Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Spacewar! History of the First* Video Game


First video in a series in which I tell a friend about the history of video games.

Watch the video above. It's more entertaining. But if you prefer to read, here are my notes for the discussion:

  • In 1961 MIT student Steve Russel and other members of the Tech Model Railroad Club created Space War, considered by most people to be the first interactive computer game.
  • To provide some context, in 1961 MIT was the proud owner of an IBM 704, the first mass-produced computer capable of handling complex mathematics, running on vacuum tubes and reading instructions off of punch cards. Costing $2 million and weighing 15 tons, its equipment would fill a large room.
  • On the surface, the Tech Model Railroad Club was just what it sounded like, founded in 1946 and made up of a few groups - some members built and painted replica trains, some built scenery and buildings, and those that created the circuits that the trains they built ran on.
  • By 1961 this last group were particularly interested in figuring out how things work. In the club's slang, a particularly clever trick, improvement, or innovation was called a "hack" - thus, the innovators of the club were the first hackers, originating the term and much of the culture that would grow with the spread of computers
  • In 1961 MIT was granted a PDP-1 - far smaller than the 704, the size of a sedan instead of filling a room. It used ticker-tape instead of punch-cards, a control panel consisting of various dials and switches, and more importantly, had a CRT terminal instead of relying on paper output. 
  • The club took to it, using a nearby drawer to store reels of tape near the machine, where any member could revise and build upon the hacks of any other member.
  • It was recent Dartmouth transfer Steve Russell who set out to prove his bona fides with the ultimate hack: creating an interactive game.Work on the game began the summer before the PDP-1 was delivered, with Russel collaborating with fellow club members Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen.
  • Most compelling to the group was the Cathode-Ray Terminal, which came with a program to display a kaleidoscope-like pattern to show off what it was capable of.
  • Inspired to come up with a hack to display something more interesting, the three settled on a 2-dimensional maneuvering demo, with the most obvious subject matter being spaceships.Russell had recently read E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman series, about space cops tracking down an intergalactic crime syndicate and felt that this would form a good basis for the program.
  • Like all amateur game developers though, his first instinct was to shop the idea around, casually mentioning it and talking it up, in the hopes that someone else would take care of the heavy work for him. 
  • Like all game developers must eventually discover though, Russell eventually discovered that ideas are useless on their own, and it's the implementation that has value.
  • Club pressure on Russell to sit down and do the work himself mounted, culminating in member Alan Kotok driving down to PDP-1 manufacturer DEC to pick up a tape of a trigonometric function Russell had said he needed to continue, slamming it down on the desk in front of him, and demanded to know what other excuses he had. 
  • Trapped, Steve Russell was left with no other recourse than to invent... video games.There were games before it - people have been trying to create computer games for as long as there have been computers, as an easily understood way of showing off what the machines could do.
  • Alan Turing had written a computer chess program too powerful for the machines available in the 1940s.Nimrod, a computer capable of playing the simple mathematical game Nim, was created for the 1951 Exhibition of Science in South Kengsington. 
  • IBM engineers spent two decades building a program capable of defeating checkers masters, and William Higinbotham created an oscilloscope tennis game for an open house at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958.While all these games could be played - even Turing's program, with him playing the role of the computer that could some day run it - each was meant for artificial intelligence research and exhibition, rather than entertainment. 
  • They were all one-off prototypes that never saw distribution beyond their creators. Until Space War.After six months of development, Russel had a working prototype featuring two spaceships on the PDP-1’s CRT monitor, controlled by two players using the computer’s built-in switches - one for thrust, one to fire, and two for clockwise and counterclockwise rotation.
  • As was custom with new and exciting hacks, the other members of the Tech Model Railroad Club modified and improved upon Russel's release. Peter Sampson, irritated with Russel's initial randomly generated starfield, wrote a program to create more accurate ones based on real star charts.
  • Dan Edwards added code to implement gravitational forces for the starfield's central sun, and Martin Graetz gave the ships a hyperspace feature that would either destroy the ships or move them to a new random location when they were in great danger.
  • Perhaps the greatest innovation, however, was one of hardware - as the PDP-1 lacked a keyboard, the initial control switches were awkwardly placed, hard to use, and wore out quickly. Bob Saunders created a detached control device for player use instead - in effect, the first gamepad.
  • Spacewar! Was such a success among MIT students and faculty that the lab hosting the PDP-1 was forced to ban gameplay during the workday. 
  • As members of the club spread out to other schools and workplaces they brought copies of the game's tape with them, making it the first game to spread beyond the institution that created it.
  • As a program that used every aspect of the PDP-1 computer, it was adopted as a 'smoke test' by DEC engineers when making sure a new mainframe was working. 
  • Despite this, it's restriction to expensive and massive computers that happened to have CRT monitors, existing in mere dozens and all outside the consumer market, meant that it's exposure was limited to a narrow band of academics... many of whom would go on to become luminaries of the video game industry.

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