creators of Spacewar! were students and faculty at MIT, which by the
1960s was highly invested in computer science and engineering. The computers of
these days were clunky, room-sized behemoths, but MIT had acquired a DEC PDP-1,
a much smaller machine (but still the size of three full-size refrigerators).
also had the good sense to acquire real display monitors and keyboards for its
computers. Most computers at this time were limited to punch card readers for
input and a printer for output; obviously this setup would make any sort of
action game implausible.
DEC had a
much different philosophy than the long-supreme IBM
Corporation. IBM's vision of the computing industry was that
individual users or "clients" would have nothing to do with the
actual machine; they would take cards, programs, or tasks to designated
operators (often sarcastically referred to as "priests"), who would
be the only ones to physically interact with the computer.
The idea was that a
corporation or university would contract with IBM
for its computing services, whose own employees would handle the day-to-day computer
operations. This model had made a great deal of sense in the early days of
computers, when only highly trained professionals could operate and maintain
things differently; individual users should be able to use and program their
computers themselves. IBM's philosophy might be compared to a passenger train
system; anyone could ride, but its professional engineers were the only ones
authorized to operate (or even see) the engine, much less determine routes. DEC
was more interested in selling "cars"; once you had one, you could go
wherever you wanted and do whatever you wanted to with it. Eventually, DEC's
approach would lead to the "user-friendly" hardware and software we
members of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club quickly adopted the PDP-1, spending
the bulk of their days studying and writing programs or, "hacks," one
of many new words they coined to describe their activities. Though most of
these programs consisted of neat math or geometry tricks, Steve "Slug"
Russell -- by all accounts something of a slacker -- decided to one-up his
friends by designing a fully interactive science fiction game.
project might have sounded overly ambitious, but members of the Tech Model
Railroad Club weren't the type to back down from a challenge. Russell's friends
offered him a steady stream of encouragement and helped him stay on track however
they could. Far from the secretive and highly competitive world of modern
software development, Russell worked in what is now called an "open source"
environment, where most code was freely shared and implemented without fear of
copyright or patent infringement.
One such addition was Pete Sampson's "expensive
planetarium" hack, which replaced the game's random backdrop of stars with
an actual star field as seen from Earth. Like modern open source projects, Spacewar!
would be routinely hacked and modified as individual programmers or groups
saw fit to tack on new features.
was finally finished, Spacewar! was an impressive feat indeed. Two
players controlled one of two spaceships that circled a small star with
powerful gravity. The object of the game was to destroy the opponent's ship
with a missile, being careful not to get sucked into the star's gravitational
Players could also enter hyperspace, which randomly relocated them
somewhere else on the screen. This feature, of course, shows up in the much
later Defender (which will be discussed in an upcoming bonus chapter, "Defender: The Joys of Difficult Games"),
which also shared similarities with much of the rest of Spacewar!'s
control options. Players controlled the game by flipping four switches, but
this cumbersome control scheme was quickly replaced with custom boxes that
ranged from prototypical game pads to joysticks.
would undoubtedly have appealed to many people besides the brilliant minds
at MIT, its steep hardware requirements severely limited its availability. Only
college students, and probably engineering students at that, had much chance to
see and play these early video games. Nevertheless, development of ports and
modifications continued throughout the 1970s, including Silas Warner's Orbitwar
(1974), which let players fight it out in networked bouts on the pioneering
mainframe-based PLATO instructional system.
beginning of the 1970s, the arcade industry was limited to pinball and other
electromechanical games, and home video game consoles and personal computers
really wouldn't get off the ground until much later in the decade. Bushnell,
the man who would later found Atari, was an electrical engineer who had played Spacewar!
during his computer science studies at the University of Utah until his graduation in 1968.
Bushnell had also
worked at Lagoon Amusement
Park at Salt Lake City while he was home from school. Like most amusement
parks then and now, Lagoon Amusement offered all sorts of challenging games
that required a fee to play. It wasn't long before Bushnell began brainstorming
ways to bring the geeky magic of Spacewar! to the masses -- and make a
huge stack of money in the process.
teamed up with a friend named Ted Dabney and began work on a cheap,
coin-operated version of Spacewar!. As microprocessors weren't readily
available, the two had to work with bulkier TTL (transistor-transistor logic)
digital circuits. They built a futuristic cabinet for the game out of
fiberglass, and stuck in a modified General Electric 15" black-and-white
television for the display.
Even if the game itself wasn't very fun to play, the cabinet looked so exotic
that Richard Fleischer used it as a prop in his science fiction film, Soylent
Green (1973), which is set in the year 2022! Calling themselves Syzygy, the
two had to work long hours repairing broken pinball machines to survive as they
sought out a manufacturer for Computer Space. They finally settled on
Nutting Associates, who made electromechanical arcade machines.
released November 1971, was far
from an exact clone of Spacewar!. It did not, for instance, feature
either two-player combat or a gravity well. Instead, a single player controlled
a rocket in open space, dodging enemy fire and trying to destroy two
computer-controlled flying saucers.
The game was difficult to control, and even
though an estimated 1,500 units of a two player version were built with
enhanced control panels,
the game didn't enjoy the mass appeal that Bushnell had hoped for. As the story
goes, Bushnell became convinced that a simpler game would have a better shot at
success, an insight that led him to develop Pong. However, Computer
Space's unimpressive sales might owe more to its lackluster gameplay than
the ignorance or incompetence of players.
Screenshot from Cinematronics'
For more on Silas Warner, see book
Chapter 2, "Castle Wolfenstein
(1981): Achtung! Stealth Gaming Steps out of the Shadows".
 See http://www.klov.com/game_detail.php?game_id=7381 for
more information on the different versions.