1996 - (Indpt) QSpy first launches to make it easier for gamers to find Quake (an early FPS) servers for online play. As it expands to matchmaking for other games, it is acquired by investors and renamed GameSpy.
1997 – (Blizzard) Battle.Net is launched, making it easy for people to play Diablo (an action game) online with complete strangers, and friends. Hacking abounds, but it’s a small price to pay for a centralized server system.
1998 - (Valve) Half-Life is launched. It’s the first first-person shooter to attempt an immersive story without taking control away from the player at any point. It is backed by an extremely easy-to-modify engine.
(Blizzard) StarCraft (a strategy game inheriting from Blizzard’s previous WarCraft titles) launches, using battle.net for online match-making. A huge “pro-gamer” competitive scene launches a year later
1999 – (Indpt) 2 college students who cut their teeth on Quake mods release a mod for Half-Life called Counter Strike. It becomes insanely popular, and the go-to competitive game in the FPS genre.
2002 – (Valve) Steam, a content distribution & matchmaking tool is packaged with the new version of Counter-Strike, ensuring up to 300,000 new users.
2002 - (Microsoft) Xbox Live is launched with the original Xbox, and brags a unified friends list, a single user identity regardless of game, and basic voice chat . Although Ventrillo also launched in this timeframe and eventually became extremely popular on the PC, a single identity becomes the most flexible and powerful tool Microsoft offers. At this time, Microsoft’s Xbox is the only console with such a powerful online presence. It is also the only platform requiring users to pay for online services.
2004 - (Valve) Half-Life 2 is released and requires a Steam account to activate. Although technical issues bring the authentication system to its knees, Valve sticks with it.
(Microsoft) Xbox Live Arcade is announced, a digital distribution service for the Xbox.
2005 - (Valve) Steam has its first 3rd-party software ready for distribution.
(Microsoft) The Xbox 360 launches. Xbox Live Arcade is re-launched, now integrated into the 360’s interface.
2006 - (Microsoft) Games for Windows is announced, an effort coinciding with the launch of Windows Vista to make it easier for customers to identify and install games suited for their computer.
2007 - (Valve) Major publishers begin to publish their content through Steam. Almost all major PC releases are now found on Steam’s digital distribution network.
(Microsoft) Games for Windows adds a “Live” onto the end of its name, signifying its entrance into the online world. However, it keeps the Xbox’s pricing structure, which pushed users towards titles with free online play (which is basically “every other title in existence”). Adaptation is still low, and isn’t helped by Vista’s abject failure.
2008 (Microsoft) – Late to the game, and struggling heavily in the PC market, Microsoft makes Games for Windows Live free to play online.
2009 (Microsoft) – The 360 gets digital distribution for new release games, on top of its ever-growing online catalog of Arcade and Indie games. Games for Windows Live finally brings digital distribution to the PC, except for the fact that Steam beat it to the punch years ago.
The evolution is incredible. In 10 years we went from the first matchmaking tool to a nearly complete digital ecosystem. Microsoft made incredible pushes on the Xbox, and completely neglected to show the PC any love at all – leaving the gap open for Valve to completely dominate the scene.