The Generations, Ages and Eras of Video Games

A few weeks ago I talked about games in their console generational context and received the internet equivalent of blank stares. After a little clarification I mentioned I had a post idea to define the generations and explain my own unique ways of dividing the history of video games. Someone said they liked the idea and so here we are.

For anyone to really understand the evolving state of an art form or medium must understand where it came from. Though video games have only been around for around 30 years it has a very long and detailed history, mostly thanks to the nature of technology. Of course the differences are more than just technological. There is a mentality change in the designers and the audience. We are presently in the 7th generation of consoles. Simultaneously we are in the Second Age of gaming and the 4th Era. Some may not know the details of the first, fewer of the second and I can almost guarantee no one had a clue about the third.

Something worth mentioning: this is the cliff notes version of video game history. My intention is to give a quick breakdown and explain the concepts. If I don’t mention your favorite obscure console, I don’t care. Some of the generations have upwards of 30 consoles I’ve never heard of and that never captured a market share.

A Lesson in History

The first generation could be explained as the cartridgeless generation. First the Odyssey, the home version of Pong, and others were machines with a single game programmed in and the later ones had two or three. The second generation saw the rise of Atari, and later ColecoVision. It was a great golden age of home console gaming that focused on bringing the arcade experience to the home TV. After the great video game crash of 1983, a new company came to American shores and brought the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES with them. Nintendo re-imagined the interest and became a powerhouse, meanwhile the last remnants of Atari, in the form of the Jaguar, died out as a hardware manufacturer. This is the 3rd generation, also known as the 8-bit era, named for the NES processing power. The 4th generation brought NES’ sequel, the Super NES and its competitor, the Sega Genesis. This is the 16-bit era. Lots of action between the companies as they battle for market dominance. Moving along to the 5th generation. Thanks to a betrayal and a few mistakes, Sony entered the fray with the original PlayStation. Nintendo stood fast with the N64 and Sega fumbled with the Sega Saturn. The 6th generation is where it gets a little complicated time wise. Sega made one last stand with the Dreamcast, giving it an early release, but was quickly overshadowed a year later by Sony and their PlayStation 2, which I believe is the most successful console of all time as I write this. Sega dropped out just in time for Nintendo to bring in the purple lunchbox, also known as the Gamecube. Finally, the first western competitor since Atari enters the fight, Microsoft and their Xbox. This generation is the first to see online capabilities to home consoles. Now we are in the 7th generation with two sequels, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and a reinvention, the Nintendo Wii. This way to view the timeline is defined by the technology of the console and companies upgrading their consoles.

I mentioned before that we are also in the Second Age of gaming. What do I mean by that? This refers to the industry behind the games or rather the infrastructure of the medium. This is a medium based on technology unlike any other before it. The First Age was one of American infrastructure. From the beginning all the way to the great crash is the first age. The Second Age is Japanese infrastructure; ignore Microsoft for a second, I’m generalizing here. It was Nintendo that pulled video games back from the dead and it has continued based on the groundwork they laid. Their business model was a reaction to what was generally considered the fall of the video game industry in 1983. They required 3rd parties to register with Nintendo, limited the amount of games and other draconian rules set down for their system so that the crash would not repeat itself. Now with more consumer awareness and the internet I doubt there will ever be another crash. Yes some companies are failing, but the entire industry wont have its existence in the balance like last time. Regardless, the Second Age structure is still in place.

Finally I labeled us in the 4th Era of gaming. I divide each era by a great change, advancement, or overhaul in the medium as an art form. Basically how the designers approach making games. The beginning, 1st generation, comprises the entirety of the 1st Era. Back then it was basic, rudimentary; each machine was a game unto itself. The 2nd Era of gaming began with the introduction of the exchangeable media and programmable architecture, namely cartridges. This Era was the entire 2nd generation of consoles. Back then only a single machine was needed and the games had to be purchases separately at a cheaper price. The 3rd Era of gaming began with the Second Age and 3rd generation. There was a huge leap in processing power, which would become the standard from generation to generation, but the jump here caused several unique changes. The first being recognizable, recurring characters. It also added rudimentary story telling in game, art style and color schemes. Finally we come to the 4th Era in gaming, which began in the 5th generation, the generation of the N64 and Playstation. The move from 2D to 3D was the greatest upgrade of the Era and is where designers have been working ever since.

The Future?

When I first conceived of this post several months ago I thought that we might have remained in the Second Age and 4th Era, but with the recent developments of the industry moving to digital distribution in DLC and services like Steam have me thinking that the infrastructure may change from the platform originally set up by Nintendo. And while we have been exploring the design space of 3D, I feel that we’ve reach a limit of technological innovation and now the focus will turn to more artistic innovation. Plus with the existence of the Wii there could be a permanent division between traditional controls and alternate controls. Either way we could be on the verge of the next Age and Era if we are not already there.

The Point

It’s the old saying that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. That is true on a small level, with game franchises like Tomb Raider never changing their formula or fixing what doesn’t work, but it also works on larger scale concepts like the design space and the industry. We are still feeling the effects of the video game crash of 1983. Previous to that game making was about what ever the designer could think of and thought would be good. After the crash, because of the hasty flop of E.T. and 3rd parties flooding the market with cheep shovelware, Nintendo reacted to prevent such a thing from happening again. Companies could only release a certain amount of titles every year to steam the flow of games to the market thereby confusing potential customers. They also created a system of quality control to make sure the customer never got too bad a game for their purchase, e.g. one that was free of game breaking bugs. This in combination with the qualities of the 3rd Era we have companies needing to make more money on fewer titles. They needed games that would sell and the fastest way to do this was with games that have already proven themselves to be successful. Thus the franchise was born. Even though some of the causes have faded, the mentality has led to the sequelitis of modern day gaming.

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