Game Design Theory Level 1 – Fundamental Game Design Principles & Industry Structure

Introduction to Video Game Design History

  Before we start learning about how to design games we will take a look at the common terminology and history of the industry and reflect on our own place in that history.

Video games have grown from following a white dot across a black screen to nearly photo-realistic simulations of life itself. Today the video game industry is a multi-billion dollar monster that regularly sees sales of major releases topping Hollywood blockbusters. This lesson will briefly look at the different generations of consoles and the companies that brought video games to the masses.

First Generation Game Consoles

Pong is developed by Atari on the first home gaming system, Odyssey, and features a table tennis game utilizing 2D graphics and minimal sound (Single Channel Audio). Released to the public as a home system in 1974, the technology used discrete transistor-based digital game logic and black and white color. Believe it or not, Pong was amazing technology to behold in the early 70s and was an instant success, establishing video games as a viable money making industry. With success, however, came multiple competitors (first console wars); and by 1977, the industry was heading for a crash.

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Second Generation Game Consoles

 Enter the Atari 2600. Released to the public in 1977, this home system used microprocessor-based technology and encoded ROM cartridges that allowed the console to conceivably play an unlimited number of games.  It also introduced limited color and more sound options. Again, a video game system for the home was a huge success and the Atari 2600 (along with competitors Intellivision) became market leaders that revitalized the home gaming industry.

 With the success of the Atari 2600 came changes in the industry. Perhaps most significant during this era, is the founding of Activision by disgruntled employees of Atari who felt they were not getting the credit they deserved for designing and programming the games that made the Atari 2600 such a public phenomenon.

 As an unintended consequence, this increase in popularity for home video game systems also signaled the end of the short lived arcade stand-up video game industry model. By 1983, the arcade model of video games crashed, never to recover to the same heights again.


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Third Generation Game Consoles

The third generation of consoles was launched by a company you may have heard of called Nintendo. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) released in America in 1985 and was a massive hit with both Japanese and American audiences. With the Atari 2600 becoming old technology and new Atari systems failing in the market, the NES seized the public’s attention and revitalized the home gaming industry. The system was designed to appeal to kids as a toy and included a D-Pad controller, Zapper light gun and the Robotic Operating Buddy (ROB) as standard with purchase of the system. Nintendo further solidified its place in gaming history by creating iconic game characters such as Mario Bros and Link from the Zelda series of games.

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(3rd Generation Nintendo NES above)


Fourth Generation Game Consoles

The Fourth Generation of consoles is official with the release of the Sega Genesis system, the first gaming platform to feature 16 bit graphics, a full spectrum of colors and advanced sound with music synthesis and stereo. Sega’s hold on the market is short lived, however, as Nintendo releases their new 16 system, the Super NES in 1990. In the end, Nintendo once again reigns supreme in sales.

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Fifth Generation Game Consoles

In 1994, Sony enters the gaming market with the release of the Sony Playstation. It is a huge success and becomes the market leader over the new Nintendo 64 and the Sega Saturn. Significant in this era of consoles is that it marks the beginning of 3D games and the integration of CD-ROM players and disks as the format of choice for games.

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Sixth Generation Game Consoles

In 2000, Sony releases what will become the most popular and successful gaming console in history – the Sony Playstation 2. At the same time, Nintendo releases its Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft enters the market with its PC-like architecturally designed Xbox. Now begins what most consider the real console wars between the three remaining juggernauts of gaming. Also of note, this era of consoles began to integrate with rapidly advancing Internet technology and the concept of online games and downloadable content is sparked.

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 Seventh Generation Game Consoles

Seventh Generation consoles spawn only five years after the sixth as technology progresses at lightning speed. All three major game system manufactures release newer, better systems: Microsoft Xbox 360 (2005), Sony Playstation 3 (2006); and the Nintendo Wii (2006). Sony and Microsoft release compatible systems to their predecessors, featuring better graphics and sound, access to online downloadable content, and wireless technology. Only the Nintendo Wii breaks the mold and features motion control party games as its major appeal. Although competition is perhaps the fiercest it has ever been, the massive popularity of video games at this point means enough market share for all three systems to be wildly successful.

It is in this generation of gaming that game developer studios rose as giants of the industry. Activision continues its independent game development achievements but is dwarfed by companies such as EA, Valve, Bungie and Blizzard. The time of the multi-billion dollar game industry has come and as video games compete with Hollywood blockbusters for consumer dollars, game properties themselves become adapted movie features and movies begin to be turned in to games.

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Eighth Generation Game Consoles – CURRENT ERA

 Today the industry is in its Eighth Generation. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo remain the market leaders as they release their newest and most powerful systems: Microsoft Xbox One; Sony Playstation 4; and the Nintendo WII U. These systems all feature full online media integration (content streaming, downloadable content), nearly photorealistic graphics and processors that compete with PCs. Even with this market share, the dominance of these companies is threatened by new trends in technology.

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Non-Console Home Gaming

Internet gaming is seen by many as the future. Streaming content allows people to play games from their PCs that are more powerful than even the newest consoles in terms of visuals and content flexibility. In addition, smart phone and tablet gaming has hit critical mass and has found a mainstream audience unimagined by the old school giants. Hosted gaming has also proven popular among untraditional video game fans through social media sites like Facebook.

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Our Role in Game Design History

In the present time it is possible for individuals to easily make games that were previously only possible with expensive technology and specialized skill. Games that look similar to those on SNES and Sega Genesis can be made with 2D game engines and games with PS2+ type graphics can be made with 3D game engines.

You can be an independent designer or in a specialized role with a major studio or both!