It was a cool night in late October, 1985. My mom had just dropped me off at Ralph’s house for a sleepover. I was excited as I hadn’t been to Ralph’s in a while and was looking forward to playing some board games and doing Mad Libs. At the time, I had no idea that the night ahead, involving a pixelated plumber, would change my life forever.
The Nintendo Entertainment System released in North America in October of 1985 and kicked off what many still consider to be the golden age of video gaming. While the Atari 2600 had been a massive success and my first personal foray into gaming, Atari’s missteps in the early 1980s led to the eventual collapse of the industry at the time. When a relatively unknown company named Nintendo released the NES in 1985, few thought much about it. But it took very little time before it grew into a global phenomenon. To this day, I can still vividly remember first seeing Super Mario Brothers at Ralph’s house. It’s a story I have shared with my children and one of my fondest memories of gaming in general.
Funny enough, until I was an adult, I never owned an NES. Rather, my mom bought me a Sega Master System the year following the NES’s release in 1986. Sega attempted to capture a piece of the massive success Nintendo was seeing with their own 8-Bit home gaming system, but was relatively unsuccessful. As a child, I obviously understood nothing of the market factors between the companies but rather, simply enjoyed playing whatever games my mom could afford to buy me. In that vein, I adored my SMS and still hold dear the memories it gave me. Sega of course, then famously released their most successful system in the Genesis a mere three years later in 1989. Now a Sega fan, I was on board from the start and fortunate enough to receive one early in the console’s life cycle. Playing my Genesis with friends became a daily activity and when the Super Nintendo released two years later in 1991, I had little interest. This was, of course, until I played Super Mario World. I still consider Super Mario World to be one of the greatest platforming games of all-time and yet again, the world’s favorite plumber had opened my eyes. But this time, now as a teenager, it was in a more formative way.
After acquiring my own SNES a short while later, I earned an appreciation for being able to play any game whether it released on the Genesis or the Super Nintendo. When my friends would get a new game, it wouldn’t matter which console it was for as I was able to borrow and play it. This, looking back, opened my eyes to the joy not of systems nor companies, but rather simply games. From that point on, it didn’t matter if a game was on a NES, SMS, Genesis, SNES, or the TurboGrafx-16 for that matter, I wanted to play it. Upon reflection, this opened my eyes at an early age to the joy of being unbiased. I’ll circle back to that thought later.
The time from when the NES released in 1985, through the early 1990s, is often considered the golden age of gaming. The 8-Bit era is still broadly cherished today. Its influence, even in mainstream society, is incredible. You can’t see a group of kids today without noticing a reference of some sort and the exploding “Retro” game moniker owes nearly everything to the era. While not as impactful in video game history, for those that were old enough to enjoy it, the 16-Bit era was likely even better. The competition between Sega and Nintendo drove them each to push the boundaries of development at the time, and third parties became a major factor as well. The average age of a gamer today is 31 and I promise that if you ask any of those who were playing games during the 8 and 16-bit eras, you’ll be greeted with smiles and fond memories. They are sacred, cherished times to a gamer and it’s no surprise the nostalgic enjoyment of those games and systems endures. With all of that said, I’d argue that gamers in 2016 have never had it better.
The most significant aspect of gaming in 2016 is sheer number of options, and the number of avenues at which a consumer can exercise those options, to be involved with gaming. Additionally, the ways in which you can support or simply celebrate the games you love are near endless. The differences between 2016 and 1986 in these regards are simply staggering. From the advent of smartphones, the maturation of PC gaming, the rise of digital game distribution, the growth of esports, the major advances in console design, and the ways in which you can interact with the franchises and companies you love, putting nostalgia aside, it has never been a better time to be a gamer. Let’s look at each of these aspects individually.
