Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Early Mainframe Games


Second post in a series on early video game history. Watch the video above, or just read the notes below:

  • While it was the first mainframe game to spread beyond its creators, Space War was by no means the last. Like spacewar they were all written at the few large institutions that could afford the machines, and coded in machine language for that specific make and model.
    • Sadly, system administrators would purge their systems of unauthorized programs on a regular basis, to preserve resources for the institutions' legitimate business, so it's impossible to know how many early games have been lost forever... but a decent enough handful were remembered well enough to be recreated and ported to higher-level languages and more modern machines. 
    • It's important to remember as we go on, that most of these mainframes didn't have the CRT screens of MIT's PDP-1, so long after Spacewar most of these games were instead played with peripherals like the teleprinter, a device developed in the 19th century for use with telegraph that had been adapted as an mainframe computer's output device - users typed in commands, and received printed responses on the same paper. 
  • 1964's The Sumerian Game was, if anything, even more of a pioneer in the industry than Spacewar! before it. It is generally recognized as the first economic sim, the prototypical city building game, the first edutainment title, the first game with a narrative, and the first game designed and written by a woman.
    • Initially designed as part of a study into the use of computer-based simulations as teaching aids in schools, it was written and designed by fourth grade teacher Mabel Addis, and coded by IBM programmer William McKay in the Fortran language on an IBM 7090 - a vacuum tube machine then worth almost $3 million.
    • Inspired by the game Monopoly, Addis wanted to create a game that could help teach children economic theory while avoiding the current overuse of Greek civilization as a historical framing. She instead went back to the city-states of ancient Sumer to put players in the throne of the kings of Lagash over three successive - and more economically complex - reigns.
    • In each of the game's rounds players would be appraised of the city-state's population, farmland, and grain, and be asked how much grain would be distributed as food, planted, or stored. Subsequent rounds report on the results of these choices, as well as random events like technological innovations, droughts, or grain spoilage.
    • In the second and third sections of the game, complications were added, like deciding how much population to allocate to farming or manufacturing.
    • An expanded version of the game in 1966 added an advisor character who would interpret the events of the game for the player, along with taped audio segments and slideshow presentation - the first video game cutscenes.
    • As this was an educational study, gameplay audiences were extremely limited - each version of the Sumerian Game was played by thirty students in a single session. If that were the end of it, the game would be no more notable in the history of game development than other single-institution projects and tech demos of decades past.
    • However, in 1968 DEC employee Doug Dyment had the game explained to him by a woman who'd seen it, and decided to recreate the game in the newly developed FOCAL language on one of DEC's PDP-8 minicomputers.
    • While nowhere near as large as the 1070 or even the PDP-1, the 8 still cost nearly twenty thousand dollars in mid-60s money and weighed 250 pounds - still yet not anywhere near a consumer product.
    • Titled King of Sumeria and only replicating the first grain-focused phase of The Sumerian Game, Dyment rewrote his version to focus on the far more well known Sumerian king Hammurabi. Dyment's game grew popular in the programming community during the 1970s, with versions of it being a popular first project for hobbyists trying to pick up the skill.
    • A third evolution of the game came in David H Ahl's adaptation of the game into BASIC, a language capable of running not just on mainframes and minicomputers but personal computers as well, and featured in his 1973 book BASIC Computer Games.
  • 1968 saw the development of the text-based simulation game Civil War. The game recreates fourteen battles of the war, with the player taking on the role of the South set against the computer's North.
    • What control the player has over the outcome of each battle is limited to how much to spend on food, pay for officers, ammunition, and which offensive or defensive strategy to employ. 
    • As with the Sumerian game, Civil War is mostly known through Ahl's BASIC Computer Games, and is credited within to L. Cram, L. Goodie and D. Hibbard, three students in Lexington High School, Massachusetts. Ahl's version adds a two player option, which was carried over in Creative Computing's 1975 port for the Commodore PET.
  • Lunar was another PDP-8 program written in FOCAL, this one in 1969 by high school student Jim Storer, and soon ported to BASIC - three versions of which were included in Ahl's book. This game, obviously enough, created the Lunar Lander genre in which the player controls a primitive craft's thrust and vector while trying to land on the moon.
    • While later arcade and graphical versions were released, the earliest programs are textual and turn based... in Storer's original, the player only decides how much vertical thrust to apply during each ten-second turn, based on current velocity and fuel stores.
  • In 1971 high school senior Mike Mayfield was teaching himself how to program at a computer lab at the University of California. There, he encountered Space War! On the lab's PDP-10 computer. Having gained access to the lab's more powerful 32-bit SDS-7 mainframe, Mayfield set out to create a version of Spacewar! For the machine.
    • The difficulty here was that the SDS-7 at the lab, while more powerful, lacked a vector monitor - instead it housed a teleprinter for input and output. 
    • After brainstorming with some friends, Mayfield came up with the idea of a game based on Star Trek that would print up a map of the galaxy and local star system. The player controls the USS Enterprise as they fly through the galaxy, seeking to eliminate as many Klingons as possible within the game's time limit.
    • Every object in the game - stars, starbases, the player's ship, and klingons - are represented by text characters in a grid, printed out each turn. The game grew very popular, and was ported to different systems and enhanced by programmers throughout the 70s - most notably Bob Leedom's version for the Data General Nova 800 minicomputer, which saw an overhauled user interface and expanded gameplay options, coming to be known as Super Star Trek.
    • Development continued well into the era of the video game industry, including commercial variants including Apple Trek for the Apple II+, Atari's Stellar Track for the 2600, and Trek-80 for the TRS-80.
  • English Major Don Daglow found, in 1971, a PDP-10 minicomputer set up in the dorm at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
    • Seeing game development as another form of writing, Daglow became one of the more prolific creators of early mainframe games, and would work in the industry into the 1990s, creating such classics as Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical massively multiplayer online game.
    • His first game, though, was 1971's Baseball - the first interactive baseball game, in which players could manage the team mid-game. The game was text-based, and Players could make decisions as the batter or pitcher - to walk, steal, bunt, and so forth. Daglow would continue development of the game all the way into the 80s, culminating with 1983's Intellivsion World Series Baseball.
    • In addition to a variation of Mayfield's Star Trek, Daglow also wrote an unlicensed computer adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons called Dungeon, that included top down line-of-sight displays and automapping.

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