Computer Space – The First Mass-Produced Arcade Video Game

admin on July 7th, 2008 File Under Arcade, Articles, History

In some previous history of video games articles, I wrote about how “Spacewar!” video game influenced the creation of the first and second arcade video games. The first one was “Galaxy Game”, created by Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck (only two versions/five consoles were created). The second one, which will be the beginning of the main subject in this article, was “Computer Space” by Noland Bushnell and Ted Dabney (the first mass-produced arcade video game).

As written in my last article, Bushnell and Dabney were co-workers at a company named “Ampex”. Bushnell played “Spacewar!” at the University of Utah, and as soon as he played, he noticed the business potential. They both started making a new version of “Spacewar!” video game, suitable for arcade gaming. Some of the changes they made were making it 1-player (instead of two spaceships, it was a player-operated spaceship against two cpu-operated flying saucers) and removing the center star . Since they needed more time to work on this project and since they were convinced of their future success in their new business venture, they both left Ampex and started their own business under the name of “Syzygy Engineering“ (all of this happened during the same year, 1970).

In 1971 they sold the system to Bill Nutting, owner of “Nutting Associates”, a company that manufactured coin-operated trivia game machines. But the arcade machine was not ready for production yet (only the basic concept and game programming was done, and the latter still needed some refining), so Bill Nutting hired Noland Bushnell to finish it (as Chief Engineer in charge of the project). Bushnell and his crew at Nutting Associates were very clever with their arcade design. In order to keep unit costs down they used discreet components circuits (made mostly of transistors and diodes) instead of a CPU and a Black and White TV set instead of a vector display. They also included a two-player version, similar to the original “Spacewar!” video game. They put everything together in a very nice looking “space-age” cabinet made of fiberglass, and there it was, the first mass produced arcade video game was made: “Computer Space”.

About 1,500 units of “Computer Space” arcade machines were made with a brief initial success. However, it was not a massive hit as originally expected. This was attributed to the fact that the game was complicated, and game control was difficult. Most of these arcade machines were installed in bars and similar places, where a simple game was the selection of choice by customers.

Although there were some negotiations between Syzygy Engineering and Nutting Associates for designing new arcade video games, it actually never happened. That was the end of their business relationship, so Bushnell and Dabney continued designing and manufacturing video games on their own. But when they attempted to do business under the “Syzygy” name they found out that the name was already taken by another company (some says that it was a roofing company, others says that it was a candle making company). So they started this new business venture under a new name: Atari.

And this will be the subject of our next article.

Computer Space Arcade Video game

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Beyond “Spacewars!” – The History of the First Arcade Video Game

admin on July 6th, 2008 File Under Arcade, Articles, History

In our previous article “History of Video Games – The First Video Game?…” we talked about a small group of games that are considered as the pioneers of the video gaming industry, which after 4-5 decades has become a multi-billionaire industry (ranked as the #1 entertainment industry, side-by-side with the filmmaking industry.

In this article I will go a step ahead and write about how arcade video games were created. The whole idea of the first arcade video game came from “Spacewar!” (in case you haven’t read my previous article, “Spacewar!” is a video game programmed for a DEC PDP-1 computer by a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Although “Spacewar!” was a “not for profit” video game (it was created with the main purpose of showing PDP-1 computer graphics capabilities), it became very popular at the MIT campus.

Not so long after that, this group of MIT students (or at least some of them) went to Standford University. And as you can expect, they took with them their most beloved “creation”. When “Spacewar!” video game was presented to this whole new audience at Stanford University, it was no surprise that it was very welcomed by students and programmers of this campus. The video game program was ported to a DEC PDP-10 computer and had many updates and changes. As in MIT, it was pretty obvious that “Spacewar!” was a sure-hit in Stanford University (and with so many updates, “Spacewar!” was becoming a state-of-the-art piece of software). It was just a matter of time for somebody to figure out that “you could make some money with this thing”.

So, it happened. In 1971 Bill Pitts (a recent Stanford University AI graduate) and Hugh Tuck (a mechanical engineer and also Bill’s long time friend) formed “Computer Recreations, Inc.” with the idea of manufacturing and marketing the first arcade video game. Bill worked on the programming and electrical connections, while Hugh worked on the arcade enclosures. It consisted of a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer (a new cheaper version from DEC PDP computer series, but powerful enough to run “Spacewar!”) and an HP 1300A Electrostatic Display, all packaged in a walnut veneered enclosure. The first prototype was finished three and a half months later, with an approximate cost of $20,000. They wanted to call their version of the video game “Galaxy War”, but in 1971 (with Vietnam’s war on its peak) the word “war” wasn’t kindly welcomed at Stanford University campus. Because of this, they took the “marketing decision” of calling it “Galaxy Game”.

