14 Gaming Firsts – The pioneers of video gaming
We look back at the pioneering developments in games history, Left in the shadow of their successful peers
Though there had been precursors which used computer technology to play games, OXO is the first game to draw graphics on an electronic monitor as is fundamentally required of videogames – though it still utilised printed output in order to instruct the player and provide updates on the status of the current game. Written as part of Alexander S Douglas’ PhD thesis, OXO employed a room-sized EDSAC computer at the University of Cambridge to play noughts and crosses, with moves entered on the dial of a rotary telephone. Impressively, the computer could play a full game without human aid.
Developed by William Higinbotham as a demonstration for visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the USA, Tennis For Two delivered on the promises of its title by allowing two players to play a simple simulation of tennis, which ran on a Donner Model 30 computer using an oscilloscope display. Though it looks similar to Pong in simulated screenshots, seeing it in action quickly reveals that the game is a surprisingly accurate side-on representation of the real sport. Utilising this viewpoint instead of the top-down one seen in Pong and its variants allows the game to simulate gravity, and it does so quite well – the ball arcs convincingly over the net as it’s hit by the unseen players.
Conceived as a way to demonstrate the power of the PDP-1 computer, Spacewar! was conceived by MIT students Steve Russell, Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen. The game features two spaceships – each controlled by a single player – that must not only destroy each other but also avoid colliding with the star at the centre of the screen, which constantly influences movement with its gravitational pull. It’s a relatively complex design, and was reportedly adopted by PDP-1 manufacturer DEC as a test program due to its extensive use of the hardware.
Aside from introducing the concept of destroying opponents with projectiles, the major legacy of Spacewar! lies in its status as the first videogame to receive wide distribution. The game was ported to other machines during the Sixties and served as an inspiration to other coders, who produced a variety of variations upon the game. Two of those would go on to be milestone developments in their own right, as we’ll cover later.
A mere nine years after Spacewar! had been released, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck harnessed an incredibly expensive PDP-11/20 computer to allow Stanford University students the opportunity to play the game at their leisure. In doing so, they provided the world’s first coin-operated game. At a price of 10 cents per game (or 25 cents for three), the hardware cost required the game to be played around 200,000 times to break even. That milestone was probably reached – the system was upgraded to handle multiple simultaneous games in 1972, and would remain a fixture on campus until technical issues retired it in 1979.
When Nutting Associates released Computer Space, it became the first company to ever try to sell a videogame. Computer Space was an attempt to take the Spacewar! phenomenon and transplant it into commercial venues such as bars, where pinball tables and other coin-operated amusements had seen success. However, general audiences weren’t familiar with the concept of videogames at all, and failed to grasp the game, which entailed controlling a rocket ship and avoiding enemy fire. Failure did not prove to be much of a deterrent – the designers of the game, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, went on to found a little company called Atari. You may have heard of it…
1st videogame console – Magnavox Odyssey (1972)
“Brown Box” might not be the most enticing codename of all time, but Ralph Baer’s invention would bring videogames into the home for the first time ever. Prior to the release of the Odyssey, videogames had been confined exclusively to research facilities and the select few public places that bought Computer Space.Unlike later consoles which used programmable ROM cartridges, the Odyssey’s cartridges connected jumpers and logic circuits to enable pre-programmed games. With limited graphical capabilities and no sound, players had to rely on screen overlays and keep score for themselves. Magnavox was acquired by Philips in 1974, and enjoyed enough success with the Odyssey to release a successor, known in North America as the Odyssey 2 and in Europe as the Philips Videopac G7000. The company left the console market during the 1983 market crash.
When Steve Colley decided that his maze navigation program was too dull, his solution would make him an unwitting pioneer of videogaming. Maze War took the first-person perspective of the maze program, and added the ability to see other users, represented as floating eyeballs, and shoot them. Movement was simple and tile-based, but it was indisputably a first-person shooter. What is astounding about Maze War is the sheer number of features it pioneered. It was the first networked game, offering peer-to-peer network gaming across a serial cable and later being adapted for play over ARPAnet, the forerunner to the internet. Crafty players also realised that their client versions of the software could be modified, thus allowing them to cheat.
