Patrick Holleman proposed that the history of videogame design is divided into three main groups1: the arcade era, the composite era, and the set-piece period.
The arcade era starts with Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders and its novel difficulty structure: as the player progress, the game gets increasingly more difficult. It was the first time that a difficulty progression appeared in a videogame.
The change in difficulty was initially an unintended consequence of how the hardware worked—the fewer enemies on the screen, the faster they moved because there were fewer things to be computed. Nishikado adopted that and applied it more broadly to the game. Games in this era all use an axis of difficulty defined by quantitative changes: number of enemies, enemies velocity, etc.
The composite era of videogames began with Super Mario Bros in 1985. It’s marked by the use of mechanics from one genre to solve the challenges from another genre.
In Super Mario Bros, this generally manifests as players using platformer mechanics (controlled jumping) to solve action game problems (defeating enemies).1
The Legend of Zelda it’s a composite of action, adventure, and RPG elements. Mario Kart lets players solve racing problems (trying to get to first place) by giving them lots of different shooter power-ups. Sonic the Hedgehog, took action/platform composite and added another genre to the mix: racing games.
As long as the player uses precise racing-style reflexes to avoid obstacles like pitfalls and spikes, Sonic can gain momentum like a racecar, and launch off large ramps in the terrain.1
The third era, the set-piece period, starts around 1998. It’s marked by games made of self-contained linearly connected set-pieces, like Half-Life and Halo. That’s a consequence of the software development process used in big studios.
As games got more complicated and with larger scopes, the teams making then got bigger, specialized, and parallelized. Instead of smaller teams that experimented and iteratively developed the game, you have leads that define mechanics, style guides and code tools; and siloed groups that use those to create the set pieces of the game.
According to Holleman, that shift resulted in games with the same set of mechanics applied across a sequence of set pieces with varying quantitative aspects. As opposed to the qualitative use of variations in the main mechanics that were the result of smaller teams in the composite era.
Patrick Holleman, An Intro to Videogame Design History, The Game Design Forum. ↩︎