Chapter 1

The First Video Games





The first video games sprang up like wild mushrooms on rotten logs. There was no careful cultivation by the corporate, government, or research bureaucracies. The creators were young researchers, engineers, and graduate students, who began experimenting with early computer graphics because they were fascinated. There was something really interesting about controlling little moving patterns of light by pushing switches; it was new, it was unexplored, and it had possibilities. The instinct of man the explorer roared to life. And unlike the explorations of the academic researcher, where the excitement of discovering new continents of knowledge must be expressed in stacks of paper, there was an immediacy and engagingness to these computer-controlled magic light shows.


Where it was necessary, the bureaucracies were placated with the excuse that these games made good "demos." That was true. When a computer sat chewing invisibly on some complicated mathematical problem, it was about as interesting as an old refrigerator that no longer worked. "What does it do?" has always been a tough question for computer owners, and the pretty, flickering, responsive, mysterious display demonstrated that indeed there were fast and intricate things happening inside that dull gray box. The computer people already knew this, of course, but it was nice to be able to convince friends and dignitaries with 30 seconds of " "Look at this!" instead of a tedious, jargon-filled speech.



It is said that the best things in computer science have come about because someone said "I want it." Not the company president, not the lab director, not a committee, but one of the rank-and-file workers wanted or needed it, and created it himself. Computer games fall squarely in this tradition. Why did MIT graduate students spend hundreds of their midnights in a pursuit that benefited neither their scholarly stature, their wallets, nor their sex lives? Something lured them on. And they wanted it not because it was useful, but because it was wonderful.






The first video game was called Spacewar. It originated in l96l at MIT, at the time when programmers first got their hands on computers with television-like displays. The computer was a PDP-1, one of the first commercial computers that used transistors instead of vacuum tubes, and it had an oscilloscope display upon which the computer could be programmed to draw pictures. The pictures were made up of short glowing lines on the circular background of the oscilloscope screen. The images on the screen could be made to move or change shape, under control of the computer.


Spacewar was a game of spaceships battling each other. The player could turn his spaceship left or right, thrust forward using his rockets, and fire "torpedoes" at his opponents. (He could also jump into "hyperspace" if the situation became hopeless.) The goal of the game was to survive, while zapping all the opposing spaceships. The ships looked like little wedges, cigars and Fourth-of-July rockets. They picked up momentum as thrust was applied, so that the players were constantly turning and thrusting to modify their trajectories, and then turning for a shot as an enemy ship sailed past. The player controlled his turning and shooting by pressing buttons and levers on a hand-held box connected to the computer. There was a blazing star in the center of the screen, whose gravity affected the ships' trajectories. The ships could orbit the star, but were swallowed up if they touched it.


Computer graphics was in its first breath of life in the early 60's when Spacewar was invented. At the same time at MIT, Ivan Sutherland created SKETCHPAD, a system that let the user manipulate parts of a graphical simulation with a light-pen. This opened the eyes of the "serious " members of the research community to the potential of "graphical man-machine communication." The frivolous Spacewar contained the essential elements which characterize video games today: real-time action of moving computer-generated images, interactive control by the player, and simulation embedded in a fantasy scenario.






Nolan Bushnell was an electrical engineer who had worked in a carnival as a kid. He worked for Ampex, a manufacturer of broadcast video equipment. His wacky idea about a game on a video screen, as it has often seemed to happen in Silicon Valley, didn't strike the fancy of his employers. So, in 1971, Bushnell and a few other engineers set out on their own.


They made a self-contained coin-operated version of Spacewar which could stand in the corner of a bar or pinball arcade. It was called While Computer Space. While not a total flop, Computer Space was not a great success either. Perhaps it was too complicated, too hard to master. The context of the man off the street investing a few quarters in a funny-looking cross between a TV set and a pinball machine was different from the context of computer technoids enjoying the fruits of their labor for free.


To get a young engineer named Al Alcorn started, just to get him up to speed, Bushnell suggested a simple exercise: make a blip of light that bounced back and forth between two movable line segments, sort of like ping-pong. Alcorn wired up some integrated circuits into a prototype, it worked, and it was fun. They decided to give it a try in a bar. Not too long after they had set up the machine, the bar owner called: their machine was out of order. When they arrived, the problem was easy to find. The coin box was jammed full of quarters.


This game was Pong., which became the first video game "hit." The company, which was then called Syzygy, sold thousands of coin-operated , arcade-style Pongs for around $l500 each. A Pong craze swept through the bars around the country.

