The History of Video Games, Pt. 2: When 3D Gaming Was Young

By the mid-1990s, video games had evolved far beyond their arcade roots. From simple, action-oriented “twitch games,” they had become elaborate adventures with worlds filled with secrets and characters whom players could identify with. But console gaming still suffered from certain limitations of technology. Most gaming on consoles was still cartridge-based, which meant that game worlds were still only rendered in 2-D, music was still synthesized, and graphics still had limits. The time had come to progress beyond the 16-bit era and to make CD ROM-based consoles the standard for gaming. The era of CD-based consoles would see many innovative new games released and changes in the presentation and style of gaming that would have a major impact on the industry. 

A New Contender: Sony and the First PlayStation

The roots of the CD-based console era extend back into the 16-bit era. Sega had begun experimenting with CD console games through the Sega CD, opens a new window, an add-on to the Genesis that allowed it to play CDs and CD-based games. However, the Sega CD was not a gamechanger for the console industry; the Sega CD was considered relatively costly and didn’t increase the capabilities of the Genesis enough to make CD gaming attractive. What most gamers at the time did not realize was that Nintendo also originally wanted a CD add-on for the SNES as well. Sony had been contracted, opens a new window to produce a CD player for the SNES in 1988, but distrust between the two companies spiraled into a rivalry and meant that the “Nintendo PlayStation, opens a new window” never got past the prototype stage. In the next console generation, Sony would take its revenge with the knowledge it had gained from working on the SNES CD-ROM.

The Biggest Names of Video Games

In 1992, Sony severed its partnership with Nintendo and began work on creating what it then called the “Playstation X” or PSX. Sony was aided by its expertise in manufacturing music CDs but faced the problem of not having an in-house game development team, opens a new window, like Atari, Nintendo, or Sega before it. Sony was completely dependent on alliances with third-party developers, like Namco and Williams Entertainment, old arcade rivals of Sega’s, to produce games for their system. Sony launched its system at retail in 1994, relying on hits from veteran arcade developers at first. The PlayStation (PS1) began to outsell the competing Sega Saturn in the U.S. on the strength of arcade-style titles, like Ridge Racer, opens a new window, Tekken, opens a new window, and Wipeout, opens a new window. In the following years, PS1 games would grow far more complex.

Over the course of the PS1’s lifetime, developers began to realize the full potential of the CD-ROM format and its advantages over cartridges for data storage. CD-based games could feature extensive cutscenes, opens a new window with recorded music and dialogue, allowing for a much more cinematic storytelling experience in video games. Perhaps the greatest innovation of the CD-ROM era was that it allowed for full-motion video, opens a new window cutscenes. These pre-rendered “movie” cutscenes featured much higher graphics, opens a new window and sound quality than any PS1-era game could produce with its in-game engine. The cost of producing such graphics for video games caused development budgets to increase, leading into the AAA era, opens a new window of video gaming. 

AAA games are defined by their much higher production cost, as opposed to other games. The first video game to have truly massive production values was Square’s Final Fantasy VII, opens a new window. The Final Fantasy, opens a new window series had already seen many installments in prior console generations but had never enjoyed the same level of success in the U.S. as it had in Japan. Final Fantasy VII made several daring changes to the series’ formula to make an impact on the PS1. Instead of being an RPG rooted in medieval fantasy, VII changed the series’ aesthetics to a futuristic science fiction tale set in a dying world. The emotional tale of Cloud Strife and his quest to save his decaying world made extensive use of pre-rendered cutscenes to make its storytelling as much like a movie as possible, and it was only possible via CD-ROM technology. Early tests were made for a version that could run on the competing Nintendo 64, opens a new window, but the system could not run Final Fantasy VII because cartridges and floppy disks could not hold the game’s data under compression methods available at the time. Even on the ideal CD-ROM format, it took three disks to hold Final Fantasy VII’s data, and the game’s cutscenes and polygonal graphics made it the highest budgeted, opens a new window game of its time at $45 million. It would prove more than worth its budget, selling a massive 12.8 million units and marking the dawn of the AAA gaming era. From then on, most major studio releases would be marked by major ambitions and hefty budgetary investments into graphics and sound.

The Coming of Doom: PC Gaming’s Blockbuster

As console games began to evolve into more cinematic experiences, PC gaming was creating innovations of its own, including a new genre of video games. Perhaps the greatest innovation of PC gaming would be created by id software., opens a new window Founded in 1991, id’s first major work would be a demo version of a PC port of Super Mario Bros. 3, opens a new window. Although the porting work was very impressive for a first effort, Nintendo denied id the rights to adapt its game to PC on the belief that its games should only be available on Nintendo hardware. Id did not let its work on the demo’s engine go to waste and adapted it into its own “Mario clone,” Commander Keen, opens a new window. Id’s first releases would all be Commander Keen games throughout 1990-1991, but the company’s true success would lie beyond sidescrollers and in the third dimension.

