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Malliet and de Meyer - The History of the Video Game (Part 1)

Malliet and de Meyer - The History of the Video Game (Part 1)

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Unformatted text preview: 2 THE HISTORY OF THE VIDEO GAME Steven Malliet and Gas-t a'e Meyer To summarize the history of the video game in a single chapter is by no means a self—evident assignment. Al— though the games industry is much younger than the fihn, literature, or pop music industries, it nonetheless entered its fifth decade in 2003. A brief glance at the number of games produced between 1962 and today clearly indicates that it is impossible to discuss this topic with the help of a timeline of all games ever produced; there simply are too many. Therefore we have chosen to divide video game history into a number of separate periods, each With its own specific tendencies and characteristics. Our primary objective is to provide an improved insight into the video game phenomenon that we know today, the enumeration of independent historical events is of secondary importance. Prehistory: 1958—1972 Even though 1962 is frequently cited as “the year when the first video game was produced,” it is not true that before 1962 there was no such thing and afterwards suddenly there was. Like other media, such as film or recorded music, it is difficult to connect the emergence of the video game to one brilliant inventor who started from scratch and decided it was time to invent some— thing new. Instead we should consider the early period, which we like to refer to as “the prehistory of the computer game,” a period of experimentation, a period in which a number of people from a variety of backgrounds, Whether stimulated by one another or not, made their own contribution to what would eventually become a new form of popular culture. We must remember that a number of cultural and scientific traditions had al— ready prepared the ground for the development of the video game. There was the amusement industry with pinball machines and board games on the one hand, and the rapid development of computer technology on the other. In this section we will first say a few words on the early forerurmers and then take a closer look at the three “godfathers” of the computer game. The Foremaners: Willy Higinbotham, Game Traditions, and Computer Technology Computer and game first went hand in hand in 1958, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, 2 research insti— tute of the American government. For the open day of this company, one of the engineers, Willy Higinbo- tham, proposed to do away with the traditional statistics and corporate presentations used each year and come up with something more exciting to show the Visitors (Hunter, 2000). He converted an oscilloscope (a ma— chine that transforms vibrations into a wavelike motion on a screen) into a kind of pinball game. A speck of light moved across the screen and with the help of two boxes with push buttons one could control the curve it followed. He considered his creation an abstract simu— lation of the game of tennis, and aptly named it Tennis for Two. He had not foreseen game aspects such as “who scores the point?” or “what is the score?” Higin— botham was not interested in the possible applications of his invention. He saw it as an attractive way to dem— onstrate the operation of a piece of technology, no more, no less. Subsequently, he did not patent his invention. One of the interesting aspects of Higinbotham’s creation was the interaction between player(s) and machine. He managed to make a scientific instrument attractive for a nonscientific audience, simply by obscuring its complexity and making it easy to manipu— late. The interactive possibilities that he foresaw were closely related to the mechanical amusement tradition that already existed in his country in the form of pinball and 'slot machines. The popularity of such machines depended on the same principle: players got a limited amount of control (by operating several buttons or pulling an automatic arm), but the game could still go an unlimited number of ways (Yesterdayland, 2000). Higinbotham did not explicitly incorporate the aspect of reward (a second important element of such games) into his machine; he left this to the imagination of the players. Steven Malliet and Gust de Meyer I This brings us to the second set of forerunners of the video game: the tradition of board games and children’s games such as hide and seek or cops and rob— bers, in which (part of) reality is represented in a sim— plified, iconic way, and players are expected to use their imagination to play their part in this world. Those who play Monopoly are supposed to dive into the world of capitalism, and those playing Stratego will consider themselves generals for the duration of the game. In the early seventies, with the advent of Dungeons and Dragon: (1974, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arne— son), an extreme variant of such games emerged: the so— called “fantasy role playing