The first commercial video game turns 50 this week

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Noah Wardrip-Fruin is professor of computer media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This story was originally featured on The conversation.

Before Pong, there was Computer Space, the first commercial video game. The ancestor of the current US $ 175 billion industry debuted on October 15, 1971 at the Music Operators of America show in Chicago. Housed in a futuristic-looking cabinet, Computer Space took its place alongside the latest jukeboxes, pinball machines, and other coin-operated game makers that catered to arcade and bar owners.

Computer Space, made by the small company Nutting Associates, seemed to have it all. His scenario – piloting a rocket in enclosed space in aerial combat with two flying saucers – seemed perfect for the time. The Apollo Moon missions were in full swing. The game was a good match for people who enjoyed sci-fi movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes” and TV shows like “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space”, or those who had been delighted with the aerial combat of the films “Battle of Britain” and “Torah!” Tora! Tora! There was even a significant placement of a Computer Space cabinet in the Charlton Heston movie “The Omega Man”.

But when Computer Space was unveiled, it didn’t generate a flood of orders, and no flood ever arrived. It wasn’t until the makers of Computer Space left the company, founded Atari, and released Pong the following year that the commercial potential of video games became evident. The company sold 8,000 Pong units in 1974.

Nolan Bushnell, who spearheaded the development of Computer Space and Pong, has repeatedly recounted Computer Space’s unsuccessful beginnings. He claimed that Computer Space failed to take off because he overestimated the audience. Bushnell is widely quoted as saying the game was too complicated for bar regulars and no one would want to read the instructions for playing a video game.

As a researcher who studies the design and history of video games, I found that this was not the case.

Launch error

Computer Space was an attempt to market the first popular video game. In February 1962, a group of engineers from MIT created Spacewar !, a free game for those lucky enough to have access to the few bulky and expensive computers of the time.

The initial design consisted of two ships on a star field background, shooting at each other. It was a technical marvel, but not very rewarding to play until the addition in April of gravity and a big star in the middle of the playing field.

Around the same time that Computer Space debuted, Stanford University students were lining up for hours in the student union to play another version of Spacewar !, The Galaxy Game, which was a success as a single, prepaid facility just down the street from where Bushnell and his associates worked.

So, was the difference in success between The Galaxy Game and Computer Space a student affair compared to the average Joe? Was a reproduction of Spacewar !, a captivating game with a perfect theme for the era, really too complex for an audience that filled out tax forms without software and found library books using paper index cards?

While researching my most recent book, “How Pac-Man Eats”, I became convinced that this was not the case. That, on the contrary, the common story of the genesis of the commercial gaming industry is false.

Key proof that complexity wasn’t the issue comes in the form of Space Wars, another version of Spacewar! it was a successful arcade video game released in 1977.

Lack of gravity

Why did The Galaxy Game and Space Wars manage to find an enthusiastic following when Computer Space was not? The answer is that the computer space lacked an essential ingredient that the other two had: gravity.

The Star of Spacewar! produced a gravity sink that shaped the playing field by pulling ships toward the star with varying intensity with distance. This allowed players to use strategy – for example, allowing players to whip their ships around the star.

Why didn’t Computer Space have gravity? Because the first commercial video games were created using television technology rather than general purpose computers. This technology could not do the gravity calculations. The Galaxy game may have included gravity because it was based on a general-purpose computer, but that made it too expensive to put into production as an arcade game. The makers of Space Wars finally got around this problem by adding a custom computer processor to its cabinets.

Without gravity, Computer Space used a design that the creators of Spacewar! already knew was not working. Bushnell’s story that the game is too complicated for the public to play is always repeated most often, but as former Atari employee Jerry Jessop told the New York Times of Computer Space, “The Game was horrible “.

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