s Ultima Underworld had featured elements like sloped surfaces and the ability to look up and down. Even Core Design, original creators of Tomb Raider, had a crack at it with Corporation. It was one of the greyest games ever made, but with some interesting features, like being able to send a photo to the developers, get a disc back through the post, and ‘star’ in the game itself. No. What Doom had on its side was speed, visceral excitement, and an engine that was good enough to create (at least for then) incredibly realistic environments.
But what about proper 3D? Doom was really only 2.5D, and its maps were completely flat. As a consequence, you couldn’t put one room over another until Quake-level engines. Other engines were more advanced, with Freescope being hands down the most impressive. This burst onto the scene as Driller, back in 1987. Unlike Doom and Wolfenstein, its levels were built with solid blocks (primitives, in every sense) and could be explored and clambered around at will. However, it was slow, and missing lots of features such as textured walls, making its games both clunky and desperately ugly. Still, it proved popular. Players could create their own Freescape worlds in The 3D Construction Kit, and a later version even got its own short-lived show – Cyberzone – hosted by Craig Charles and James Grout.
It was more boring than a diamond edged drill, and only lasted one tedious season, but it’s more than Doom ever got, and nobody can take that away from it.