Top 10 computer games of all time

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Top 10 computer games of all time

You know what they say about all work and no play. So this week we've decided to count down the best computer games of all time

In actual fact there's a growing body of research that shows game playing can improve productivity by allowing the brain to concentrate on other things for a while. It makes sense to me, we have after all evolved playing games that have allowed us to try out new mental strategies.

Originally we'd considered doing this last week to coincide with the Games Developer Conference in San Francisco. But we'd been planning the women in IT feature for weeks and that took precedence. However, with the game BAFTAS in the UK tonight we had an excuse to do the Top 10 list we've been mulling for a while now.

This list was definitely the source of much debate and a bit of anxiety. After all, there's an entire branch of the publishing business dedicated to nothing but gaming, and who are we to count down the best games of all time? The only answer is that as techies we love to play on our systems, something computer users have been doing for over 60 years.

Then there's the issue of sheer quantity. Had we gone with all of the initial suggestions, it would have easily been a "top 50" list. So we had to narrow it down a bit: PC games only and no sentimental favourites (well, OK we cheated on that but with good cause, as you'll see later).

Some of the games here did appear on consoles but we've kept the focus on the computer front, so you won't see Pacman, Donkey Kong or any other arcade favourites on the list. While these games may be important in terms of personal favourites, the list would have been too complex with them. Maybe that's something for another time.

Eventually we were able to whittle it down to ten games and two honourable mentions, though we may not be able to eat at Morty's for a while due to all the shouting.

Honourable mention: Escape Velocity

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Shaun Nichols: So when I said there were no sentimental favourites, I wasn't entirely being sincere. This relatively obscure space trading RPG may not have racked up the sales in the 1990s, but did manage to take up dozens of hours from my childhood.

A Macintosh-only shareware title from indie developer Ambrosia Software, 'EV' and its successors obtained a devoted niche following amongst Mac enthusiasts. While the graphics weren't flashy, the game was ahead of its time. Escape Velocity sported a huge game world and dozens of player missions, providing a level of variety and replay ability that rivals most modern RPGs.

Additionally, the game was highly customizable. Developers made almost every facet of the game, from ships to weapons to missions, even the game's title screen could be edited through Apple's free ResEdit tool. This created a huge crop of user created plug-ins and even a few total conversions of the game.

Iain Thomson: I'm ashamed to say I'd never even heard of this game until Shaun bought it up yesterday. When we were compiling the list I suggested cutting it but Shaun hung on like a rabid pit bull on steroids and several hours of research later I have to say I'm gutted I missed it.

Escape Velocity is a precursor to Elite in many ways. It's a fight or trade space adventurer game and is much loved by Mac enthusiasts. I can see why Shaun likes it so much, but if it means buying an Apple system I'm not on board.

Honourable Mention: Robot War

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Iain Thomson: Robot War is possibly the ultimate geek game - one in which you had to code the participants.

This probably explains a lot as to why it never really took off. After all, a tiny percentage of computer users can actually code and so the appeal of the game was very limited but it certainly deserves a spot in the Top 10 list, even if it is just an Honourable Mention.

Created in the 1970s the principle behind the game was that by 2002 war had been made illegal (hollow laughter) and countries settled their dispute by robot combat. You built machines that could detect and fire at each other and may the best software win. It's a very cute idea, and one that has been blatantly stolen by the Robot Wars TV series.

The game has spawned many offshoots but remains at heart a tool of geeks. Check it out.

Shaun Nichols: Back before the hardware to build robotics became powerful and affordable enough to reach the hobbyist market, would be robo-builders had to make do with a simulation.

RobotWar was a novel idea from Silas Warner, the brilliant programmer who would later create another iconic title with the original Castle Wolfenstein games.

Warner created RobotWar for the Illinois University PLATO computer as a sort of cross between a game and a programming exercise. Players use a simple programming language to script out instructions for their software "robots" which are then placed into an "arena" program and pitted against one another.

While the language was simple, things can get very complicated when players try to account for movement and velocity, providing a constant challenge as players push one another with new tactics and ideas.

A later version of the game emerged in the 1990s under the name RoboWar and became so popular that more than two dozen official tournaments were held.

10. Neverwinter Nights

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Shaun Nichols: There really wasn't much for an intermediate or advanced computer user to like about AOL in the early days. The walled-garden approach was fairly tedious and restrictive, while the dial-up service was often slow and unreliable, particularly during peak hours.

