When Games Explode; Part I of III: A Brief History of Digital Games

Rob Bartel — In an effort to better understand the evolving relationship between traditional and technology based game play, I asked Rob Bartel, a veteran designer and producer of video games with
Electronic Arts’ BioWare studio, to write a series of postings on the history and current status of game play.  I think you will enjoy this outstanding series and learn a great deal about where gaming has been, where it is now and where it is going. 

Photo - Rob Bartel - Large (3) Rob is uniquely qualified to write this series as he recently expanded into board game design with Two by Two, a light family game published by Valley Games. A passionate advocate for the board game industry, Rob helped found two national initiatives – the Game Artisans of Canada and the Canadian Heritage Collection. His newest endeavor is the Famous Games Company, an innovative provider of promotional card games for the sports marketing industry.

Armed with a history degree and a talent for poetry and theatre, I made what many considered an odd choice at the time and joined a little-known company called BioWare as a professional video game designer back in 1998. Today digital games are enjoyed by people of all genders, ages, and walks of life but, in 1998, they were anything but mainstream. Video games were considered the sole domain of teenage boys with a severe lack of social skills. But I saw potential and, over the next thirteen years, I worked hard to convince the studio that our audience was a lot more sophisticated, intelligent, and diverse than they were imagining. Looking back on the industry with a historian’s eye, it’s clear to me now that video games have gone through four distinct phases:

1972-1983: An Adult Novelty

During this era, which was dominated by brands such as Magnavox, Coleco, and Atari, video games were considered more as a “wonder of science” than as truly compelling activities in their own right. The market was predominantly university educated and technically savvy adult males with a passion for tinkering with circuit boards and soldering irons. The novelty wore off in spectacular fashion with the great video game crash of 1983 when that market turned its attention to personal computers, which were more versatile, customizable, and responsible than a dedicated game console. The crash decimated the North American video game industry, ultimately driving almost every major player out of business.

1985-1991: Child’s Play

Following the devastating 1983 crash, Japanese companies like Sega and Nintendo (originally a playing card company) rose to prominence, slowly reinvigorating the industry with smartly designed games, simpler controls, and a narrower focus on the children's and pre-teen market. Games of the era, which still hold a lot of nostalgia for adults in their 20s and 30s today, entertained their audiences with solitary experiences in brightly colored cartoon worlds populated with talking animals, mustachioed plumbers, and magic beanstalks that grew into the clouds. Within North America, video games quickly came to be seen as child's play rather than as a socially acceptable activity for adults.

1991-2007: Enter the Teenagers

While Sega and Nintendo captured the children’s market, something very different was beginning to

 develop in the computer game market. Players there were showing a growing interest in the social (and anti-social) possibilities of playing their games online. This sparked a remarkably diverse range of new game genres yet, surprisingly, almost all of these games fell into a very narrow band of science fiction-, fantasy-, and horror-based settings. 1991 saw the release of Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical Massively Multiplayer game. In 1992 came Wolfenstein 3D which launched the First-Person Shooter genre. Dune II released the same year and is credited with launching the Real-Time Strategy genre. The console market was slow to absorb these changes. In 1994, however, Sony targeted its brand new PlayStation console, with its more complex controller, heavy use of licensed popular music, and more mature range of titles, to a decidedly more teenage audience than its competitors. It was a successful strategy and they quickly became the dominant player, capturing a large audience that felt they had outgrown what Sega and Nintendo had to offer.

In 2001, Microsoft leveraged their experience in the computer market to finally close the circle with their Xbox console, offering online connectivity and a glossy science fiction First-Person Shooter called Halo as their must-have title. Subsequent versions of the Sony and Nintendo consoles ultimately followed suit, adding network connectivity and expanding the range of Mature-rated games on their respective platforms. By 2007, research showed that console games with a Mature rating (i.e. for ages 17+) were consistently outselling games targeted at younger audiences, despite their more restricted distribution.

2007 – Present: The Tipping Point

Global video game sales skyrocketed past the music industry in 2007 and went on to surpass the movie industry in 2008. A fundamental shift was underway, however, and the adult audience that was beginning to appear on the consoles, large as it was, was already being overshadowed by something even bigger. Digital games had reached a tipping point: they finally broke into the mainstream where they were becoming widely accepted and integrated into people’s daily lives. How did it happen? Well it began in the fall of 2006 with Nintendo’s motion-sensing Wii console, a product that most industry pundits predicted would be a flop. Parents found themselves using their teenager’s video game console as part of their own yoga and exercise regimes, however. Physiotherapists used the Wii as an engaging way to rehabilitate patients after an injury. It spread like wildfire in senior’s centers and retirement communities where the light physical activity and intuitive motion-based controls were greatly welcomed. For the first time since the early 1990s, Nintendo was seen as the industry leader rather than an also-ran. But that was just the start.

2007 was the year that the Facebook social networking site opened up their framework to outside developers. Games quickly became the most numerous and popular application type and, only four years later, Facebook games made Zynga, a relative newcomer, the second-most-valuable publisher in the entire video games industry. If it weren’t for the amalgamation of Activision and Blizzard a few years earlier, they would have made it all the way to the top. 2007 was also the year that Apple released its first iPhone. In 2008, they released their App Store for third-party software. As was the case on Facebook, games quickly rose to the fore, building to the point where Apple finally launched a dedicated social Game Center on both the iPhone and their brand new iPad device in 2010. 2010 also saw Sony and Microsoft playing catch up with Nintendo and finally releasing motion-based controllers, complete with product endorsements and giveaways on the Oprah Winfrey show. So here we are, on the far side of that tipping point – video games are everywhere, they’re mainstream. Some pretty big thinkers are talking about how games can fix the world and perfectly rational business executives sprinkle their presentations with buzzwords like “gamification”.

