History of the Game Engine: Part 2 - The 1990s | Features | Ultimate Gaming Paradise

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History of the Game Engine: Part 2 – The 1990s

In part 1, we saw how the 1980s was a foundational period for computer games, but they generally remained stand-alone efforts seeking to outdo each other in their excitement. But as the clock turned to the 1990s, there was also a step-change in gaming that focused more on 3D graphics than the sprite-based games that had ended the previous decade. 

But game types changed notably, too; rather than platform-based, games of the 1990s became far more focused on first-person shooters (FPS), real-time strategy, survival horror, and Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games. It was also the decade that home computing and consoles became much more widely accepted. And, by the beginning of the new millennium, hand-held gaming devices were also well established.

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But the 1990s were more than just another ten years in the development of both hardware and games, and many argue that it was the decade that really defined gaming and shaped the years to come.   The dative arena for the first console war as Sega went head-to-head with NES and started to win. The release of the 16-bit Genesis console in The USA was a rather bitter-sweet for the company; they had fared badly against NES with their Master System, but the Genesis was a whole different beast and this time, it was Sega who had the upper hand.  A double onslaught of the Master System being technologically superior and Sonic The Hedgehog’s launch on it caught NES with its pants down a bit, and Nintendo had to work hard to reply. 

Nintendo responded with their own 16-bit entertainment system – the Super NES console – in North America, launching the first real console war. This newfound power that consoles had was hugely instrumental in game development and spawned some of the great and classic titles that we still see today—just updated to bring them into the 21st century. 

Gaming in the ’90s – Hell is Here!!!

The 1990s was also the decade when dedicated games engines became an important feature. It started to drive entertainment to new heights, and it really all began with a little title that picked up gaming of the time, slammed it on the ground, and then jumped up and down on it—and then shot it with a shotgun! DOOM! hit town and everyone sat up!

Prior to their game’s launch in 1993, id Software issued a press release that told the world that something new and wild was coming.  It said that its new title DOOM! would “push back the boundaries of what was thought possible on computers”, and they didn’t disappoint. The press release also made mention of the “DOOM! engine”, as an entity at the heart of the game, and thereby coined a phrase that would enter common usage.

The DOOM! rendering engine was the core of the game software that powered the rest of the program and is used as a base to power other games by id Software licensees, notably for titles such as Heretic, Hexen, and Strife. The DOOM! engine was created by John Carmack, with auxiliary functions written by John Romero, Dave Taylor, and Paul Radek. The game was originally developed using powerful (for the time) NeXT inc. computers and was quickly ported to the DOS standard for the game’s initial release. Following huge success, it was later ported to several other operating systems and game consoles, so you could get your dose of DOOM! on almost any system.

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The ‘engine’ is essentially a core section of code that managed the fundamental parts of the game—such as collision physics and game assets—leaving outer shells of the game available for modification by the developer.  In this way, different characters and game intent could be built around the central coding, making the game work in the same way as other titles but have a completely different and, we would hope, fresh look. 

Early Game Engines

A game engine can be thought of as the program’s core framework and the code onto which the front-end graphics sit. The functionality includes the rendering engine for the 2D and 3D graphics, the physics part of the program, including collision detection and response, sounds, animations, rendering, scripting, artificial intelligence, and memory management. In fact, the engine controls and allocates all those things in the background, with you only seeing the results of these actions in terms of gameplay.

Despite its marketing, DOOM! was not a true “3D” engine—it is not possible to look up and down properly and guns would ‘auto-focus onto enemies regardless of where they were in the game space. But, it was a fairly elegant system which allowed what was, essentially, pseudo-3D rendering. When it was first released, DOOM! was revolutionary and almost unique in its ability to provide a fast texture-mapped 3D environment on everyday-available hardware such as the last of the 386-standard and early 486 PCs, even without specialised 3D graphics hardware and running at clock speeds of around 25-33MHz.  That was the hardware that anyone could own, making exciting gaming available to all.

However, the relative simplicity of the game engine and speed of the renderer, meant that it had limitations. The base-code renderer relied on 16.16 fixed-point numbers only so the accuracy in small units is lost as the limited precision hinders accuracy. High resolutions were possible but caused an increasing number of graphical glitches especially above the 5,000-pixel resolution range. Some glitches started to appear as field of view distortions along with floors and ceilings extending towards the horizons.