The time was the early 1970's, and designing computer games was somehow silly or anti-establishment enough to mesh well with the counter-culture. Atari was an anarchy. The company founded on a wacky idea explored a zillion varieties of wackiness. Anarchy may not be a very workable model for business in general, but in this case it worked because there was no need to motivate workers who were infatuated with designing games and amazed that the were being paid for it. It wasn't necessary (and wouldn't have worked ) to schedule their creativity. Atari was powered by labors of love from its young engineers.


A flow of new arcade video games issued forth from Atari, and each new hit seemed to come from a different set of designers. Breakout was a one-player variation of Pong, in which the ball bounced back and forth between the player's "paddle" and a row of bricks, which were knocked out one by one. There were tank combat games, racecar driving games, and, yes, spaceship games. Asteroids was very similar to the original Spacewar in some ways. The player controlled a turning, thrusting, missile-firing spaceship, as in Spacewar, but Asteroids was a one-player game. The player dodged and blew up tumbling space rocks, and occasionally dueled with a computer-controlled flying saucer. After some experimentation with more than one player, coin-operated arcade games settled into a one-player-at-a-time style along the lines of pinball machines, where several players could compete for high score, playing alternately.


The pinball business was hit hard by the competition from Atari's coin-operated video games. Some of the pinball companies, such as Bally and Williams, began making video games. However, Atari's real challenge came from Japan when a game called Space Invaders appeared . The player moved back and forth underneath some barriers, firing his laser cannon at an array of aliens who moved from side to side and slowly descended toward him. Space Invaders had some interesting innovations. The fewer aliens that remained, the faster they moved. There was a wonderful feeling of suspense as the last remaining alien raced downward, with the player needing only one good shot to end this wave of the invasion. The suspense was heightened by deep, thriller-movie music that sped up in time with the action on the screen: BOOM, boom, boom, boom, BOOM, boom, boom, boom, ...


A wildly successful arcade video game had sales in the tens of thousands, but a much larger market was waiting to be tapped, where sales were counted in the millions. In l977, Atari began selling the Video Computer System (later known as the Atari 2600), a home video game that hooked up to a television set and sold for $200. For another $20, the owner could turn it into a different video game by inserting a new game program cartridge into the black plastic console. In fact, the Atari 2600 owner could build a library of video game cartridges, costing $20 or $30 each, just as a stereo owner would build his record collection. There were 80 million households in the United States, with television sets making a 98% "penetration." (This is marketing talk for "Everybody's got a TV.") Thus there were 80 million potential sites for Atari home video games, and as this potential began to be realized, Atari's revenues rose into the billions of dollars.


The prototype for the Atari 2600 was designed by Steve Mayer and Ron Milner, two engineers who had left Ampex along with Bushnell. In contrast to earlier "dedicated" home video games which played only a single type of game, the 2600 was to be "programmable." The various cartridges programmed it for different games. The electronic hardware of the 2600 was designed to be flexible enough to play "Pong, Tank, and maybe a few other games." To keep the hardware simple and cheap, software controlled many display tasks normally done by hardware. This made writing the software for a video game difficult, but offered great flexibility, since each video game cartridge contained its own display software. The meager display resources of the 2600 (a few movable shapes and a coarse blockish background) were adapted, with clever software, to many games of very different appearances. The 2600 did offer the game designer an excellent palette of colors to choose from, with many vivid hues and shades. The production model of the 2600 was engineered by Jay Miner, an experienced chip designer, and Joe DeCuir. Putting the already minimized video game hardware into a custom-designed integrated circuit made the electronics in the 2600 very cheap indeed.


The home video games imitated arcade hits: pong games, tank games, sports games, space games. But the economics of the situation were different: a game in an arcade required a steady flow of quarters to justify its continued presence there, whereas the home video game was paid for up front. This accounts for the standard arcade mode of player-against-machine. Two equally inept humans could battle indefinitely without victory on either side, but the inexorable computer opponent, programmed to get tougher as it gets hungrier for quarters, can make sure that the action is intense and short. The home video game, on the other hand, was a fine environment for two-player games and for strategy games which required the player to sit and think for long stretches. Chess, checkers, backgammon, blackjack and bridge all appeared in the home game format, but never in arcades. The home game pace was also better for puzzling through adventure games, and for allowing time to absorb a new concept in a learning game.


Atari's 2600 had not been an instant success. Other contenders in the race for the home video game market had come from Bally, Fairchild, Magnavox, Mattel and others. The 2600 won the day because of its cheap, flexible hardware design, the variety of its game cartridges, and millions of advertising dollars. Engineers and marketeers disagree over whether design or advertising contributed most to the success. Atari, Inc., had been sold, and the advertising money came from its new parent company, Warner Communications.


