The 10 Most Important Technical Innovations in Gaming
Welcome to the magical world of video games, where the future is now and innovation is a way of life. In their noble quest for heightened immersion and interaction, game developers have made huge strides in their chosen industry, implementing ideas aimed at completely changing how we play our video games. Not all of them were as successful as their progenitors had dreamed, but many went on to irreversibly change the gaming world forever.
We here at TripleJump welcome innovation. After all, without innovation in gaming, we’d all still be playing Pong, and there are only so many YouTube videos you can make about Pong before you start running out of content.
As such, we’re using this video to celebrate those times when someone invented something special, and that something moved the industry forward in such a way that it never looked back. For progress!
I’m Ben from TripleJump, and here are the 10 Most Important Technical Innovations in Gaming.
10. The Analogue Stick
Did you know that in historical times, game controllers only had four directions? That’s right, after a busy day of riding their penny farthing, witnessing the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and keeping an eye out for pterodactyls, old-timey gamers would sit down for a spot of gaming with a controller whose d-pad resembled a cross. Games were simpler back then, so this was all that was really needed. Everyone was happy.
But, technology marches on, and more freedom of control was required. It was time for an upgrade.
Analogue sticks use science and technology to be able to detect the stick’s exact position at all times, picking up the player’s inputs in minute detail and giving them complete control of their in-game avatar’s movements. Early analogue joysticks include the ones found on Sega’s Space Harrier arcade machine, but precise, 360-degree movement didn’t really reach the average bedroom until the 1996 release of the N64.
While the N64’s controller stick was digital rather than analogue, it started a new wave of advanced console controllers. Sega brought out an analogue controller for NiGHTS into Dreams a month later, and Sony unleashed the first ever dual analogue stick controller a year after that. Suddenly, the way we physically played games changed for the better forever.
Just don’t mention stick drift…
Why do we play games? The fun? The spectacle? The escapism? The social aspect? To fill our gaming profile with little trophy badges awarded for whimsical in-game tasks while increasing an arbitrary score that barely anyone will pay attention to? It’s that last one, isn’t it. We see you.
The idea of games offering rewards for meeting parameters outside of the the main goal has been around for decades. 1990 Amiga puzzle game, E-Motion, was one of the first, congratulating players on completing a level without rotating right, for example, but it wasn’t alone in offering secret bonuses just for the sake of it.
The concept as we know it today was birthed by Microsoft with the launch of the Xbox 360. Their system implemented achievements across multiple games in a way that was easily accessible by the people you wanted to show off to, and it became a huge phenomenon. Nowadays, achievement and trophy hunting is a big deal, with games like PSN puzzler, Slyde, becoming renowned for their “easy platinum” status.
When implemented well, achievements can encourage you to play games in different ways and add hours of gameplay for your buck. They’re just another, extra-meaty layer on the delicious lasagne that is video games.
Do I get the “meat metaphor” achievement now? Thanks.
8. Motion Controls
A polarising video gaming concept that is heavily associated with Nintendo, but did you know that Sega really made the first strides towards motion-controlled gaming? Motion-controlled hydraulic cabinets like that of 2D convertible sports car racing game, OutRun, started the trend in arcades, but Sega were also the first to bring the technology into players’ homes with their Mega Drive peripheral known as the Sega Activator. This ill-fated piece of gaming technology was placed on the floor, and was supposed to read players’ movements and interpret them into the game. Alas, it was labelled as unwieldy and inaccurate, and faded into obscurity.
It wasn’t until 2006 that motion controls really took off. The Nintendo Wii’s combination of Remote and Nunchuck ushered in a new era of accelerometer-powered gaming, and PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect were soon to follow.
Suddenly, players were encouraged to get up off of their sofas and wave their arms and legs around to make their games work. Sometimes the motion controls were implemented well, and sometimes they barely worked at all, but here in the future and with the benefit of hindsight, I think we can all agree that motion controls are at their best when they’re, well, optional…
7. Virtual Reality
The concept of virtual reality has been around since the ’50s, and the act of putting a thing up to your face and looking through it so that the subject dominates your entire field of view goes back even further. While early virtual reality technology was mainly used for things like medical training and flight simulation, the concept seemed like an ideal fit for video games.
Once again, Sega were the first to give it a whirl in the early ’90s, but poor insider response to their planned Sega VR unit for the Mega Drive meant that the project was canned before release. Nintendo actually got one on the shelves with the Virtual Boy in 1995, but that was a commercial failure due factors including cost, portability and health concerns!
Understandably, investors and consumers went a bit cold on VR for a while after that, but then from 2016 the floodgates suddenly opened, with HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PSVR, and more all making it into people’s homes and, you know, actually working.
With technology marching on, the dream of actually being able to live in your favourite video game worlds is surely just around the corner, and I don’t know whether to be excited or terrified by that prospect.
I guess it all depends on what game you’re playing.
6. Online Gaming
It’s great to play games with friends, but sometimes those friends aren’t allowed over that night because they haven’t done their homework. You see, friends are unreliable and will let you down, but the internet won’t. The internet will never let you down. Well, unless the internet itself down, but that’s not the point. Online gaming allows us to play multiplayer titles with friends and strangers from around the world, and brings players together in perfect harmony. Perfect, name-calling, mother-insulting harmony.
Online gaming has been around since 1980 with MUDs, or text-based Multi-User Dungeons, but it really started to pick up in the mid-to-late ’90s when the internet became more readily available. Ultima Online, Starcraft, and Counter-Strike are some examples of big-name online PC games from the era, and consoles weren’t far behind.