1st Fighting Game – Heavyweight Champ (1976)
Sometimes, it’s possible to get something right the very first time. Such was the case with Sega’s Heavyweight Champ – not only was it the first game to feature hand to hand combat, it introduced the common side-on perspective that has persisted through the genre’s popularisation and subsequent move to 3D in the Nineties. Less enduring was the control system, which gave each player a boxing glove. These could be raised and lowered to determine the height of punches, and thrust inwards to strike. Confusingly, Sega would reuse the name for a 1987 arcade game and 1991 Master System game.
Born of Will Crowther’s desire to create a game to enjoy with his daughters, Colossal Cave Adventure reflects his background as a caver as well as a professional coder. The game featured some light fantasy elements, which would be ramped up when Don Woods discovered the game at Stanford University. Woods significantly expanded Crowther’s original game, with more locations, a greater vocabulary and the inclusion of objects. Many games can trace their lineage back to Colossal Cave Adventure, thanks to its pioneering text adventure format and the inclusion of Tolkien-inspired creatures that tie the game to the emerging RPG genre.
One of Atari’s key advantages over its rivals in the console market of the late Seventies and early Eighties was its ability to bring home the arcade games people loved. But when the Space Invaders phenomenon swept the world, it was Taito reaping the rewards – until Atari decided to break new ground by licensing the hit game. Proving the power of brand names, Space Invaders turned out to be the first killer app in console gaming. People didn’t just buy the game – they were buying consoles just to play it, with the Atari 2600’s sales reportedly quadrupling following the release of Space Invaders. Within a year of release, it surpassed two million sales – prior to that point, no stand-alone game had managed to even sell a million.
Here’s an interesting fact for you: in Germany, platform games are typically called “jump and run” games. Amusing, as the first platform game didn’t involve jumping at all. Universal’s Space Panic doesn’t allow the player to jump while they attempt to trap enemy aliens, but it does provide ladders to allow players to move between platforms – a common means of conveyance in early examples of the genre. Looking back at Space Panic, it’s easy to be struck by the fact that genres can evolve from their early designs very quickly. Just a year after the game’s release, Donkey Kong revolutionised the genre by allowing the player to jump between both static and moving platforms. As the result of Nintendo’s monster hit, a platform game that doesn’t involve jumping seems ridiculous today.
1st Videogame To Feature Sexual Content – Softporn Adventure (1981)
Warfare and violence came to videogames early, but sex came a little later. On-Line Systems’ erotic text adventure was specifically marketed at adults only, but wasn’t tremendously sophisticated – as you might expect from the game that inspired the creation of Leisure Suit Larry. The game was predictably controversial – it was largely ignored by the specialist press but highlighted by TIME magazine, causing hate mail to arrive at On-Line Systems. However the game also sold well, partially as a result of the controversy – reportedly, retailers would order other On-Line Systems games to mask the true intent of their orders.
1st Computer To Sell 1 Million Units – Commodore VIC-20 (1981)
Commodore founder Jack Tramiel has been quoted as wanting to sell computers to the masses rather than the classes, and the VIC-20 was a breakthrough in achieving this. The machine was aggressively positioned at retail, being sold at an affordable price through discount retailers and toy stores, supported by adverts starring William Shatner which touted the machine’s advantages over consoles. This ensured mass market success, while enthusiasts were drawn to the machine’s surprisingly capable hardware. The VIC-20’s success would signal the start of a process which saw stronger manufacturers pulling ahead, reducing the number of competitors in the hotly-contested Eighties home computer market. It was also the first widespread format that allowed users to create their own games, a prominent trend in Eighties gaming. It was a short-lived success, though – the VIC-20 was quietly discontinued in 1985 as it was eclipsed by its more popular successor, the Commodore 64.
Developed by Sparrow for the Atari 2600 and sold exclusively through Christian book stores, this game accompanied an LP of the same title and plays much like Kaboom!, an Activision hit of the era. Though it is an early example of an attempt to promote beliefs through a game, the religious message is relatively light-handed compared to later examples such as Bible Adventures – instead of catching bombs, you catch representations of qualities such as patience, faith and love. Due to the unusual distribution method, the game is now a rarity which fetches prices of up to $5,000 at auction.