But What About Board & Card Games?

I founded the Famous Games Company because I believe that, while tangible games are on a different timeline than digital games, they’re on a very similar trajectory and are approaching a tipping point of their own. To learn why, stay tuned for When Games Explode – Part II: A Brief History of Tangible Games.

11 thoughts

  1. Sony and Nintendo, by releasing their own game console called Xbox 360. The cost of buying these Games for xbox 360 can even more scarier if you ever have to replace one of your expensive games. There is no possibility of selecting which folders to include in streaming, which is a bit of a loss for some.

  2. Swarm is a great new abstract stgtreay game. Easy to learn with only one piece like checkers, but different spaces allow you to stack and unstack your pieces for more power. Different boards will be available which will add different spaces and change the strategies. Like chess and checkers, no two games will be the same. Currently there are 2, 3, and 6 player boards available. More info can be found at the links given. There will be a Swarm tournament at the PentaCon convention in Fort Wayne IN on Nov 7th, and 8th.

  3. Hi Harland. Any attempt to summarize over 40 years of history into a single blog post is going to inherently involve a fairly gross element of over-simplification. The Atari 2600 sold to a wide variety of families for a wide variety of reasons but I stand by the argument that the primary audience was well-to-do families where the parents were university-educated and maintained an active and often hands-on interest in science and technology. So tell us a bit about your family – how do they compare to that broad generalization and when did they purchase your family’s first Atari.
    To provide a more modern example of the behavior I’m referring to, my brother-in-law recently bought a pair of refurbished iPod Touches for my nephew and niece. The kids hadn’t been clamoring for them, they weren’t on any birthday or Christmas list. My brother-in-law, who happens to be a System Administrator at an industrial design company, bought them for the kids because HE wanted them. He justified it by saying he found them at an great price and the kids do indeed enjoy playing games on them but don’t let any of that fool you.
    Particularly in the early years, I would argue that the bulk of the purchases followed that sort of pattern where the purchase decision was driven by an excited adult, not an excited child. Note some of the early adult-oriented titles like Blackjack (1977), Casino (1979), BASIC Programming (1979), or Mystique’s notorious “Swedish Erotica” games that emerged for the Atari 2600 in 1982-83.

  4. @Gavan – Thanks. The numbers are actually really interesting. Just to pull some example video game numbers from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_video_games), the top-selling PS3 game is Gran Tourismo 5 at a little over 6 million units. The top-selling Xbox 360 game, Call of Duty: Black Ops, sits at 12 million units. I suspect most readers would be surprised to learn that the current darling of the board game industry, Settlers of Catan, has sold 18 million units – as much as the both of those combined! (Source = http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/settlers-of-catan-a-low-tech-island-retreat-for-a-plugged-in-generation/article2057840/page1/)
    While this may seem shocking, it really shouldn’t be – the same trend shines through with older titles as well. Super Mario Bros on the NES sold a whopping 40 million units (thanks primarily to it being bundled in with the system). Released only 3 years earlier, the classic Trivial Pursuit board game has sold over 88 million copies, easily doubling that amount. (Source = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trivial_Pursuit)
    You could argue that Trivial Pursuit is really a franchise whereas Super Mario Bros is single title but board and card games hold up even then. Mario is indeed the world’s best-selling video game franchise with a combined total of 261 million units sold. (Source = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_video_game_franchises) But, on the board game side, it’s still beat out by the Monopoly franchise which has sold over 275 million copies! (Source = http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/24/AR2010112404140.html)
    So how does all of this compare with games from the tipping point? Well, Wii Sports sold 77 million units and mobile versions of Tetris have sold 100+ units. Most telling, of course, is Angry Birds. Since its launch in December of 2009, it’s been downloaded over 350 million times and counting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angry_Birds). These are the video games of the tipping point and, as I’ll explain in Parts II & III of When Games Explode, this is where I see the board and card game industry headed.

  5. Great article Rob! It’s awesome to finally read something to get people excited about the profitability potential of the board game industry for a change!

  6. @Alan – I’d never heard the story about Monkey Kong! That’s great!
    I admit, I’m not as familiar with the arcade half of the equation but I think you’re right – it definitely makes sense within the context of the broader trends.

  7. @Greg – There is definitely a revolution afoot. It’s often all too easy to fall into the “video killed the radio star” argument that it’s a zero sum game and that video games can only succeed at the expense of board and card games and vice versa. In my assessment, I’ve found that to be decidedly untrue – video games have often forged ahead, opening up new markets for board and card games in their wake. And board games have also done the same for video games. Ultimately, it’s about popularizing the notion of “play” in all its forms.
    We see this symbiosis a lot in Asia right now, where board and card games are just entering a new boom (although they’ve always had a long tradition with games like Go, Chinese Chess, Mahjong, climbing-style card games, and more). India, on the other hand, provides an interesting counterpoint – similar demographics, similar growth in a newly affluent middle class, similar levels of innovation and technological savvy, yet video games have never been particularly popular there. Read this interesting article about the resulting state of Indian toy industry and you’ll see why I consider the two industries to be far more symbiotic than parasitic – http://knowledgetoday.wharton.upenn.edu/2011/09/a-toy-story-with-a-twist/
    The next two installments of the When Games Explode series will start to delve a little deeper into the board and card game industry.

  8. A large contributor of that shift from technical geek to teenager in the video games market happened in the video arcades where pinball machines were getting replaced with video games like Space Invaders, PacMan and the introduction of a little Plumber taking on an Ape in Donkey Kong. (Which, I’ve heard was an unfortunate mis-translation of the intended ‘Monkey Kong’!)

  9. This is a great historical perspective of digital gaming. I am curious to read more about the revolution that is happing in traditional board games and card games while video games also continue to thrive.

Leave a Reply