While Nintendo initially dabbled in online console gaming with the Japan-only Famicom Modem, it was Sega’s Dreamcast that really embraced the idea for the first time by including an in-built modular modem. Sega fans whiled away hours on the likes of Phantasy Star Online and Quake III Arena, and then Microsoft came along with the Xbox in 2001, debuting Xbox Live and revolutionising gaming forever.
A headset, party chat, and a copy of Halo 2, and gamers needed never feel lonely again. Beautiful, when you think about it.
5. Cross-Platform Gaming
Despite its world-changing legacy, online multiplayer gaming wasn’t perfect, and one issue that many thought could never change was the lack of cross-platform play. Picture the scene; its 2010, and you have an Xbox 360. Your PS3-owning friend is boasting about how great he is at Modern Warfare, and totally reckons he could wipe the floor with you. You have other ideas, but alas you’re unable to prove your superiority as Xbox and PlayStation players just cannot play online together. With Microsoft and Sony being bitter business rivals, this is unlikely to ever change. Right?
Well, if you’d been paying attention, you might have noticed that back in 2001, Capcom Vs. SNK 2 was playable online across PS2 and Dreamcast in Japan, and Final Fantasy XI allowed Windows and PS2 players to play together in 2002. Not so out of the question now, is it?
It took a while, but the current generation of online gamers are living in a world where PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo are joined in jubilant cross-platform togetherness and harmony, with the likes of Fortnite, Rocket League, and Minecraft leading the way.
So, with 2022’s Modern Warfare II a cross-platform title, it’s time to find that PlayStation-owning “friend” and show him who’s boss once and for all! Let us know how it goes, okay?
4. Digital Distribution
The gaming equivalent of cutting out the middle man, digital distribution is here to stay, and is quickly changing the face of gaming forever. Another innovation that’s been around since the ’80s but didn’t really take off until more recent technological advances allowed it to, digital distribution is your opportunity to acquire a brand-new game to play without even getting out of your chair.
Identifying early attempts at digital distribution on consoles causes us to bring up Sega once again, who tried their hand at delivering content to consoles via projects like Sega MegaNet and the Sega Channel in the early ’90s. Earlier still, ’80s Atari 2600 owners could rent games through their phone line using a specialised cartridge.
Such experiments are a thing of the past, and stable, versatile, secure, online content shops that enable you to download games to your heart’s content are now commonplace, with only your wallet and hard drive size limiting what you can access.
If you like the idea of buying a game at the click of a button, don’t miss having a shelf full of boxed games, and are comfortable with being complicit in gradually killing the high-street, Valve, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and more totally have you covered.
3. Handheld Gaming
For a full gaming experience, you’ll need a console or PC, a controller, a screen, and speakers. Imagine, though, if all of those things were smushed down into a device that you could hold in the palm of your hand. Well, dear viewer, you’ve just imagined yourself the concept of handheld gaming.
Like many of the other concepts on this list, it’s been around for a while, but for the idea to really grow and shine it needed a certain level of technological advancement. The first handheld electronic game was Mattel’s Auto Race, released back in 1976, but this was just the tip of the portable iceberg.
It was Nintendo who really nailed handheld gaming. In 1989 they released the Game Boy, and it took the world by storm. Along with its contemporaries like the Game Gear and the Atari Lynx, and its eventual progeny like the DS and PSP, handheld consoles have enabled players to enjoy the wonders of video games while in the back garden, on a bus, on a boat, or even on the beach. As long as you had the batteries, that is.
Sadly, putting the hybrid capabilities of the Switch aside, handheld gaming is in a bit of a trough currently. Unless you count mobile gaming, that is. Which we don’t.
2. Memory Cards
Come back with us, if you will, to a time before memory cards. A time when, if you wanted to see the ending to a game, you had to play it all the way through in a single sitting. Arcade games would save high scores, but if you wanted to pick up where you left off in, say, Lemmings, you’d better get used to having a note pad full of passwords. That or leave your system on overnight, and that’s bad for the planet!
Of course, many cartridge-based games did have saved game capabilities built into them using battery-backed RAM, but this was the exception rather than the rule, and when discs became the main format for gaming, another solution had to be found.
SNK’s Neo Geo was the first console to offer a removable memory card feature, with the likes of the PS1, GameCube, and Dreamcast (complete with cute little interactive screens) following soon after.
Of course, nowadays we’re used to our consoles having built in storage with their new-fangled internal hard drives, but without the humble memory card, 150-hour PS1 epics like Dragon Quest VII would have been impossible pipe dreams. Thanks for the memories, memory cards.
1. 3D Graphics
Polygon. Nope, it’s not the cry you utter when you come home to find your parrot is missing, it’s the building block for 3D graphics, and represents one of the most important innovations the gaming industry has ever seen.
Don’t get us wrong, 2D graphics can be great, whether in beautiful old-school gems or modern masterpieces, but nothing immerses you in a world quite like being able to explore a full, 3D environment. Life isn’t 2D, and thanks to polygons, neither are games.
The world’s first 3D animation appeared way back in the 1976 sci-fi movie Futureworld, then Atari’s Battlezone paved the way for 3D gaming in arcades in 1980, using vector-based 3D graphics from a first-person perspective for the first time. Nintendo started bringing pseudo-3D graphics into the home with the likes of The 3-D Battles of Worldrunner on the NES, but really brought 3D console gaming into the public eye with Star Fox in 1993.
Each 3D model in Star Fox contains a relatively low number of polygons, compared to today’s super-advanced 3D models that feature tens of thousands of the blighters.
A warning, though, with all this advanced 3D gaming around, we should be careful not to let 2D gaming die. Sometimes, you just don’t know what you’ve got till it’s poly-gone.