Phase II: Spacewar to Atari

Phase II: Spacewar to Atari

The turning point for the games industry came in 1961 when Steve Russell, an MIT student, coded a simple two-player game on a Digital PDP-1 minicomputer. The game was called Spacewar, and it displayed two spaceships on a computer screen (see Figure 1.3). Each ship could move laterally while shooting at the other player.

Figure 1.3. Spacewar.


The game did not reach consumers but certainly served as an influence on many people. It was a game in the classic sense of the word. It used the new technology, and it defined the path for many others. The game had

  • Competition between two peers

  • Rules of action

  • A clear victory condition

In fact, this structure is not very different from traditional games such as chess. The main difference is the technology layer that supports the gameplay. Through the years, this technology layer has skyrocketed in its complexity, and games have established themselves as a rich, unique media. The overall three-rule structure, however, has remained basically the same.

Many people were deeply influenced by Spacewar, but we will focus on two industry pioneers who were illuminated by the elegance of the concept. Nolan Bushnell was exposed to the game while studying engineering at the University of Utah. He envisioned computer games like Spacewar filling arcades, where people would pay to play game after game. Some years later, his vision would materialize when he founded Atari and created the first coin-operated (coin-op) machines.

The story of Atari is well known. After seeing Spacewar, Bushnell began working on reasonable-cost, dedicated machines where games could be played. His first game, years before the dawn of Atari, was called Computer Space, which was a version of Spacewar that he hard-wired and plugged into a TV set in his daughter's bedroom. Nutting Associates, a manufacturer of arcade games, bought the Computer Space idea, hiring Bushnell to oversee production. In 1971, 1,500 Computer Space machines were manufactured and installed in the United States. But players found it too hard to play, so the game received a cold reception. Bushnell tried to create new game ideas, but after some discussions, he left Nutting. As a result, he founded Atari in 1972 with Ted Dabney, taking the name from the Japanese game of Go. Atari is the equivalent to a check move in chess.

On the other end of the spectrum stood Ralph Baer, the games-on-TV pioneer from the 1950s. By 1966 he had already left Loral and was working for Sanders Associates, an army contractor. He was given the green light to research his TV set idea, which he patented in 1968. He saw electronic games as secondary uses for TV sets, which already enjoyed a large installed base. At that time, he had succeeded in creating two TV-based games (a chase and a tennis game) as well as a very early light gun design. By 1970, TV manufacturer Magnavox had licensed Baer's technologies. Under Baer's guidance, work on the first game console began. The system, dubbed the Magnavox Odyssey, was introduced in 1972, the same year Atari was born.

By the end of 1972, the electronic games business took the world (starting with the West Coast of the United States) by storm. The first Atari game, Pong, hit locales, becoming the first successful example of a coin-op machine. Within two weeks, Pong machines in California began to break down due to quarters flooding the coin drop mechanism, something Bushnell had never even dreamt of. At the same time, Magnavox sold 100,000 units of the Odyssey, a remarkable feat considering distribution was made only through official Magnavox stores.

During this period, two distinct business models appeared: arcade games, paid per play; and home systems, where games could be purchased and played repeatedly. Both have evolved and still subsist today, with the latter being the dominant option. A third trend had yet to appear; one in which games needn't be played on dedicated hardware.

Core Techniques and Algorithms in Game Programming2003
Core Techniques and Algorithms in Game Programming2003
Year: 2004
Pages: 261 © 2008-2017.
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