The rise of PC gaming

Monkey Island screenshot

In this post we’ll summarize key events and characteristics that led to players turning to their PC:s for gaming. The materials are based on various sources, such as Jamie Lendino’s excellent book “Starflight: How the PC and DOS exploded computer gaming 1987 – 1994”. Let’s dive right into it. How did the personal computer go from being purely business-oriented machines to gaming powerhouses?

The PC’s open (but diverse) architecture

The first PC, IBM’s Personal Computer 5150, was released August 12, 1981. With five card slots, it had almost unlimited capacity for expansion. And anyone could make and sell cards and peripherals without a license from IBM. This expandability was perhaps only matched by the contemporary Apple II, but this company choose a different path with a more closed architecture in their following models.

Initially, the flexible architecture was a downside, as it added a lot of complexity both for developers and gamers, as games had to be developed and configured to various hardware pieces (e.g., CGA / EGA and later VGA graphics, different sound cards and so on). This was not an issue for games developed on computers with fixed hardware, such as the C64. However, over time, as the hardware evolved, it was possible to add more and more games to the PC lineup, compared to e.g., the competitors where you needed to buy another computer (e.g., an Amiga to replace the C64) which made both the old device and its games, obsolete.

As mentioned, a PC gamer needed to be a bit more tech savvy than users of other systems. As MS DOS 5.0, released in 1991, enabled more efficient use of a machine’s memory, gamers found themselves needing to edit the AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files to remove unnecessary files from loading into memory, and to load other files into the “high” memory. Gamers often competed about who could free up the most conventional memory on their machine (the first 640 kb of memory).

Powerful (but expensive) hardware

The first PC was powerful with its Intel 8088 CPU that could run up to 5 MHz. However, it was also expensive, announced at a price for over $1500. However, with the launch of the Intel 80386 cpu in 1985, the price tag went down to three digits. Thus, the PC hardware always had the advantage of more computational resources compared to the competitors, but it was also more expensive, and it would take time for the machines to develop into fully featured gaming machines, as they were commonly associated with being business machines, thanks to IBM (International Business Machines). Nevertheless, this image diversified a little bit when other computer manufacturers reverse engineered the IBM machines and released clones. However, without some sort of standard for sound and graphics, the PC would not be able to compete with machines such as the AMIGA, or even the Commodore 64.

At the end of the decade, Intel released the 80486 CPU which became the new standard for gaming until the Pentium CPU was released in 1993.

The development of sound and graphics

The MS DOS version of many game titles that were developed for different platforms gained a bad reputation. Sometimes, they were identical to e.g., the AMIGA version, but without the excellent sound effects and music of this machine. However, thanks to the introduction of several sound cards 1987-1988 this situation started to shift. The Adlib Music Synthesized card enabled characteristic music tunes to the PC, comparable to those of e.g., the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Other contemporary sound system included Creative’s Music System and Roland’s MT-32 (Hello, Monkey Island!) module. Among these, the Adlib became a first standard though, partially due to the support from the game developer Sierra. Sierra’s developer Ken Williams was convinced that better sound would improve Sierra’s lineup of adventure games (many written by Roberta Williams).

The Secret of Monkey Island: Can you hear this image?

In 1989, another breakthrough for audio in PC gaming came, with Creative’s Sound Blaster. The card was Adlib-compatible and Creative combined this feature with a digital audio channel for sound effects and voices. In addition, the Sound Blaster came with a 15-pin game port. This was an important feature since it saved a dedicated ISA-slot that otherwise had to be occupied by a game port if the player wanted to add a joystick or computer to their PC. In the 1990s, Creative continued to dominate the market for sound card with their Sound Blaster Pro, and later Sound Blaster 16 series. I remember when I bought my first PC, a Compaq Presario 433, the first thing I did was to buy a Sound Blaster 16 value ISA card. These sound cards were also bundled in “multimedia” packages together with CD-ROM drives in the 1990s. This enabled vastly larger amounts of data storage and other types of content in games, such as full motion video. Notable CDROM titles from this era includes 7th guest (1993), Day of the Tentacle (1993), Star Wars: Rebel Assault (1993), Myst (1994), and Sierra’s Phantasmagoria (1995).

Phantasmagoria, running on my 486.

Graphics was another story that developed in parallel with sounds. One leap was taken in 1984 when the Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) replaced the Color Graphics Adapter (CGA). EGA graphics still have its fan base, with its crisp look and improvement of the limited CGA standard.

Loom is one of the games were some players prefer the EGA version to the VGA version.

In 1987, another leap was taken, with the introduction of Video Graphics Array (VGA), allowing for 256 colors simultaneously in 320×200 (and 16 colors in 640×480). Up to this day, VGA remains a common “least nominator” standard for PC graphics. While other standards, such as MCGA, XGA and SVGA were developed as well, they did not make a lasting impact on PC gaming overall.

Towards a Golden Age of PC gaming

In 1992 both the AMIGA and ATARI ST computers were struggling for market shares. Commodore made attempts with the AMIGA 600 and 1200 machines, as well as their game console AMIGA CD 32, but this organization would see their demise during this decade. Macintosh users could enjoy some titles, but Apple was not a recognized gaming platform at this time. Instead, the PC gained dominance for many of the above-mentioned reasons, and continuously powerful hardware, in combination with dropping prices. The years to come included many defining titles that have shaped gaming as we know it today, including:

  • First person shooters, such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and Doom (1993).
  • Strategy games, such as Dune II (1992) and Command & Conquer (1995).
  • Adventure games, such as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992), Day of the Tentacle (1993), and a series of FMV-games, such as Phantasmagoria (1995).
  • Flight simulators, and space combat games such as Comanche: Maximum Overkill (1992), X-wing (1992), and Frontier: Elite II (1993).
  • Role playing games, such as The Elder Scrolls Arena (1994), and later MMORPG games such as Meridian 59 (1996).

Other computers were no longer a threat to PC gamers. The race would instead be between the next generation of game consoles with 3D support, and the transition to Windows gaming on the PC. That is a story for another post though.

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