This article is part 2 in our History of PC Gaming series.
The evolution of PC gaming features ups, down, important characters, and many, many chapters. And these chapters are not always so clearly defined. There is much debate about which pivotal moments define the history of PC gaming.
There is no universally agreed upon series of innovations that form the story of PC gaming to this day, but we’ve taken a crack at identifying the landmark occurrences which not only forever changed the way we play on our PCs but that helped shape the nature of the video game industry as we know it and as it will become in the future.
Here are the greatest innovations in PC gaming:
William Higinbotham Creates Tennis for Two for the Donner Computer – 1958
There’s some debate regarding what the first computer game really was, but Tennis for Two is largely considered to be just that. Tennis for Two was one of the first games to use a graphical display (on an oscilloscope usually reserved for laboratory work) and analog control system. Not bad for the scientist who also helped develop the nuclear bomb.
American physicist William Higinbotham was one of the first people to not only create a game largely for entertainment purposes (as opposed to academic research) but to do so using a computer that most certainly wasn’t designed with gaming in mind. In the process, he showcased the versatility of computers as video game delivery devices.
The Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics Kick Off Esports – 1972
In 1972, gamers met at Standford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to huddle around a computer running Spacewar!, one of the first video games. The event was known as the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, and the winning players won a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. It is generally agreed to be the first competitive gaming tournament in history.
While esports are no longer a PC-only concept, the competitive gaming scene has long been associated with the PC. Little did these gamers from the ’70s know that their Spacewar! tournament would pave the way for the huge esports industry as we know it today.
University of Essex Students Pioneer the MMORPG Genre with MUD – 1980
In 1978, University of Essex student Roy Trubshaw began developing a multiplayer role-playing game referred to as a multi-user dungeon (or MUD, for short). He then passed the project off to fellow student Richard Bartle in 1980. That same year, The University of Essex connected their educational network to ARPANET, the network that became the foundation for the internet. In the process, they essentially turned MUD into the first MMORPG.
Years later, the MMORPG concept would be refined by Ultima Online, popularized by (Everquest), and arguably perfected by World of Warcraft, but it was MUD which showcased the incredible power of PC gaming to double as a social experiment.
The IBM 5150 Popularizes the PC – 1981
The IBM 5150 wasn’t the first PC, but it is the model credited with popularizing the very concept of a personal computer. On top of that, the IBM 5150 launched with an optional joystick port and relied on the 1979 game Microsoft Adventure to showcase the potential of the platform.
By the time the IBM 5150 had run its course, it had inspired the creation of PC magazines, forever changed the way hardware and software developers approached open architecture, and essentially started PC gaming culture as we know it.
Automated Simulations Helps Create the Expansion Pack (and DLC) with Upper Reaches of Apshai – 1981
There’s some debate regarding the very first PC game expansion pack (it depends on your definition), but Upper Reaches of Apshai seems to be the earliest, most notable example of the concept. Released in 1981, Upper Reaches offered more content to those who owned the 1979 game, Temple of Apshai. This “expansion module” would not only become the basis of some exciting expansions to come but of DLC as we know it today.
The Commodore 64 Popularizes Computers as Gaming Devices – 1982
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a new wave of home computers hit the market. Among other things, these computers were designed to offer a practical, affordable alternative to more expensive computer options. More importantly (for our purposes), they gave many homes their first taste of PC gaming.
In that respect, no home computer was more influential than the Commodore 64. Its unique architecture and design allowed for new technical possibilities, while its general popularity inspired game creators to explore new concepts to satisfy a rapidly growing marketplace.
Shareware Changes the Way Games Are Developed and Distributed – 1982
In 1982, Andrew Fluegelman created a program known as PC-Talk. The program isn’t really that important. What is important is that Fluegelman distributed it by giving it to anyone who sent him a floppy disk and an optional amount of cash. This process became known as shareware.
This new method of distribution helped some of the earliest “indie” game companies stay afloat, introduced the concept of a video game demo, advanced the early pirating scene, and even lead to the creation of early episodic games.
The Apple Lisa Makes the Computer Mouse Standard – 1983
The Apple Lisa’s mouse wasn’t the first computer mouse of its kind. However, all computer mice that had come before were closer to tech demos than bonafide consumer products. The Lisa’s computer mouse was one of the first to popularize and distribute the technology.
In the process, the Lisa also forever changed the way we play on computers. To this day, the mouse and keyboard setup is one of the defining aspects of PC gaming. The Lisa is also at least partially responsible for the rise of PC FPS and RTS games as well as PC gaming’s unique and versatile interface.
