How have online games changed over the last 20 years

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Over the past 20 years, online gaming has grown faster than any other entertainment sector. A wealth of factors have contributed to its immense popularity, such as the rapid development of mobile gaming, a shift to digital storefronts, and several other influential factors.

In order to understand how games online change over time, it’s important to examine the progress that the industry has made up to this point. With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at all of the biggest changes of the last two decades, beginning with two practical examples of the most significant games from 2002.

Battlefield 1942

Battlefield 1942 was released in September of 2002. At the time of its release, no one could have foreseen just how massive the Battlefield franchise would become. Two decades ago, Battlefield was simply the first ‘AAA’, large-scale multiplayer shooter.

Since 2002, over a dozen Battlefield games have been released by Electronic Arts (EA). By combining squad-based gameplay with frantic FPS action, the series gradually became a chief competitor to Activision’s Blizzard’s Call of Duty series.

By the time Battlefield 4 came out in 2013, fans of the series couldn’t wait to get their hands on it. In fact, the game was so popular that there are still active 64-player servers. 2016’s Battlefield 1 is in a similar situation, with full servers in all global regions.

Aside from creating one of the most successful franchises in video games history, EA has also been a major contributor to sports games and a pioneer of quality art direction, stellar acting in video games, and high overall production value. 

If it weren’t for EA’s innovative video games, the world of online games would be an entirely different place. Whether it’s Battlefield, FIFA, or Dead Space, EA games always showcase the best of AAA video game design. Cutting-edge technology married with incredible creative talent.

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Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

It’s reasonably safe to assume that, without the 2002 release of Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, modern online games would never have progressed as far as they have. Not only was Reign of Chaos integral to the immense success of the biggest massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, World of Warcraft, but it was also the platform for a little mod named Dawn of the Ancients (DOTA).

Many gamers will undoubtedly recognize DOTA, as the sequel – DOTA 2 – is currently the biggest esports game in the world. However, esports games were barely on anyone’s radar in 2002. Because DOTA was able to gain a strong following, it steadily introduced esports and the genre of multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) to mainstream audiences. 

Last year, DOTA 2 awarded almost $50 million in prize money across 89 tournaments. Compare that to 2002, when the most popular esport game at the time, Valve’s Counter-Strike, gave out $400,000 via 14 tournaments. Such a drastic difference in prize pools shows just how quickly esports became a market with mass appeal.

From MOBAs and MMOs to the worldwide recognition of esports, Reign of Chaos is directly responsible for many areas of gaming that we take for granted nowadays. Rockstar and Blizzard aren’t the only development studios that have improved online gaming over the past two decades, but their contributions have been far more impactful than most other companies.

The rise of mobile games

If you wanted to play online games 20 years ago, you had to either have a console or a PC. There was no such thing as a mobile version of a ‘AAA’ game, and mobile gaming devices were nothing like the Nintendo Switch and the Valve Stem Deck. The closest equivalent was the Gameboy Advance, which was released in 2001.

In 2002, 3D gaming on a smartphone was nothing but a dream, while the reality was that phones could only handle relatively simple games like Snake and Space Invaders. That all changed around 2005 when Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) and other handheld consoles began to make their mark on the gaming industry.

From 2005 onward, mobile gaming technology experienced unprecedented growth, and smartphones gradually became a viable alternative to other mobile gaming platforms. When Angry Birds came out in 2009, it marked the true beginning of the most extensive worldwide gaming market.

Fast forward to today, and mobile online games are the biggest earners in the entertainment industry. Mobile games earn more global revenue than films and music combined. Due to their interactive nature, they offer value that traditional forms of entertainment media simply cannot compete with.

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Online connectivity 

As mobile technology and the selection of online games continued to grow, online video game communities began to gain prominence. Social media and access to the internet exploded in the early 2000s, which led to games gaining a greater element of social interactivity.

 The proliferation of online connectivity made multiplayer games ubiquitous. Live service games would come soon after, followed by microtransactions and pre-order culture. When Youtube and Twitch came out, they added yet another angle to online games, providing the world with influencers, recorded playthroughs, and free game reviews.

As the 2000s progressed, games magazines gradually became novelty items, physical disk copies grew rarer with each passing day, and digital storefronts like Steam started cropping up. The battle royale genre appeared around 2012, but FPS games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo were the most popular shooters at the time.

In 2022, online games are extremely accessible yet diverse enough to provide near-endless variety. You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your couch to get a new game. You can simply browse an online store, buy the game you want, download it, and you’re good to go. That kind of convenience was unheard of 20 years ago, and it shows just how quickly online games have developed over time.

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