The evolution of entertainment software is intrinsically tied to the evolution of personal home computers, as the earliest home computers were primarily used for video games. Even though home computers back in the early 1980s were marketed as being viable for business purposes like stock analysis, or household purposes like budget calculating, these tasks were actually quite difficult to do on these early personal computer models.
So to get an overall idea of how games and entertainment software have evolved over time, there’s been a few major signs of progress, if you will, that mainly boil down to these points (because prices certainly haven’t changed in ~30 years).
- Distribution: We’ve gone from type-in programs to floppy disks, to console cartridges, and then CD-ROMs and the internet, where downloading games or playing online casino games became a possibility. And now digital distribution is the main method of software delivery and has been for a long time on computers. It’s only consoling that is still somewhat hanging onto retail distribution, but the next generation of game consoles will likely be entirely digital as well. Some predict the future to be in cloud streaming.
- Game difficulty: Developers made video games as difficult as possible in the early days, so players would spend massive amounts of time just trying to beat the games, giving the games replay value even if they were small in size. Today’s games are considerably less difficult, but offer hundreds of hours of gameplay through massive worlds and storylines.
- Indie development has come full circle: People talk about indie development like it’s a new trend like indie developers are “the future” of gaming. The thing is that indie developers have always been around, and indie developers were what created the gaming industry. There really was no established video game industry in the 70s and early 80s, and it was only during the big console wars that indie developers were kind of pushed out of the scene. But obviously indie development has made a huge comeback, particularly on PC and mobile platforms.
So while the earliest home computers may have been touted as the all-around workstations, the truth is that the primary target was the entertainment and gaming industry. It was common to see home computers being displayed side-by-side with video game consoles, with the computer’s additional features such as word processing and spreadsheet software. But video games were the main selling point of these early systems.
Because these home computers had such limited memory, with around 48KB – 64KB being considered “high end”, they couldn’t exactly be filled with bunches of games, and there was no internet to download new games. The software was also fairly expensive. So type-in programs became fairly popular among computer enthusiasts. These were literally printed source codes for games or software that the computer user would manually type into the computer, and then save to a tape-drive, which were like literally cassette tapes for storing data. Floppy disks came around later on.
It was basically DIY game programming and could take hours of manual code entry. In the 80s, there were several magazines like Compute! and Creative Computer that published these source codes in their magazines.
When operating systems like MS-DOS and hard drives became standard in personal home computers, it opened up new avenues for entertainment software and gaming. Software and games could be bundled with the computer, and the companies didn’t necessarily need to send bundles of software disks to the customer to get them started.
One interesting point to touch on is how insanely expensive entertainment software and games cost back in these days. A triple-AAA title today that offers 300 hours of storyline and gameplay, with the most incredible graphics, typically retails for around $60 at launch. Well, that’s pretty much exactly the same price games cost back in the day, and you got considerably less game to play.
Let’s take 1991’s Battletoads for example. The game had 8-bit graphics, took only 4 hours to complete, and was launched at around $62.88 USD. If we adjust this for inflation, that’d be around $90 USD in today’s economy.
Some of the reasons video games were so expensive in that era were because games were released on physical disks or cartridges, so the cost of microcontrollers and memory had to be factored in. Especially for consoles like Nintendo’s NES and SNES, where the game cartridges actually had built-in static RAM so the player could save their game progress on the cartridge itself.
Because the early computer and console games were so expensive, developers tried to compensate for this by making them as difficult as possible. The theory was that the more time a player spent trying to beat the game, the more enjoyment they were getting from the game, so this era had some of the most notoriously difficult video games. Whenever kids today talk about how difficult games like Sekiro or Dark Souls are, I’m like, “Okay, but have you tried Ghouls n Goblins for the original Nintendo?”.
So to summarize, the main evolutions of entertainment software throughout the years have been distribution methods, technological improvements, and indie development making a huge comeback.