Sunday, 4 November 2012

History of Computer Games - Part 1

The computer as an analog device can be considered to have during invented during the time of Ancient Greeks approximately 1st century BC with the Antikythera Mechanism. After this Heron of Alexandria (born in 10 A.D) is said to have invented a mechanical play which lasted 10 minutes, powered by a “binary-like system of ropes, knots and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel” this can be seen as the first form of entertainment using a programmable mechanism. Granted one has to stretch the definition of computer rather too far away from processing mathematical data to apply the label computer to the mechanism or automaton but nonetheless its easy to see how quickly humans create entertainment from what was initially complex mathematics. Also Hero was an amazing engineer and makes me wonder if some of the puzzles Lara Croft comes up against couldn’t in fact be possible... Heres a video and a simple Gif showing one of Heron’s inventions.

EDSAC, Cambridge University, Image found here.
In the 1950s a similar thing happened when, 10 years after the Zuse Z3 (the first electrical Computer), the first computer game “OXO” was programmed by A.S. Douglas in 1952, a version of Tic-Tac-Toe or Naughts and Crosses on the EDSAC at Cambridge University. Although I can’t find any information to support the claim that the game used one of the first forms of modern Artificial Intelligence it is true that the player played against the machine and therefore the machine would need to calculate where to play in order to win. The EDSAC was a unique computer and therefore very few people will have known about the game.

The next game to be created was “Tennis for Two” by William Higinbotham which simulated tennis incredibly well. Whilst researching for this I found that many people seemed to brush over “Tennis for Two” when I found a video of the game I was very surprised as the game is far more impressive than “Pong” or many of the other games in terms of its playability and the realistic simulation of gravity, especially for 1958. Take a look at the video which shows you both how the game was played, a couple of shots of the hardware used to make the game work and of course the screen of the oscilloscope used for the graphics here.

A couple of games were programed during the gap between “Tennis for Two” and “SpaceWar!” although referred to as interactive graphical programs, “Mouse in a Maze”, “GAX” and another version of “Tic-Tac-Toe” all programmed on the TX-0 machine at MIT. In 1962 “SpaceWar!” was created by a group of students led by Steve Russell at MIT on the new PDP-1 Mainframe. “SpaceWar!” was a two player game which involved two spaceships circling a planet, the idea was to shoot the other spaceship. The game was apparently distributed with the new DEC computers and gained popularity enough that it was “traded throughout the then-primitive internet”.

"Spacewar!" Image found here

The first Video-Game (often defined as a computer game played on a television screen) was conceived by Ralph Baer in 1951 but it took until 1967 for it to be written and until 1969 for Sanders (the company Baer and his team worked for) to produce it and show it off to manufacturers. In this same year Ken Thomson wrote a game called “Space Travel” which saw many different versions because of the expense of running it on the General Electric 653 mainframe. During the rewriting of the game the team ended up creating UNIX and “Space Travel” is seen as the first UNIX application.

1971 Saw the beginning of coin-operated video games/arcade games with both “Galaxy Game” and “Computer Space” being created. “Galaxy Game” was installed in Stanford University student union during September, it was based on “SpaceWar!” and cost 10 cent for a game or 25 cent for 3 games. “Computer Space” was the first mass-produced video-game, it was created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney (the two founders of Atari) and 1,500 machines were produced by Nutting Associates, the game never took off because of its difficulty. In 1972 the pair had much greater success when they created Atari, inc. and produced “Pong”, the game had widespread success and is often misunderstood as the first video game.

Ralph Baer’s aforementioned invention was eventually licensed by Magnavox and so the first home game console, the Magnavox Odyssey was released in the USA in 1972 selling 100,000 consoles in the first year. Frank Sinatra featured on the adverts for the console. In 1974 Phillips bought Magnavox
The Atari VCS, later Atari 2600, Image found here.
and brought the Odyssey to Europe. During 1977 there was a crash in the videogames industry, as “Pong” was so easy to copy there were “Pong” clones flooding the market and being sold at a loss. This meant that Magnavox and Atari were the only companies in the home console market despite suffering losses during 1977 and 1978. After Nishikado’s initial game for Taito “Gun Fight” was ported to be used on the intel 8080 by Midway, the original inventor of “Gun Fight” used this idea and later used a microprocessor for “Space Invaders” which was released in 1978 and managed to bring the industry out of the crash it had suffered. “Space Invaders” was licensed on Atari’s VCS or Atari 2600 soon after and became a huge success.

From the beginning, games have been made and created by the inventive intellectuals, the first game “OXO” was created by a PhD student writing a thesis based around Human-Computer Interaction. It is important to realise this when playing modern games, games nowadays are so refined that it is easy to forget quite how much your PC or Xbox or PS3 is doing. How many calculations its making every second, how much information it stores and interprets and how many people have been involved in the industry and the technology behind the machines which allow such beautiful incredible worlds to be created from nothing but light and maths.

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