As one might guess, the first video game spawned out of boredom. A physicist and government employee named Willy Higinbotham had taken a job working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a power plant in New York. Every year, people would come through his lab for the open house to see how safe everything was. Higinbotham noticed how bored the people seemed and decided that it was time to remedy the situation. So he looked about the lab and found a few things with which to make what would form history, unbeknownst to him. He took an oscilloscope, what would be the first monitor, and a simple analog computer and put together a simple ping pong simulation using the computer to talk to the oscilloscope and put a bouncing dot of light and a bar which it bounced off of. The oscilloscope had been around for a little while but the computer was similar to the kind which were used to coordinate the millions of bombs dropped in World War II. Also, in order to program the physics of the game he used the current and much used protocol of missile trajectory plotting. Thus was killing technology used to entertain. Three weeks after its inception, Tennis for Two is born from the mind of Higinbotham and the hands of a man named Robert V. Dvorak. It was introduced in October at the power plant and also at a local gymnasium. The entire unit consisted of the main analog computer, the oscilloscope, and two project boxes each with a dial and a button, used for moving the paddle and serving the ball respectively. This game became wildly popular. So popular, in fact, that Higinbotham was forced to put a time limit on how long people played it. Despite this, the components were broken down for other uses and Higinbotham went on to other things two years later. Thinking the idea too obvious, however, he did not patent his invention, a decision representing the ideal of non-corporate developers who are in it for the art, not the money. Nevertheless, his decision against patenting his boredom-beater may have been a pivotal decision in the history of video games.
Higinbotham was correct in his assessment of the games simplistic and fun nature and many companies have since taken him up on his idea. Under aliases such as table tennis, bouncing ball, and the ever popular Pong, Higinbotham's idea is one of the most cloned in video game history.
The next video game was the first to be developed by an actual group of people. That group was the infamous Tech Model Railroad Club of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was not their first major contribution to the computer industry and it definitely would not be their last. The Tech Model Railroad Club is to this day thriving and innovating. The TMRC is made up of a group of hardcore computer geeks, hackers and nerds who mass together and talk about technology. Another of the jobs that they take by default is to test any new "nifty" hardware that comes on campus to the point where they know everything about it. The system was the Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-1. The purpose of this machine was to demonstrate the power and intrigue of computers. Therefore, the guys at TMRC decided to make a program that would push the system to it's full limits. The group that would accomplish this daunting task are Wayne Witanen, J. Martin Graetz, and Steve Russell. There were several other contributors as well including Alan Kotok, who contributed the sine-cosine routines for the game; and Peter Samson, who contributed the code for the backdrop of stars from a program he wrote called "Expensive Planetarium". Russell was the main programmer and the first game producer. They decided to program a game into the PDP in honor of one of their most beloved author's of that time, E. E. Smith. After months of hacking into the inner workings of the PDP they produced a game that weighed in at a massive 9 Kilobytes. The principle for the game was there was a ship called a wedge that fought against a ship called the needle, named thus because that's exactly what they looked like, against a backdrop of stars. This game maxed out the refrigerator-sized computer and people loved it so much that they were forced to implement a scoring system to keep people from playing for hours on end. It was so popular, in fact, that it became the first game to be shared over a network. Back in the sixties, the internet did not exist and it's grandfather was a fledgling network between colleges called the ARPAnet. It was a text based network for transferring files only. Another testament to Space Wars' popularity was the fact that Digital Equipment Corporation, the makers of the PDP-1, actually installed it as standard on all of the units that they sold. This however, was far from something that the everyday consumer could buy due to the fact that it cost over $120,000. Despite this, it would still inspire the first games on the first home systems.
