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The History of Video Games

The journey from research project to global titan

These days, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find someone that doesn't play video games to some degree. However, that was not always the case. In fact, at many points in the history of this behemoth of the entertainment industry, the future of video games was at risk. Today we’ll dive into this fascinating history and find out what it took to turn a research project in the 1950’s into the largest entertainment industry in the world.

Supercomputers and Spacewar 

In the 1950's, computers as we know them did not exist. Instead, there were massive, room-sized units that were far too expensive for everyone except large companies and universities. It was using these mammoth "supercomputers" that the first games began to appear. These games were usually created as a result of research and were not designed with the intent of being commercially available. In 1952, OXO (or noughts and crosses) was designed by British computer scientist Sandy Douglas, which allowed the computer to play a perfect game of tic-tac-toe against the player. 6 years later, William Higinbotham’s "Tennis for Two" was designed for the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s annual exhibition. It received a great deal of interest, with people queuing to play the rudimentary tennis simulator, which was displayed on an oscilloscope.

Jump forward another 4 years to 1962, student Steve Russell and his friends were granted access to the school’s new PDP-1 computer. The objective was threefold: firstly, the program needed to push the computer’s resources to its absolute limit; secondly, it needed to be interesting, even after multiple viewings; and finally, it needed to be interactive. Fuelled by their love of science fiction novels, they created a battling game between two spaceships and so "Spacewar" was born. It immediately took the campus by storm. This success soon spread to other universities with computer engineering programs. Despite this success, it was never designed with public consumption in mind and, thus, its scope was very limited.

The Television Gaming Frontier

During the 1960s the television became the centrepiece of many-a-household and it was then that engineer Ralph Baer decided that televisions could be used for more than just viewing programs, he believed they could be used to play games. In 1967, Baer and Sanders technician Bob Tremblay created the TVG#1. The device was capable of creating a dot on the television screen that could be manually controlled by the user. Impressed at his results, Baer’s senior management tasked him with making the tech commercially available. The result of many years of labor to this end was the Magnavox Odyssey. Released in 1972, it sold less than 200,000 copies over 3 years and thus was deemed a commercial failure by Magnavox, who had doubted the potential success of the device and instead used it as a gimmick to sell more TV sets.

Nolan Bushnell and Ted Debney, whoever, didn’t share the same somewhat jaded view of Magnavox and in June, 1972, formed Atari, Inc. In the very same year, they released the arcade coin-op ping pong game "Pong", which was an immediate hit. Fuelled by success, Atari partnered with Sears, Roebuck & Company to produce a version of Pong that could be played at home. Again, Atari hit the mark, selling 150,000 units in just 1 year, which sparked numerous other companies to release their own home versions of the hit game, the most successful of which was the Coleco Telstar. The toy company and birthplace of the hugely popular Cabbage Patch Dolls, was the first to place a large order for General Instruments’ AY-3-8500 chip on the advice of Ralph Baer. The chip was what most Pong clones were using in their devices and thanks to an oversight from General Instruments, Coleco became top of the priority list for the understocked chip and despite a hiccup with FCC approval, managed to sell over 1 million units in 1976.

Second-Gen Consoles

From 1976 to 1983, various second-generation consoles were released, which, unlike their predecessors, allowed for interchangeable game cartridges that were sold separately, allowing gamers to create their very own collections of games. This change caused a huge influx of games to become available on the market. However, many of them were rushed and of low quality. The industry crashed and many companies, including Mattel and Magnavox, ceased production of their videogame lines. Atari struggled to stay afloat during the crisis as well, with huge competition from the now much more advanced home computer systems of the Commodore 64 and Apple II. Despite arcade games remaining popular, it seemed as though it was the end of home gaming. That is, until 1985 when a Japanese company by the name of Nintendo released their Nintendo Entertainment System(NES) and Super Mario Bros. The console outsold everything that had come before and has cemented console gaming in our hearts and minds ever since.



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