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Paris GDC: Baer On The Industry’s Birth, Preserving History

Paris GDC: Baer On The Industry’s Birth, Preserving History Exclusive

June 23, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff

June 23, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff
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Delivering a lecture at the Paris Game Developers Conference (run by Think Services, as is Gamasutra), game pioneer and Odyssey console creator Ralph Baer discussed the birth of the video game industry and the importance of preserving history.

Baer began the lecture, titled How to Create an Industry: The Making of the Brown Box and Pong, by recounting his work developing the first video game console at Sanders Associates, a defense contractor now a subsidiary of of defense and aerospace company BAE Systems.

He explained, “We had very primitive means through which to work, and the name of the game was ‘what do we do with this limited technology?’”

The First Video Games

Baer noted that prior to developing the first video games, he had considered the idea of putting content on televisions: “The ideas of car driving, chase games, and light gun games with the television, it was all there, but the document didn’t do much back in 1966.” Over the next year and a half, though, Baer and his team at Sanders developed these titles.

The first game Baer’s team developed was a box with a chase game in which one dot chased another. Their second creation was a light gun game which used a rifle controller.

The Brown Box

Before talking about the Brown Box, the Magnavox Odyssey’s prototype, Baer showed an image of a game in which players pumped a physical handle to fill a bucket that overlayed the screen: “Since we had nothing but little spots and horizontal lines on the television, we had ideas of simple overlays.”

He continued: “Here’s the breakthrough – if you look up in the corner, it says November 11, 1967. Here we’re talking about using joysticks for ping-pong playing, hockey playing, all sorts of sports games. The end of the line was the Brown Box. The original one you see here is up at the Smithsonian in Washington.”

Baer went over his reasoning for why he eventually decided to bring the technology to television manufacturers: “It occurred to me that we have in our hardware the same stuff – transistors, resistors, et cetera – as the vintage television sets. So who better to push it than television manufacturers?”

It wasn’t until 1970 when Baer and his team reached a license agreement with Magnavox: “The engineers had only one year to produce it, so we just copied the Brown Box, and that’s what the Odyssey was in 1972.”

On Wii Technology

Discussing his work with Acsiom’s Bob Pelovitz, Baer updated attendees on his work since the Odyssey: “For the last 25 years, I’ve been doing toys and games. I’ve been busy cranking out things with games – right now we’re working [on] a peripheral for the PS2 or PS3 or the Wii.”

He added: “Back in the old days we had some ideas that are used in the Wii – we had some people from Konami come and see some positional movement stuff, with velocity and all that – we were just 10 or 12 years too soon. But I’m glad it eventually came out.”

Preserving History

Baer made a point to comment that, like corporations, video games need people to track its history: “The reason we still have some documents is because I’m a pack-rat and I never thrown anything away. Second, in the mid-70s the lawsuits began. We had to sue all the arcade industry folks that were infringing on our copyrights.”

Were it not for the lawsuit documents, Baer argues that we would not have a record of what actually happened. “One thing I learned is that virtually anything you remember is wrong. Especially in the telling of it, it seems to change. Everyone tells it a different way, so before you know it, you’ve got a lot of history that never happened. So, that’s why that documentation is so important. Even so, we keep finding stuff and have to re-interpret what we did.”


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