The next innovators name was Ralph Baer. He was born in Nazi Germany and his family escaped to the US. in 1938. Thank goodness he did because his innovation would change and affect the history of video games and perhaps computers themselves. In 1943 Baer enlisted in the Army and served in the intelligence division for 3 years. When he returned from the war, he enrolled in the American Institute of Television Technology. Here is where he would learn the skills that would enable him to create the first true home console. The idea began to form when he decided that he wanted to change the passive nature of the television into something more active, something that people could interact with. One day, while waiting for a tardy colleague in a New York City Bus Terminal, Baer sketched out his ideas for a TV based entertainment system. He later fleshed out his ideas in a four page paper. In the paper, he outlined his ideas for a low-cost system that would attach to a TV and display different games through the TV. He even talked about several different types and styles of games. This was something of an unsung manifesto of the console gaming industry. He outlined several genres that games are still being categorized into to this day. Genres like, Action, Adventure, Instructional, etc. Baer created a schematic, or diagram, of how it would go together and, in 1966, he began work on it on the side along with two of his co-workers, Bob Tremblay and Bob Solomon. The first thing they got it to do was show two dots that would move around on the TV screen according to the direction in which the controllers were pushed. These spots weren't for any particular purpose, but they would be the foundation on which an empire was built. Soon they upgraded this into a rudimentary game of tag in which one spot would be erased when hit by the other. In 1967, however, was the first system resembling consoles of today. Using the principles of the machine on which tag was built, they made a unit that could hold multiple games. On it was tag and a number of simple games and was dubbed the ever-so descriptive moniker of "Home TV Game". A number of other games were developed including volleyball, ping pong, and a few games that used the newly created peripheral called a light gun. Baer knew that he was on to something big, so in 1968, he filed for the first video game patent in history. Baer soon began demonstrating his idea and trying to sell it to several large TV companies, including G.E., Motorola, Magnavox and RCA but none show immediate interest. However, Bill Benders, one of the people from RCA that saw the game machine, was very impressed but was not in a position at that time to do anything about it. This situation would be remedied very soon, for he found himself in the vice president's chair at Magnavox. He then proceeded to convince the rest of the company that this "Home TV Game" was a good idea and that it would sell. He convinced them all and in 1971, Magnavox licensed the machine and it went into production. In 1972 the first Magnavox Odyssey's were sold at department stores. Retailing for around $100, the Odyssey was a white and black box that looked a bit like a largish top to an ice cream maker. It came standard with six plug-in game cartridges, two controllers, poker chips, dice, and a score card. The first year of production, Magnavox sold 100,000 units but sales dropped off severely after that. Magnavox did, however, profit from the whole ordeal, their ownership of the patents on the Odyssey enabled them to charge everyone thereafter to pay a hefty royalty.
The next patriarch of video games was Nolan Bushnell. Nolan was studying for his Bachelor of Science degree at University of Utah. These were a very fortunate circumstances for the rest of video game history because his was one of the only colleges that could afford a PDP-1. Bushnell spent most of his time playing space war on the mainframe and it gave him an idea. He knew that space war would be marketable if it could be scaled down so that it cost a lot less than $100,000 for the machine to run it on. Thus began his obsession. After college he was hired by Ampex (the company that invented video tapes) for $12,000 a year. Soon after he, along with his colleague Ted Dabney, begin the project to make space war into an arcade machine. In 1971, Nolan left Ampex and began work on his pet project full time. He worked on it for the majority of 1971 and that same year he found a buyer. The companies name was Nutting Associates. They had the know how because their main line of business was the manufacture of coin-operated trivia machines. Nutting built 1,500 of the machines. The casing was very futuristic by design, it resembled nothing that had been seen before, it was made out of fiberglass and there was hardly a straight line to be found. Much to Bushnell's dismay, however, the unit did not sell well, partially due to the novelty of it and partially due to the complexity of the controls. At this point Bushnell set a precedent that is followed to this day, arcade game must be easy and quick to pick up and learn, providing almost instant gratification for the player. Soon after, Bushnell and Dabney leave Nutting to become game designers, designers that would design the games then sell them to larger companies for production. This was another precedent set by Bushnell, the idea of a company who's only job is to design video games and then sell them to be produced. They started their new company with $500 and awkwardly named it Syzygy. Fortunately for the rest of the world, the impronouncable name did not stick due to the roofing company that had already registered it. Therefore the search for a name was on again, the name they eventually decided was from the popular Japanese game "Go". They named their company "Atari" which means "check" in Japanese. Atari officially opened for business on June 27, 1972 and began work on their first game, which was to be a driving game. To aid in programming, they hired Al Alcorn, the man hired to replace Bushnell at Ampex. Instead of creating the driving game, Bushnell makes a critical decision and decides to break the newbie in on a simple tennis game. Bushnell prods Alcorn on to accomplish nearly impossible feats and Alcorn did his best with the available technology. They finally fine tune the paddle speed and scoring system and one day, while describing the noise the ball makes when striking a while, Alcorn inadvertently names the game. A game by the name of Pong was hard wired into a wooden cabinet made for the sole purpose of playing Pong and it went on sale for $1,200 per unit. An interesting thing happens at this point in history, Bushnell went to the corporate headquarters of Bally inc. the largest manufacturers of pinball machines in the world. Bally made a mistake they would long regret and did not buy the rights to Pong from Bushnell. Therefore, instead of sticking with his original concept of being a designer only, his company begins manufacture of the machines themselves. They rented out a roller skating rink and began work on the machines. In 1972, they go on sale and are a huge hit. They each net more than $100 dollars a week in quarters and sell 8,500 machines in the first year. This success also spawned what would become one of the many banes that haunts video gaming to this day, stealing of ideas. As with many industries and life itself, imitation is cheaper than innovation. Hundreds of variations on the same idea flooded the market thus introducing for the first time, competition. Competition that causes Dabney to leave the company, leaving full control in the hands of Bushnell.
