The Industry / Video Games

Beyond reality: The Remarkable Journey of Games Graphics

21st February 2024

Video games graphics have come a long way since games first became commercially available in the 1970s.  Join our Creative Technology blogger, Josh Trinnaman as he delves into the ever-evolving graphics of the gaming world. 

From those first blocky pixels to the photorealism of the present day, the last 40 years have seen a staggering evolution in games graphics. These changes over time have not only enhanced how games look, but also opened the doors for vastly more imaginative and immersive experiences. The depth of these experiences has had a monumental impact on the entertainment industry, and – one might argue – on culture itself.

Let’s take a dive into the key milestones of games graphics evolution and explore how far we’ve come.

Interested in a career in the Games industry?
Check out our degree courses and start your mission now!

Pong (1972)

Developed by Allan Alcom and Nolan Bushnell – Atari

Pong’s iconic, minimalist ‘look’ was much less an artistic choice than a necessity. The constraints of technology meant that the simple, 2D graphics were the best that could be done at the time.

Its simplicity didn’t stop Pong from being an instant success. The first prototype was initially installed at one bar in Sunnyvale, California, alongside the jukebox and pinball machines. Within days, the machine began experiencing technical issues. The cause? It was overflowing with quarters.

The hardware for Pong was relatively simple, consisting of a black-and-white screen, a coin mechanism, and a few electronic components. The gameplay was generated using digital logic circuits only capable of producing basic geometric shapes; in this case, two rectangles to represent rackets and a square of pixels as the ball – digital ping pong.

Elite (1984)

Developed by David Braben and Ian Bell

Elite was developed for the BBC Micro, a 1980s microcomputer built by Acorn that was among the first home computer systems. The game itself was written in BBC BASIC, a programming language designed principally for educational purposes and characteristic of the BBC Micro.

Elite is one of the earliest examples of 3D games graphics, using wireframes to break away from fixed planes and side-scrolling. This development enabled players, for the first time, to look around and navigate the 3D environment of a procedurally-generated universe while flying a spaceship.

Read more: Exploring Sound and Audio for Video Games at Games Ground Berlin

Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Developed by Nintendo

The limitations of storage availability in 1985 meant that saving space was a major priority. The original Super Mario Bros. was developed for a cartridge holding just 256 kilobits of data and code, and 64 kilobits of sprite and background graphics. This created some significant constraints under which the design and development team were required to innovate, recolouring the same sprites to be used as both bushes and clouds, for example, and using an algorithm to create background tiles.

Out of such practical constraints emerged one of the most iconic and instantly-recognisable games interfaces to date. The Mario universe, with its countless subsequent editions and permutations, is a perfect example, in itself, of how games graphics have evolved.

Doom (1993)

Developed by id Software

The 1990s saw a significant shift in 3D graphics, with the advent of more powerful hardware and software available. This period saw the introduction of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), 3D accelerators and Microsoft’s DirectX.

Doom’s gameplay principally consists of shooting demons on Mars. The game features 2.5D graphics – 3D environments populated with 2D sprites (for the enemies, and the player-characters hands, weapons and that grumpy little face!). Doom was primarily written in the C programming language, which made it easier to adapt the game to various operating systems.

Games like Doom and Quake popularised the rendering of 3D environments, as development tools like Autodesk 3D Studio emerged to facilitate 3D modelling. These games also popularised the gameplay style now known as the ‘first-person shooter’, in which the player inhabits the character and views the game-world through their eyes.

Read more: The Most-Anticipated Game Releases of 2024

Half-Life (1998)

Developed by Valve

The Gold Source engine, developed by Valve, served as the foundation for Half-Life. It was a modified version of the Quake engine, introducing advancements in graphics, AI, and scripting capabilities.

Half-Life relied far less on 2D sprites for its visuals. Where they were used, it was for less prominent visual effects, such as enemy attacks or environmental hazards like bolts of electricity. The game primarily featured 3D environments with polygonal character models, complete with skeletal animation. The sequel, Half-Life 2, would also break new graphics ground in 2004 with its realistic physics engine, high-resolution textures, advanced lighting, and facial animation technology.

