Among the people who played Spacewar! was Nolan Bushnell (born 1943), an engineering student at the University of Utah in the mid-sixties. Bushnell was a natural born businessman with innovative ideas and a passion for games so he understood right away that video games had potential from a commercial perspective. In 1969,while working for a company named Ampex, he joined forces with his friend and colleague Ted Dabney (born 1937) to start turning his vision into reality.
The very first idea was to use a $4,000 microcomputer, a DEC PDP-8, to design a coin-operated system able to play a few different games. Another friend, Larry Bryant, was supposed to take care of the actual programming and each of them agreed to provide $100 to fund the new venture. While Dabney and Bushnell quickly did so, Bryant never contributed his share and, since it didn’t take long to realize the expensive computer would have made the project economically unfeasible, the development took a different direction without Larry’s involvement.
The duo worked from home in a small lab obtained by converting the room of Ted’s daughter, Terri, over to a work area. Ted started designing a circuit that didn’t need a computer but used transistor to transistor logic (TTL) components instead to keep costs down as much as possible. A cheap black-and-white TV set was used as display and no central processing unit (CPU) was included in the board design since the early ones produced at the time were much too expensive. The first outcome was a technical demo able to move simple squared images on a TV screen. From there,the prototype developed into a clever single-player version of Spacewar!, aptly named
A young Ted Dabney (left) with Nolan Bushnell, the founding fathers of the video game industry.
In Computer Space, the player handled a rocket ship and had to destroy a computer-controlled saucer. There were no “lives” in the traditional game sense; instead,the gaming session had a fixed length of 100 seconds. Once time was up, the player would see how many times he successfully hit the saucer and whether or not he scored more hits than the computer did.
Computer Space,3 . the first commercial coin-operated game ever produced (Nutting Associates, 1971)
Besides the simple scoring mechanic, the game also had a special visual effect twist. If the vendor wanted to, he or she could extend the playing time by another 99 seconds thanks to a special mode that Ted called “Hyperspace” where the video switched from white-on-black to black-on-white, adding some variety and excitement to the overall experience.
After the prototype was ready, Nolan and Ted had to find someone to mass produce and sell it. These responsibilities fell to Nutting Associates, a struggling company that was looking for some fresh ideas and was more than happy to give this new technological marvel a try. The deal was soon sealed with Nutting agreeing to produce and distribute the game while allowing Nolan and Ted to retain ownership of the intellectual property rights and paying them a royalty on each cabinet sold.
The creation of the first commercial video game was now officially in progress. Having worked in amusement parks during his youth, Bushnell felt strongly that the game’s cabinet was also an important factor in attracting potential players so he designed a shiny, futuristic case in fiberglass that was sure to do the trick.
The first of these cabinets was placed at a pub named the Dutch Goose, next to Stanford University, as a testing experiment. This trial was actually quite successful, pushing Nutting to produce 1,500 cabinets and to plan for a version enabling two player action at a higher price.
There was something Nolan overlooked, though—the Dutch Goose was a hang out for Stanford students and Stanford University had a PDP-1. Many of the players in the Dutch Goose had also played Spacewar! and had no problem understanding the game. However, this wasn’t true for the average person who found one of the 1,500 cabinets in a pub around the country. In the end, most people probably just stared at the oddly shaped cabinet in awe, but ultimately shied away. Computer Space didn’t fare as well as expected, but this didn’t discourage Nolan and Ted.
Computer Space’s futuristic cabinet, designed by Nolan Bushnell to attract as much attention as possible.
Ralph Baer, the man behind the first home video gaming system.
While Bushnell and Dabney were trying to bring video games into pubs, another talented engineer named Ralph Baer (born 1922) worked to bring them straight into people’s homes. Ralph Baer was born in Germany to a Jewish family and had to leave school at an early age due to the ethnic discrimination of the Nazi regime in the thirties. Luckily, his family escaped to New York before things got worse. Once there,he learned electronics through a correspondence course and only after World War II
could he properly complete his formal education.
On September 1, 1966, while on the bus, Baer started writing out some simple notes detailing a system for playing games on a TV. He had the very same idea previously in 1951 while he was working for a small TV manufacturer, but at the time it didn’t interest his boss and he wasn’t allowed to proceed further. But things were different in 1966. Baer was now a bright Division Manager for Sanders Associates,a research and development (R&D) company doing mainly research and contract
work for the US Army, and it was relatively easy for him to convince his directors to allocate a small fund for a research project based on his new idea.
The project started in early 1967 and, by November 11, there was a prototype for a two-player ping-pong game. The system was perfected further in the following months and nicknamed the “Brown Box,” which also featured a light gun device that was able to shoot white dots on the screen (see the figure at the top of page 12). This was actually the feature that excited Baer’s boss the most and allowed Baer to keep the
whole project alive despite the skepticism of other senior executives.
The Brown Box prototype with the light gun add-on
Playing table tennis on the Odyssey
Once the Brown Box was ready, it was time to look for a manufacturer/distributor.
After a few failed discussions, TV manufacturer Magnavox sealed the deal and, finally,in May 1972, the Odyssey Home Entertainment System was sent to Magnavox retailers.
The Odyssey was an analog machine able to display one line and three small white squares across the screen; it had no sound capabilities. The machine came with a set of cartridges that switched circuits inside the main console to alter the behavior and placement of the graphical element on the screen. The default game, named “table tennis,” showed a line dividing the screen into two equal parts. Players controlled one square each by moving it up/down and left/right using two independent paddles
on the sides of the controller. The goal of the game was to bounce the third square back and forth to each other (see the figure at the bottom of the opposite page). There was no onscreen score display.
The other games, which were started by inserting specific cartridges, were made more interesting and meaningful by applying an overlay to visualize additional colors, boards, paths, and targets.
Overlay for the game Haunted House, where two players had to hide and chase each other around an old
manor by playing cards to decide in which spot to move.
The Odyssey was a truly revolutionary device that used the table tennis game both as a stand-alone game and also as a tool for successfully bringing several board and table game concepts onto the TV screen, with the video experience enhanced by also using dice, cards, chips, etc. Unfortunately, Magnavox used a doubtful marketing approach that alienated many potential costumers; not only was the original price set at $100, which was very high for the time,4 but the Odyssey was also proposed
as an add-on for their own television sets. In the end, many people using different TV brands were misled into thinking they couldn’t use the Odyssey and missed out on the opportunity of experiencing the very first home video games. In 1972, about 100,000 units were sold, and when the system was discontinued in 1975, up to350,000 units and 80,000 light guns had been shipped.