Through a clever bit of marketing and positioning, Bushnell managed to break down another barrier and set yet another precedent in video game developing. One of Atari's biggest rivals in the mid 70's was a company known as Kee Games. It was such a big rival, however, that Atari saw many of it's employees leave for Kee. The game that made Kee so successful was Tank, a game where two players would assume control of two tanks in a maze and try to shoot each other without getting blown up themselves. Tank featured far more advanced graphics than Pong in that it featured graphic memory which allowed for a higher degree of detail on screen. With tank, game programming began to get quite a bit more complicated. Although it was still a highly specialized cabinet, there were still challenges involved in working with the technology of the time. Tank is a huge hit when it is released in 1974. In that same year it was revealed that Kee was secretly a subsidiary of Atari. The ground that this broke was the current trend in pinball manufacturing that distributors had exclusive rights and control over a companies games. Every distributor in town wanted the game and Atari and Kee merged back into one. Along with a fair number of quite embarrassed employees finding that they had not actually benefited in any way from their moving from one part of Atari to another.
Two of Atari's employees bring their idea for a home version of Atari to management. They like the idea and the duo along with Alcorn produce the system but are reluctant to release it due to the bitter taste still in the mouths of everyone in the industry left from the Magnavox Odyssey. Eventually, a buyer for Sears sporting goods department offers to sell them under the Sears name. Bushnell agrees and the $100 version of Pong playable on any TV becomes Sears' biggest selling item. This was the system that pushed Atari even further out into the limelight, making it a household name.
1975 was the beginning of use of technology that would be a part of gaming forever. The bright minds at Midway, a company that started out making pinball games, developed a game called Gun Fight. It was the first game to use a microprocessor. The incorporation of the 8080 processor into this arcade machine enabled it to use random events and more varied play. It was also the beginning of another trend, importing. Gun Fight was originally programmed by a company called Taito who's headquarters were in Japan. This was the first of the literally millions of games to be imported from Japan, a country that would become one of the gaming meccas of the world.
The next chapter of video game history crosses paths with computer history. In 1972, Steve Jobs, who would one day found Apple Computer Corporation, took a job at Atari as a technician. His job is to refine game given to them by other companies to be produced. After working for Atari for a short time, Steve began to sneak one of his best friends, Steve Wozniak, into the factory. Wozniak instantly fell in love with Pong and even rewrote his own version with swearing. Atari was impressed enough with Jobs' work, however, that they paid them $5000 to construct the hardware for Breakout, a game that is as fondly remembered today as Pong but was actually somewhat of a clone of Pong. Jobs promised that the game would be done in four days In what would become a grand tradition for Apple computer, Steve Jobs did very little of the actual work and all of the propaganda. Wozniak actually built the machine without the knowledge of Atari, Atari thought that Jobs was some sort of genius. In another Apple tradition, Jobs told Wozniak when he got $350 for his work that he was getting a "50-50" share when in fact it was closer to 93-7. Wozniak, however, gained far more from the deal in terms of knowledge. Breakout taught him a lot about programming languages and educated him in BASIC programming. At this point he also realized how great a tool software is in the creation of video games.
During Wozniak's years at Apple Computer, he created Breakout for Apple computers. This was the first time that software could be used to run video games. It was also the first time that games were programmed in a computer language. Up until this point, arcades and specially made machines were the only things on which video games could run. All games were written in what is called machine code. This meaning that it is the most basic code that the computer can understand, it is talking to a computer in it's own language. With the advent of the Apple computer and the first personal computer, came the advent of computer games and also the advent of programming games on a computer before it even touches the actual hardware. Nearly every game thereafter was written in a high-level programming language, a language that is closer to english and human speech than it is to computer language. The advantages of programming games in a high-level programming languages is that people can understand it and code it much more easily.
The next big innovation came in the form of a technology called vector graphics. This was first implemented in a version of "Space War" called "Space Wars", a very popular arcade game. The next implementation was in a game called Speed Freak. Due to the use of vector graphics, the game had a pseudo-3D look to it, the cars and road were represented in line drawings that were transparent and therefore looked 3 dimensional to some degree. This was the basis of what would become the building block of all modern games, polygons.
