While many people don’t realize it, multiplayer video games are as old as the concept of electronic games themselves. In endlessly morphing formats across decades, our collective desire to play with—and against—one another has informed the development of computer-based gaming. Here is a crash-course in the key innovations in the digital addictions we love to share with each other.
The story of the multiplayer experience goes back to the genesis of video games themselves, back in the early 1970s, when the fledgling pioneers Atari introduced the arcade classic: Pong. Today’s generation may hardly even register Pong as a video game proper—a modern car dashboard has more sophisticated graphics—but this humble simulated tennis game allowed two players to interact on-screen for the very first time.
It would take some time before any further developments in multiplayer took place on the consumer end, and group play in arcades and early consoles meant simply alternating between players at the end of lives.
In the meantime, tech geeks took things to the next level behind the scenes. In the mid-70s, a proto-internet, global network of terminals, called PLATO, was utilized for games. Although invented in 1960 as an academic resource network for University of Illinois students, PLATO linked remote players together for the debuts of multi-user shooter games, Empire and Spasim (short for “space simulation”). Spasim was a particular breakthrough, accommodating up to 32 players whose low-res spaceships would be updated to other players each second.
MIDI Maze and the 80s Arcade Revolution
By the mid-1980s, arcade games had begun to blossom beyond the simplicity of classics such as Frogger and Battle Zone. One of the crucial innovations was the rise of the vertically-scrolling multiplayer run-and-gun games, best exemplified by SNK’s 1986 offering of Ikari Warriors. In IW and its many imitators, two players embarked on a commando mission side-by-side, making such games the first in which users could use collaborative battle tactics.
On the home front, Atari led the vanguard again with a game called MIDI Maze. At this point in pre-internet history, multiplayer usage was a bit more DIY. In this case, Atari ST owners would have to make a daisy-chain by connecting a ring of consoles through MIDI port interface. The payoff: up to 16 players could join in a frenzy of gun-toting smiley faces in a combat maze.
The Doom Generation
Before the internet was to become a true game-changer, a few more advances were made, significantly through Ethernet-based LAN networks. The granddaddy of these LAN pioneers was of course 1993’s Doom. In addition to its revolutionary 3D graphics, this essential franchise allowed players to link consoles—now via Ethernet, rather than MIDI cables—to play either with or against each other.
Maybe less remembered is the fact that on the Sony Gameboy, that 8-bit watershed in handheld gaming, accommodated multi-user play, making it the ancestor of the various forms of link-ups gamers use today (PSP, mobile links, etc.)
In the days before the internet, most true multiplayer formats relied to a greater extent on user initiative. It was a smaller percentage of diehard gamers who would, for example, rig up a string of Ataris for a MIDI Maze match.
Because connectivity is the very nature of the online experience, the internet expanded true multi-user gaming into the mainstream. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, released in 2005, was the true advent of the MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role playing game. Freed from clumsy cord interfaces and amped up with high-speed connectivity, MMORPGs have made large-scale group play second nature.
Multi-player for the Masses
By the late 2000’s, the breakthroughs of multiplayer gaming had truly trickled down to tiers of even casual gamers. An essential development was the introduction of Xbox Live (and later, Xbox 360), whose compatibility appealed to gamers of all stripes. Titles such as Modern Warfare and its ilk continue to define the cutting-edge in multiplayer adventure.
Comparable to the advent of the internet itself, the mobile revolution has also had a massive impact on the multiplayer universe. The nature of current phone technology—small-screen graphics for stop-and-start, on-the-go users—is in many ways defining the sorts of multiplayer apps people use.
Obviously, mobile graphics still can’t compete with the richness of 3D console games, and the wild popularity of word games, such as Scramble, is a clear deviation from the frenzied action fare of your average game. Still, we’ve come a long way from parking games and flash animation, and visually stunning mobile apps such as Robopocalypse and Galcon are catching up with large-screen fare.
Whatever form they may take, it’s a safe bet that our addiction to mobile sharing will continue to expand the realm of multi-user digital fun.
Marcela De Vivo is a freelance writer from Southern California who writes about a range of topics relating to the health, manufacturing and tech industries. She takes particular interest in the gaming industry and enjoys playing video games with her family in her free time.