A couple of years ago, YouTube channel AlternateHistoryHub posted a video entitled "What if the Internet Never Existed?", which I actually never saw until the other day. The overall gist of it is that the internet as we know it—a telecommunications service accessible by the general public—never came into being, and that it remained a communications tool for the Department of Defense (meaning that the title of both that video and this thread isn't technically accurate, but close enough since as far as the general public goes "the internet" might as well not exist). The decision to not make the internet a public service becomes the big divergence point, with the video discussing its potential ripple effects on up to the present. A guest commentator briefly touched on the subject of gaming, saying that he thinks gaming would have become more niche than it is today.
Well, what would have really happened to gaming if our world was an offline, disconnected world where digital distribution and online gaming never existed? Specifically, what would gaming be like if the rest of history played out like in AlternateHistoryHub's video? Unlike the video's guest commentator, I think video games would still be mainstream, but they'd be different in significant ways.
PC gaming may be very different today without the internet. PC gaming went into decline after the turn of the century on up through most of the 00s, perhaps due to the increasing popularity of consoles and the fact that the nature of physical PC software was significantly different from console software in key ways that made buying and playing on consoles more convenient. Additionally, PCs would be lacking some major software titles that have made the platform relevant in the 21st century. The MMO craze that started to emerge around the turn of the century and was cemented by the massive success of 2004's World of Warcraft would have never happened. Much of the exclusive content for PC gaming would likely be relegated to strategy games and certain specialized simulation games. Also, the advent of Steam and other digital distribution platforms really helped PC gaming thrive over the past decade-plus. With no internet, it's possible, perhaps likely, that PC gaming would have remained niche.
Arcades would likely have still went into decline as well, at least in the U.S. After a brief renaissance in the late 80s & early 90s, fueled largely by the popularity of competitive fighting games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, arcades started to go into decline in the latter half of the decade, with an at least 80% drop from 1996 to 2002. Arcades never went into such rapid and massive decline in Japan, however. Overall, in a world where the internet never existed, I imagine the fate of video arcades would not be much different than they are now.
Consoles would not change much, either, at least not initially, and would remain popular. The PS2 and GameCube were designed as offline consoles, with only the Dreamcast and Xbox being able to connect to the internet out of the box (and the Dreamcast, which did only natively supported dial-up, flopped anyway). Even then, online gaming on consoles took a while to get mainstream, and wouldn't become relevant until the release of Halo 2. In this alternate timeline, the Gen 6 consoles still get made and remain almost entirely as-was, but nothing is connected. Xbox Live never exists, and local multiplayer remains the norm for shooters, including the aforementioned Halo 2, which would still be very popular as it followed the also very popular original Halo, which was an offline title. That generation probably would still look 99% the same and still be massively popular. The idea that gaming would be niche in an internet-less world just doesn't seem probable given the observed growth we saw in the market prior to online becoming the standard. For example, here's what the U.S. market looked like from Gen 3 to Gen 7:
So, video gaming would still likely be popular today, but things would almost certain change in pronounced ways as we move past Gen 6. The seventh generation is where things would start to look even more different, but would still be very familiar. It was the first generation where every system had built-in broadband connectivity, but it still took a while for online to become the norm. While Microsoft never revealed the split between Xbox Live Silver and Gold, there is some evidence that even by the end of the generation the majority of 360 owners did not have Gold accounts, and thus were not playing online titles, and the 360 was the most connected system that generation (Sony was lagging behind Xbox initially, and the Wii's online was bare-bones basic). All of the best-selling 360 and PS3 games could, in part or in whole, be played offline. And what evidence there is shows that no more than half of all XBL accounts were Gold accounts well into the generation, meaning that the majority of 360 owners (perhaps upwards of 70% based on MS's financials) did not play online games at all, showing that it was still far from the norm.
However, without the popularity of its online multiplayer, Call of Duty would probably be not be anywhere near as popular as it is in our timeline, and likely have ended up with more middling sales as a series of semi-realistic single-player military shooters (with maybe a local split-screen). Halo may remain popular, but with the multiplayer part having grown more popular in our timeline, in this alternate timeline Halo 3 and subsequent games in the series might not have sold as well purely on the basis of the single-player and local MP. But most other popular games that generation were games that were either single-player only or had only a token multiplayer mode. So, while CoD and a handful of other series known mainly for their online multiplayer would likely have not been as popular, console gaming as a whole would likely not be considerably different even as recently as 2012 in this alternate timeline. The success of the 360 at the expense of the PS3 had to do with reasons that predominantly did not involve online, particularly the PS3's high initial cost. Both systems would likely still have sold as much as they did in our timeline, though certain series would have taken a hit. I think it would be hard to argue that many gamers would have never bought a 360 or PS3 last gen had the internet never existed. A lot of them would be playing different games, but they'd still be playing games. The Wii in particular would likely still have been a massive success, and it was a system that was not known for having a strong online presence.
