Seriously Sound Science™
Entertainment Technology Generations
This article is part of a series about entertainment and computer games. It follows the introduction to Electronic Game Industry History.
Creating an Entertainment Technology Timeline reveals groups of attributes shared among games of the same generation. Though there is certainly much disagreement regarding what constitutes each generation of video and computer games, I attempt to present my definitions and the reasons for my decisions below.
After defining these generations, I coded each generation with a unique color and applied the same color code to the corresponding years in the Entertainment Technology Timeline.
Technological Progression To Market
Technologies generally take time to integrate, largely due to market constraints. That is, only as demand for a technology is demonstrated do additional suppliers enter a market with products that integrate more functionality into forms that are smaller and generally thus require fewer resources to produce. (There are, of course, notable exceptions such as highly-integrated semiconductor components. Their relatively high costs are usually offset by savings in other parts of a product.)
This is why we generally see a progression of computing technology from large general-purpose machines in laboratories to progressively smaller (and often somewhat specialized) ones in military or industrial settings, commercial environments, and then the homes, hands, and pockets of consumers. In the context of interactive multimedia (video games and computer games), the introduction of new technologies into products tends to follow roughly this order:
The functionality of larger machines generally preceeds that of smaller devices by roughly a generation.
To create handheld and other portable devices there also exists a bottleneck in cross-platform development, a hurdle that I helped game developers overcome in the 1990s, and which I describe further below.
The Cross-Development Bottleneck
Before the widespread availability of network interface connectors on game systems, it had been extremely difficult for many aspiring software developers to break into game console market. This was because, to create video games, a cross-development interface is needed to connect the host computer (the machine on which content is created) to the target system; a complete development system consists of this interface, a host computer, a target system and related software. With network interface connectors now standard equipment on modern game consoles, many developers are able to connect target systems to their host computers using a local-area network (LAN).
Typically, one development system is needed for at least every programmer on the project. Ideally, there should also be one available for each game, visual and sound designer (and sometimes even for each tester). Because development systems are often very expensive, they were usually in short supply; for example, Nintendo originally (circa late 1990 and early 1991) would charge developers $60,000 for a prototype SNES development system and later offered a cost-reduced version for $15,000. My version allowed a developer better control and flexibility, and was about 25 times less expensive. (At this point in my career, I'm often able to provide efficiency improvements of 50 times.)
For the console game developers I worked for during the early- to mid-1990s, I spent most of my time designing and building cost-saving cross-development interfaces to many systems I classify as fourth- and fifth-generation (see table).
I've seen the hand-made cross-development hardware Activision used to create some of the best of the second-generation games (cartridges for the Atari 2600): it was an Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) glued to the top of a card cage (bigger than a bread box), with ribbon cables (probably all hand-soldered) running between the slightly-open edges of the two bonded enclosures.
In attempting to make generational distinctions, I prefer not to simply measure the width (in bits) of a system's CPU data bus (which, for example, differentiated the Sega Genesis from its predecessors) nor the capacity of its network interface or of its primary distribution medium (see Media Capacities). Rather, I attempt to identify unique technologies introduced, defining each generation of systems.
* The Nintendo Wii, though it uses accelerometic controllers extensively, fails to meet other criteria that may define its generation.
** The Sega Saturn's CPU actually consisted of two Hitachi SH2 processors, so it may have been ahead of the technology curve in that regard.
*** The pause function was introduced with the Atari 5200 SuperSystem in 1982.
† Through his friend Steve Jobs, who worked for Atari at the time, Steve Wozniak contributed to the design of Breakout, likely teaching him much about video circuits and contributing to the colored bars in the Apple logo.
For further reading about the history of video and computer games and their technology, see the Entertainment Technology Timeline. The Historical Size Constraints in Electronic Games provides an illustrated summary of growth in media size constraints affecting video and computer games.
For a chart illustrating derivations of computer technologies, see A Family Tree of Key Computer Technologies Since 1960.
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