Valve’s SDK (Software Development Kit) and Hammer Editor software gave the gaming community the ability to modify Half-Life, creating their own levels or entirely new games with it. While not the first game to allow this kind of modding, it caused an explosion of whole modding communities that encouraged everyday players to experiment with games development from home.

Crysis (2007)

Developed by Cry Tek

Crysis is a sci-fi FPS (first-person shooter) that pits the player against human and alien forces on an island. Powered by CryEngine 2, one of the first game engines to feature Direct X10, Crysis boasted real-time rendering effects such as volumetric lighting. This allowed for realistic rendering of light scatter and interactions in the atmosphere, as well as dynamic soft shadows, motion blur, and depth-of-field effects.

At release, Crysis was almost unplayable for anybody without a powerful gaming PC, as its visuals were so demanding on computing power. This gave rise to the running joke in gamer circles: ‘But can it run Crysis?’ Whether or not your computer was able to run it, Crysis did set the benchmark for what PC hardware could achieve in terms of gaming visuals.

P.T. (2014)

Developed by 7780s Studios and Kojima Productions

P.T. (short for ‘playable teaser’) is a first-person horror demo released to drum up interest for the game Silent Hills, an instalment in the Silent Hill series that was never released. Despite being unceremoniously removed from the PlayStation Store after the Silent Hills cancellation was announced, P.T. is still lauded as one of the best horror games of all time.

The player must investigate the source of spooky goings-on to solve cryptic puzzles inside the creepy suburban haunted house in which the game is set. One of the standout aspects of P.T. is really a characteristic of it being a demo; traversing an exit door in the game spits the player back to the beginning of the corridor in a seemingly never-ending, nightmarish loop.

P.T. utilised the Fox Engine, a proprietary game engine developed by Kojima Productions. The engine is known for its capabilities in rendering realistic environments and character models. The influence of the Fox Engine can still be felt today in modern horror titles.

Modern-day games graphics

Many games now boast near-photorealistic graphics, especially when it comes to environments and lighting. Technology like raytracing, a rendering technique that simulates the physical behaviour of light, is increasingly prominent, while high refresh rates, frame rates, and 4K resolution have become the standard.

Popular software applications for game development today include ZBrush and Autodesk Maya for 3D modelling and animation, and Unreal Editor 4 for level design. Unity and Unreal remain the dominant games engines for the majority of developers.

Unity gained prominence in for its user-friendly interface and accessibility, making it a go-to engine for indie developers. It supports multi-platform development, allowing games to be easily exported to various platforms like PCs, consoles, and mobile devices. Alongside Unreal, the two engines have become the gold standard for physically-based rendering and real-time global illumination, bloom and other widely-used visual effects.

As we look to the next generation of graphics for games, we see the rise of virtual reality and augmented reality posing new challenges and opportunities for graphics technology. Unity XR and Unreal Engine VR are now available, as VR gaming slowly gains ground for consumers, and takes gaming beyond the screen.

Related to the Journey of Games Graphics

About the author

Josh Trinnaman is a musician, producer, mixing/post-production engineer and avid gamer from Brighton.

Josh Trinnaman, using music software on a computerHe has worked on releases by artists such as RY X, Vessels, Calibre and many more artists on labels such as Universal and Sony BMG.

Josh’s most recent project is Cactuar Collections; a series of albums dedicated to recreating and updating music by Nobuo Uematsu from the Playstation 1 titles Final Fantasy VII, VIII & IX – with the eventual aim of turning these albums into a full live band and tour.


BIMM University

BIMM University provides an extensive range of courses in modern music, performing arts, filmmaking, and creative technology to over 8,000 students across 14 schools in the UK, Ireland, and Germany. We have a long-standing commitment to providing the highest quality in creative industries education, allowing students to maximise their career potential in an inclusive community built on a culture of shared passion, creativity, and collaboration. Berlin | Birmingham | Brighton | Bristol | Dublin | Essex | London | Manchester