game.” In those games, the players enter a wholly imaginary environment and work out the storyline with the help of several standard plots. Although at the time, already some text-based adven— ture games existed (e.g., Star Trek, 1967; Hunt tloe VVnmpus, 1971), fantasy role playing games have exer— cised a considerable influence on the structure of a variety of future computer games. Aspects such as a complex object system, or the creation of a fantasy world governed by its own social and economic rules, have now become a standard ingredient in many con— sole and computer games, and can be directly traced back to the rules described in the manuals of Dungeons and Dragons and its followers. In essence, a video game is nothing more or less than a special kind of computer program. This auto— matically brings us to a third forerurmer: the develop— ment of computer technology, which accelerated enormously in the 19405 and 19505 (LaMorte & Lilly, 1999). A number of important inventions, such as tran— sistor memory in the late 19405 and the first chips in the late 19505, resulted, in the early 19605, in the early forerunners of today’s computers. These machines were still bulky and expensive. By today’s norms they had very limited storage and processing capacities, and were predominantly found in universities. Since those days, the technical foundations for computers have improved rapidly and this evolution is still going strong. Over the past forty years, the continuous development of computer technology has served as the driving force behind the ever—increasing sophistication of video games. Little wonder, then, that this force will serve as a red thread throughout our argument. The Inventors: Steve Russell, Ralph Boer, or Nolan Bushnell? When investigating the question of who should be con— sidered the true inventor of the video game, three names pop up repeatedly: Steve Russell, Ralph Baer, l24| and Nolan Bushnell (Hunter, 2000; GameSpy Staff, 2002). A heated discussion will usually follow con— cerning which of the three made the most essential contribution and can consequently be considered the founding father. We do not consider it our task to an— swer the question here. We limit ourselves to briefly considering each of the three men, leaving it up to the reader to pick his or her favorite. Steve Russell, the first of the three, was a student at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in January 1962, when he developed Spacewar for the PDP—l mainframes that were available there.1 In contrast with his predecessor Higinbotham, he explicitly intended to create an application for enter— tainment (Hunter, 2002). Soon, many varieties of the game’s code spread amongst universities across Amer— ica. Technically speaking, Spacewor came down to the constant appearance and disappearance of flashes of light on the screen, comparable to some of today’s screensavers. Russell’s greatest merit was to incorporate a game element into this light show by making two of those specks look like spaceships, which could be con— trolled by two diiferent players. The other specks were stars that figured merely as decoration. In the middle of the screen was a cross representing a black hole. The task of a player was twofold: to prevent your spaceship from crashing into the black hole, and to fire torpedoes to destroy your opponent before he was able to destroy you. Technically spealdng, Spacew/zr can be seen as the first computer game, simply because it was the first “game” that was programmed on a “computer.” Moreover, be— cause the game contained both a simulation and an action element, it laid the foundation for a number of different genres that would follow in the 19705 and 19805. The second man on the list, Ralph Baer, came from a completely different background. When he introduced his innovations in 1966, he was a well— respected, forty—four—year—old engineer at an elec— tronics company, Saunders Associates (Hunter, 2002). Baer, an immigrant from Nazi Germany, was intrigued by the possibilities of the medium of television, which had already entered the living rooms of some 40 million families across the United States. He designed a device that could be connected to his TV, which would allow him to play a kind of ping pong game on the screen. The game itself strongly resembled Willy Higinbo— tham’s creation of almost a decade before, but con— tained a number of game elements that were missing in Tennis for Two. Baer did not stop there, and in 1967, he developed a new television game, this time a hockey simulation. In 1968, he even thought up a system that could bring his games to living rooms by cable, just like television programs. Cable companies did not fancy the idea, and, even though Baer managed to obtain no fewer than seventy—five patents, his plans were shelved for a couple of years (Hunter, 2002). Baer’s innovative contributions did not involve the nature of computer games—even in those days the controlled movement of a ball or puck across a screen was nothing new—but they involved the possible applications