There was however, one very attractive feature for gamers; one of the first online multiplayer RPG's, Neverwinter Nights. A Dungeons and Dragons-based RPG, Neverwinter Nights introduced many of the developer and user behaviours, such as custom guilds, that have made modern RPGs so popular.

The game wasn't exactly cheap to play, however. With standard AOL hourly rates applied, the sort of marathon session hard-core online gamers occasionally run today would have set you back 40 or 50 bucks in Neverwinter Nights play.

Iain Thomson: Last week we showcased M.U.L.E. As the first multiplayer game, but in terms of influence Neverwinter Nights really popularised the genre.

I must admit I'm not a fan. When I started playing D&D (our family has an original set) it was done on paper with actual dice and paper maps and that's the way it should be. But for millions Neverwinter Nights was the game changer. No more sitting in smelly rooms eating bad food and quaffing (it's like drinking but you miss your mouth more) beers.

I suspect that if the game had been launched five years later, when unlimited access was the foundation of internet service plans it would have ben a lot more popular. As it was the costs were crippling and it was only the hardcore of gamers who had the time and money to play it properly.

9. Spacewar

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Iain Thomson: Spacewar nearly didn't make it onto the list since it was borderline between being an arcade game and a proper computer game.

Spacewar was developed in the early 1960s on the MIT campus using a DEC PHP1 computer. The gameplay is very simple, two ships in a gravity well shooting at each other. What makes it special is that it ushered in the era of modern computer games and used many of the hardware tools we now take for granted. Spacewar used the first trackball for example, as well as one of the first CRT monitors.

In these days it's easy to forget that you can make an engrossing game without the latest up to date hardware. Games designers typically try and take the highest performing computers to develop their games because it gives them the maximum advatage to wow the audience. Download Spacewar today and you'll see how you can make an engrossing game with very little code indeed.

Shaun Nichols: It's amazing to think about the conditions under which the game was created. That some of the incredibly deep games from the 1980s were able to run on the limited hardware of a system like the Commodore 64 is pretty impressive, but Spacewar is on a completely different level.

Spacewar ran on the PDP-1, a computer that had roughly 9kb of memory and a processor with a clock speed of 0.02 Mhz. Were you to create a text document with the original code for the game, it would have been too much for the PDP-1 to handle.

Developers today talk about writing slim and efficient code, but the techniques used to create the earliest games put any modern standard to shame. Those developers truly got every last bit of processing power out of those system for nothing more than the love of the game and to prove it could be done.

8. Elite

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Shaun Nichols: I grew up in the 1990s with a Apple computer, so I got hooked on Escape Velocity. Had I grown up in the 1980s with an Acorn computer, I likely would have been staying up late playing Elite instead.

The trailblazing space trading RPG was developed by Ian Bell and David Braben, a pair of college friends from Cambridge. The first versions were released in 1984 for Acorn and BBC Micro systems, though it would eventually find its way onto nearly every major operating system and console of the day.

In addition to a rich storyline, the game used 3D wireframe graphics. While kids today would have a chuckle at such visuals, the system was extremely advanced for that era and was one of many gameplay standards set by Elite.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is the open-ended gameplay Elite offers. Because the game was able to randomly generate hundreds of unique worlds, you could play Elite over and over without encountering the same experience. All in all a great game and a hugely influential title.

Iain Thomson: OK, Shaun gets his sentimental favourite in Escape Velocity and this is mine. But it's more than that - Elite genuinely was a revolution in games for its time.

For a start it used a truly elegant programming hack to create over 200 different worlds to explore while using 32kb of memory. It's a trick other games couldn't replicate for years. The 3D wire frame graphics were hugely ahead of their time and it was the first game to build a hard copy backstory into gameplay. The boxed game came with a novelette featuring a fictional player that was stuffed with hints, as well as stickers for your computer and an invitation to the first people to reach Elite status to play in a grand tournament.

I'll happily admit I spent a significant part of my school years hunched over a BBC computer playing this – so much so that my sixth form teacher saw fit to mention it in my year end report. Admittedly this was a healthier pursuit than that which most teenagers spend their adolescence hunched over but still.

It was highly addictive, combining combat with trading and tactics (quick hint – find an Anaconda class ship, follow it and run down its shields until it starts dumping cargo into your scoops, it's an excellent way to finance upgrades.)

