An Edge ten
Looking across 300 issues’ worth of videogame evolution, what are the ten most important innovations of our time?
Mining 23 years for the most important innovations of our time
The thousands of pages that have been printed in Edge’s first 300 issues have documented great change. Screenshots show game worlds and characters steadily evolving from angular planes of colour to nuanced places and people, while titles and editorials depict the rise and fall of trends, genres and companies. These incremental processes are constant, but it’s also possible to identify individual moments during Edge’s lifetime that have lead to lasting steps forward.
It’s often hard to judge these moments at the time they happen. Take Wii. For a few brief years it was the brightest light in the industry, a piece of hardware that seemed to have rewritten the rules of control and have finally opened videogames into the true mainstream. Producing superlative software and marketing it with laser vision, Nintendo grew gratifyingly fat and rich on Wii’s fortunes, but looking back at it today, did Wii really change anything? Watching their purchases gather dust under the TV, a lot of those new players likely didn’t buy another console, and motion controls have been gently forgotten outside of VR. And under all that thunder, quieter, more significant things were happening.
Here is our take on the ten things in Edge’s 300-issue story to date that have done most to shape the present – and possible future – of videogames.
PlayStation (December 1994) It was inspired by a desire for revenge on Nintendo and developed inside a corporation that broadly despised the idea of stooping to make something as base as videogames. And yet Sony’s PlayStation reinvented the industry with a perfect combination of hardware, software, business strategy and marketing. Sony’s entry to the industry was Ken Kuturagi’s triumph, equipped with a CD-ROM drive and 3D capabilities that beat practical expectations when they were being designed and kept the console relevant for years to come. Sony Computer Entertainment pitched videogames to an older, more sophisticated audience than ever, a generation that had grown up with Nintendo and Sega and was ready for more. It ditched mascots in favour of strong lifestyle statements through music and graphic design, while behind the scenes it opened up the console market to developers, paving the way for a vast and varied library of software by ditching prohibitive development licences and glacial cartridge production. PlayStation reinvented the console, encouraging risk-taking and ambition that carried videogames into a new era.
Super Mario 64 (June 1996) Super Mario 64 stole the attention of a generation when it emerged in 1996. Not just because it was a launch game for a console but also because it was the moment games fully grasped a new dimension of play. Super Mario 64 transfixed the world with vibrant presentation and imaginative worlds filled with surprises and diverse challenges, and which responded to players’ every interaction. Until then, 3D games hadn’t managed to fully connect players with virtual worlds to explore, labouring under awkward controls and restrictive movement. But Super Mario 64 solved them with designs that have been cribbed from and reused ever since. It mapped 360 degrees of movement to the N64 controller’s analogue stick, giving Mario unparalleled expression through movement; it understood the significance of the camera, assigning it a character, and the player control over it. And yet, despite being underpinned by profound invention, Mario 64 is treasured for its inviting polish and colour. It was the moment the third dimension became a playground.
It understood the significance of the camera, assigning it a character, and the player control over it
Dual Analog (April 1997) The modern game controller monolithic: four face buttons on the right, D-pad, shoulder buttons, and two joysticks. Its standardisation is such that today it’s hard to think that it could be anything different, but the ’90s was a period of many experiments into analogue control, from Namco’s NeGcon to Nintendo’s N64 controller. Then, in 1997, Sony released a design featuring two identical joysticks, first in the form of the Dual Analog, with its concave-tipped sticks, and six months later, the DualShock, which refined the design and added rumble. Games didn’t immediately exploit Dual Analog’s flexibility, but over time,
across FPS, platformers, driving games and many other genres, they learned its strengths and weaknesses, and consistent control schemes emerged that became the way you play today. From Wii Remote to Steam Controller, attempts have been made to counter issues with Dual Analog’s complexity of buttons and precision, but none have dislodged its fundamental design. The standards and strictures of Dual Analog’s inputs continue to shape game design. What would play be like without it?
Xbox Live (November 2002)
It took a corporation of Microsoft’s structure – systems-led, resource-rich, strategy-heavy – to build the model for a unified online gaming network. With Xbox Live came a systematised approach to online play: a single username across all games, friends lists, voice chat and downloadable content. It took some pluck on Microsoft’s part, requiring that users had access to broadband, which lacked penetration at the time, and demanding that the Xbox hardware came equipped with a then-vast 8GB hard drive to ensure there was space to store data. But this risk ensured Live had value from the off, value on which Microsoft has built ever since. Live began to truly find its stride with Halo 2, which built an interface to online play that all would follow: a lobby system, an easy way to invite your friends to play, and most importantly matchmaking. No longer would players have to set up and host games and hope other players could find them. Xbox Live had brought online play to the masses.
World Of Warcraft (November 2004)
EverQuest had paved the way for the massively multiplayer online game, but for all its popularity it didn’t create a culture in the way that World Of Warcraft did.
WOW was the moment the MMORPG broke from curio to phenomenon, a shift that led to stories of young Hollywood execs conducting business meetings not on the golf course but in the Hillsbrad Foothills, and major news features about Chinese gold farmers. Even its memes – remember 2005’s Leeroy Jenkins? – broke the consciousness of the wider world.
