Wow, is it already the end of the decade? It seems like such a short time that I have been covering the games of the 1970s, though a part of that may have to do with me starting in 1978 and then (much) later going back to fill in the previous games. Whoops. Silly me. Silly, silly 2011 version of me. Well, at any rate we can take a look back now and see what has led us to this point. As we welcome the 1980s let’s appreciate the triumphs and (it is hoped) learn from the failures that came to pass.
1947-1970: Building Blocks
“There’s a basic principle about consumer electronics: it gets more powerful all the time and it gets cheaper all the time.” -Trip Hawkins
Before the ’70s games were not mass-produced. Make no mistake, the medium did exist, but there was no industry. It was not until around 1971 when low-cost electronics made games commercially viable, and a new industry was born. Great Rome was not built in a day, so we need to take a look at the foundation.
The earliest functioning computer game was OXO, created by Alexander Douglas at Cambridge in 1952. As computer monitors didn’t exist back then, Douglas used a dot matrix Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) to display the graphics. Seeing as there were nine squares in the game, the player controlled it with a rotary telephone face. The program was unfortunately too perfect and could only win or draw every time–this obviously would limit the fun factor. For this reason many gamers and game historians don’t consider OXO to be a game, although this argument is splitting hairs. Anyway, another limitation was that it could only run on Cambridge’s EDSAC, making even modest distribution impossible. Thus it is overlooked just like the first electronic “game” (and I use quotations lest I dilute the meaning of the word) Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device from 1947. Wait, wasn’t 1947 the year of the Roswell UFO crash? That explains it! No human would refer to an electronic game as an “amusement device.” What are you hiding, Goldsmith and Mann? Anyway, after OXO there was only one more computer game in the 1950s, this one called Tennis for Two, created by Will Higinbotham in 1958. He just threw it together for Visitors’ Day at his laboratory. Nothing major. He just created a relic of gaming history from scratch. No biggie. Technically, Tennis for Two was the first computer game because it used an oscilloscope instead of a video display (CRT) like the previous video game did. I’ll explain that distinction in more detail later. For now, let’s move into the 60s with (it is hoped) better fortune than the denizens of Rapture.
It’s amazing how much you can get out of something when you leave it in the care of the curious and ingenious. The Romans famously created an entire navy by taking apart a derelict Carthaginian ship and building hundreds of replicas. When Digital Equipment donated the PDP-1 to MIT, the deceptively named Tech Model Railroad Club took an instant liking to it. One junior member, Steve “Slug” Russell, already earned his peers’ respect for helping his professor John McCarthy create the language LISP. Not content to rest on his laurels, Russell decided to use the PDP-1 to make a computer game. Once he could be motivated to. I don’t understand why smart people are always so lazy. ahem It took 200 hours of work over six months to finish his creation. From there other students inserted additions like a star map in the background and a star in the middle that was constantly pulling on the ships. The only thing they couldn’t add was a computer-controlled AI, as that wasn’t feasible until nearly 20 years later. Perhaps the longest-lasting contribution was the hand-made controller panel for the players. The students constructed makeshift control boxes that would later serve as the basis for the gamepad.
The club unfortunately couldn’t profit from this endeavor. The PDP-1 cost around $120,000 at the time so there was no market. Digital Equipment started using Spacewar! as a diagnostic program for their computers later on, so all PDP owners did get a copy, but it was for free. Luckily Russell didn’t want to collect royalties for his hard work because he was first and foremost a hacker; he did it for the lulz. A couple of other games were created but without commercial viability these were all one-off efforts. The pattern for all games released so far is a one-off effort that’s probably an isolated incident. No one at MIT had any knowledge of Tennis for Two, for example. It would take a visionary to move games from the laboratory to the living room. That man was none other than a government contractor. Yep, you read that correctly.
He is known today as The Father of Video Games. Ralph Baer spent the ’50s and ’60s working at a military contracting firm called Sanders Associates. Being a government-type employee, he had a lot of free time to waste company resources on personal projects. He and two of his underlings started work on what would become the Brown Box in 1966. Interestingly, that same year Japan exported a mechanical arcade game for the first time. It was Periscope, by Sega. The high cost of shipping units overseas resulted in a 25¢ charge per play, setting the future standard for arcade games. When Baer was developing the Brown Box, it was like the cave scene from “Iron Man.” His superiors knew something sinister was going on, and they didn’t like it. Baer himself explains,
“I reported to the executive V.P. He knew what was going on. And he keeps asking me, ‘Baer, are you still screwing around with that stuff?’ During the first couple of years and later on, I was subjected to his remarks like, ‘Stop wasting our money.’ When the millions started coming in, everybody remembered how supportive they had been of the project.”*
After two years of hard work, Baer was ready to patent his device. As with Spacewar! before it, the controller for the Brown Box was designed to compliment a specific game, this one being Hockey (or Ping-Pong). The idea that the player would chase around a dot evolved into the idea of the player controlling a paddle, and the dot becoming a puck. Hockey had a top-down view as opposed to the side view of Tennis for Two and allowed rotational force on the puck as opposed to the arcs of Tennis‘ ball. If you watch the two videos side by side you’ll see the differences. The body English of Tennis’ volleys is cheap and unfair, but the more conducive to a friendly rivalry.
The only strange thing is that the game would be called Ping-Pong. Hockey makes much more sense for a top-down view. Baer also leaned more towards the Hockey angle, eventually programming a chroma channel to make the screen blue, mimicking the appearance of an ice rink. With the hardware and software sorted out, Baer was poised to set his mark on the world. All he needed was a backer…
Next page: Learn about how Baer brought gaming from the lab to the living room!
*Kent, Steven. The Ultimate History of Video Games. Page 21. Three Rivers Press, New York. 2001