The next revolution was the advent of color. In 1974, a Japanese company known as Namco bought out the Japanese division of Atari and thereby instantly made a name for themselves in video games. In 1979, they develop what would be the first color video game. Up until this point, all the color on video games was faked by overlays on certain parts of the screen to give the appearance of color. The game was called Galaxian and it was rampantly successful.
In 1980, a tired programmer at Namco got sick of creating knockoffs of old concepts which almost always involved taking the role of some form of pilot and shooting some form of alien. This led him to the idea for a video game that would have mass appeal, to men, women, and children. He wanted to make a game with a more cartoonish style. His idea was for a pizza with a wedge missing to serve as the mouth that would go around a maze and eat little dots. Due to technological limits, however, the pizza was made less detailed and it became one of the most recognizable symbols in video games ever. The designers name was Moru Iwatani and the games name would be Pac-man. This name soon became in household use and was the first video game to be popular enough to warrant merchandising. There were Pac-man cereals, a Pac-man album, and even a Pac-man TV show. It is also a good example to video game designers as to how important innovation is. It is very hard to respect a product when it is an uninspired knockoff of a previous design which was in turn an uninspired copy of a previous design. Pac-man attests to the fact that, although it is always a risk, a new idea is better than a rehashed idea. It is better to innovate than imitate.
The next big company that would shape the history of video games was founded in 1889 in Kyoto, Japan. It's business was selling hand crafted playing cards and its name was Nintendo, roughly translated, "Leave luck to heaven." They sold playing cards until 1963, when they produced light gun games in arcades. This came upon moderate success but it was not a thing on which to build a business. One of the presidents took notice of the Magnavox Odyssey that was selling well at that time and released a similar unit in Japan in 1977. The unit sold millions and the same year a man named Shigeru Miyamoto, an industrial design major, joins the company, an addition that would change the face of gaming forever. Miyamoto began work at Nintendo doing console design and game graphics. Miyamoto saw what was being cranked out of Nintendo, knockoffs of Galaxian, and came to a similar conclusion as Iwatani had. He gets an idea for a game from king kong, but, unlike many would, he does not imitate king kong, instead he innovates. His first concept drawing was of the hero, a chunky plumber with a bulbous nose, thick moustache and red overalls. He would star in "Jumpman", Shigeru's first game in which the plumber would progress up steel girders in an attempt to save his girlfriend Pauline from the clutches of the evil Donkey Kong. It was a difficult sell for Miyamoto but since it used the exact same hardware as a limp selling title they had made earlier, Nintendo released conversion kits to turn Radarscope into Jumpman. Jumpman becomes the biggest selling arcade game of 1981 and even manages to outsell Pac-man. Another example of how innovation sells. Nintendo of America, the US. branch of Nintendo that had formed a year before Jumpman's release, renamed Jumpman "Mario" after the guy who rented them the warehouse space for their corporate headquarters. The next game starring Mario was the 1983 arcade game "Mario Bros." in which the plumber was paired with his brother Luigi, who was named after the guy who own the pizza place around the corner from Nintendo of America. This was only the beginning of a legend that would spawn many of the most innovative and fun video games of all time. All of which would not happen without Shigeru Miyamoto.
In the console world, there were literally hundreds of revisions on the same basic design. Atari made many different revisions on their original 2600, while not much radical advancements in technology, they did sell alot of units. In 1983, Atari comprised 2/3 of the video game industry and employed over 10 thousand people. They have over 200 games available and, although many of them are imitations, they still sell. There was at this point a game system in one in every four homes, a gigantic amount of success. A side effect of this success, however, was the flooding of the market by companies who wanted to cash in on this video game boom. There were almost a dozen game systems released and for these very few original games were released. People grew disenchanted, and computers were approaching rapidly on the horizon. The personal computer was, to parents, a more justifiable purchase than one of the many video game systems with which children would grow bored quite quickly. And thus the industry crashed.
The only thing that saved the industry was Nintendo's release of the Famicom, or Nintendo Entertainment System in the US. This affordable and innovative system restored people's faith in video game consoles.
Today, nearly all games are created by relatively large companies by teams of programmers. All but gone are the days of individuals programming games, it's just too difficult to compete. Fortunately, there are still many innovators within these companies that are providing us with great games to go with such great new technology.
I wrote this, if there are any factual misrepresentations, /msg kp