that he foresaw for his games. He can be considered the founder of the in—home video game: his idea that computer games could penetrate the privacy of the home was probf of greatvision. The most famous, but without doubt also the most controversial, name on the list of founding fathers is Nolan Bushnell. When he was young, Bushnell was a fervent chess player and a gamer avant—la—lettre. He enjoyed Japanese thinking games such as Go, and he worked in an amusement park. In university he encoun— tered Spacewar and used it as the basis for Computer Space (figure 2.1), a game he developed in 1970 (Jacobi, 1996; Hunter, 2002). As a game, Computer Space was not too innovative, but nevertheless it constituted breakthroughs in a number of areas. First of all, it was not a computer game for the mainfi‘ames at university, or a video game to play at home on the television, but a machine in the pinball tradition. Bushnell took advan— tage of the dramatic reduction in price and size of com— puter chips in the late 19603 and used them to market the first arcade videogame. Second, Computer Space introduced a practical, profit—oriented way of thinldng that was unprecedented in the video games sector until then. Bushnell fitted his game with an extensive visual layout to make it more attractive, and he made no se- cret of the fact that the main purpose of this game was simply making money. I Figure 2.1 I Computer Space [Nutting Associates, 1971): The first arcade game 125| Bushnell’s strategy was less successful than ex— pected; the instructions were too complicated, and the public massively ignored Computer Space. The idea of attracting players by means of a colourful closet and a range of simple controlls, was there, however, and it was Nolan Bushnell himself who brought it to perfec— tion two years later. His new arcade game, Pong, was the simplest possible game and the instructions could hardly be misunderstood: “Avoid missing ball for high score,” or, in other words, “no prior knowledge needed to enjoy the game.” Pong was not the only ping pong game around at the time, but it was the first serious games hit, and it gave the go—ahead for a booming industry. This game also made Nolan Bushnell’s contribu— tion to the development of videogames rather contro— versial, to say the least, as Ralph Baer recognized his own ping—pong game in Pong and sued Nolan Bushnell for copyright violation (Hunter, 2002). However, from a historical point of view, this dispute is of no great sig— nificance. It suffices to say that Bushnell managed to break ground that none of his predecessors had broken before. He managed to take video games out of the sphere of scientific research and bring them to the gen— eral public. His role in the evolution of video games is therefore comparable to the role of the Lumiére broth— ers in the evolution of motion pictures. Technically speaking, Bushnell can be considered the founding fa— ther of the arcade video game. The Birth of an Industry: 1973—1977 The mid—seventies, more specifically the years 1976— 1977, are known as the time when America first mas- sively fell for Video games. Both the console market, based on the ideas of Ralph Baer, and the arcade mar— ket, following Nolan Bushnell’s footsteps, took off and quickly realized excellent sales figures. This same pe— riod witnessed some important innovations, both tech— nically and contentwise, which contributed to setting the standards for future platforms and genres. In this section we will take a closer look at the technical and economic aspects of both markets, and mention a number of important games to illustrate some major content—related innovations. The [11de Develop: Through Difirerent Chamzeh: Arcades versus Console: Arcades: Atari Against the Rest After a dispute with Nutting Associates, the firm that took care of the pro— duction and distribution of his Computer Space, Nolan The History of The Video Game I Steven Malliet and Gust de Meyer | Bushnell decided that he no longer wished to be depen— dent on a third party to publish a game. Together with his business partner Ted Dabney, he established Atari (X, 2001b). They delineated well—considered and effi— cient policies, and quickly became the largest arcade manufacturers. The success of Pong,.their first game in 1972, inspired many other companies to give the video games market a try and launch their own versions of the game. Due to, among other things, aggressive licensing politics, which contractually prohibited all Atari distiibutors to distribute machines of other com— panies, Bushnell and company managed to establish a quasi—monopoly around 1974, at which time their main compe’n'tors were small companies operating on a local scale. In 1976, perhaps fifteen companies were active on the arcade market, but on a national level only one had sales figures approaching Atari’s, namely Nlidway, owned by Bally, a pinball producer (Brown, 1998). With his company operating at an ever—growing scale, Bushnell found himself forced to sell Atari to Warner in that same year (Seitz, 2001). By the end