A Three-Year History of Gaming

Three years isn’t that long. Kids barely talk after three years, alpine Salamanders aren’t even through making kids after three years and after three years, neither a pair of jeans nor a relationship is really broken in. After three years, you’re still one year shy of a college degree, two years shy of being able to apply for U.S. citizenship, and 70 years from seeing that saguaro cactus you clipped while driving drunk in the desert fully re-grow its arm. Three years is nothing.

Then again, three years can be an eternity. Three years is more than half a lifetime for a game console, and twice a lifetime for most games. For gaming celebrities, it could be a career. On the internet, it’s an epoch.

Three years ago, when The Escapist kicked off with its now legendary Issue 1, I was in the middle of a gaming renaissance. The failure of a long-term relationship had left me with more money and time than I knew how to manage. It also left me, for the first time in years, with a living room all to myself. Memories of games stacked next to the television and controller cords strewn across the carpet came flooding back, and I thought about how nice it might be to get back into gaming. So I bought an Xbox.

That was in 2004. It had been three years since my last console purchase. Three years before that, in 2001, I’d built myself a PC for the sole purpose of playing games. It wasn’t my first. The one I’d built three years prior, in 1998, ostensibly for editing video, was really just to play games. Three years before that, I’d upgraded my first PC to play Dark Forces. That was three years after I discovered the Sega Genesis, which itself came three years after my mother bought me a Nintendo Entertainment System.

My gaming history breaks down nicely, in fact, into neat little packages of roughly three years each, starting well before the NES (1979 – Fairchild Channel F; 1982 – Atari 2600; 1985 – ColecoVision), but for our purposes the year 1988 is as good a place to start as any.

Like a lot of folks my age, I grew up with a succession of consoles in my bedroom, but Nintendo’s little grey box of awesome was the spawn point of such treasured memories as my first The Legend of Zelda speed run and the day I discovered warp pipes in Super Mario Bros. As those memories stacked themselves neatly into the closet and I put away my childish things to become a man, I discovered the fantastic joy of playing games on a PC, where my gaming allegiance rested for over a decade.

Three years after I bought my first PC, the internet exploded, opening entirely new avenues for man-PC interaction and making it nearly impossible for me to step away from the damn thing. From making websites to writing plays to editing videos (and discovering it was really hard to post them on the web), my ’90s were defined by the PC. But all those other pursuits were merely hobbies. My PC was made for gaming.

I was of the firm belief that anyone who owned a PC but did not use it to play games was a charlatan, or a freak, or both. I looked down on them the way iPhone owners look down on you, with your flimsy Nokia and lack of awareness of Wi-Fi hotspots and data rates. I collected gaming PCs, built them from scratch and traded them like some people trade Magic cards. Then I accessorized, adding joysticks, driving wheels and flight controls. I bought more presents for my PC than I bought for all of my girlfriends combined, past or present. Naturally, this caused problems.

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“Don’t go,” she said one night as we lay intertwined. Her name is struck from my memory. It was a brief affair; a rebound from an 18-month abstention following the breakup of my first engagement. I’d come to visit her at her place, and now I was leaving. But not for another girl or to head out to a bar with the guys, but to return to my PC and Fallout.


Really, any exploration of my successes and failures as a lover of women must, by necessity, come prepackaged with a retrospective on my gaming habits. I suppose the opposite must also be true.

“Don’t go,” she murmured.

Sorry, baby. Water chip. Gotta save the vault.

That relationship didn’t last, but I always had the PC. Sometimes it was kept in a closet, to keep the light and noise from waking the sleeping. Sometimes I moved it right into the bedroom to celebrate newfound freedom. But it was always there. Always my consolation, my mentor, my tool of choice for almost any endeavor.

The game industry and I were inseparable in this regard. Year after year we have been one, like the king and the land. And every three years we take stock and find something has changed.

In 1993, Myst blew open the doors of computer gaming. Originally developed for the Mac, it was quickly ported to PC where it became a blockbuster hit. Today you can even get a version of the game for the Nintendo DS, but I’d recommend against it. I played Myst a year after it came out and it completely absorbed three days of my life. I’m sure I ate and slept during that time, but I don’t remember doing so. All I remember is Myst.

It was unlike anything that had come before, weaving video almost seamlessly into a beautifully rendered world, presenting a captivating landscape filled with puzzles and mystery. In a game market dominated by Doom clones and simulators, Myst took us by the hand and showed us the future of gaming. It took almost a decade for anyone to follow its lead.

Three years later, in 1996, John Romero (and crew) made us his bitch for the second time, with Quake. During the heyday of AOL chat rooms and personal websites decorated with animated GIFs of cats, Quake knocked on the door of the internet and said, “Hello, this space has been reserved for gaming. Suck it down.”

Deathmatch entered the cultural lexicon and I lost entire weeks of my life pinging open servers, looking for the fastest game of Quake. I vividly remember the smell of a forgotten, white-hot pan burning on my stove as the water I was boiling to prepare macaroni and cheese completely evaporated over the course of an hour while I gleefully played Quake in the next room.

I didn’t have much of a life then. I’d broken up with my fiancée, had a part-time job and was supposed to be writing a play, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was playing Quake. Gaming and I were both in our twenties: exuberant, irreverent and brash, just starting to realize we needed a plan, but with no idea how to make one.