Meanwhile, in the world of coin-operated arcade games, some innovative Japanese games had appeared. Donkey Kong set a new standard for cartoon-like, color animation with its barrel-rolling gorilla and barrel-jumping hero, who (under player control) climbed upward to rescue the helpless blond heroine. Crazy Climber had more cartoonish animation, with the player climbing up the side of a building, dodging falling flower pots, and trying to stay out from under large ugly birds. It also had speech synthesis. ("Go for it! ... Oh noooooooo...") Pacman became extraordinarily popular. The player steered a little gobbling face through a maze, munching dots, avoiding four goblins, and occasionally getting to chase them.


The new art of video game design evolved. Pong, the great hit of the early 1970's, seemed absurdly trivial to a child of the 1980's. Video game graphics progressed from black and white to color, and from low to higher resolution. The actors in these miniature dramas became more like cartoon characters than the earlier simple abstract shapes. And not only did the characters move, they were animated: walking, jumping and devouring. The complexity of the games increased, too, using more graphic objects on the screen. When the single screen began to be bloated with too many objects, the playing area exploded into a larger space, with the player's view scrolling or shifting through a number of screens.


There was also a progression in the machines on which the video games were played, although in a sense it had come full circle. Spacewar, the first video game, was played on the display screen of a general-purpose minicomputer. The arcade video game machines were dedicated to specific games; each game had a unique design for its electronic hardware, the buttons and levers on the front, and the artwork on the case. The home video game standardized the electronic hardware and hand controllers. Variation between games came from the different programs in the various game cartridges. When video games appeared on personal computers, such as the Apple II, the video game had returned to its birthplace, the computer, like a salmon swimming back upstream to its spawning ground.




What Is a Video Game?


A video game is an imaginary world: its inhabitants are nonexistent creatures that nevertheless the eye can see, and the hand can move. It is imaginary in the sense that there is no solid reality behind the picture. A bouncing ball may be faithfully simulated, but that moving blip of light has no real mass or elasticity. The ball's position, velocity, mass and elasticity are just numbers stored in the computer that controls the video game; and the laws of physics that govern the ball's trajectory and its bounce are just mathematical equations stored in the computer's program.


A video game usually mimics some real-life situation: rockets accelerating and moving in space, bouncing Ping-Pong balls, a kayak in river currents, the food-chain in an ecology. The game of chess is an abstraction based on a battle between two small groups of warriors: similarly, video games imitate life. A video game is a simulation, a model, a metaphor.


Since physical laws must be simulated in constructing a game's reality, the laws can just as easily be violated, and something else simulated. The impossible becomes possible. This is why video games are such a wonderful medium for fantasy. Animated cartoons have the same freedom of being beyond the laws of physics. Bugs Bunny illustrated this with his ability to paint from a can of polka-dotted paint. In another cartoon, Bugs walked around a tiny tent standing in the vast, empty desert; but when he entered it, the space inside the tent was huge. Both of these things can happen in a video game.


A video game is still a game, and it needs to have a goal, competition, and an outcome of winning or losing. Stacking up crates of cheese is an activity which could be simulated, but it is not very interesting without some mice or earthquakes to make success uncertain. There is a quality of a game called "playability," which means being challenging, but winnable. A balancing goes on here. A good game idea must usually be "tuned" to be playable by adjusting the scoring, delays, and other quantities in the game program.


A video game is made up of electronic hardware. A box full of printed circuit boards is connected to a TV-like display, and some buttons and levers for the player to push. There is a computer in the box of circuitry, and the program that defines the game is in the computer's memory. (See the block diagram of Figure l-l.)

























Figure 1-1

Block Diagram of a Video Game



The program is the heart of a video game. It defines the shapes, their colors, how they move, and how they respond to the player's inputs. The program is a list of instructions to the computer about what to do in different situations. (If the ball touches the wall, then bounce.) The video game designer creates a program that defines his or her game; the program enforces the rules of the game and moves the little shapes around as the player plays it. The designer is a legislator, the program is the law he invents, and the computer is the cop who makes sure the law is obeyed.


Video game design is a new art form, rich with unexplored possibilities. Most forms of art have their technical problems, so it is not so strange that a video game designer needs to be a good programmer. An artist making kinetic sculptures needs to be part evening dress mechanical engineer. The game designer needs skill in both conception and execution. He needs to think about what kind of ideas make good video games and know how to turn a good idea into a working program.



Copyright 1983 Warren Robinett. All Rights Reserved.