Friday, May 15, 2015

The History of Video Games: The Early Years

The latest issue of Video Game Trader, #32, includes my feature, The History of Video Games: The Early Years. I've reprinted it here for anyone who wants to take a look. If you enjoy the article, please consider purchasing a copy of the magazine from the website or subscribing. Thanks for reading!
As most of you already know, the video game industry has lost one of its pioneers, Ralph H. Baer, the “Father of Video Games,” who did nothing less than invent the concept of playing video games on a television set. According to family and friends, which includes video game historian Leonard Herman, Baer passed away at his New Hampshire home on the night of Saturday, Dec. 6. He was 92.

“Ralph was a generous, fantastic, and brilliant man,” Herman said. “You could spend hours with him and forget that you were in the company of someone his age. He had a youthful enthusiasm and till the end, he spent as much time as he possibly could working on one project or another.”
The project Baer is most commonly associated with is the very first video game console, originally known as the Brown Box, which played simple ping pong- or tennis-type games. Baer licensed his invention to Magnavox, which, in 1972, sold the system as the Magnavox Odyssey, laying the groundwork for the now-multi-billion dollar home video game industry.In addition to various other consumer electronic products, such as a light gun that was the first video game console peripheral, Baer invented Simon, the popular color-coded, beep-emitting, button-pushing memory game that is still being sold today.

Baer, an inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, was a humble, unassuming man, but he did receive prestigious awards for his work, including the National Medal of Technology, which was awarded by President George W. Bush, and a 2008 Game Developers Choice Pioneer Award.While Baer did indeed invent home video games—an incredible accomplishment—he would’ve been the first to admit that other brilliant men played key roles in the early history of the industry. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the origins of the hobby we all love.


Conceived in 1961 and completed in 1962, Spacewar was the first honest-to-goodness computer game. The brainchild of Steve Russell, a student at MIT and a member of the Tech Model Railroad Club, Spacewar is a two-player contest in which each participant pilots a rocket ship around the screen, firing torpedoes at one another. In Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games, Russell describes the rockets thusly: “One of them was curvy like a Buck Rogers spaceship. And the other was very straight and long and thin like a Redstone rocket.”

Starry, Starry Night

Spacewar is played out against a starry background, with a sun in the foreground. The sun boasts a gravitational field, adding a strategic element to the game. In addition, if a player gets in a pinch, he or she can escape into hyperspace, which makes the rocket disappear and reappear somewhere else on the screen (a risky, potentially fatal maneuver). Obviously, Spacewar birthed an entire industry, computer games, but it also influenced countless video games, including such similar space shootouts as Asteroids, Computer Space (mentioned later in this article), and Space War (an Atari 2600 clone of Spacewar).

Russell’s Roundup

Created on a Digital Equipment PDP-1 (Programmable Data Processor-1) computer (the first of the so-called “mini-computers”), Spacewar, as with many creative endeavors, was not created in a vacuum. Alan Kotok and Robert A. Saunders, two of Russell’s fellow TMRC club members, invented the game’s control boxes, which included a right-left rotation knob, a lever for acceleration and hyperspace, and a button for firing. Peter Sampson refined the starry sky with his “Expensive Planetarium” program while Dan Edwards put in the gravity calculations. Others involved in the development of the game include Wayne Wiitanen, Dan Edwards, Martin Graetz, and Steve Piner.

The Father of Video Games

The first person to conceive of and execute the idea of playing games on a television set (as opposed to a computer) was the late, great Ralph Baer, The Father of Video Games. In 1966 and ’67, while working as a division manager at Sanders Associates (a defense contractor), Baer began putting his plan into action, delegating technician Bill Harrison and engineer Bill Rusch to the task of creating a game device based on his designs. Harrison helped Baer develop a rudimentary technique for transferring images onto a television screen while Rusch specialized in actual game design.

Baer’s Brown Box

By November of 1967, Baer and his assistants were able to demonstrate a fully functional ping pong or tennis game (a precursor to Pong), in which players use paddles to rebound a ball back and forth across the screen. The trio also created a game consisting of two squares chasing each other. In 1968, Baer applied for the first video game patent. By 1969, Baer and company were demonstrating several iterations of the legendary “Brown Box,” a prototype unit that was equipped with a light gun, a console, and two controllers. Each controller had a vertical control, a horizontal control, and a control for putting “English” on the ball.

A Space Odyssey

Baer demonstrated the Brown Box to a number of television companies, including General Electric, Sylvania, and RCA, but it was Magnavox who took the bait. The company reengineered the Brown Box into a more streamlined unit (a futuristic white design), called it the Odyssey, and released it in 1972 (the same year Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn brought Pong to the arcades) as the world’s first commercially available video game system. The console retailed for $100, the equivalent of $560 today.

 Unlike subsequent video game consoles, such as the Fairchild Channel F (1976) and the Atari VCS (1977), the Odyssey doesn’t have microprocessors. Rather, it contains transistors and diodes. The games are plug-in cards that essentially reconfigure the system’s internal circuitry to make minor adjustments to the basic onscreen objects, which consist of a pair of paddles, a ball, and a line.