This was also the end of the golden age of shareware. It was no longer enough to make a game for giggles, send out a flurry of floppy disks and then wait to get paid. Serious developers needed business plans. Serious developers had budgets. Serious developers were building large teams, paying them good salaries and looking for a way to break the market open wider than just the few boys like me, playing Quake in their bedrooms and burning cookware. Serious developers were starting to look back toward consoles.

On that front, the PlayStation and the N64 were bringing 3-D gaming to televisions, where gaming was taking hold with a new generation of gamers who’d never touched a PC in their lives. Some said there’d be a convergence soon. The industry and I, in our PC-centric cocoon, laughed. “Pass me another video card,” we said, cackling. “We can probably stack two of these together. Think of the polygons!”

Three years later, there was Counter-Strike. There were other games, but 1999 was Counter-Strike‘s year. Counter-Strike took the fallen sword of the shareware scene and re-cast it as a set of brass balls. There had been other online multiplayer games, some taken quite seriously by their fans, but Counter-Strike, built on the back of Valve’s groundbreaking Half-Life, created a whole new arena for online multiplayer competition. Then Quake III and Unreal Tournament joined the fray, and the door broke wide open.

On the console front, the Dreamcast launched in the U.S. and the PlayStation 2 followed the year after. All signs indicated a new era for gaming was on its way; an era of big money and high stakes, and the old rivalries were brought to a boil. PC gamers and fans of each of the three big console makers (Nintendo, Sega and Sony) all jockeyed for position to see who’d end up on top, standing their rivals in the corner and twisting their nipples until they cried uncle.

1999 was also the year the brash, exuberant adolescents got a bloody nose. Daikatana wasn’t the first game to suffer from the obnoxious optimism of big-mouthed developers with no business savvy – nor will it be the last – but it was the most high profile and unexpected. Daikatana, Ion Storm’s much-hyped first-person shooter, launched in 2000, but by that point no one cared. Serious developers were making games, not obnoxious declarations. Serious developers didn’t take over three years to make a game. Ion Storm wasn’t serious – now they’re gone.

A strange consequence of this trend toward seriousness was that I became serious, too. Too serious to play games. I was an adult, with adult responsibilities. I had a live-in girlfriend, a company of my own and a dog. My game time dwindled to late nights and long weekends, and the increasingly serious games, made by serious people with serious money, left me behind. I couldn’t keep up. My interest waned.

I started looking for games I could play in my limited spare time, maybe away from the computer where I spent most of my long days. I wished the awesome of PC gaming could be transferred to my sofa. I wasn’t the only one. In 2001, Microsoft launched the Xbox.

For all intents and purposes, the original Xbox was a PC connected to a TV. Granted, by the time you got one in your hands, hardware available for the PC had left the Xbox’s technical prowess in the dust; and by the time I got my hands on one, it was a joke. But it was a shot across the bow of the old-school console market, and PC game developers reacted in shock, defecting one-by-one.

This is not the space to argue one console against another. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and each has its fans. I will not attempt to sway you one way or another. But for the current crop I will say this: both the PS3 and Xbox 360 are more like PCs than any console ever made, and the games being made for them rival anything I ever played on a PC.

When the Xbox launched, it signaled the beginning of the end of any meaningful PC vs. console debate. Granted, the PC is still home to raw power, customization and intricate user interfaces, and most of that first generation of Xbox games were PC ports. In terms of gameplay, however, the line was beginning to blur. A fact I realized as soon as I broke down and gave the Xbox a shot, three years after its release.

The next generation came a year later. That was three years ago.

Three years ago, I was back on the game gang; hard to the core. I worked a 60 hour a week job, came home and played games. My various consoles were the centerpieces of my entertainment center. I spent more money on new games than on any other single category of goods, and, apart from work materials, I spent more time reading games-related magazines and websites than anything else. I even wrote about games and produced a gaming podcast.

In 2005, games were the center of my universe, and I was in the blazing hot molten core of the game revolution, which, in turn, was soaring like a rocket ship to the heart of the entertainment industry nebula.

The Escapist launched that year to bring high-brow, magazine-style games writing to the internet. Microsoft launched their Xbox follow-up, while Sony polished their PS3 and Nintendo promised to take gaming in a whole new direction,. And now, three years later, here we are. The Xbox 360 and the PS3 have brought honest-to-Vishnu PC-style gaming to consoles, and the Wii is appearing on the Today show in nursing homes and veterans hospitals.

For my part, I still play games, but not as much. I love a good AAA title, built by serious people with serious money, but I’m just as apt to pick up a casual game (on the console or PC) and spend a few minutes bouncing balls around or planting a virtual garden between meetings. The industry and I have both grown up, and grown tolerant of all platforms and preferences. And we’re both bigger than ever.

This year, gaming surpassed Hollywood in dollars spent, and for the first time ever, a major game release (GTA4) caused the movie execs to sweat, wondering if it would keep moviegoers at home. For my part, I’ve been part of the team here at The Escapist for the past two years, where we’ve blown the doors off the old style of game journalism, created a media powerhouse and launched the most visible video series on the internet. Not bad for three years work. I wonder what the next three years will bring.

Russ Pitts now has dreams about the number three. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com

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