Today's video game industry is becoming increasingly similar to the movie industry. Big-budget releases, headlined by high-profile talent, have elevated video games from a niche hobby to mainstream entertainment on par with Hollywood blockbusters.
Although movies have evolved over time with more realistic special effects and new storytelling techniques, they revisit classic plot devices time and time again. Video games are the same -- although many games boast more life-like graphics and larger virtual worlds, they often fall back on design sensibilities from earlier times.
Therefore, just as movie buffs analyze the importance of Hitchcock's Psycho or Welles' Citizen Kane, followers of today's video game industry can trace the evolution of today's hits back to the developers of seminal titles, who took substantial risks to create new genres.
In this article, I'll discuss four top games that I believe were instrumental in the development of today's video game industry.
Without a doubt, Tetris gave birth to the genre of puzzle games. The game was notably the first game from the USSR to ever be exported to the United States. Tetris has been remade countless times, most recently by Electronic Arts' (NASDAQ:EA) Tetris Blitz for iOS and Android.
Without Tetris, other puzzle games, such as Puzzle Bobble (Taito, 1994) and Bejeweled (PopCap, 2001) might never have seen the light of day -- and without those titles, we wouldn't have popular social puzzle games like King's Candy Crush.
In other words, many of the casual games that we now commonly play on our mobile devices can trace their roots back to this well-known classic.
Blizzard, which later became Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI), Warcraft: Orcs and Humans laid the groundwork for the distinct style of real-time strategy (RTS) games.
Prior to Warcraft, many strategy games were turn-based -- they were played like board games, in which each player could take turns making their moves akin to a chess match. In Warcraft, the players played the game simultaneously -- sending workers to gather resources, building production buildings, defending, and attacking all at the same time.
The success of Warcraft, and its even more popular sequel, Warcraft 2, gave birth to competitive RTS gaming, in which gamers competed against each other in a battle of wits similar to professional sports. Warcraft's spiritual successor, Starcraft, took that competitive nature to a whole new level and ushered in the era of professional eSports (electronic sports) -- in which professional gamers became highly paid celebrities, especially in Asian markets like South Korea.
Through the Warcraft franchise, Blizzard also revolutionized MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games).
Blizzard capitalized on the success of another revolutionary title, Sony's (NYSE:SNE) EverQuest (1999), and released World of Warcraft in 2004, which went on to become the most popular MMORPG in history, hitting a peak of 12 million users in 2010.
The effect of World of Warcraft was felt throughout the video game industry -- newer MMO games such as Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI (2003), NCSOFT's Guild Wars (2005), and EA's The Old Republic (2011) all retained heavy influences from the game.
Although many gamers credit classics like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake for popularizing first-person shooters (FPS), it was Valve's Half-Life that changed what gamers expected from a FPS.
Half-Life was one of the first games to use scripted events to increase gamer immersion -- for example, as the player was walking down the hallway, events could be triggered where an alien would crash through the window, or the roof would collapse.
In addition, Half-Life's enemy AI was substantially improved from earlier FPS games -- for the first time, enemy soldiers would flank the player, hurl grenades at them to flush them out, or team up in squads.
These improvements were so well-received by gamers that subsequent FPS games all started using scripted events and improved AI to increase immersion. Today, we can see Half-Life's influence in Activision's Call of Duty series, Electronic Arts' Crysis, the Battlefield series, and many others.
In addition, a mod for Half-Life, Counter-Strike (1999), turned the original game into a squad-based multiplayer battle, which set the groundwork for the multiplayer modes of modern FPS games. No longer were players simply trying to shoot everything in sight -- they had to work together in coordinated teams to accomplish their goals.
Today, games like Call of Duty and Battlefield still retain many of the rules introduced by Counter-Strike.
Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001)
Last but not least, Take-Two Interactive (NASDAQ:TTWO) Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 3 was a huge leap in gaming -- although it is still constantly vilified for glorifying virtual violence.
By transforming its original 2D sandbox game and into a 3D one, Rockstar created a virtual playground of destruction that encouraged exploration and improvisation.
In GTA 3, gamers could often accomplish goals in numerous ways -- if the goal was to kill a target, the player could shoot him, run him over with a car, or engage in a high-speed chase that ended with a fatal car crash.
None of it was fully scripted -- it all relied on the game's AI engine. This meant that the outcome of the same missions could vary for different gamers. In addition, gamers were allowed to pursue quests in any order they chose, or simply wander aimlessly around the map, and cause mayhem.
The GTA system proved so popular that countless other sandbox games have tried to clone it. Today, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed's map, quest, and guard pursuit systems all strongly resemble the standard designs used by Rockstar in GTA 3 and its sequels.
Yet on a negative note, the success of GTA 3 also opened the doors for inferior games, which tried to boost sales with shocking displays of violence -- such as Running With Scissors' infamous Postal series.
A final parting thought
Of course, this is only a partial list of the great games that have influenced the current direction of the video game industry. I'm aware that I've skipped obvious examples such as Nintendo's (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) Mario and Zelda games, Maxis' Sim games, and Taito's Space Invaders -- which all launched genres of their own.
However, it's interesting to see how much of our current generation of games are still built upon the foundations of the past, and it will be fascinating to see which developers are willing to take new risks to create new industry-defining standards.
I'm looking forward to reading your responses -- please let me know which games you consider to be the most influential ones in video game history!
Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Activision Blizzard and Take-Two Interactive. The Motley Fool owns shares of Activision Blizzard. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.