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Gamescape: A Look at Development in North America's Cities

September 15, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 8 Next
 

[In the half century that people have been playing games on video screens, the art form has undergone a Cambrian explosion of growth and diversification. In columns originally printed in Game Developer magazine, we take a look at the various talent pools that have collected across North America -- including Boston, Seattle, Toronto, the Bay Area, Raleigh, and Vancouver -- and discover the exotic life forms that have taken root.]

Boston, Massachusetts

Video gaming as we know it today can trace its birthplace to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, MA. During the fifties the university was a hotbed of computer hardware research with large-scale machines like the vacuum tube-based Whirlwind and smaller (though still room filling) transistor machines such as the TX-0 housed at its campus and nearby Lincoln Laboratory.

Splitting off from this research activity, two MIT engineers named Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson formed the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1957 to manufacture cutting edge solid-state computers. Soon, their first fully integrated machine was unveiled -- the PDP-1. A radical new piece of technology, the PDP-1 could perform 100,000 additions per second and came equipped with magnetic core memory, along with a variety of peripherals including a typewriter, a paper tape reader, and a CRT. Although it was housed in a unit approximately the size of two large refrigerators and cost $110,000 (in 1960 dollars), the machine could easily be turned on and off without the help of an engineer. Personal computing had arrived.

In the summer of 1961 MIT became the owner of a PDP-1 and installed it in the university's computer research lab. At that time, a loose-knit group of faculty and students were gathered around MIT's student run Tech Model Railroad Club, drawn together by a love for gear hacking and science fiction. The group began to experiment with the PDP-1 and worked up an ad hoc plan to do something interesting with the computer during its off hours.

Even though the machine was intended for such complex scientific calculations as nuclear weapon simulation, the Tech Model Railroad Club looked at its capabilities and in a tremendous conceptual leap, decided that what it really needed to do was run a space game. The resulting two-player Spacewar! game was completed in 1962. Steve Russell developed the initial version along with contributions from J. M. Graetz, Alan Kotok, Dan Edwards, Peter Samson, and Wayne Wiitanen and the game became a favorite pastime at the research lab.

Spacewar! soon made its way to DEC's assembly floor, where the game was used as the final test on outgoing PDP-1s. Because the computer's memory was magnetic, Spacewar! remained in memory after shut down, lying dormant until the computer was turned on in its new home, which more often than not was a university. Spacewar! spread across the country's higher education system inspiring new groups of young hackers to expand and refine its game play.

Nolan Bushnell was an early convert to Spacewar!, first encountering the game at the University of Utah and later at Stanford. Seeing the enthusiasm for the game that sprung up wherever it was running inspired Bushnell to design his own arcade version called Computer Space in 1971. A year later Bushnell created Atari and with that company's foundation, along with the introduction of Ralph Baer's Magnavox Odyssey in the same year, the video game revolution was underway.

Moving in Stereo

Throughout the seventies, as computer hardware dropped in price and grew exponentially in capability, a cottage industry of game developers flourished. Early in its history Richard Garriott's Origin Systems was a small game development team in Houston led by Richard while his brother Robert who lived in New Hampshire handled the company's finances.

By 1985 Origin Systems had become large enough that it was decided to consolidate its entire operation to New Hampshire in order to complete work on Ultima IV. As the company continued to grow, Richard and the original programming team longed to return to Texas, and in 1988, most of Origin Systems' development crew returned to their home state.

However, several key staff decided to remain behind and form their own development studio called Blue Sky Productions near Boston in Lexington, Massachusetts. Founded by Paul Neurath and Doug Church, Blue Sky's first game would be Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which was published by Origin in 1992. The game was remarkably ahead of its time, and its smooth-running first-person engine combined texture mapped 3D polygons with the immersive role-playing of the Ultima series.

id Software would release its ground-breaking Wolfenstein 3D only a few months later, and the two companies found themselves friendly competitors in the early uncharted territory of first person 3D games (indeed, John Romero worked as a Commodore 64 programmer at Origin for several months at the New Hampshire location and he remained in contact with Paul Neurath after returning to Texas to co-found id). Though very different in tone, Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D would together mark a sea change in video game tastes.

In 1992 Blue Sky merged with Ned Lerner's (creator of Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer) development studio and became Looking Glass Technologies (later Looking Glass Studios). The combined studio created a follow up to Ultima Underworld called Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds and in 1994 set up shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the outskirts of Boston.

During its almost ten-year run, Looking Glass would create some of the most evocative 3D games of the modern era. The company built a reputation for designing games that were thoughtful, original, and emotionally resonant. Titles like System Shock (1994), Flight Unlimited (1995), Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri (1996), Thief: The Dark Project (1998), and System Shock 2 (developed with Irrational Games in 1999) all carry the distinctive imprint of Looking Glass.

Unfortunately, in 2000 the company ran into financing difficulties and was forced to shut its doors. Because Looking Glass was home to an incredible stable of talent, its developers would become key figures in many of the high profile companies and games that we see today.

Among the many alumni of Looking Glass are Seamus Blackley who would later spearhead Microsoft's Xbox project, Warren Spector, who went on to create the beloved Deus Ex, and Emil Pagliarulo, who became the lead designer on Fallout 3. Of the founders, Paul Neurath remained in the Boston area, forming Floodgate Entertainment, Doug Church moved on to California to work on Tomb Raider: Legend and Boom Blox, and Ned Lerner joined Sony Computer Entertainment's Tools and Technology group.


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