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Reflections on Video Game Industry Inflection Points

We think often about the history of video games in terms of console generations (we're in the 8th, in case you're wondering). I think about the last 40 years of gaming in terms of experience eras; specifically, what kinds of inflection points have come before, and what they felt like for us players.

The first era, starting in the 70s for most consumers (and the 50s for computer scientists) was the rise of electronic play. Think of this as the first time you walked into a shopping mall or bodega and saw a glittering beeping machine begging you to play it. For me it was an Asteroids arcade cabinet sitting at the grocery store on Cortland Avenue in the Bronx. I used to go to this shop to spend 50 cents on the swedish fish and peppermint patties displayed behind bulletproof glass. Once the cabinets showed up, I started cutting my candy haul in half, and spent the other quarter on game time.

The second era, following closely behind the first, was the "take it home" era. Although the Atari 2600 was the first widely available home console most people remember, the quality of the games still lagged behind arcade machines. Surely, having games at home was an incredible thing, but we longed for arcade play. It wasn't until the Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom in Japan) that we got the sense we were enjoying experiences at home that were just as good as (or better than) their cabinet counterparts. In fact, a game like The Legend of Zelda wouldn't even make sense in a quarter-fed arcade (though some modders have tried).

The third era of video games is what I think of as the graphics era. This is when we started really caring about the guts of our home consoles, and expecting ever more pixels. The graphics era lasted a long time (and in many ways is still with us), but I think of it as covering the 4th and 5th home console generations (from the TurboGrafx-16 up through the original Playstation and Nintendo 64.) This is when you'd invite your friends over just to show them how "realistic" the games looked, and how immersive the 3D environments were. The game companies, for their part, also marketed at a technology level. They talked about bits and processor speed. This is when games aspired to be more like movies, and Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid kept us glued to the screen.

The fourth era saw the rise of multiplayer gaming. For the first time, you could play with your friends across town (or across the planet) and it unlocked an entirely new style of play for many of us. Though hardcore PC players had already been enjoying the thrills of LAN parties, most mainstream consumers hadn't felt the intensity until the broad rise of Xbox LIVE. This multiplayer era has also stuck with us; it's now the norm for all platforms and almost all genres.

The fifth great era of video games is where things get interesting for me. About 10 years ago, we saw the start of the last major shift in our industry. It was driven on multiple fronts, by competing technologies, but all toward the same cause. I call it the era of convenience. Or the era of reducing friction.

I've spoken at great length about friction. Next week, I'll argue that friction reduction has been at the heart of all the key innovations in gaming in the last decade. (No, really).