While the classic gamer in me has trouble enjoying IOS and Android games, there’s no denying the impact they’ve had and the revenue they generate. Smartphones have flooded the market with a Pew study in late 2015 finding that 68% of adults in the US own one. From a game developer standpoint, that represents a massive install base which up until recently, was relatively untapped. Even more important, the market continues to grow and as the devices are multi-purpose and considered essential, they sell themselves. Unlike dedicated gaming consoles, people who may not play games on a regular basis will still therefore own a smartphone. When you combine that with accessibility, the fact that people have their phone with them at all times, the market opportunity is unmatched. Of course, this was recognized rather quickly and before we knew it, hundreds of games were being made available daily. While very few have been considered widely successful, games like Clash of Clans and Pokémon Go have reached mainstream society on a global level; infiltrating every facet of daily conversation. Perhaps even more notable than Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s recent announcement of a Mario game for IOS and Android in Super Mario Run cemented the fact that smartphone gaming is here to stay. While other companies like Konami and Sony have announced their new focus on the mobile gaming market, the fact that Nintendo, traditionally a company so staunch in their stance to only publish games on their own hardware, would plan to support mobile games really says it all.
PC gaming likely has the most interesting history of any format and it’s impossible to have a discussion around the growth and impact of video games without talking about the PC. From Spacewar!, to Doom, to Ultima Online, to WoW, to Minecraft, and the recent expansion of PC gaming, we could spend days talking about the impact PC gaming has had on both the industry and our culture over the past few decades. However, the focus here is 2016 and as such, I would argue the PC gaming market has never been stronger even when looked at individually. While PC gaming was widely considered a niche at one time, with hardware being complicated and third party support being limited, it has shifted greatly in the past decade. PCs primarily built for gaming are now found in any major electronics store, nearly all major third parties that were console only in the past are now developing for consoles and PC platforms simultaneously, and even building your own PC is far easier today than it once was. Of course, as the market has grown, so has accessibility, with hardware and software being cheaper and more readily available.
There are many reasons for the growth and expansion of PC gaming. One of the main catalysts for this growth has been Steam. While consoles have always had the benefit of a closed ecosystem and a single UI with plug and play capability, PC gaming had traditionally dealt with stand-alone games and no standard for purchase nor access. Steam brought a centralized approach to PC gaming, a one stop shop for purchase and play that previously didn’t exist on a wide scale. Combine that with pushing digital sales and thus reducing the cost for publishers, developers, and gamers alike, Steam grew rapidly and is now the standard bearer for PC gaming. In the end, affordability and accessibility have invigorated the PC gaming market and I see no reason why that will change any time soon.
Digital copies of games, on both PC and consoles, are quickly becoming the standard across the industry. As we witnessed in the music industry, it’s easier and less expensive for publishers and distributors to release a game digitally, while also being more convenient and typically less expensive for the consumer as well. While again it was Steam that really pushed the known boundaries of digital distribution within the industry, the major console makers and publishers are now on board. As of 2014, games sold digitally had reached 52% of total sales – the first year digital sales surpassed physical. That number grew to 56% in 2015 and is expected to continue to grow year over year. It’s rather clear by now that the future is purely in digital distribution.
Esports are an interesting conversation point. For the older generations that are still having trouble understanding video games being big business at all, discussions of their validity as a sport are immediately disregarded. For the generation in their teens and early twenties, esports are just another facet of gaming and for some, a pro gamer is what they aspire to be. No matter your personal thoughts on the matter, again there is no denying the market size and on-going growth. Worldwide revenue of esports in 2015 was approximately $325 million with 2016 projected to grow further to $463 million. For those doing the math, that’s a year over year growth of 42.6% which is a number any market would be jealous of. The growth is only expected to continue with current projections estimating esports blooming to a billion dollar industry by 2019. More relevant to this discussion though, is participation and viewership. 226 million gamers tuned into an esports event in 2015 and again, that number is expected to continue growing. Sites like Twitch, YouTube, and others have become a daily venue for many gamers who tune in to not only watch their favorite covered events, but broadcasts held by their favorite sites or individual streamers. And it’s worth noting that the esports numbers above only factor in events – not individual or developer stream viewership. Esports viewership only accounts for 14-31% of Twitch’s monthly total. In the 8 months between August 2015 and May 2016, Twitch viewership surpassed 4 billion total hours. In short, a lot of people, are spending a lot of time, watching other people game.