Due to the barebones nature of the Odyssey console (the unit produced no color, no scorekeeping, and no sound), the games were packaged with a variety of extras, such as game boards, dice, play money, tokens, tiles, cards, and/or other  items. The games also came with TV screen overlays to provide color and visual detail. Some of the best games for the console, including Shooting Gallery, Prehistoric Safari, Dogfight, and Shootout, were produced for the system’s Shooting Gallery light rifle.

Computer Space
No early history of video games would be complete without mention of Computer Space, the first arcade video game, predating the more popular Pong by approximately a year. Game historian Dave Beuscher of the late, lamented All Game Guide, summed up the origins of this groundbreaking coin-op cab thusly:

In 1970, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, two employees at the Ampex tape company in Sunnyvale, California began to work on a new idea to introduce into the pinball arcades. On weekends and in their spare time, they developed the science fiction video game Computer Space. Players would be in control of an on-screen spaceship and fight enemy flying saucers. The black and white screen on the machine was 13 inches wide. The game featured left and right rotational buttons as well as fire and thrust buttons.
In 1971, Bushnell sold Computer Space to Nutting Associates, a coin-operated game manufacturer. Nutting manufactured a modest 1500 units and introduced Computer Space into the pinball-dominated arcades where it quickly came and went. Bushnell suspected that the concept of Computer Space might have been too complex to attract an audience that had grown used to the simple instructions of a pinball machine.

The first commercially successful arcade video game, Atari’s Pong was created by Al Alcorn, working under orders from Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. According to Chris Kohler of, Bushnell got the idea for the game from Baer’s most noteworthy invention.“One of the early Odyssey players was none other than Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, who visited a Magnavox product showcase in the spring of 1972, signed the guestbook, and played the Odyssey,” Kohler wrote. “When he returned to his nascent company, he assigned a project to Alcorn, a young recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley that Bushnell had just hired as one of Atari’s first employees.”

Bushnell publicly and vehemently denied attending the Magnavox event for decades, but finally admitted it at the 2003 Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

According to Kohler, Bushnell, although a remarkable marketing visionary, has for years had a hard time telling the truth, at least when it comes to video games. Kohler wrote, “To get Alcorn motivated to do great work and keep the costs down, the fast-talking, former carnival barker Bushnell spun up an elaborate lie: Atari had landed a contract with General Electric to produce a home video game machine, he told him, and it had to have a cost of goods of less than $50.”

Alcorn believed Bushnell’s bluff, despite the fact that no one from General Electric ever came to watch Alcorn working on the project, and despite the fact that Bushnell didn’t seem overly concerned that Alcorn was going over budget, so he brought his “A game” (so to speak), fine-tuning Pong as much as possible for a mass market release.

“I was motivated to make it playable,” he told “So the little things like the ball reflecting off of the paddle at different angles, I tweaked that up to try to make it as fun to play as I could.”
The cabinet housing the Pong has two analog rotary controllers for maneuvering vertically moving paddles located on the left and right hand sides of the screen. At Bushnell’s directive, Alcorn added scoring and sound to help make it superior to the Odyssey. It is indeed a terrific two-player contest, in which one player to controls the left paddle while the other controls the right. The object is to rebound the ball back and forth across the screen, and, as the simple, iconic instructions on the cabinet dictate, “Avoid missing ball for high score.”

Less convoluted than Computer Space, Pong was immensely popular (the story of the game’s smash debut at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California bar is the stuff of legend), despite not being backed by a large company like General Electric. The game spawned several sequels and countless clones, the latter of which invaded homes in full force. If you’ve ever spent time with Coleco’s Telestar Alpha, APF’s TV Fun, or Radio Shack’s TV Scoreboard (to name just a few), you’ve played a Pong clone.

A Brief Pre-History of Video Games

Prior to the groundbreaking work of Baer, Russell, Alcorn, Bushnell, Russell, and company, other, more primitive steps were taken in the field of playing games on a screen. In 1952, A.S. Douglas created a tic-tac-toe computer game displayed on a cathode ray tube. In 1958, William Higinbotham devised an oscilloscope game called Tennis for Two.

Despite these earlier strides in giving the citizens of the world more screen time, Russell’s Spacewar, Bushnell and Dabney’s Computer Space, and Baer’s Odyssey are regarded as the first computer game, first arcade video game, and first TV video game respectively. And, to give Al Alcorn his due, Pong was the first video game of any kind to become a household name.

Paying Tribute

The next time sit down to play the latest PC or Mac game, drive or ride your bike to the local arcade, or fire up your PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Wii U, remember to give a shout-out to these legends of the industry, who kick-started our favorite hobby long before there were Kickstarter campaigns.

On Feb. 5, at the D.I.C.E. Awards in Las Vegas, Al Alcorn and, posthumously, Ralph Baer, were honored with a 2015 Pioneer Award. Mark Baer, who played the Odyssey with his little brother when they were kids, accepted Ralph’s award on his father’s behalf. Rich Hilleman, chief creative director at Electronic Arts, presented the awards. Leading up to the event, Hilleman said, “Ralph and Al are the very definition of Pioneers. Every publisher, every developer, every platform, and all of the billions of players in the world stand on their sturdy shoulders. I am one of many who owe nearly all of what I have done to the remarkable talent vision of these two giants."

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