SuperSet Advances Network Play With Snipes – 1983
Many of the first video games allowed for some kind of multiplayer or competitive element, but few people in 1983 could have imagined a video game that would allow multiple people on multiple devices to share the same experience. However, that’s exactly what SuperSet Software was working on when software company Novell commissioned it to develop networking technology.
To showcase this new way to play, SuperSet developed a simple competitive game called Snipes. While Snipes itself wasn’t that interesting, the technology behind it would become the precursor to LAN parties and even online play.
The Intel 80386 Becomes the Godfather of Modern Processors – 1985
There’s a reason why so many important PC innovations have to do with increased processing power. PC gaming has long pushed the boundaries of video game technology before, during, and after console generations.
It’s why the Intel 80386 matters. This 1985 processor was not only incredibly powerful for its time, but would soon become the basis for Intel’s Pentium line. In other words, this is the popular processor that served as the precursor for some of the most important PC gaming processors ever made.
The Boulder Dash Construction Kit Envisions the PC Mod Scene – 1986
In 1986, developers Peter Liepa and Chris Gray released the fourth entry in the Boulder Dash series. Known as Boulder Dash Construction Kit, this game allowed players to use a toolset to create and modify their own levels. More importantly, some versions of the title allowed users to save those levels to a tape or disk.
This largely forgettable game became one of the pioneers of PC modding. While Doom and other games later popularized modding, the ability to share custom creations using Boulder Dash‘s tools sparked what modding would one day become.
The Freescape Engine Revolutionizes True 3D Gaming – 1987
3D gaming wasn’t entirely foreign in 1987, but few games had ever offered 3D graphics that didn’t rely on some serious smoke and mirrors. That year, a company known as Incentive Software released Freescape, one of the first known proprietary 3D video game engines. It was so revolutionary that the company struggled to find engineers who believed the concept was possible.
It wasn’t the most popular or important 3D game engine, but Freescape is a tremendous example of the innovative nature of PC gaming. At a time when the 8-bit NES was a revolution to many, PC developers were already breaking ground on 3D gaming.
The VGA Connector Sets a Display Standard – 1987
Sometimes, the simplest innovations end up being the most important. At the time of its release, the VGA connector and port probably only excited those actually in the tech industry. Few people could have guessed that VGA would change everything.
The VGA port soon became the standard for computer and monitor manufacturers everywhere. It allowed for unprecedented video quality that non-PC gaming outlets at the time could only dream of. VGA can be found on many computers to this day alongside its offspring: the HDMI and DVI connectors.
Electronic Café Opens in South Korea – 1988
Widely recognized as the first internet cafe ever, the Electronic Cafe was a surprisingly humble operation. In fact, it featured only two computers that could access the internet. Still, this little cafe inspired countless other internet and video game cafes around the world.
While the internet cafe scene may not be as big these days, these cafes and their gaming focused spin-offs gave many players their first true taste of PC gaming. These cafes remain a cultural institution in many countries.
The SoundBlaster Card Changes the Way We Hear Games – 1990
We’ve given a lot of love to graphics innovations, but what about sound? In 1990, video game sound wasn’t getting a lot of love at all. It was important, and there were higher end sound cards available, but the average user didn’t see the benefit in purchasing a separate sound card for their games.
The SoundBlaster helped change that mentality. Due to its user-friendly design and high-quality functionality, the Sound Blaster became one of the first sound cards that many people actually purchased. Once they heard the difference, PC gamers had new expectations for audio quality.
The CD-ROM Revolution – Early ‘90s
While many people remember Myst as the first CD-Rom game they played, it wasn’t technically the first game published on CD-ROM. In fact, there’s some debate regarding which is the first CD-ROM game.
Regardless of the first title to use this technology, the CD-ROM revolution of the ‘90s changed the PC gaming landscape and gaming in general. As a format, CD-ROM essentially re-wrote what PC gaming was capable of achieving over the course of just several months. It wouldn’t be long before even the best games made before the CD-ROM revolution felt primitive.
The PCI Makes Gaming Computers More Customizable Than Ever – 1992
Customizing and upgrading your rig is one of the biggest advantages to PC gaming. After all, who doesn’t love being able to turn their PC into the most high-end gaming rig imaginable? There was a time, though, when customizing your computer was either incredibly difficult or downright impossible.
The PCI helped change that. It allowed users to easily attach new cards and other expansions to a computer’s motherboard, and led to the creation of network cards, sound cards, and even graphics cards. More importantly, it served as the prototype for PC building as we know it today.