Subsequent versions of the game were good, but not as good as the original. There used to be a version of the game that worked on a standard PC without having to downclock your processor but a spat between the writers led to that being withdrawn, a crying shame since I lost my copy in a drive failure and can't find it online anymore.

Some might question if a game written over a quarter of a century ago is still worth playing. To those people I say download a copy of the open source version Oolite and get playing. You don't know what you're missing.

7. Minesweeper

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Iain Thomson: Minesweeper has probably cost more time in lost productivity in the office than anything else, including human resources meetings.

The game was bundled in with Windows 3.11 and all subsequent versions and is simplicity itself. A number of mines are planed in a grid and you identify them by their proximity to other mines. How this game came to be so addictive is a mystery, but millions, and possibly a billion people have fallen prey to its charms.

There's something about the game that really appeals to the technically minded. I'm sure there are mathematical papers to be written about the functions of mine layout but let's face it, who cares. It's an easy to learn game that's very absorbing and it comes on every Windows system on the planet. No wonder it takes up so much time.

Shaun Nichols: Sometimes the most immersive games are also the ones with the simplest concepts. Minesweeper is bundled with Windows and is so small in file size that most companies leave it on new systems, waiting to suck the productivity out of whatever poor soul manages to launch it.

The concept is also rather sinister. You know that somewhere around here there's a little bomb that will end your game with one click, and you know that it's somewhere in the area, but you aren't sure where. Once you get into the game you get some very tense moments.

One has to wonder if Microsoft execs sit around at planning meetings and ponder how much time is wasted on Minesweeper and Solitaire and then let loose a sinister supervillain laugh. I'm almost certain Steve Ballmer does that every morning.

6. Half Life

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Shaun Nichols: Half Life is what most people would consider a 'landmark' title. By the time it came around, the 3D first person shooter genre was well established and users were very familiar with its style of gameplay. Half Life took those established standards and advanced the entire genre forward by years. As soon as it hit, everyone knew that the bar had been raised.

With an impressive arsenal of game and physics engines and exquisitely crafted visuals, Half Life had all the eye candy you could want. More importantly, it had a decent plot that flowed smoothly and without those often tedious cutscene events.

On top of all of this, the gameplay was a highly challenging mix of first person combat and puzzle-solving. While it may have been a bit intimidating to the casual gamer, Half Life's gameplay was a huge selling point to the 'hardcore' gamers that had grown weary of the "run around and shoot stuff" gameplay from the previous generation of shooters.

Iain Thomson: Half Life took the first person shooter (FPS) format and made it so much better by adding a physics engine that really worked. It was also key to the development of multiplayer gaming in the mainstream.

In terms of plot the game wasn't up to much (sorry Shaun) - lone hero stranded in dangerous situation and having to work out puzzles and shoot anything that moved. But the game itself was so well designed that the plot didn't really matter. It was incredibly realistic for its time and totally immersive. from the realistic rolling stance when running to the sounds of combat. The game was a great piece of work to lose yourself into.

The multiplayer aspect was also key to its success. If you played the game online with others you soon became aware of the clan system, where players grouped together to play other clans - very similar to the freebooter tradition of Middle Age's mercenaries. You soon found out if you wandered into a clan game, because you died very, very quickly.

The gaming platform was also opened up to add-ons, one of which is one of the most dangerous games in computing history - Counterstrike. It was deadly addictive; taking the Half Life engine and putting it into a terrorists verses security forces garb.

I first encountered this in 2001 after a heavy night's clubbing and was instantly hooked. After going back to a mate's house for tea and Hobnobs at 4am, after six hours of throwing shapes in the house of dance, he sat me down in front of the computer, showed me how it worked and left me to it. The next thing I remember was him coming into the room and laughing - it was midday and I hadn't noticed. Truly the ultimate immersive game.

5. Civilization

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Iain Thomson: Civilization, and in particular Civilization 2, is one of the banes of my life, and I'm not alone. A good game takes at least five hours of gameplay to finish one way or another - it's a colossal time sink. Author Iain Banks also has problems with it - one of his books was two months late thanks to the game (and was only finished when he smashed the CD ROM) and he wrote about a fictional version of it in the excellent book Complicity.