“Galaxy Game” arcade prototype was installed in Stanford Student Union Coffee Shop for “market testing” purposes. It was priced at 10 cents per game, or 3 games for 25 cents (plus if at the end of the game your spaceship survived, a free game was granted). The game, as expected, was extremely well received by campus students (sometimes players had to wait over an hour with dimes in hand in order to play the game). However, at ten cents per play it would take forever to recover the $20,000 invested. So by 1972 they created a second prototype with a more powerful display interface, which allowed them to use a single PDP-11 computer to control four different arcades (thus spreading the costs in four consoles instead of one and bringing costs per unit down). They made some fancy fiberglass enclosures for each arcade machine and installed them at the coffee shop. As the original single arcade, these ones were heavily played for many years, until 1979 (7-8 years later) when the arcade units were finally removed from the coffee shop due to a hardware failure. So this was the end of an era… and the beginning of another (that we will write about in detail in future articles)…

While all this was happening in Stanford, something very similar was going on at the University of Utah. A young engineer named Nolan Bushnell played “Spacewar!”, and immediately saw a business opportunity there. He used to work at a Pinball Arcade, so he had the idea of a coin-operated version of “Spacewar!” video game to be placed and played side by side with pinball machines (in places like bars, coffee shops, diners, pinball arcades, and so on). But unlike Pitts and Tuck, he had the idea of manufacturing arcade machines for resale instead of keeping them and making profit of arcade players. Together with Ted Dabney (a co-worker at a company named “Ampex”) they started working on this idea together as partners. This was another important point in the history of video games, since it was the first steps of a partnership later to become Atari, the biggest video game company of its era. But I will write more on this subject in the next article.

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History of Video Games: The First Video Game?…

admin on July 1st, 2008 File Under Articles, History

As an avid retro-gamer, I’ve always been particularly interested in the history of video games (and hot chicks… but that’s not my point here… so, what was my point then?… ah, yes…). Even more specifically, a subject that always intrigued me was “Which was the first video game ever created?”… So, as the only man capable of playing Street Fighter with my arms tied on my back and throwing Ryu’s fireball using my armpit and nose (you get the picture?… probably not, you have to see it to understand it…), I started a deep investigation on these subject (and making this post the first one in a series of posts that will cover in detail all video gaming history).

The question was: Which was the first video game ever created?

The answer: Well, as many other things in life, there is no easy answer to that question. It depends on your own definition of the term “video game”. For example: When you talk about “the first video game”, do you mean the first commercial video game, or the first console game, or maybe the first digitally programmed game? Because of that, I made a short list of video games that in one way or another were the pioneers of the video gaming industry. Note that the first video games were not created with the idea of getting any profit from them (there was no Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Sega, Atari, or any other around). In fact, the sole idea of a “video game” or an electronic device which only purpose was “playing games and having fun” was impossible to conceive by more than 99% of the population back in those days. But thanks to this small group of innovators who took the first steps into the video gaming revolution, we are able to enjoy many hours of fun and entertainment (not to mention the creation of millions of jobs during the past 4 or 5 decades). Without further ado, here the “first video game nominees”:

1940s: Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device

This is considered (and has been documented) as the first electronic game device ever created, It was created by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. The game was developed in the 1940s and submitted for an US Patent in January 1947. The patent was granted December 1948, which also makes it the first electronic game device to ever receive a patent (US Patent 2,455,992). As described in the patent, it was an analog circuit device which uses various knobs to control a dot that appears in the cathode ray tube display. The video game was inspired by how missiles were displayed by radars in the World War II, and the object of the game was simply controlling a “missile” in order to hit a target. In the 1940s it was insanely difficult (for not saying impossible) to show graphics in a CRT display. Because of this, only the actual “missile” actually appeared on the display. The target and any other graphics appeared on screen overlays manually placed over the display screen. It is rumored that this game was the inspiration of the Atari hit video game “Missile Command”.

1951: NIMROD

NIMROD was the name of a digital computer device from the 1950s. It was created by the engineers of an UK-based company called Ferranti , with the purpose of being displayed at the 1951 Festival of Britain (and later it was also displayed in Berlin).

NIM is a two-player mathematical game of strategy, which is believed to come originally from the ancient China. The rules of NIM are simple: There are a certain number of “heaps” (groups of objects), each containing a certain number of objects (a common starting array of NIM is 3 heaps containing 3, 4, and 5 objects respectively). Each player take turns removing objects from heaps, as long as all removed objects in a turn are from a single heap and the amount of removed objects is not 0. The player to take the last object of the last heap lose, however there is a variation of the game where the player to take the last object of the last heap is the winner.