The console market and its history are some of my favorite topics and in the past decade, have seen radical change from what we once knew as well. Throughout the 80s and 90s consoles were solitary machines. You would purchase a cartridge or disc, then go home and play your game. If you were lucky, you would have friends around to play games with you. As the 21st century approached, online gaming became viable and while the short lived (but loved!) Dreamcast led the way with SegaNet, the PlayStation 2 and Xbox took the reins. Microsoft in particular saw online gaming as the future and proceeded to focus on development of Xbox Live as a core tenet of their platform. Making a broadband connection a requirement may seem trivial in 2016, but in 2001 it was anything but, as the majority of the population was still using dial-up. However, the gamble paid off and over the next few years, this resulted in Xbox Live leading the online gaming charge in the console space. With the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005, Microsoft expanded the concept further and eventually integrated the Xbox Live digital marketplace and app streaming we take for granted today. Eventually, this led to both the Xbox 360 and PS3 having robust online communities, digital game marketplaces, integrated apps, and many other features that weren’t even fathomable a mere decade prior. With the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, these features continue to be expanded upon and for many, their console is now a total entertainment device. With features and applications such as HDMI in, PlayStation Vue, Slingbox, USB media support, and every possible media streaming application, there’s less and less reason to run a separate cable signal to the TV should you own one of these consoles.
One of the most significant changes in the console market came just this year with the announcement that both Microsoft and Sony would be releasing iterative versions of their respective consoles. With the console market having been locked into generations for decades now, this marks a major departure. Microsoft was the first to formally announce the decision at E3 2016 with the announcement that Project Scorpio would launch in autumn of 2017, be the most powerful console ever created, and be compatible with all existing Xbox One games and accessories. They presented it as just another member of the Xbox One family even though it will be launching four years after the initial Xbox One. Microsoft also formally announced that going forward, all Xbox software would work on all future Xboxes thus removing the generational gaps we have grown accustomed to. Meanwhile, at the PlayStation Meeting in September, Sony announced the PS4 Pro in a very similar way. It will launch this November and also continue to work with all existing PS4 games and accessories while providing much more powerful hardware for developers to work with. While Sony has not formally announced all PlayStation software being permanently supported, it is widely expected they are following the same path as Microsoft. These two announcements are hugely significant. First, it means the console market will now more often keep up with the rapid changes in technology. Second, they are providing more options to their consumers on how and when to upgrade. If you’re an early adopter who wants the latest and greatest, you will have more options to keep up with the accelerating curve. However, if you don’t like to upgrade as frequently, you don’t have to. You will still be able to play the same games, in the same ecosystem, as your friends without being left behind. This direction is incredibly pleasing to see.
Interacting with, and financially supporting the developers of the games you love has also changed drastically in just the past decade. In the 80s and 90s, outside of legends like Shigeru Miyamoto or John Carmack, I’m not sure I could have named a single game developer or director despite reading just about every game magazine available. This is a stark contrast to today where interaction with developers, even during development, is not only possible but encouraged in many cases. Developers’ direct interactions with their consumers is a part of the business now and it’s changed the way games are supported and more importantly, made. Crowd funding sites like Kickstarter, where players help to fund development of titles that interest them, have become wildly popular over the past few years with titles such as Broken Age, Mighty No. 9, Star Citizen, and Yooka Laylee receiving a strong level of support from fans. With accessibility and awareness comes opportunity as well, with Indie developers producing more games than ever before across all genres, for all platforms. If there a specific type of game you love to play, you can likely find several new games to try in that genre faster than you could read this article. Supporting the games you love is not only done through the games themselves anymore either. Merchandising, from special editions to a plethora of sites and stores selling licensed physical items from your favorite games, has become big business with many developers and publishers even maintaining their own online stores for their IPs.