of 1977, Atari controlled about 70 percent of the coin—operated market in the United States. The industry’s growth between 1972 and 1978 went hand in hand with the evolution of the hardware of the platforms on which these arcades ran. Although games such as Pong and Computer Space were operation— ally still far from actual computers, some important innovations helped to close the gap around 1976. The game Tan/e, which was launched in 1974 by Kee Games (a daughter company of Atari), constituted a major technical breakthrough (Yesterdayland, 2000). It was the first game to use ROM chips to store graphics, making them far more accurate. The use of separate ROM chips for graphics can be seen as an early prece— dent of the graphics cards known today. Another milestone is the game Gun Fight, which was marketed by NIidway in 1975. In this game, microprocessors replaced the cumbersome and sluggish chips that had been prevalent up to then (Yesterdayland, 2000). This considerably accelerated the processing of instructions. The game also introduced a number of peripheral devices, such as an early joystick and a number a fake guns, two devices that would become common gadgets in the console and arcade markets. Home Consoles: Atari Cashes in on the Work of Others At the end of this period, Atari also dominated the home console market, which built on Ralph Bear’s ideas. This, however, turned out to be more time— consuming and difficult than taking over the arcade I26| market. Both technically and economically speaking, the home console had to come a long way between 1972 and 1978. In the early 19705, Ralph Baer’s ideas were finally appreciated at their true value. Electronics giant Mag— navox recognized the enormous potential, and bought a license from Baer for manufacturing a home console (Hunter, 2002). The result is the Odyssey, which came out in 1972. It is a simple device, which, like the arcades of the time, was far removed from the game computers we know today. It was a fully analogue system, which meant that the possibilities for image formation and game variety were rather limited (Brown, 1998). In ad— dition, the dilference between “console” and “game” did not exist yet; all possible games (meaning some twelve variations on the same ball and paddle theme) were programmed in the hardware itself. It was impos— sible to buy a new game and connect it to the Odyssey. A final limitation of the Odyssey was that it used only a fraction of the possibilities that the TV set had to oifer: there was no sound, and the games were black and white. This last problem was overcome by introducing colorful plastic covers that could be placed over the screen. By today’s standards, the Odyssey can be con— sidered a marginal console at best. It was nonetheless quite popular and it took some time before new and better consoles were marketed. For this reason the arcades were initially the Odyssey’s largest competitor. In 1974, Atari took the plunge onto the home con— sole market when it launched Home Pong, a console that did not diifer greatly from the Odyssey. Other companies followed, resulting in a whole series of ball and paddle games that each oifered a slight variation on the original concept: some introduce a digital con- sole, some allow four players to play at once, others add color or sound to the game (Brown, 1998). It was not until the end of 1976 that a true turnaround came about with the introduction of two highly innovative new consoles: the Studio II by RCA and the Channel F by Fairchild. Both were so—called programmable consoles: the code of a game was not built into the hardware, but the consoles were “real” computers that listened to a language of predetermined instructions (Brown, 1998; Hunter, 2002). Using this language, pro— grammers could develop games for these consoles and store the code on external data carriers. The Studio H and the Channel F introduced the cartridge system: separate data carriers (the cartridges), sold separately, that contained the game’s source code and could be connected to the appropriate consoles. They also started a trend that would run as a red thread through- I Figure 2.2 I The Atari VCS out the history of home consoles: consoles are genuine computers, and each and every improvement in com— puter technology will almost directly influence the quality of the available games. As we saw in the Ralph Baer—Nolan Bushnell con— flict, and as we will see repeatedly throughout this chapter, it was not necessarily the technically most in— novative console that would eventually have the largest impact. In 1977, when Atari launched its Atari 2600 (or Atari VCS; figure 2.2), which was quite similar to the Studio 11 and Channel F, the RCA and Fairchild machines, innovative as ,they were, were pushed to the background. Partly thanks to a range of ingenious games and partly thanks to strong management, the 2600 managed to leave its competitors far behind and enter the history books as the first modern home con— sole (X, 2001a). All later ...
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