NIMROD used a lights panel as a display and was designed and created with the sole purpose of playing the game of NIM, which makes it the first digital computer device to be specifically created for playing a game (although the main idea was to show and illustrate how a digital computer works, rather than to entertain and have fun with it). Because it doesn’t have raster video equipment as a display (TV set, monitor, etc.) it is not considered by many people as a real “video game” (an electronic game, yes… a video game, no…). But once again, it really depends on the definition given to a “video game”.

1952: OXO (“Noughts and Crosses”)

This was a digital version of “Tic-Tac-Toe”, programmed for an EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) computer. It was created by Alexander S. Douglas from the University of Cambridge, and once again it was not created for entertainment, it was part of his PhD Thesis on “Human/Computer Interaction”.

The rules of the game are those of a regular Tic-Tac-Toe game, player against the computer (no 2-player option). The input method was a rotary dial (similar to the ones in old telephones). The output was displayed in a 35×16-pixel cathode-ray tube display. This game was never very popular since the EDSAC computer was only available at the University of Cambridge, so it was not possible to install it and play it anywhere else (until many years later when an EDSAC emulator was made available, and by then many other great video games where available as well…).

Here is a video of OXO in action:

1958: Tennis for Two

“Tennis for Two” was created by William Higinbotham, a physicist from the Brookhaven National Laboratory. This game was designed as a way of entertainment, so laboratory visitors had something funny to do while they were waiting on “visitors day” (at last!… a video game that was made “just for fun”…) . The game was pretty well designed for its time: the ball was affected by several factors like gravity, wind speed, position and angle of contact, etc.; there was a net that you needed to avoid, and many other things. The video game hardware included two “joysticks” (two controllers with a rotational knob and a push button each) connected to an analog computer, and an oscilloscope for output display.

Many people consider “Tennis for Two” the first video game ever made. But once again, many others differ from that idea stating that “it was a computer game, not a video game” or “the output display was an oscilloscope, not a video display… so it does not qualify as a video game”. But you know… you can’t please everyone…

It is also rumored that “Tennis for Two” was the inspiration for Atari’s mega hit “Pong”, but this rumor has always been strongly denied… obviously.

Here is a video of two guys playing the original “Tennis for Two”:

1961: Spacewar!

“Spacewar!” video game was created by Stephen Russell, with the contributions of J. Martin Graetz, Peter Samson, Alan Kotok, Wayne Witanen and Dan Edwards from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the decade of the 60s, MIT was “the place to be” if you wanted to do computer research and development. So this group of innovative guys took advantage of a brand-new computer that would be arriving campus very soon (a DEC PDP-1) and started thinking about what kind of demonstration programs would be developed. When they found out that a “Precision CRT Display” would be installed to the computer, they all agreed that “some sort of visual/interactive game” would be the demo-ware of choice for the PDP-1. And after some discussion, it was soon decided to be a spaceship fighting game of some sort. After that decision, all other ideas started coming out pretty fast: like game rules, basic design, programming ideas, and so on.

So after about 200 man/hours of work, the first version of the game was finally finished. The game consisted of two spaceships (nicknamed “pencil” and “wedge”) shooting missiles at each other with a star at the center of the screen (which “pulls” both spaceships with its gravitational force). Each spaceship was controlled by a set of console switches (for rotation, speed, missiles, and “hyperspace”). A limited amount of fuel and weapons was available for each spaceship, and the hyperspace function was like a “last resort”, in
case everything else fails (it could either “save you or break you”).

The computer game was an instant hit between MIT computing enthusiasts, and soon they started making their own changes to the game program (like real star charts for background, star/no star option, angular momentum option, disable background, etc.). The program was ported to many other computer platforms (since it required a video display, a hard to find option in 1960s computers, it was mostly ported to newer/cheaper DEC systems like the PDP-10 and PDP-11).

The following video shows a game of Spacewar! in action:

Spacewar! Is not only considered by many as the first real video game (notice that this one has a video display), but it also have a proven trajectory of being the true antecessor of the first arcade game, as well as being the inspiration of many other video games, consoles, and even video gaming companies (can you say “Atari”?…). But that’s another story, arcade games and console video games are written in a different page of the history of video games (so stay tuned for future articles on these subjects).


So there they are, the “First Video Game” nominees. Which one do you think is the first video game?… If you ask me, I think all these games were pioneers of its time, and should be credited as a whole as the beginners of the video gaming revolution. More than looking for which one was the first video game, what is really important is that they were made, period. Like Stephen Russell, creator of Spacewar! said: “If I hadn’t done it,
someone would’ve done something equally exciting if not better in the next six months. I just happened to get there first