Thursday, August 17, 2006

Golden Era of video games

In the beginning there was Computer Space. This was Nolan Bushnell's version of the popular computer game Spacewar. He worked on it all through 1970 in his daughter's bedroom and then licensed it to Bill Nutting Associates under the Syzygy Engineering title. Says Nutting: "We blew the coin-op industry's mind." The company only built 1,500 of them. Nutting wanted to do another game and approached Nolan, he agreed to license another game to them. Nutting wanted to own the game, however Nolan had the technology and wanted to retain control of it, Nolan and Nutting tried to come to terms on a deal, but in the end Nolan and fellow partner Ted Dabney went off and decided that instead of licensing their technology to other companies to manufacture they would design and sell games on their own, Syzygy Engineering/Atari Inc. was born. On June 27, 1972 Atari, Inc was officially registered and in a few months their first product became the "Pong heard around the world" as the sound of a digital ball made of light would bounce off the walls of its digital playfield and into history as the game that started the big bang explosion of Video Arcade Entertainment.

Nov. 29, 1972
Atari Pong would be a smash hit and Nolan knew it. Nolan being the superb salesman that he is, convinced Midway that Nutting didn't want it, and told Nutting that Midway didn't want it either, so Bushnell took the $500 in royalties he'd made off of Computer Space and set Al Alcorn to work on designing a simple game of TV tennis. He and partner Ted Dabney started Atari. Needless to say, Pong was a monster and before it could be patented, every company copied it, including Allied Leisure where Gene Lipkin was working at the time. "Nolan would roll over fresh if he hears this," says Lipkin, "but our Paddle Battle was a better game." Even Nutting Associates got into the Pong game with their own version called Space Pong. Pong would see many different cabinet versions from cocktail tables to dog houses to even Pong's in wooden barrels! Unfortunately Pong attracted so much attention, a certain company by the name of Magnavox took notice and for good reason, months earlier they demonstrated a home TV video game called Odyssey and Atari's new Pong game was strikingly similar, too much so. So after a little checking by Magnavox lawyers, sure enough, on the Magnavox guest book for the demonstration was the signature of none other then Nolan Bushnell himself. Magnavox sued Atari, Bushnell & Atari agreed to a license under the Sanders/Magnavox patents for which Atari paid a fixed sum as a paid-up license in June of 1976 for domestic games. In later years Atari paid much more for foreign rights. All in all, the settlement was certainly in Atari's favor due to its huge success with Pong and its many variations and flavors.

Space Race.... from the originators of Pong. Space Race, Atari's second coin-op video game was a high tech outer space version of a drag strip. You raced as one player against the clock or two players could go head to head racing through space, avoiding meteors and asteroids to get the best time. Atari's new sales flyers were now in vivid color and with attractive models as well.
(History Note: The owners/operators manuals in the Space Race cabinets were actually Atari Pong manuals and have the name PONG scribbled out and Space Race hand written over the top of the scribbled out Pong name)

Rebound from Atari. Taking the concept of Pong to an entirely new "angle" so to speak. Rebound was Atari's video game version of Volleyball. The game required two players to compete head to head in this game and with enough practice, players could learn to angle the ball and beat their opponent. Although a black & white game, it came in a rather uniquely designed cabinet with colorful graphics on the sides.

Oct. 11, 1973
The original video maze game, Gotcha was Atari's fourth effort (Space Race was the second, Pong Doubles the third). This photo was reproduced from the original brochure. They just don't make 'em like they used to. The controller is a not what you think, its not a Trakball, nope that wouldn't happen until Atari Football a few years later. The controller on this game was a joystick with a domed top to it, well actuall a pair of them on the control panel... oddly or humorously enough... they look like a pair of breasts. Atari designers certainly knew how to have a lot of fun.

Mar. 4, 1974
After Super Pong came Quadrapong. What's interesting is that this was essentially the same game as Elimination, which was created by Kee Games, Joe Keenan's company. Bushnell and Keenan decided that the best way to reach the most distributors was to design and manufacture similar games but under different names. The first experiment of this sort was Rebound (Atari) and Spike (Kee). The key distinction between the two was a "spike" button Spike had. According to Steve Bristow, the designer, "If you timed it right you could do a real killer spike. "

JUNE 11, 1974
Touch Me followed Grand Track 10 Formula K, Atari's first driving games, and World Cup Football into the arcades. Most people probably know Touch Me as Simon. Atari also came out with a hand-held Touch Me. The last batch of Pong games came next: Pin-Pong, which was video pinball, and the inimitable Doctor Pong (aka, Puppy Pong). That's right, folks. Someone at Atari had the bright idea to put Pong in a cabinet shaped like Snoopy's doghouse. Steve Bristow explains.- "The idea was to put it in a doctor's waiting room and set it on freeplay. We put it out, but doctors didn't want to pay for it. I understand Schulz wasn't crazy about it either. "

Nov. 4, 1974
Tank was the next true milestone in Atari's history. Who invented it, however, is a matter of opinion. Some credit Lyle Rains, who was the engineering v.p. in coin-op until only recently in 1982, but Steve Bristow says it was he who came up with the concept. (For you VCS fans, Tank is Combat CX-2601.) "I was working on it when I hired Lyle," he recalls, "Then I gave it to him and he finished it. A lot of the implementation was his, but the original idea was mine." Both agree that Tank carried Atari through 1975.