Perhaps the biggest difference we'd have see last generation in a world without the internet would be the absence of digital distribution. No Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, or Wii Shop Channel means no downloadable content and no digital games. There would be no XBL Arcade, no Virtual Console, and almost certainly no indie games. So many smaller titles released over the past 10-15 years have only been possible because of digital distribution making things easier for smaller companies. Games like Braid, Fez, Limbo, and Super Meat Boy might never exist. Mega Man would never have experienced a revival without Mega Man 9. The "retro revival" as a whole might have never happened without indie titles and other small games that would have struggled to find space on store shelves, though it's entirely possible that the ease and low cost of producing discs still could have allowed indies to produce limited runs of their games to release in specialty stores.
As for DLC, this meant fighting games would still be subjected to multiple re-releases every time there was a roster expansion; in the 16-bit era there were several versions of Street Fighter II & III, and two versions of Mortal Kombat 3, which if you wanted to always have the latest version it got damn expensive since you had to re-buy the whole game all over again (there were probably more than a few gamers who bought all three SNES Street Figher II releases, to the tune of $70 a piece, amounting to well over $360 in 2019 dollars). Many games with multiplayer modes would likely be limited to the maps/courses the system came with. However, it's possible that expansion discs could have taken the place of DLC, since hard drives could still have become relevant as a replacement for memory cards, and any content from an expansion pack could be loaded onto the hard drive and accessed by the primary game (Halo 2 notably had its DLC maps released on a disc).
The lack of internet and thus the nonexistence of digital distribution would also mean the lack of the ability to issue patches for games. That means that any titles that had critical bugs or glitches would be stuck that way forever, as they were for every game released in the pre-internet days of gaming. This could be viewed as a double-edged sword. It has been argued that the ability to change a game post-launch has resulted in a "release-and-patch culture" in the industry, where games are intentionally rushed out to market even if they aren't quite ready for prime-time, and then fixed after the fact, making early adopters de facto beta testers of sorts. On the other hand, even if a developer tries to make sure the game is running as good as possible before launch, sometimes unexpected things get through the cracks, and the inability to fix an unforeseen critical bug could hurt the game's sales and reception and thus the reputation and bottom line of the developer and publisher.
Moving to the current generation, things will start to look even more different. Without the internet, MS's PR debacles leading up to the launch of the Xbox One would not have happened, as the entire concept of always-online would not exist. Gaming would still be 100% physical, and there could be no countermeasures against used games (e.g., EA's attempts at "online passes"). As the concept of always-online wouldn't exist, it has ramifications for game development as well. PC gaming had already been bereft of MMOs for many years, with EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and so on having never existed, and their modern counterpart, the "live service" title, would not exist, either. That means Destiny, The Division, Anthem, and Sea of Thieves would not exist. It also means that online-only competitive multiplayer games would not exist, meaning no Overwatch and no "battle royale" games. The kids of today would not only have never had Minecraft or Five Nights at Freddy's to get their attention (and no YouTube meant no Let's Players and other internet personalities to shape their opinions), that means Fortnite would never have existed. Single-player games would absolutely remain dominant as gaming would not be the massively social experience it has become this decade. The social element of gaming would be relegated to local play, things like split-screen and "couch co-op" continuing to define multiplayer as it did during the 90s.
The fate of the competitive scene is ambiguous. Without the internet to popularize it, it may have never become as big as it is today, but it would still exist as it has had a long history. Fighting games would probably be the dominant genre since it has only required a single screen, and the Evo tournament has been around since 1996. However, first-person shooters would probably have never entered the competitive scene if they were relegated to split-screen. However, if the LAN still somehow existed in this internet-less world, then it may have given some shooters the potential to be a major competitive genre.
Moving away from the games and their systems, this hypothetical world without the internet would have significantly impacted the trajectory of games journalism. We may still be limited to magazines, which were in retrospect an inferior means of conveying news, being limited to only monthly updates and still screenshots, as opposed to the real-time coverage complete with gameplay videos afforded by the internet. However, it's possible that gaming journalists would have seen the limitations of print periodicals, and therefore perhaps a TV channel dedicated to games would still arise and be popular, showing gameplay videos and having the latest gaming news and otherwise doing things a magazine couldn't do. G4 was founded in 2002, and without competition from the internet its popularity may have grown thanks to a TV channel being able to do things magazines cannot. Other channels may have followed suit, maybe even some specialized ones dedicated to a single console (I can imagine Nintendo of America making a Nintendo Power TV channel at some point).
In conclusion, video gaming's massive mainstream success had already been cemented before online gaming became the norm. In a world without the internet, this almost certainly would not change. However, without the existence of online connectivity the face of gaming today would be noticeably different. Some genres would have taken entirely different trajectories, and many titles and even entire genres (e.g., the MMO) would have never existed. In terms of hardware the consoles we have would have gotten would probably be pretty close to what we actually got, but without modems obviously (and system UIs would likely still be very simple affairs as they were in Gen 6). The overall market share of the Big Three in the console space would probably not be too dissimilar in Gens 6 & 7, but would probably be different in the current generation without the online-fueled factors that came into play prior to the launches of the PS4 & XBO in 2013. Science fiction involving the internet would also not exist, meaning any games that had such a thing as a story element would not exist. The internet shaped our culture significantly, and as a result our different culture would result in at least some developers producing different games. But as a whole, video games would still be a popular mainstream form of entertainment.Last edited by Shadow1980 - on 07 September 2019