Masters of Doom

Id’s first distinct success was the 1992 release Wolfenstein 3D. Conceived as a 3D remake of the 1981 Apple II game Castle Wolfenstein, opens a new window, Wolfenstein 3D pitted the player against Nazis inside a maze-like castle in the time of WWII. The game featured explicit violence, including realistic guns and blood, unlike most other PC games of the time. The combination of graphic violence and fast-paced action, opens a new window from a first-person perspective was very unique for the time, and the game went on to sell over 200,000 copies, opens a new window. Id software’s founder, opens a new window John Carmack and designer John Romero wanted to use the 3D engine they had created for Wolfenstein for an even faster and more brutal shooter as a follow-up, leaving behind both the company’s 2D roots in Commander Keen and the Wolfenstein setting forever. One year after the release of Wolfenstein, Doom would come into our world.

Doom’s design would be influenced by numerous choices that would push it far away from Wolfenstein. The initial vision, opens a new window of what the game world would look like varied greatly among the designers. Carmack wanted a game streamlined into a continuous single world without Wolfenstein’s levels and episodes, whereas designer Tom Hall wanted a story-driven game with distinct levels and well-defined characters. Though the design team backed Carmack’s approach, technology of the time made a single connected game world impossible, so the concepts of levels and episodes were retained. Tom Hall’s levels were based on actual military bases but were considered not exciting enough from a gameplay perspective. He was fired in the summer of 1993, and his level designs and work on the game’s story in the Doom Bible were thrown out. “Arcade-like” concepts, like point score and lives that were still present in Wolfenstein, were removed from the game, as they detracted from its fast pace and more realistic approach. 

Three factors would boost Doom far beyond Wolfenstein and lead it to revolutionize the gaming medium. Doom was the first 3D shooter to offer multiplayer, opens a new window—a lightning-fast, competitive duel Carmack called “death match.” Doom death matches became so popular that the game was banned on numerous computer networks and schools throughout the 1990s because it was considered a massive time sink for employees and students. Doom also changed the enemies from the familiar human foes of Wolfenstein to ever more vivid and disturbing demons. The strange, monstrous designs, opens a new window broke up the feeling of monotony that plagued Wolfenstein and proved far more immersive for players. Finally, the weapons the player could use were far more powerful than the machine guns of Wolfenstein. Doom gave players the opportunity to wield everything from a brutal chainsaw to incredible plasma energy weapons. Though the game’s violence made it very controversial in its day, to the point that it was banned in Germany, opens a new window for 17 years, Doom was also a massive critical and commercial sales success, opens a new window, selling millions of copies and creating a new gaming genre—the first-person shooter (FPS). 

Gaming’s New Millennium: The PlayStation 2 Era

By the end of the 1990s, both the FPS genre and AAA budget games were a major part of the industry. But the PS1 hardware had begun to show its age, and console gamers were beginning to look forward to the next generation of hardware. Sega was still active in the industry and was preparing to release its system for the sixth generation, the Dreamcast, opens a new window. Nintendo was preparing its first disc-based console, the GameCube, opens a new window. And, Microsoft was preparing to enter the console industry with its first console, the Xbox. Despite this daunting competition, Sony’s PlayStation 2, opens a new window would prove to be the overwhelming winner of the sixth generation’s console war. 

One of the chief reasons for the PS2’s success was not related to games at all, but its choice of storage medium. The PS2’s release in 2000 came at the point in history when DVDs, opens a new window were beginning to take over from VHS tapes as the preferred format for home video. Because it could also run CD-ROMs, the PS2 was backwards-compatible with PS1 software and could play music CDs, but a key part of the initial attraction was that it could play DVD movies in addition to games. At the time of its release, it was actually cheaper to buy a PS2 to play DVDs in addition to games than to buy a DVD player and a non-DVD compatible console, like the GameCube, separately. 

Kingdom Hearts

The combination of backwards-compatibility with PS1 releases and the ability to play DVDs gave the PS2 a strong launch and encouraged many developers to work with the system. Best-selling games began to come out in the first year of the console’s release, with games like Final Fantasy X, opens a new window, Metal Gear Solid 2, opens a new window, and Grand Theft Auto III, opens a new window all debuting in 2000-2001. One thing that stands out about the PS2’s dominance was that it was never confined to a specific genre. Whether the games were Japanese RPGs like Kingdom Hearts, opens a new window, racing games, fighting games, or open-world, opens a new window “sandbox” games, there was always a high-selling representative of the genre on PS2. PS2 proved to be a system that had such a wide appeal that any demographic or interest could be marketed to. 

Another thing that stood out about the PS2 was its extreme longevity compared to most consoles. Seventh generation consoles became available as early as 2005 with the release of the Xbox 360, opens a new window, but several games on the PS2’s bestseller list were released as late as 2006 and 2007. The last multimillion seller released for the system was 2008’s Sonic Unleashed, opens a new window, but new games would continue to be released for the console until Sony finally discontinued it in 2013. The PS2 would hasten the adoption of the DVD format and further Sony’s market dominance during the 2000s, but the world of gaming was due to change once more. Gaming in the 2010s would see innovative indie developers rise to challenge the established studios, the rise of online gaming, and a final resurgence of Nintendo in a unique new form.

This is the second part of a history of video games. Read Part 1, The Great Crash & Nintendo's Rise, here., opens a new window