The Formation of CD Projekt Leads to Anti-DRM Measures and Video Game Preservation – 1994
Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński wanted to start a video game company in Poland. The only problem was that piracy was so widespread in Poland at the time that it was actually possible to “record” games off the radio. To get around this, the duo began to localize games in Polish so locals could enjoy them more. It was a brilliant, logical counter to video game piracy.
Many years later, CD Projekt would form Good Old Games with the purpose of combating consumer-unfriendly DRM policies and countering piracy by preserving and reviving old games. It’s a noble effort almost entirely unique to PC gaming that began in 1994.
Windows 95 Helps More People Become PC Gamers – 1995
There’s a reason why PC gaming has a reputation for being “difficult.” There was a time when just getting a game to run on your family computer felt like a rite of passage. It was a daunting past time that was certainly rewarding but often just frustrating.
Windows 95 didn’t change all of that overnight, but it certainly put us on the right path. Windows’ simplified but incredibly powerful user interface system eliminated so much unnecessary pain from the process of installing and running a game. Microsoft also used games, particularly Doom, to sell the capabilities of its operating system as no other tech company had before.
Quake’s Network Makes Deathmatch Gaming Easier Than Ever – 1996
Quake wasn’t the first game to offer network deathmatch gaming. It was the game that popularized the concept in the minds of many. Quake was one of the first games to remove much of the hassle from playing online by allowing players to connect to a server for a session of deathmatch. Companion software such as QuakeSpy (the precursor to GameSpy) even allowed players to browse a list of servers to join instead of having to hunt for IP addresses online, and the game’s QuakeWorld update made it easier than ever to play online multiplayer with a dial-up connection.
id Software and QuakeSpy’s innovations helped kick off what many still consider to be the golden age of online FPS games. It was years before a console game offered an equivalent online experience.
The Voodoo Graphics Card Commits to the Future of PC Gaming – 1996
3D graphics were only in their infancy when 3dfx Interactive introduced the Voodoo Graphics card. A controversial card at the time, the Voodoo was notorious for only offering 3D acceleration. 2D graphics would still be handled by your computer’s existing graphics technology.
The Voodoo would eventually support 2D and 3D graphics, but the message had been sent. The power of the Voodoo card helped birth a new generation of gamers who were always looking for the most powerful hardware imaginable.
Adobe Flash Leads to the Rise of Browser Games – 2000s
It’s easy to look down on Flash games. They are nowhere near as innovative or bountiful as “proper” PC games and are often offensive or just plain stupid. Yet many of us probably have fond memories of the one or two Flash games we played in school.
That era of Flash games is remembered as fondly by some as the golden age of PC RPGs, FPS titles, and RTS innovators. Hours and hours were lost to these simple browser titles that showcased the versatility of the PC as a gaming device. Not to mention that Flash allowed many indie game creators to bring their visions to the masses. Just look at what Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen accomplished with the format.
Steam Changes the Way We Buy (and Play) PC Games – 2003
Steam wasn’t really all that special when it first launched in 2003. It was a clunky way for Valve to go after cheaters while providing a hub for its content updates. That changed in 2004 when Valve essentially forced Steam on any PC gamers who wanted to play Half-Life 2. The goal was to turn Steam into an essential gaming platform installed on every PC.
Valve turned the initial Steam concept into the leading name in digital video game distribution. A digital game store was still a foreign concept in 2003, but the idea of Steam as the centralized hub for just about every game on your computer was positively alien. Yet, Steam and PC gaming are still synonymous to this day, even as the Epic Games Store and GOG continue to challenge it.
Crysis, CryEngine 2, DirectX 10 Envision the Future of Video Game Technology – 2007
“Can it run Crysis?” is more than just an old internet joke. There was a time when Crysis was such a revolutionary PC game that very few computers at the time were capable of running it, much less at its highest settings. It seemed absurd to many that a major studio would ever bother to release such a demanding title.
Years later, it’s clear that Crysis was simply brilliant. Not only did the game pioneer technology that is still the basis of today’s game visuals (it still looks great to this day), but the release of Crysis kicked off a new era of video game performance and hardware escalation that we may never see the end of.
OnLive Game Service Advances Cloud Gaming – 2010
You probably don’t remember the name OnLive. That’s because was only relevant for about 2 or 3 years in the early 2010s. During that time, though, the service helped lay the foundation of cloud gaming as we know it today.
OnLive dared to launch a cloud-based gaming platform years before even the most optimistic of internet service providers thought such a platform would be ready. It was indeed a little too far ahead of its time (it didn’t work at all for many people), but OnLive’s cloud streaming platform did end up being the precursor to Google Stadia. OnLive even tried to launch one of the first remote desktops designed for gaming but was blocked by Microsoft.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.