Tuesday, 7 January 2014

History of Video Games - Part 1

So, with the release of the Xbox one and PS4 we've officially entered the 8th generation of console gaming, and with that comes the obligatory popularity contest console juggernauts, clamoring for the opportunity to assert their superiority over the other and claim a conclusive victory as the 'best console ever.' But really these feuds didn't start with the PlayStation or Xbox, there has been hot contest between gamer's since Sega vs Nintendo, so how did those two seemingly concrete power houses fall from fame? How did we get here?

Part 1 1850s-1970s

While it hard to mark a definitive starting point in games- computers conceptually date back to mid 19th century and were a consequence of computer science and artificial intelligence research. Since computers were so valuable in 1940s, 'games' were just treated as experiments or demonstrations to test various ideas such as adaptive learning, human computer interaction and military strategy. It is somewhat ironic that we were able to derive modern gaming thanks to the money being invested into computer research by the military that quickly found it's way to being the foundation blocks of gaming. 
With the first practical example of games being used for an 'entertainment' purposes being a patent for "cathode ray tube amusement device" in 1948, along with The nimrod computer, tennis for two and space war. However because of their size and expertise, they were never marketed to the public- how could they be? These games were literally made in science labs. Space War alone was played on a device that cost over $100 000 in 1961, it was seemly unthinkable that games could ever be a common commodity. Over the course of a decade, Space War spread to computers across the country to the point where it was accessible on most university computers. 
Then came the 'Brown Box'. The Magnavox Odyssey. The world's first commercial game console. The Odyssey contrary to popular belief in an era of analog, was a digital console- the first of its kind transforming electrical signals onto the screen using a raster pattern. A groundbreaking step that would later spark the video game  boom of the 1970s. However instead of being a leap into the arms of the public, the Odyssey was somewhat of a flop, it's initial success manged to sell over 700,00 copies but the hype soon died down because of terribly poor marketing with trivial problems like consumers confusion on what type of televisions it would actually work on, and more importantly, people just didn't get it. 
It was Atari who managed to steal the spot light, launching in 1972 it was an immediate hit and is iconic as the owner of the first commercially 
successful video game: 'PONG'. At the time, the 'basic' Atari games were amazing. It raked in 2 billion in the US alone for the video game industry- it became a staple in homes as it was a simple and accessible multiplier game, and that was the beauty of it. In terms of game design Steve Russels 'Computer Space' (1960) was far more complex in design and controls than Pong, but as Nolan explained in an interview:

 "You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn't want to read instructions. To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play."'

However contrary to PONG's success, it's often suggested that Alcorn stole the idea from Ralph Baer's aforementioned Tennis game (1996). But in all fairness, its perhaps better to consider all the striking changes that were made to  PONG that were not available at the time, this mean Alcorn produced a game with superior spec- segmented paddles, an on screen scoring system, and the recent breakthrough in sound effects- where do you think PONG got its name from?

"One of the regulars approached the Pong game inquisitively and studied the ball bouncing silently around the screen as if in a vacuum. A friend joined him. The instructions said: 'Avoid missing ball for high score.' One of [them] inserted a quarter. There was a beep. The game had begun. They watched dumbfoundedly as the ball appeared alternately on one side of the screen and then disappeared on the other. Each time it did the score changed. The score was tied at 3-3 when one player tried the knob controlling the paddle at his end of the screen. The score was 5-4, his favor, when his paddle made contact with the ball. There was a beautifully resonant "pong" sound, and the ball bounced back to the other side of the screen. 6-4. At 8-4 the second player figured out how to use his paddle. They had their first brief volley just before the score was 11-5 and the game was over."

"Seven quarters later they were having extended volleys, and the constant pong noise was attracting the curiosity of others at the bar. Before closing, everybody in the bar had played the game. The next day people were lined up outside Andy Capp's at 10 A.M. to play Pong.

 "Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari" by Cohen. (pg 29)

In essence the secret to the success of Atari was introducing the true multiplayer aspect of video gaming, causing arcades to spring up around the world as gaming because an enjoyable and social past time. 
But let's not forget the other sleeping giant of video games, quietly watching the success of Atari and the rise of Video Gaming. Nintendo Co, were founded in 1889 producing 'hanaduda' cards by the end of the 1970s, were just about ready to enter the fray. 

 'The history of video games' documentary.

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