Play Where You Like!
By Jeff "nonick" Solomon
The original Nintendo was an 8-bit system that by 1986 took the consumer market by storm. While there had been other gaming systems released in the American market prior to the NES (including the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision systems), Nintendo was the first company to pull off an aggressive marketing blitz and command the attention of a critical mass of anxious consumers.
With the NES, home gaming took off with a vengeance. Gaming systems were repositioned as electronic toys, as opposed to complicated systems for hobbyists. Toy stores became the central location to procure electronic entertainment. Suddenly, home video games were an exciting prospect for everyone.
In 1986, Sega decided to cash in on what was becoming an extremely lucrative market and responded to Nintendo with the Sega Master System. Unfortunately for Sega, Nintendo had already garnered the leadership position in this market, and Sega's initial offering fared poorly by comparison.
For three years, Nintendo continued to reign supreme in the home gaming market, enjoying a position of power very similar to Microsoft's command of the PC operating system market today (an analogy that also stretches to legal situations - Nintendo was accused of monopolizing the market, and preventing competitors' programs from running on its system - sound familiar?).
In 1989, the market players were ready to shake things up. Sega lobbed its second generation, 16-bit Genesis system into the fray, which offered significantly improved graphics and sound over the previous 8-bit generation of systems. Nintendo and Atari jumped on the miniaturization bandwagon and introduced the portable GameBoy and Lynx systems, respectively. In a wonderful bit of retrospective irony, Disney's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was tearing up the box office as truckloads of GameBoy and Lynx units were flooding toy stores.
Throughout 1990, Nintendo remained on top, but the industry was beginning to resemble the segmented form that is now the norm as various companies introduced products and services that attempted to satisfy various types of gaming needs.
Sega focused on leveraging its dominance in the arcade industry by releasing home versions of its most popular games for the Genesis. Video stores began renting game cartridges. And NEC and Nintendo, as well as other, smaller companies, had their R&D labs pumping at full tilt to produce advanced 16-bit systems of their own.
By 1991, the market was rushing ahead with more momentum than a runaway train. Nintendo released the 16-bit Super NES, and various other systems appeared as it became clear that things were becoming so segmented that Nintendo was no longer guaranteed exclusive success. As technology began improving ever more rapidly, it became obvious that yesterday's technology leader could very well become tomorrow's bargain bin dust cover doorstop doohickey.
The race was on to improve technology and battle for market share, and the assault was coming from all fronts. At this point, a significant portion of the home gaming market began to spill over to PCs, as graphics chips and CPUs gained the power that was necessary to compete with the dedicated electronics in console systems. While computer games were nothing new, it was at this point that they were finally able to begin to compete directly with the kinds of games that were designed for consoles.
PC users were no longer limited to playing comparably static games like Zork and pure strategy simulators like SimCity and Civilization. Better PC technology paved the way for games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom that made people realize that they could play engaging games on the same system they used for homework. Sound cards and CD-ROM drives - once so scarce that game designers would be laughed out of the planning room if they made the assumption that a typical PC would have them - were now shipping with standard systems.
Windows 3.1 was released in 1992, but attracted very little attention from game developers, and for good reason. The graphics facilities in Windows were designed to draw windows and system elements, but were highly inefficient when it came to providing the raw speed and nimble output that games require. Since Win 3.1 was still married to DOS, and offered essentially nothing in the way of high performance gaming support, most companies chose to continue writing games exclusively for DOS, which was becoming less attractive for running spreadsheets but still offered the raw speed and power that Windows lacked.
Because every system running Windows 3.1 was also running DOS, game developers had little incentive to develop games exclusively for Windows. Why should they, when performance would be degraded, programming difficulty increased, and the overall gaming experience compromised? Microsoft, of course, wanted to steer everyone over to Windows, and attempted to improve Windows 3.1's anemic graphics facilities with the WinG programming library, which made graphics routines more efficient for programmers, but ultimately attracted little notice.
All of this began to change in 1995, when Microsoft made good on its promise to produce a more game-friendly version of Windows with the über-hyped Windows 95. Although the initial version of Windows 95 didn't include the extensive gaming support that Microsoft was hoping (many of the features were dropped so that the product would be able to ship in 1995), Microsoft released some of the goods - the initial iteration of the DirectX series of drivers and APIs for Windows 95 - shortly thereafter.
DirectX was designed to present developers with a consistent, streamlined API (application programming interface) and driver set for Windows that would allow them to write games that were not hindered by Windows' poor graphics performance. Game programmers would no longer be forced to use the same set of tools for games that were originally designed to draw buttons and dialogue boxes. In addition, DirectX provided sound and input device drivers that allowed Windows to take advantage of gaming hardware that had previously gone underappreciated.
|Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. Play Where You Like! is © 1998 Jeff Solomon. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it, dammit.|