You might ask well why play it then? Because it's one of the most addictive games on the planet and to my mind still the best turn-based strategy game out there. The franchise may have gone off the boil in later versions but it's still a great game and a new version is out this year. I held back from going to creator Sid Meyer's talk about it at GDC because I'd either have punched him or asked for his autograph.

The gameplay is simple, and very complex. Players start out with a wagon of settlers and have to either take over the world or build a spaceship to get to Alpha Centuri. Players research technologies, build wonders of the world and fight and/or trade with each other. It sounds simple but there's a multitude of strategies to play with and depths to the game that can still surprise the seasoned player. I recommend you give it a go, but beware the time you will lose.

Shaun Nichols: I have been fortunate enough to avoid an addiction to Civilization thus far, though it is rather tempting.

More than one person has suggested that sociologists could do an excellent study by examining the ways in which people play Civilization, particularly those that like to play the entire game while leaving the characters under the control of brutal despotic dictators.

There's also a historical fascination with the game, because it allows you view the progression of an entire society through centuries in the course of just a few hours. Given that we're only around for a small portion of human history, there's something very interesting about being able to watch things unfold, even if it is just a simulated computer model.

4. World of Warcraft

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Shaun Nichols
: World of Warcraft isn't so much as game as much as it is a culture. With millions of players and millions of dollars in subscription costs and in-game transactions, the massive online RPG has more or less established its own economy as well.

It seems that World of Warcraft is destined to become a textbook lesson for young game developers on how to craft an online title. There's enough of a story to occupy those looking for a single player experience, but it's the ability to interact with other users that has really made it huge. Users with similar interests form guilds and often venture through the online world together and become close friends with others through gameplay.

This isn't always a good thing, however. Users looking for quick ways to advance a character or obtain game currency have lead to the creation of automated "gold farmers" and "power levelling" tricks that many feel violates the spirit of the game and constitutes cheating. Additionally, the underground market has been a breeding ground for scams and malware that can end up impacting much more than just you game account.

There's also a very real physical danger. Users prone to addiction can become hooked on World of Warcraft and similar games and play for long hours. In extreme cases, gamers have even managed to push themselves to lethal levels of exhaustion through marathon gaming sessions.

Iain Thomson: Shaun's last point is an excellent one, on the perils and pitfalls of the gaming world. I get very worried that people take these kind of games too seriously and find it increasingly difficult to adjust from being someone of great power and respect online to waking up in the real world doing a minimum wage job.

When Shaun and I compiled the list it was a toss up between Second Life and World of Warcraft as a good example of massive multiplayer games. In the end Warcraft won out, simply because it is a proper game, whereas Second Life seems increasingly to be a place where people who took Neil Stephenson's 'Snow Crash' far too seriously.

World of Warcraft is really taking gaming to the next level – where gaming becomes much more than something you switch on to relax with and instead something you are – a tool for defining yourself. People now meet and date thanks to its interactive qualities and I know of one former journalist who would spend evenings with his then girlfriend hunched over terminals playing the game.

The open nature of the game and the use of basic economics have also bred a new subculture that has some economists baffled. People are making a living from this game by buying up huge properties and renting them out or developing them. It boggles the mind but it's just another side that the lines are blurring between online and offline worlds.

3. The Sims

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Iain Thomson: The world's most popular computer game only made it to number three on our list. This might be down to the fact that neither of us play it regularly but there were also two contenders that we really couldn't put lower than The Sims.

The Sims sprung from the human desire to manipulate things. It began with SimCity and its successors, where users built and ran cities, but then Maxis drilled down further and started the Sims where you controlled your own family. The parents go out to work, the kids study (or they get sent to military school) and the house needs cleaning regualrly. If this sounds silly think how many people are spending real money to harvest virtual crops on Facebook.

One of the downsides of the game in my view is that there is no way to win. the game just keeps going and going. This has led some people to find ever more inventive ways to kill their creations. There are some marvellous ways, my personal favourite is getting the whole family in the pool and then deleting the steps.

Shaun Nichols: I think there's a definite appeal in the ability to have complete control over something, particularly at times when you feel that you have little control over your own life. I'm not a big Sims fan, but I can understand the appeal.

If you were to sit down the developers of Asteroids or Pacman that one day the most popular game in the world would involve cleaning up after a family of four, they likely would have asked why you had stopped taking your brain medication.