Atari was always catching flak from the Pinball industry that video games would never surpass Pinball games in sales or game play. Atari's answer to them: PinPong, a pinball version of Pong. Later on Atari would introduce a newer version of Pin-Pong known as Video Pinball into the arcades, Video Pinball entered the home market as a stand alone console and also as a cartridge for the Atari 2600 VCS.

Gran Trak 10, Atari's 1974 venture into the world of video racing games. Featuring excellent sound effects sound as the racing sound of your engine, squeal of the tires and realistic grash sound. For added realism it included a real steering wheel, shift lever and pedals. Gran Trak 10 gave an over head look down at the course that your car had to race through. A monster of a game in a monster of a cabinet which weighed a whopping 400lbs. !

Qwak! A unique and innovative game from Atari in 1974. Players fire at flying on-screen ducks using a rifle with a light gun attached to the end. Your shots would appear on the screen as you fired, ducks would "veer" away from missed shots. If a duck was shot it would fall into the marsh to be retrieved by your on-screen digital dog. The coin-op incorporated a unique alarm system that if the gun was stolen or tampered with the game would emit a loud buzzing sound

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The First Video Game

March 13, 1981 was the day the Brookhaven Bulletin published a story on employee William Higinbotham, speculating that he may have invented the first video game, with his tennis game of 1958.

Image of William HiginbothamCreative Computing magazine picked up on the idea and published it in an October 1982 article, crediting Higinbotham as the inventor, that is, until they heard from someone who could document an earlier game. The same story was reprinted in the Spring 1983 issue of Video and Arcade Games, a sister magazine to Creative Computing. To date, no one has been able to prove an earlier claim.

Higinbotham designed the game as entertainment for visitors' days at BNL. In the1950s, most of the exhibits were static displays. Higinbotham, who was then head of the Instrumentation Division, said it occurred to him that "it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society."

The division had a small analogue computer that contained ten direct-connected operational amplifiers. The computer's instruction book described how to generate various curves on the cathode-ray tube of an oscilloscope, using resistors, capacitors and relays. Among the examples were the trajectory of a bullet subject to gravity and wind resistance, missile trajectories and a bouncing ball. The bouncing ball inspired Higinbotham to design a tennis game. Four of the operational amplifiers were used to generate the ball motions and the others to sense when the ball hit the ground or the net, and to switch the controls to the person in whose court the ball was located.

Image of the schematic for the 1958 video gameA two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court was displayed on an oscilloscope, which has a cathode-ray tube similar to a black and white TV tube. In order to generate the court and net lines and the ball, it was necessary to time-share these functions. While the rest of the system used vacuum tubes and relays, the time-sharing circuit and the fast switches used transistors, which by1958 were coming into use.

Tennis For Two was part of the division's exhibit for two years, and it turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. The oscilloscope display in 1958 was only five inches in diameter. The next year saw some improvements: a bigger tube ten or 15 inches in diameter was used, and players had a choice of tennis on the moon, with low gravity, or on Jupiter, with high gravity.

Considering Higinbotham's background, his invention of the game in1958 was a natural outgrowth of his schooling and work experience. During his senior year at Williams College, he used an oscilloscope to reproduce a system to display the audio modulation of a radio station's high frequency radio output.

Friday, July 21, 2006


The first primitive computer and video games were developed in the 1950s and 60's by Jon Snell and ran on platforms such as oscilloscopes, university mainframes and EDSAC computers. The earliest computer game, a missile simulation, was created in 1947 by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. A patent application was filed on January 25th, 1947 and U.S. Patent #2,455,992 issued on Dec 14th, 1948. Later in 1952, was a version of tic-tac-toe named Noughts and Crosses, created by A. S. Douglas, as part of his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University. The game ran on a large university computer called the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC). In 1958, William Higinbotham - who previously helped build the first atomic bomb - created Tennis for Two at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York to entertain visitors at the lab's annual open house. In 1962 MIT's Steve Russell created Spacewar! and John's Great Adventure. The game ran on a PDP-1 mini-computer. The game spread quickly to universities and research facilities around the country. In 1968 Ralph Baer, who would later be known as the "Father of Video Games", applied for a patent for an early version of a video game console named the "Television Gaming and Training Apparatus." In 1967, Baer created a ping-pong like game for the console that resembled Tennis for Two (and the future 1972 arcade game Pong). He worked with Magnavox to create and release the first console, named the Magnavox Odyssey, in 1972.

Arcade games were developed in the 1970s and led to the so-called "Golden Age of Arcade Games". The first coin-operated arcade game was Computer Space, created in 1971 by Nolan Bushnell. In these pre-arcade days, the game was placed in bars and taverns. The game required players to read a set of instructions before playing, and never became a hit in the bar scene. In the spring of 1972, Bushnell attended a demonstration of the Magnavox Odyssey system in Burlingame, California, and played Baer's ping-pong game for the first time. Soon afterwards Bushnell and a friend formed a new company, Atari (the friend was the same one who came up with the idea for the Chuck E. Cheese restaurants). Nolan envisioned creating a driving game for arcades. He hired an electronic engineer named Al Alcorn and directed him to build a ping-pong game. The game Alcorn created was so much fun that Nolan decided to go ahead and market it. Since the name Ping-Pong was already trademarked, they settled on simply calling it PONG. The intuitive interface led the game to be wildly successful in the bar scene and ushered in the era of arcades.