Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gaming History of the World: In the Beginning

I wrote this article for a gaming site several months ago. But unfortunately, went down because of financial reasons. So I'm posting it here in case anyone is interested.

Gaming History of the World: In the Beginning

With the exception of gaming historians and avid history nerds, as gamers we often don’t realize what has gone on behind the scenes over the years to make the hobby that we love possible.  For most of us, the beginning of gaming is simultaneous with Pong and Atari. Although in many ways the industry has Pong to thank for its success, out of the three acknowledged fathers of the video game industry, only one, Nolan Bushnell, came from the Pong phenomenon. The others--Steve Russell and Ralph Baer--preceded him.

This month, we’ll take a look at these men’s contributions, and hear a little bit from the fathers themselves. 

Steve Russell, the father of computer games

Steve Russell--known by his friends as Slug--was a member of a notorious group of what I would affectionately call geeks at MIT: the Tech Model Railroad Club. Have you ever used the word “hack”? Well, you can thank these boys for coining the term. What exactly did these geeks do? They spent a lot of time creating programs on some of the early computers in MIT’s lab.

In the summer of 1961, Russell decided to program one of the first interactive games: Spacewar! His platform of choice? The Programmable Data Processor-1 (PDP-1), a computer roughly the size of a large automobile.

“I was the lead author of Spacewar! in 1961 and 1962, but a number of others made important improvements,” said Russel. “And uncounted members of the MIT community tested and critiqued it very thoroughly before my final version was released in May of 1962.”

It took Russell six months and 200 hours to create the first version of the game—a duel between rocket ships. Inspired by E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, Spacewar! was one of the first computer games ever created.

“Spacewar! is often called the first videogame, but it is really hard to justify calling it that,” Russell said. “It was not the first computer game played on a display, and the term videogame was coined long after Spacewar! was written. As far as I know it was the first computer to display explosions on a display screen, and it certainly was well known among computer programmers and users long before arcade computer games

Although Russell never made any money from Spacewar!, Digital Equipment (the manufacturers of the PPD-1) began using the game as a diagnostic program for testing equipment, and it had a big influence on the developing industry.

“It was the direct inspiration for the arcade games Galaxy by Bill Pitts and Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space,” Russell said. “The Vectrix version introduced Asteroids as a single player game using their Spacewar! type code and control arrangements. Asteroids has been around ever since and continues to be available on current computers.”

Russel has spent the last 10 to 15 years working primarily on debugging systems for single-chip computers. Currently, he serves as a docent at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. There are a number of versions of Spacewar! currently online, such as this one, utilizing the original code. But Russell said these versions are too fast on a modern PC when placed side by side with the restored PDP-1 running
the original code at the museum. But if you’re interested, it will at least give you a taste of the game.

Ralph Baer, the father of home video games

Not long after Russell completed Spacewar! another man had an idea that changed the face of the entertainment industry. At the time, Ralph Baer was a television engineer and the manager of the Equipment Design Division at Sanders Associates—a New Hampshire based defense contractor. In 1966, Baer decided to find another use for the TV, so he set out a plan to develop what was then called a TV game.

“The term video game didn’t come along until 1976—we called them TV games. They were all TV games to us,” Baer said. “The word didn’t exist at the time.”

Games really had nothing to do with Baer’s job: developing complex military electronic systems. But because he was running a fairly large operation, he was able to have a technician work on the project without anyone really noticing.

“In 1966 I put a technician to work, and within 6 months we were playing ping pong!” It wasn’t long before the project became official at Sanders. A few demonstrations to the corporate director of research and development gave Baer’s idea the legitimacy it needed to eventually end up as the first home video game console: the Brown Box.

Sanders Associates hit some hard times in the late 1960s, so Baer set out to find someone to manufacture his game. He tried GE, Zenith, Sylvania, and RCA. RCA almost bought the system. In 1971, Magnovox hired a member of the RCA team that almost made the purchase. He told them about the game.

“We were the largest company in the state of New Hampshire. As far as the outside world was concerned, this was from Sanders,” Baer said. “All the manufacturers of television sets that were made in those years came to us to see. Magnavox was the only one who actually negotiated a license.”

Production started in the fall of 1971. Magnavox called the finished product Odyssey, releasing it in 1972. Best known for ping pong, Odyssey also had a host of other games, including a large number of sports, maze and quiz-type games.

Baer originally wanted to sell the system for $19.95, which would be more than $100 today once you factor in inflation. He couldn’t imagine parents would pay much more for a toy. But Magnavox sold Odyssey for $100 (ore more than $500 in today’s market). Some say Odyssey didn’t do as well as it could have because of that price point and poor advertising that gave the impression Odyssey only worked with Magnavox TV sets. In spite of these setbacks, Baer’s invention was the only home video game console for a number of years. Close to 100,000 Odyssey games were sold in 1972. By the time newer models made their appearance in 1974, Odyssey had sold around 350,000 units.

“It was a machine that did a lot, so [Magnavox] thought they could sell it for $100. They started shipping to their own distributors. Inside of two years, in spite of the fact that it cost so much, they sold a quarter of a million,” Baer said. “My concept of what to sell it for was obviously wrong. It was more successful of a product than I thought it would be. Who could foresee that it would develop into an industry?”

Best known as the father of home video games, Baer holds the pioneer patents covering both the method and apparatus of video games. These patents lead to a number of lawsuits in the 1970s and 80s, including a settlement with Atari.

Baer’s early video game hardware resides in the Smithsonian and the Japanese National Science Museum, with replicas on display worldwide.

Nolan Bushnell, the father of the industry

Often considered the father of the gaming industry, Nolan Bushnell is best known as the founder of Atari, the man who brought the world Pong and ushered in the gaming industry.

