Syncopated Systems
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

Due to integration constraints (including the cross-development bottleneck, described below), the technology incorporated into handheld and other portable devices tends to lag that in home game console technology by about a generation or two. For similar reasons, the introduction of new technologies into products tends to progress from specific to general use in roughly this order:

  1. academic/scientific laboratory equipment (often sold by specialty manufacturers directly), followed by
  2. industrial equipment (sold by distributors; e.g. coin-operated games), followed by
  3. specialty market consumer retail products (e.g. personal computers), followed by
  4. mass market stationary consumer retail products (e.g. home game consoles), followed by
  5. mass market portable consumer retail products (e.g. handheld games).

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). Some of my early work is pictured at Shiggsy's Place.

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 (V.C.S.) 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.

Generation-Defining Technologies

In attempting to make generational distinctions, I prefer not to simply measure the width (in bits) of a system's c.p.u. data bus (which, for example, differentiated the Sega Genesis from its predecessors) or 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.

Period Generation Defining/Key Features Introduced Examples
2012-present8 Nintendo Wii U
Sony PlayStation 4
Microsoft Xbox One
2006-20117consoles with
  • accelerometer-enabled controllers,
  • third-generation optical disc readers (BluRay, h.d. d.v.d. rom),
  • third-generation network interface (1 G.b.p.s.),
  • multiprocessor/multicore c.p.u.s,
  • fixed hard disk drive
Nintendo Wii *
Sony PlayStation 3
2001-20056consoles with
  • fixed hard disk drive (optional),
  • network interface built-in or add-on,
  • second-generation optical disc readers (d.v.d. rom)
Microsoft Xbox, Xbox 360
Sony PlayStation 2
1995-20005consoles with
  • first-generation optical disc readers (c.d. rom),
  • operating systems,
  • 32-bit risc c.p.u.s,
  • flash e.e.prom cards/cartridges for storing user data
Nintendo Game Cube
Sega Saturn **
Sony PlayStation
1990-19944 consoles with
  • multiple microprocessors,
  • 8/16- and 16-bit c.p.u.s,
  • surface-mounted p.c.b. components,
  • third-party i.p. in asics,
  • first-generation optical disc reader (c.d. rom) add-ons
Atari Jaguar
Nintendo SNES
Sega Genesis
early c.d.-rom-based computer-console crossover unitsCommodore CDTV
Philips CD-i
computer c.d.-rom-based gamesActivision The Manhole, Cosmic Ozmo
Sierra On-Line Jones In the Fast Lane
1984-19893consoles with
  • multi-session games via user data storage (e.g. on-cartridge ram),
  • pause button ***,
  • serial interfaces to controllers and peripherals,
  • 8-bit c.p.u.s
Nintendo N.E.S.
computers with
  • 16-bit c.p.u.s,
  • 3.5" micro floppy magnetic diskette drives
Apple Macintosh
Commodore Amiga
Atari ST
1976-19832multi-game consoles and general-purpose computers with
  • 8-bit c.p.u.s,
  • simple games,
  • replaceable programs...
...via rom cartridgesAtari 2600 V.C.S., 5200 SuperSystem ***
Fairchild Channel F V.E.S.
...via rom cartridges or
5.25" mini floppy magnetic diskettes
Atari 400, 800
Commodore VIC-20, 64
I.B.M. PC jr.
...via 5.25" mini floppy magnetic diskettesApple II
...via compact cassette magnetic tapesApple II
Atari 400, 800
Commodore VIC-20, 64
1971-19751single-game units (many using hard-wired logic) become commercially-availableSyzygy Computer Space (coin-operated), Atari Pong (coin-operated and home), Stunt Cycle, Video Pinball, Breakout
to 19700non-commercial/academic computer multimediaSpacewar!

* The Nintendo Wii, though it uses accelerometic controllers extensively, fails to meet other criteria that may define the latest generation.

** The Sega Saturn's c.p.u. actually consisted of two Hitachi SH2 processors, so it may have been ahead of the technology curve in that regard.

*** The pause button 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.