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So, the title of creators of what is now regarded as an engine falls to id Software and the DOOM! engine. But, id Software as a company wasn’t satisfied with its initial creation. Fairly soon, Quake was ready to hit the market and cement the company’s position as king of the first-person shooter.  But Quake wasn’t just a follow-up game as it introduced progressive features too. Unlike the DOOM! engine that preceded it, the Quake engine offered full real-time 3D rendering and had early support for 3D acceleration through OpenGL. The result was smoother gameplay that enhanced the first-person experience overall.

DOOM! had helped popularise FPS games and, subsequently, multiplayer deathmatches in particular as early as 1993, but Quake added even more multiplayer options. Online multiplayer became increasingly common, and with the important QuakeWorld update, finding and playing against others on the Internet was made both much easier and more reliable.  It was the game that the growing on-line brigade wanted, and was made all the cooler by the fact that it featured music composed by Trent Reznor and his band, Nine Inch Nails.  Trent also voiced the main protagonist—Ranger—in the single-player game. 

Together DOOM! and Quake stamped their authority on the gameplaying world and inspired other game developers to push for their own engines. At this time, a little known company called Epic were developing their own engine. That engine went by the name of UnReal.

But what about the others?  Not everything is based on Doom and UnReal, and there was a hell of a lot of good games out there. There were some major moments during the1990’s that also helped shape both the decade and lay the foundations for those to come.

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Notable Gaming Milestones of the 1990s

Solitaire (1990) – It was everyone’s guilty timewaster at internet-limited work for much of the ’90s and came bundled with Windows (as it still is).  Simple but fiendishly addictive, most of the laptops people had in meetings were probably running it.

Sonic and the Mega-drive (1991) – Who knew those speeding hedgehogs would attract so much love?  The bright-blue Erinaceinae (look it up) featured on a platformer that captured the hearts and TV’s of a growing number of youths, bringing mainstream gaming to the masses.

Mortal Kombat (1993) – The king of the over-kill kills hit arcades in a splurge of blood and bad taste. So terrible, it prompted the U.S. Senate to debate the impact games had on people playing them. What was debated would eventually become the video game rating system, though the debate over whether this or DOOM! was the most violent raged for years.

World of Warcraft (1994) – Big news for online players as the fictional world of Azeroth.  While the game was actually launched as “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans”, it really introduced the concept that gaming could be a fun-filled marathon rather than a blood-soaked shoot ‘em up.

PlayStation (1995) – It wasn’t the first, but it was the one that captured the imagination of gamers everywhere.  It was low-priced (compared to the Sega Saturn) and ran a series of titles like Air Combat, Cyber Speed, and 1Xtreme alongside staples such as DOOM! The PlayStation was a great seller, and by the time the PlayStation 2 was released a few years later, it was the go-to device and best-selling home console.

Tomb Raider (1996) – Blocky and busty, Lara Croft became a guilty pleasure for many gamers.  Get her in a corner, adjust that camera – yay, you can look down her unrealistic cleavage.  But aside from the raw sexuality, Lara embarked on adventures that seemed a lot more real-world than other games to date. 

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) – Notable for combining a great imaginary world with well-thought-out puzzles, Zelda was just as good as Tomb Raider, but failed to catch on in the same way.

Half-Life (1998) – The adventures of Gordon Freeman at the Black Mesa Research Facility started here. While it didn’t really become a huge name until the release of Half-Life 2 and its realistic physics engine, the original episode pulled in plenty of fans.

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The 1990s was a massive decade in terms of gaming – perhaps the most important of all.  The decade saw the diversification of gaming types, the rise of 3D graphics and hardware that could handle increasingly lifelike games. Developers aren’t lazy, but they do know a good thing when they see it, and to not have to recreate fundamental game code makes a lot of sense.  However, core programming can always be improved, and the next decade saw the basic engines improve along with the hardware that powered them.

Over the next few months, we will look at how this decade was a major time for the development of gaming and how the game engine became an important factor in the rise of the mass of genres that we see today.