By: Steve Zachmann, contributor
Whether you’re a game developer, a developer of another type, or have never written a line of code in your life, if you play video games then there are undoubtedly moments when you’ve thought to yourself, ‘how in the world did they do that?’ As I’ve started developing games, this thought has started popping into my head more and more often, and with more specificity than ever. The more code I write, and the more problems I have to solve for my tiny little game, the more I’m in awe of the games that have come before, and have innovated in ways that I could only dream of. So here are my picks for the top 5 most awe inspiring feats of technical prowess ever in gaming.
You’ve probably never heard of Tennis for Two. Even if you’re a gaming historian, most consider Spacewar, created in 1962, to be the first proper video game. For my money though, Tennis for Two is truly the first video game. Created on a friggin oscilloscope in 1958, Tennis for Two is an incredible feat of both technical prowess and imagination, and it paved the way for Spacewar and everything that came after it. What’s more, William Higginbotham, the game’s creator, developed it because ‘he was bored’. Thank god for boring jobs, I guess.
If there is one thing that scares me more than anything about game development, it’s balance. It’s easy to think up a bunch of cool abilities for a character, but to then ensure that those cool abilities aren’t cooler than another character’s cool abilities; that’s tough. Take that problem and raise it to the power of 110+. Then throw in some other facts; characters have more than one ability, characters can use items to enhance their builds in a multitude of ways, and teams consist of more than one player so there are combinations of characters/moves. All of that stuff basically stacks multiplicatively to create an amount of variation that is mathematically staggering. Oh, and if you screw up one tiny detail, someone in the community will notice and either exploit the imbalance or pitch a fit on your forums. Plus, both of these games hold tournaments where millions of dollars are at stake, so balance is even more important. It’s absolutely mind boggling to me how a group of people of any size could possibly manage this task, and even though I’m sure hardcore players of either game would be quick to point out certain flaws in the system, the fact that it works at all is incredible.
I know, this is the second time in this list that I’ve chosen multiple games. I realize that it’s kind of a cop out, but in this case, they all did kind of the same thing in different and important ways. MMOs in general fascinate me from a programming and design perspective. First is the problem of big data; which I think WoW takes the crown for. Somewhere there is a database managing upwards of 10 million players, many of whom have multiple characters which all have their own inventories, stats, etc… That fact in and of itself is awe-inspiring. Factor in that this data is constantly updated by player actions, broadcast to other players, kept secure from both client and server side hacks, and that all of this has to happen with very little impedance to the player. Oh, and both Ultima Online and EverQuest accomplished that over dial-up. MMOs are complex from a networking perspective in a way that I simply cannot fathom, and they stand as a testament to how much we really like to smash bad guys with our friends.
I’ve played tons of games in my lifetime, but none created a sense of awe like Grand Theft Auto III. Rockstar has done a lot to improve the formula since then, but that first iteration of GTA as a living 3D world is still the most incredible from a technical perspective. I had never played a game that felt so alive, so large, and so free. When you consider that GTAIII came out on the PS2 originally, it’s even more impressive. That’s not to say that the PS2 was a bad platform at all, but that hardware is old at this point. Rockstar managed to accomplish all they did in GTAIII with 32mb of RAM and 4mb of video RAM. If you’re not a hardware guy, here’s some mathematical perspective; the PS4 has 8gb of shared RAM which is a 22 THOUSAND PERCENT increase over the PS2. On top of that, GTAIII was fun. It had style, story, and humor. It’s innovation went beyond simply it’s size and scope; the freedom it presented made it extra-special. Stealing a car and driving from one end of Liberty City to the other is, to this day, one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in gaming.
As I thought about the games I’d choose for this post I knew it would be impossible to not have some Carmack representation on here, and even though an argument could be made that Doom or Wolfenstein might be more notable, I think that once you realize all of what Quake managed to accomplish in a single package, you’ll agree that it’s not only Carmack’s most important contribution to gaming, but it might be the single most important contribution to gaming, period.
First off, Quake is arguably the most important game ever in the 3D revolution. GLQuake, which took advantage of early 3D hardware, helped make graphics tech a staple of PC and console gaming. Without Quake, 3D tech may very well be pretty far behind it’s current state. Second, Quake is by far the most popular early adopter of TCP/IP client-server multiplayer, without which multiplayer gaming as we know it today simply would not exist. This technology is often lost in the shuffle because it’s not visible, but client-server is what makes virtually every modern-day multiplayer game work. In addition, Quake’s mod support was leaps and bounds ahead of the industry at the time. The moddability of Quake gave rise to a community that ended up building careers from their contributions to the game. Games like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2, which started as Half-Life mods, owe much of their success to the Quake modding community that opened those doors.
All of this innovation came from one game, and to a large degree, one man. Bits of code from the Quake engine can still be found in games today, which is a testament to the excellence of John Carmack’s work. All of the games on this list are important and innovative, but where most of them were created by large teams of people, Quake was basically a product of John Carmack (and Michael Abrash). From a technical innovation perspective, no single person has been more influential than John Carmack, and Quake very well may be his magnum-opus. Quake isn’t the best game ever made, but it’s tech is so staggeringly impressive that I had to give it my top spot.
This was another hard list to make. Some games that barely missed the cut were Minecraft, Super Mari 64, Metal Gear Solid, and The Legend of Zelda. It’s almost impossible to pick on the 5 best of anything, so I figured I’d mention some of these others. Do you agree with my list? Disagree? Think I’m a complete idiot? Let me know!