5. Grand Theft Auto III
Year of Release: 2001
Before Grand Theft Auto III, game levels were essentially designed as a series of boxes. Rockstar’s crime epic broke that pattern in 2001, ushering in a golden age of go-anywhere, do-anything open worlds. Designers since have been trying to recapture the sense of freedom and possibility created by GTA III’s gritty take on New York City, which allowed players to amass a criminal empire—or simply manage a mundane day job, like schlepping citizens around in taxis or putting out fires.
Year of Release: 1999
If you’ve ever had trouble wrapping your head around the fact that e-sports is on pace to become a billion-dollar industry by decade’s end, just spend half an hour watching world-class teams play Counter-Strike. Originally designed in 1999 as a modification of Half-Life, Counter-Strike and its modern incarnations are some of the top e-sports games in the world. Players are divided into two teams, “terrorists” and “counter-terrorists,” then the former tries to bomb an objective or kidnap hostages while the latter labors to stop them. Watching the world’s best Counter-Strike players is often more fun than actually playing yourself—hence the rise of game-streaming sites like Twitch, acquired by Amazon in 2014 in a roughly billion-dollar deal.
3. World of Warcraft
Year of Release: 2004
Blizzard’s bracing 2004 fantasy simulation introduced millions of players to the concept (and joys and frustrations) of massively multiplayer online worlds. Like so many influential products, it didn’t invent so much as refine and perfect—from the way gamers meet-up and socialize online to how to populate large digital worlds with satisfying stuff to do. It was one of the first games to render a landmass that felt “real” and un-gated, allowing players to run from one end of the continents in its fictional Azeroth to the other without seeing a loading screen. It also de-stigmatized and normalized online gaming by, over time, revealing that its millions of players (some 12 million at its peak in 2010) were no different from non-players. The massive revenue it generated for years also spurred legions of game designers to try to create similar online playgrounds.