When you step back a look at what the gaming industry has become in the past thirty years, it’s staggering. As I said, when I think back to the days of the 8 and 16-bit consoles, it’s always with fond memories. The classics we now know were either brand new or yet to be imagined. The thought of reliving the sheer amazement of seeing a game like Zelda or Super Mario Brothers for the first time again, puts a large smile on my face. And many of us have gripes with certain aspects of the industry today. Whether it’s paid exclusives, DLC content, never-ending patches, substantial load times, games that launch in broken states, etc……….at one time or another many of us have wished for gaming to be simpler again. But do we truly? I don’t think so. While it’s a statement that feels good to make out of frustration at times, it doesn’t hold much weight in reality. Because in the end, gaming today is far grander than it has ever been. As gamers and therefore consumers, we have more choice, more say, and more power than ever before. We are a larger community than we have ever been and we have the ability to discuss, play, watch, and research games nearly anytime and anywhere. We can fill our homes with collectibles from our favorite franchises. We can proudly wear clothing representing, or even dress up as entirely, our favorite characters while likely receiving positive recognition in some form. And the best of us have even raised money and awareness for worthy causes simply by playing games for others to watch. Being a gamer today is generally not seen as something niche or immature but rather something that’s almost expected as games have become an integral part of society. That alone should be cause for celebration.
Furthermore, the level of innovation we are seeing from some of the industry leaders is admirable. I’ve already touched on the mid-cycle console updates and continued ecosystem focus by both Microsoft and Sony. The support for smaller development studios, on all platforms, is amazing and has resulted in unique and varied titles being released on a weekly basis. Sony has just released PlayStation VR. While not the first consumer virtual reality set available, it’s widely predicted to be the one with the greatest penetration rate given the low price point and large PS4 install base. Microsoft meanwhile, has renewed their focus on gaming beyond merely the console market. With Windows 10 acting as the base, they are driving hard towards a more open platform where “Xbox” represents a redefined version of the ecosystem that challenges how people view the traditional console model. Initiatives like Play Anywhere are bridging a gap that has existed for generations and the decision to offer cross-play between Xbox and PC has been revered by gamers on both platforms. Additionally, features like Looking for Group and Clubs make it easier than ever to connect with other players holding similar interests. And across all platforms, games are no longer a solitary exercise. Even when playing a single player game, the ability to compare and/or share with your friends is almost always present. Gaming, in all forms, has become a uniquely social experience and something to be shared. As the consumers, we are the true beneficiaries with more game variety, more ways to play games, and more ways to play together than ever before.
Coming full circle to the joy of being unbiased, as I sit here in 2016 reflecting on the topics I’ve covered and the time I’ve spent gaming since the days of the Atari 2600, I had a rush of memories from the countless systems I’ve owned and games I’ve played over the past three decades. I think about the first time I saw Doom running in a store, the first time I moved the camera around in Mario 64, the first time booting up my original PlayStation, the first time witnessing Grand Theft Auto 3, the first time I played Halo 2 with friends online, the first time I faced a Big Daddy, the first time playing four player battle mode in Mario Kart, and the first time I finished The Last of Us. I think about the time I beat my friend’s high score in Blazing Star. I think about first setting up a broadband connection to log into the Xbox Live beta. I think about turning on my 3D0 and experiencing full motion video in a game for the first time. I think about first playing a game on my Xbox One while I had the TV snapped on the same screen. I think about the sheer grandeur of Witcher 3’s world and the sense of escapism it provided. I could go on for days in this regard but my point is this: the sole reason I’ve experienced and enjoyed all of the moments is because I made it a point throughout my life to prioritize gaming itself over a specific platform. It wasn’t always possible for me to do so on day one, as it likely isn’t for most, but I still made it a priority to eventually do so. In my opinion, we all should. As gamers who hold most dear the significance of characters like Shepard, Samus, John-117, Nathan Drake, Booker DeWitt, Revan, Gordon Freeman, John Marsten, Geralt of Rivia, Joel and Ellie, and many, many others, it’s an imperative.
So let’s take a step back and celebrate what gaming across all platforms has become in 2016. It’s a joy to be a part of and all signs point to it only continuing to expand. See you online.