World Of Warcraft raised a genre into such awareness that it often seemed to eclipse the traditional videogame. And perhaps it really did. It hooked a playerbase of social diversity in terms of age, gender, nationality and even economic background that games have rarely managed – at least not as discernibly. The wider industry, rushing to emulate its capacity to capture players’ time and passion, soon appropriated its language of levelling, quest-givers, raids, cooldowns and ‘deliver me 7 Plainstrider Feathers’, infusing it into all genres – both for better and worse.
Steam (November 2004)
When Steam was launched in 2003, it was as a platform for keeping Valve’s games updated and secure against piracy and hacking. Then it was one of a number of services designed to tame the increasingly tangled sprawl of mods, patches and rampant piracy that was building up around PC games. But Steam always had the ambition of being PC gaming’s storefront. Now it plays a central role in the industry, a social and commercial behemoth that writes the rulebook on online storefront and community design, with a playerbase numbering in the millions. It was in November 2004, with Half-Life 2 making Steam an obligatory install, that it fully burst into players’ consciousnesses. Ever since, Valve has applied its visionary customer-centric philosophy to Steam. Its evolving features and policies are often controversial, whether sales, user reviews or Greenlight, but they’ve a knack of being copied by other storefronts, and have led to Steam serving equally players, big games, niche interests and burgeoning leftfield creativity to make PC the vibrant platform it is today.
YouTube (April 2005)
Most first experiences of a videogame today are from watching video playing in a web browser. Whether it’s trailers, Let’s Plays or streams, web video has changed the way games are marketed, how they’re designed and how they’re played, to such a degree that sharing video of gameplay is now built into consoles and video-card drivers. From the first video that was uploaded to it in 2005, it took YouTube several years to fully spark its revolution, but it now makes legitimate stars of its video makers. The way they present games – screaming to horror sequences, torturing ragdolls, showcasing mods, commentating tournament play – has shaped fortunes and entire genres, making massive successes of what once would have been deemed niche titles, such as Goat
Live began to truly find its stride with Halo 2, which built an interface to online play that all would follow
Simulator, and ramshackle doodles, such as Roblox creations. Video has explicitly encouraged the growth of open-ended videogames which allow players to express themselves by sharing thousands of hours of footage. It might be facing pressure from the likes of Twitch, but YouTube remains the leader of the form.
Xbox 360 (November 2005)
Xbox 360 transcended a disaster that would’ve killed lesser consoles. The Red Ring Of Death cost Microsoft over a billion dollars, a major hardware defect in a machine that was otherwise perfect for its time – as well as the eight years that followed. Like Xbox, 360’s hardware was straightforward for developers to work with, allowing them to unlock its power quickly and yet with enough overhead that even at the end of the cycle, games for 360 could just about hold a candle to their PC counterparts. 360 introduced consoles to HD (well, 720p), as well as free downloadable firmware updates which allowed it to be moulded to the needs of its time. Major features and services were added, as well as a dashboard redesign that reseated it as an online multimedia device. Xbox Live Arcade and Indie Games, meanwhile, opened the console to small and indie developers, arguably kickstarting the indie revolution. These lasting achievements – not to mention Achievements, and wireless controllers as standard – are why Red Rings are a footnote in the 360 story, not its headline.
Minecraft (May 2009)
It took just five years for Minecraft to grow from tinkerings shared on TIGSource to a global enterprise that was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Along the way, the game founded the careers of YouTube celebrities, started successful multiplayer networks, and opened the eyes of a generation to the pleasures of videogames. Its genius is in how it satisfies the mind and synapses at every level. At first, the raw thrill of surviving a night. Then, the discovery of diamonds that mean building a Nether portal is within reach. Later, the painstaking creation of a redstone computer or a city with your friends. Still later, the release of a full mod that builds on the core game. Through a lens of open-ended creativity, of finding your own way through a practically infinite world of adventure,
Minecraft has forged new expectations for what videogames can and should be, as well as helped teach its players how to make games themselves. We’ve yet to see the true fruits of what this generation will make, but it’s sure to be inspirational.
iPhone 3GS (June 2009)
Nintendo’s DS trailblazed touch controls, but they found their true calling on iPhone. Nokia’s Snake is one of the most-played mobile games of all time, but it took iPhone to make a cultural phenomenon out of this type of handheld play. The first iPhone’s individual components weren’t by themselves revolutionary, but the way Apple brought together and refined them led to a product that absolutely was. With the release of iPhone 3GS in 2009 came the opening of the App Store, which allowed any developer to release games on a platform with a burgeoning userbase, a playground for interaction design and excellent 70/30 business terms. IPhone made mobile the largest market for videogames. It’s where all kinds of people play and where all kinds of games live, including experiments into mobile’s unique features – connectivity, location, social interaction and video imaging – as well as monetisation techniques. Today, only the strongest could survive on the App Store if it wasn’t for Apple’s tasteful curation of notable releases. Such are the responsibilities for building something transformative.
The features that exist within the Minecraft universe are potent in themselves, but the game’s influence on the wider world shouldn’t be underestimated: today, you can’t move on PC for games offering DIY elements
Apple’s iPhone 3GS and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 were both outstanding pieces of hardware, but their software ecosystems deserve much credit, too
YouTube is often bemoaned for giving a platform to screeching morons, but look harder and you’ll find great game-focused channels such as Mark Brown’s absorbing Game Maker’s Toolkit (above)
Halo 2, Half-Life 2 and WorldOf Warcraft all made use of online connectivity in game-changing ways