Video games have become a major part of our popular culture, providing players with immersive, engaging experiences that are created by multidisciplinary teams of producers, artists, designers and programmers.
Engineering comes into play both in the hardware and the software. Hardware limits set the specifications for the software engineering. Historically, games have often served as drivers for engineering innovations in both hardware and software capabilities.
Some of the initial games made in the 1950s, like OXO, Tennis for Two, Colossal Cave Adventure, and Spacewar, were developed for mainframe computers that made the most of the computational and display technologies.
From the start, games were a great way to demostrate and highlight the full capabilities of the systems for which they were developed. Spacewar is a great example of this, as it showed off the graphic and simulation capability of the new PDP-1 computer.
The 1970s saw the rise of video games at arcades. Companies like Atari and Taito created coin-operated game cabinets that housed games like Pong and Space Invaders, and later, games like Asteroids, Pac-Man, and many more.
As before, we see hardware providing the context for software. Features of the games were determined by the limits of the hardware. There were advances in 2D graphics (both vector and bitmap) that games made the most of.
At around the same time, we saw the rise in the development of game consoles meant to be used with televisions in the home. There was the Magnavox Odyssey and the Atari 2600. These consoles served as bases for cartridges on which games were written, so players could buy these cartridges and play a variety of games on the console.
Hardware engineers worked to create consoles and controllers that had the most features, and then software engineers worked to create games that made the most of these features.
Since the 70s, there have been about 6 generations of consoles released (roughly every 5-10 years) with Nintendo and Sony joining in, along with Microsoft. We currently have 3 consoles, the Nintendo WiiU, the Sony Playstation3, and the Microsoft XBOX360.
A decade or so later, computers started making their way into homes. And as usual, games were a way to highlight the capabilities of these early PCs from Apple, Commodore, and Tandy.
There was an explosion of text-based adventures, like Adventure and Zork, as well as 2D and 3D graphic games. Myst was famous for it’s beautiful graphics and immersive worlds.
This time also marked an explosion in genres of games (adventure, role-playing, platformer, etc.) that made the most of the technological advances in the computers. In fact, there is a subset of computers with a full range of features developed specifically for playing games.
The late 80s also saw the successful rise of handheld consoles that let players take their video games with them. There was the Nintendo Game Boy, the Sega Game Gear, and the Atari Lynx.
As ever, the hardware specifications of these handhelds enabled the features of the games designed for them. And like home consoles, there have been successive generations of handhelds developed and released. Currently we have the Nintendo 3DS and the Sony PS Vita.
The 90s saw the rise of online multiplayer computer games in which players were able to login online and play games together. Again, we see games taking advantage of technological developments, this time the internet. Some of the first games like this were Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) like Ultima Online and Everquest that enabled players to inhabit a persistent virtual world together.
Consoles followed online shortly thereafter. This enabled even more variety of multiplayer games, and the mainstreaming of online leaderboards and gameplay achievements.
Currently the king of the hill of online computer games is World of Warcraft, but we’ve also seen more online social games like Farmville and The Sims. At this time, almost every video game offers some form of online multiplayer version as an option and players compete for leaderboard positions and achievements.
This last decade has seen the rise of games on smart phones. Like handheld consoles, this let players take games, like Angry Birds, with them. As always, the games make the most of the hardware they're on.
With the advent of the Apple iPhone and all the variants of Android Phones, we are seeing games driven by touchscreen capabilities and taking advantage of the phone's GPS and other tech features.
The development of video games has always pushed the state of the art in terms of both hardware and software. With every technical advance, games were developed to make the most of all the potential features. Games can be seen as drivers for advances in engineering practices.
Throughout the history of games, we see advances in the complexity of what a game can display, and what players can experience. The earliest games were text only, and progressed to black and white vector graphics and 8-bit audio, to photo-realistic full-color 3D graphics and surround sound today.
Current and New Directions
At this time, we seem to be experiencing an explosion of video game possibilities. More and more games, like LittleBigPlanet, are being released with in-game editors so that players can create their own levels and modifications of the base game.
Mobile and social games are enabling games to weave their way into our daily lives in a variety of ways. Gamification is a term for how a game can be designed around almost any type of activity to make it an engaging experience.
We are also seeing the development of games for purposes beyond just entertainment. Games are being created to help with learning, training, health, and civic engagement.
Also, the internet has not only enabled multiplayer gameplay; it has also enabled the creation of independent distribution channels, like Steam, the iTunes App Store and Google Play, that allow more and more people to create and share games—which has seen the rise of the independent game developers and games created for art's sake.
And we're seeing innovations in hardware that are influencing games. There is the rise of embodied play and motion-tracking, starting with the Nintendo Wii, then the Playstation Move, and the huge success of the Microsoft Kinect. And there is a rise of independent hardware development, with open source consoles, like the Ouya, being developed to enable people even more control of the games they make.
Through both the hardware and the software, engineers have played a prominent role in the advancement of the industry and the range of amazing experiences we can have playing games.