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The History of Spacewar!: The Best Waste of Time in the History of the Universe

June 10, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Lyle Rains's and Ed Logg's Asteroids offered a terrific innovation that fundamentally altered Spacewar!'s gameplay concepts. Instead of blasting a rival space pilot, Asteroids had players destroying huge asteroids. Every time an asteroid was hit, it splintered into pieces, any one of which would destroy the player's ship in a collision. As with Spacewar!, players could hit a button to zoom into hyperspace, but might reappear in an even more dangerous situation than before. Asteroids was a huge success for Atari, and has been ported, cloned, and modified ever since.

Screenshot for XYPE's 2003 release of Thrust+ PlatinumThrust+ for the Atari 2600 Video Computer System.
Platinum featured both gravity effects and momentum as critical components of its gameplay. 

Despite the success of Asteroids and Space Wars, enthusiasm for this style of game seemed to ebb soon after the introduction of Taito's Space Invaders in 1978 (see book Chapter 16, "Space Invaders (1978): The Japanese Descend").

Space Invaders gobbled up far more quarters than any of the old gravity-and-thrust games, which suggested that realistic physics wasn't all that important to most gamers.

Soon enough, games that required players to deal with complex issues of inertia and momentum were pushed to the dustier corners of the arcade.

A simulated view of a worse-for-the-wear Asteroids arcade machine.

Then again, we might see Spacewar!'s influence on other types of games that greatly benefited from accurate physics. This influence is perhaps most keenly felt in the simulation genres, particularly with flight simulators (book Chapter 8) and racing games (book Chapter 14, "Pole Position (1982): Where the Raster Meets the Road"). However, it's also the driving principle behind virtual pinball games (bonus chapter, "Pinball Construction Set: Launching Millions of Creative Possibilities").

Clearly, all of these types of games have relied heavily on complex "physics engines" to make their gameplay feel more like the real thing. We're also starting to see more and more discussion of physics in the first- and third-person shooter genres (book Chapter 5, "Doom (1993): The First-Person Shooter Takes Control").

It's no longer acceptable for such a game to show the same bloody mess every time the player shoots an enemy, for instance. If the enemy is hit at point-blank range with a shotgun, it ought to go flying back, perhaps bouncing off a wall or two before finally settling down to wallow in its puddle of blood.

Screenshot from Midway's Omega Race from 1981, with simulated color backdrop. Omega Race was an interesting mix of elements from Spacewar! and Asteroids in an enclosed environment.

Spacewar!'s ultimate contribution however, might be its depiction of a virtual world. Although some might argue that even a tic-tac-toe or tennis game features some sort of virtual world, we don't necessarily agree.

We should understand the difference between a game surface, such as a tennis court or chessboard, and a game world, such as the outer space environment of Spacewar! or one of the islands of Myst (book Chapter 12, "Myst (1993): Launching Multimedia Worlds").

Though we could easily get bogged down in theoretical discussions of "navigable space" and "habitable environments," suffice it to say that Spacewar! introduced gamers and developers to the notion that computers could represent and let players explore coherent virtual worlds, not just simulate simple motions in abstract space.

You didn't just play with these toys; you played in them. Though later games would of course dramatically refine the concept, it should be clear enough that even with Spacewar! we see lavish attention paid to defining the game world and making it feel realistic -- even going so far as to offer a realistic star map!

As the name so profoundly suggests, Spacewar! isn't about Xs and Os on a board, but a war in (navigable) space. For many computer scientists and engineers accustomed to seeing computers as nothing but expensive tabulating machines, it must have been a revelation to see Spacewar! for the first time. No doubt a few of them might have wondered, "What have we done?" while waiting impatiently for a turn. Steve "Slug" Russell had given us space.

[NOTE: For further reading, Gamasutra has also published a history of Spacewar! written by Game Developer magazine's Jeff Fleming, covering the game from a more first-person perspective, thanks to an interview with game co-creator J.M. “Shag” Graetz.]

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Richard Kiernan
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The first computer game that I've found evidence for is a 1951 game for the British-made Ferranti Nimrod. Designed for the Festival of Britain, a World's Fair-type event, the Nimrod, as its name suggests, played a number of different variations of Nim.

There may have been an earlier game, but the signs seem to point to this machine being the first example of a computer game, produced a few years after the first development of the EDSAC, which was the computer used for OXO.

Bill Loguidice
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Thanks for that Richard. An argument can be made against NIMROD for the simple fact that - if my reading of its history is correct - it only controlled a series of lights/lamps to play Nim, i.e., it didn't generate its own display like the EDSAC and its OXO game did. While Nim was certainly computer controlled and that would make it a computer game in the broadest sense, from my perspective I still see OXO as still the first known prototypical videogame.

Jeff Zugale
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I'm pretty sure the Cinematronics Space Wars version was the second video game I ever played - there was one in the pinball arcade at the Willowbrook Mall in New Jersey back in the early '70s. (The first video game I played was Pong, which was in the lobby at Don's restaurant in Livingston!) I think I was barely tall enough to be able to use the controls, but the fact that one of the ships looked like the Enterprise made this young Trek fan drop an awful lot of quarters into that box... thanks for the history!

Bart Stewart
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Computer Space, sitting in its futuristic cabinet at one of the Baton Rouge State Fairs in the early 1970s, was the first computer game I ever played, and it blew my mind. I remember my grandfather having to nearly drag me away from it; I was mesmerized by the realization that there was an entire simulated world inside that box that was different every time you interacted with it.

The first sign of a lifelong infatuation with interesting systems, I suppose.

Matt Barton
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It wouldn't surprise me at all at this point if there were many forgotten videogames of some sort in the 40s and 50s. Who's to say what was happening in all those top secret labs? I've also scratched my head a few times at the fuzzy line between videogames and wargames. Could you say that radar was the first videogame; at least the first massively multiplayer "game?"

Gerard Gouault
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A device called the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device was patented in the United States by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. The patent was filed on January 25, 1947, and issued on December 14, 1948. It described using eight vacuum tubes to simulate a missile firing at a target and contains knobs to adjust the curve and speed of the missile. Because computer graphics could not be drawn electronically at the time, small targets were drawn on a simple overlay and placed on the screen.