As Iain noted, the rather morbid nature with which many people play Sim-series games is quite interesting. For some reason it's great fun to drop a piano on your Sims characters or unleash Godzilla to do the Tokyo Stomp on your Simcity metropolis. Harlan Ellison would have had something to say about it.

2. Tetris

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Shaun Nichols
: It used to be that computer games were targeted to kids and adolescents. Gameplay was supposed to be flashy and hyperstimulating, relying more on a quick trigger finger than puzzle solving. That notion was put to bed by Tetris.

The game takes seconds to learn - put the blocks together to form solid lines. Everyone from small children to old ladies can and do pick up the game. From there, an obsession begins. The simple gameplay quickly becomes both maddeningly frustrating and incredibly immersive. After a while, getting that long skinny piece to complete a four-line combo is like winning the World Cup.

When Nintendo needed a flagship title for its Gameboy handheld console, it eschewed old standards like Donkey Kong and Mario for a port of Tetris, and to great success. Anyone who owned the old monochrome Gameboy from the 1990s likely still gets the old midi Tetris theme stuck in their heads from time to time. Some people have even gone so far as to write lyrics for it.

Iain Thomson: Tetris is arguably one of the most popular games of all time but the crying shame of the matter is that the creator has seen virtually nothing in the way of royalties.

Originally the game was developed by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov in 1986 but, because of Soviet laws at the time, the government pocketed all the royalties. It was only after the Berlin Wall fell that Pajitnov was able to come to the West and start collecting a fraction of the royalties he deserved. He now has a happy career at Microsoft.

Tetris was stunningly addictive and began to spread almost immediately. Western companies ripped off the game from Pajitnov and kept the profits, much like his government at the time. There were more variants than you could shake a stick at but the basic principles remained the same – fill those rows.

On a private note I have tests for technology. If my dad buys it I don't (he bought into eight track, betamax and HD DVD) and if my sister plays it it must be a good game. My sister was a demon at the 3D version of Tetris and was very fond of the game for a long time.

In an age when so much of video game culture was devoted to blowing up lines of slow moving enemies or shooting everything that moved Tetris was a wonderful relief – a game that relied on skill and cognitive dexterity rather than the ability to spot something and shoot it.

1. Doom

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Iain Thomson: Getting the number one was a really tough call on this list but to my mind it had to go to Doom.

Doom is important for many reasons. It was the original first person shooter to do it right, with good graphics (even if they have dated badly), effective use of sound and a variety of really cool weapons, including my personal favourite - the chainsaw. You could argue that Wolfenstein did all this before Doom but it did it badly. Doom was when the FPS really got into its stride and Quake et al are just modern knock offs.

But Doom also did something extraordinary in the gaming sphere - it was given away free, or at least the first part of the game. While this practice is now widespread in the early 1990s it was revolutionary. Sure, shareware games had been around for a while but they were usually something knocked up in someone's bedroom. This was a full featured, exciting bit of software from a professional gaming studio that was free. You could put it on a couple of discs and share it round your friends legally. This is something some parts of the media industry still can't get their heads around.

To top it all Doom also had a multiplayer mode that allowed people to play each other over an Ethernet connection and a map editor so that people could create their own scenarios. Doom did much to popularise online gaming in this way and also gave several people a start in the video game design industry when they could use their own designs as part of their CV.

There's still a hardcore of fans out there who play regularly and I occasionally fire up the software for a quick session just for old times stake. In terms of long term influence then Doom has to be number one.

Shaun Nichols: Easy there, Iain. Wolfenstein may have been cartoonish and clunky, but did Doom ever have a cyborg Hitler? I think not. [A valid point, but one that got the game into trouble in Germany where they are still understandably touchy about nazi imagery - Iain]

You can make a pretty solid argument that Doom helped to jumpstart several very large industries within the gaming market. Obviously the popularity in the game spurred copycats and drove up the need for programmers, but a few other parts of the tech sector also reaped the benefits.

With developers looking to create 3D first person shooters, specialist firms that created 3D and physics engines suddenly found themselves with a very lucrative new market. These days, "middleware" platforms such as Havok and the Unreal Engine have become almost as popular as the games that they power.

The demanding nature of the new class of first-person games was also a blessing for the hardware market. With games hungry for processing power, the graphics card in particular went from secondary feature on new PCs to an essential component many gamers chose to remove and upgrade every couple of years.

If you enjoyed  this, you might also be interested in our look at the Top ten computer console games.

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