A Brief History of Videogames – #1

As I may have said already I wanna be a game developer. I am working on playful apps and I’ve published an indie game for iOS but I’m still far from being able to say “I am a game developer”.

For reason I’m not gonna bore you with I haven’t play a lot with videogames when I was a kid, and I’m quite sure this is not really a bad thing. Anyway, I fell I’m missing something about the past of videogames. You cannot pretend to create the future if you don’t know the past, so I’ll start a journey in time trying to understand the foundation of this awesome world.

Why should I read this?

You may ask: “Why should I read this? What it good has to offer?”. Most of the content is taken from Wikipedia, so you could go there and read that one instead. This is nothing more that my digest of it, with some (hopefully) funny comments and more pictures.

Episode 1 – From the Paleolithic to the 1977 crash

The history of video games starts in the early 50s, it’s funny though because as you know the first personal computers hit the market only in the middle of the 60s, and I’m proud to say the first one was made by Italians.

These game embryos run on the huge universities’ mainframes computers, not really the definition of portable, is it? One of the first games, also used an oscilloscope.

The first attempt of videogames were OXO, a tic-tac-toe, Tennis for Two, guess what it could be about, and a checkers game, which exceeded the memory of the machine it first run on.

During the 60s the first influential computer game is born in the MIT labs. It’s called Spacewar! and run on a 200kHz clock machine, the PDP-1.

Playstation 3’s processor is 16,000 times faster.

One of the big names of the era is Ralph Baer, considered “The Inventor of Videogames”, who created with some colleagues the first videogame to display on a standard TV. Videogame, TV, videogame, TV, videogame in a TV, videogame in a TV, are you getting it? It was the first home videogame console!

Good guy Ralph and his friends first console prototype evolved into the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, which sold about 100k unit in its first year on the market.

A technical note about the Odyssey. It used cartridges that changed the circuit logic of the console, so all the games where already inside the console, the only thing the cartridge did was moving switches, activating only one game. I find it really fascinating, and also inefficient, but it’s too easy to say it now.

Magnavox Odyssey is somewhat involved in the creation of the first bit hit arcade videogame, can you guess what we’re talking about?

Nolan Bunshnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari in 1972. They decided to test their first engineer skills, Al Alcorn, by producing an arcade version of Magnavox Odyssey’s tennis game. They named it Pong. And it was quite a success 🙂

Funny thing, not so funny actually, is that I always thought Atari was a Japanese company, while it’s a true born american one. Nolan Bunshell explains how the name was born in this video, at 00:30.

Let’s jump for the Atari’s offices in the East Coast to Japan, where in 1975 Taito released Gun Fight, designed by Tomohiro Nishikado. The game used discrete logic components and the version sold in America was the first videogame to use a microporcessor. Another step towards modern consoles.

Like we would do with Pong, let’s return to Atari’s offices, where in 1976 the development of the Atari VCS began. The console will be later renamed in Atari 2600.

In the meantime the geeks in the Universities developed their own games in an under the radar way, because games development didn’t seem like the proper use for the expensive machines of their departments.

As far as I’ve seen the most noteworthy examples of the game made in the University environment are:

  • Airflight, a first attempt of flight simulator.
  • Adventure, text-based game which run on “the world’s most powerful graphic chip, imagination”.
  • Star Trek, a text-base game that let us be the captain of the Enterprise. I was sure that something like this had been made in those years.
  • Maze War, exactly what you expect from the name, shootings in a maze, the first attempt of 3D FPS.
  • Telengard and Zork, first examples of RPG, again mainly text-based.
  • Multi User Dungeon, another text-based RPG, that laid the foundation for the modern MMORPGs. It was developed in the UK, and written in assembly language.

1977 was the first dark year for the videogame industry. The market was full of Pong clones and obsolete home consoles, and this saturation caused big players to abandon their products. Only Magnavox and Atari were able to survive, but with huge losses.

Is it the end of the videogame world? As we well know today no, not at all. But it’s definitely the end of this blog post. Stay tuned!

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About mokagio

I'm a mobile infrastructure engineer at Automattic. When I'm not playing with my kids or working, I like reading and writing, both software and words. Currently writing a book on Test-Driven Development.

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