Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A history of computer games, part one: 1950s - 1970s

Wow 1962 was long before my time. In fact I think before my parent’s time too, but that was when the first computer game “space war” was created. If this is the first time you have heard of it that makes two of us. At a glance it reminds me of games like asteroids and defender but more primitive. I think that’s also due to the fact that technology plays a part in the visual quality of a game. Think about it, if we tried to run uncharted 3 on a PDP-1 it would most likely overheat the processor and explode in a blaze of fire. PDP-1 as a name doesn’t even flow off the tongue nicely, it sounds as complex as the amount of components it takes to make a PDP1, and PDP-1 is short for a “Programmed Data Processor”. Imagine if we gathered friends after school and said let’s play the Programmed Data Processor. I don’t think I would be as interested, but who knows, without the PDP-1 there would be no PS3.

So let’s fast forward 11 years and along come pong. I wasn’t even born and yet I know pong. I could go through the app store today and still find it for sale. I guess it shows the success of the game. Unlike Space War, Pong was the first commercially available game. The graphics are as basic as the ones used in Space War. However the game play must have been far more interesting for it have nostalgic appeal years after its creation. Pong was played in arcades, markets, fun fairs and other entertainment venues. Contrast this to the little known PDP-1 with Space Wars and you can see that good publicity contributes to the overall success of a game. I think that is something that still applies today.

Along with the creation of pong the 1970 see’s the introduction of early household gaming consoles. The Magnavox Odyssey was released in the USA in 1972 and the Atari VCS 2600 released in 1977. Both consoles had reasonable success and paved the way for future gaming consoles. Granted, they weren’t the first recorded gaming console. That was something called the “cathode ray tube amusement device”, even more long winded than the Programmed Data Processor. Whoever created the names must have been thinking practically as opposed to creatively. The names sound like unit designations as opposed to machines designed for entertainment. I guess that’s because games were down to just programmers instead of the vast departments that exist today.

You would think that it was only upwards and onwards from here. Well it wasn’t. In 1977 the market crashed.  This was due to the fact that Atari pong consoles and cheap clones were being sold at a loss. This was being done to clear stock of the obsolete consoles. The result of the sales meant that the newly released Atari and Magnavox consoles suffered significant losses. Thankfully the crash came to an end with the release of “Space Invaders”. The success of the game is similar if not greater than pong which means that I and my generation still know about it.

The good thing about Space Invaders is it inspired many manufacturers to enter the gaming market. This meant that arcade machines became prevalent in mainstream areas thus spawning the golden age of arcade games. The sales of arcade game machines increased in North America significantly, from about $50 million to $900 billion. That is a serious jump and if you were to calculate how much billions were then to now that’s an eye watering total. Technology also improved in this time, colour arcade games were released. This happened in conjunction with titles like Pac-Man and its addictive game play. This meant colour arcade games became quite popular.

As time moved slowly towards the 1980’s home computers began to crop up. This allowed owners to program their own simple games. And soon these games were being distributed through various print channels such as source code printings and newsletters.  Eventually games were distributed in a physical manner with the selling of floppy disks, cassette tapes and ROM cartridges. Those are all the old school ways of distribution, before our days of one click downloads.  Now I’ve actually seen some floppy disks first hand. I was young though so I found the name rather amusing and assumed the disk would literally flop. It doesn’t, it’s called floppy disk because the inside was a thin, flexible, magnetic storage device.

This concludes my little segment on gaming history from the 1950’s-70’s. I hope you enjoyed the read.

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