In 1962, Bushnell enrolled in the University of Utah, one of the top schools for computer science at the time. An engineering student, he worked weekends at Lagoon, an amusement park in Salt Lake City, where he manned the in-park pin ball and electromechanical game arcade. Salt Lake City is where it all started:where he learned how the game industry operated and where he discovered Spacewar!

“You always say you stood on so many people’s shoulders,” Bushnell said. “Steve Russell’s Spacewar! was really a definitive a-ha moment for me.”

Although Bushnell only had limited access to the computer lab, he befriended several TA’s and became a regular. While he created a few games of his own, Spacewar! remained his favorite, and he committed much of it to memory by the time he graduated in 1968.

A year after finishing school, Bushnell went to work for Ampax Corporation, a northern California engineering firm. In 1970 he decided to try to create a coin-operated version of Spacewar!, which he titled Computer Space.

“When I started out, I thought my big adventure was going to be to create an interface so that regular TVs could be driven by cheap a minicomputer, which were about $5,000 to $10,000 at the time,” Bushnell said. “I felt that if I was very clever I could build this interface to a $100 TV and hook several of them up into a mini computer and put them in amusement parks.

“I knew the economics of the coin operated games from the arcade business. I just knew that if I could get the economics right, we’d put a lot of money into these machines. It was a no-brainer for me. My whole goal was to bring the cost down.

“That was kind of where my business sense kicked in. I think I had an advantage. A lot of people when they  think of something they think in the consumer market, and it’s a lot harder because of the cost. I felt if I could get under $2000 a terminal it could be marketed, whereas with the consumer marketplace you really needed to have it at a couple of hundred bucks, and the technology just wasn’t there.”

Because he couldn’t find a small, affordable computer to create the game, Bushnell decided to design a device that would only be able to play his game. As an Ampax engineer, he was able to get most of the parts he needed for free. Once he finished the game, he began his search for a manufacturer.

In 1971, Nutting Associates decided to manufacture and sell the game. Bill Nutting made 1,500 Computer Space machines, but the game didn’t do well.

“Computer Space was very very important for me,” Bushnell said. “It did pretty well but it didn’t do as well as I thought it should have. One ofthe things that is very helpful for an entrepreneur is sort of the fear of failure. Nutting was a very good example of a poorly managed company. It was very easy for me to say, ‘Wow, if I go off on my own I can’t possibly screw up more than these bozos.’ It gave me a lot of confidence in a funny reversed way. It really helped me get over the fear of: gee if I start a company I have to be smarter than God.”

Nutting’s failure led to Bushnell starting his own company in 1972. Originally he wanted to name it Syzygy, but a hippie commune candle company already had the name. Instead, Bushnell turned to a word from the Japanese strategy game Go and named his company Atari.

Bushnell founded Atari at age 27 with $250 of his own money and another $250 from business partner Ted Dabney. Bushnell conceived Pong, which would become the world’s first commercial video game, and in 1972 Atari’s second employee, Al Alcorn, built it.

Shortly after Alcorn joined Atari, Bushnell told him that the company had just signed a contract with GE to design a home electronic game based on ping pong. There was no contract. Bushnell made it up to get Alcorn familiar with the process of making games while working on a more substantial project. It took Alcorn nearly 3 months to build a working prototype. Instead of just a valuable learning experience, Alcorn created Atari’s flagship product: Pong.

After Atari began marketing Pong in 1972, Magnavox took them to court, arguing that Pong violated several of Baer’s patents—specifically his patent for projecting electronic objects on a television screen and his concept of electronic ping pong. 

“In May of 1972, Magnavox showed early Odysessys all over the country. One was in California, which Nolan Bushnell came to,” Baer said. “He got his hands on it, and he had Alcorn make one like it. He called Alcorn and said I’ve got a project for you for GE, which was all fake. Alcorn did a great job. He came out with the arcade game Pong. It was clearly on the shoulders of the Odyssey game. Then came Atari. And
everyone started copying them.”

Bushnell couldn’t afford to go to court even if Atari won; the court costs alone were estimated a $1.5 million. At the cost of a small licensing fee, Atari and Magnavox settled out of court. Because of Pong’s success, other people began making similar games. Atari had already paid its licensing fee, but future companies would pay high royalties to Magnavox.

“[Pong] just exploded, and then you know the part that a lot of people don’t realize is that we probably had less than 20% of the Pong sales in the world,” Bushnell said. “We were heavily copied. Most people think they were playing Pong were playing games from a bunch of these what I call jackals. It really pissed me off as a young guy.”

Atari would proceed to produce a number of games including Space Race, Trak 10, Gunfight and Breakout. In 1975 Atari released a consumer version of Pong, becoming the first company to make both arcade and consumer products. Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million but stayed on as a consultant for another two years.

“My greatest [regret] was selling the company when I did. I think I was really tired and a little bit scared. We were embarking on the 2600, and it looked like he was just going to soak up a huge amount of cash that we didn’t have…I think I got a little scared. Knowing what I know now, I would have never sold it.”

Over the past 20 years, Bushnell has founded numerous other companies, including Catalyst Technologies, the first technology incubator; Etak, the first car navigation system whose mapping is still the basis for car navigation systems today; and Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater.

Bushnell holds several patents on some of the basic technologies for many of the early video games developed and is also the inventor or coinventor of numerous worldwide patents in various other fields and industries. As of April 2010, Bushnell is back on the Atari board, and he’s currently pushing to overhaul the public education system and incorporate video games into schools.

The rest, as they say, is history. If you’re interested in learning more, Baer recommends the timeline at the Computerspielmuseum in Berlin. You can check it out online here.