Since its commercial birth in the 1950s as a technological oddity at a science fair, gaming has blossomed into one of the most profitable entertainment industries in the world.
The mobile technology boom in recent years has revolutionized the industry and opened the doors to a new generation of gamers. Indeed, gaming has become so integrated with modern popular culture that now even grandmas know what Angry Birds is, and more than 42 percent of Americans are gamers and four out of five U.S. households have a console.
The Early Years
The first recognized example of a game machine was unveiled by Dr. Edward Uhler Condon at the New York World’s Fair in 1940. The game, based on the ancient mathematical game of Nim, was played by about 50,000 people during the six months it was on display, with the computer reportedly winning more than 90 percent of the games.
However, the first game system designed for commercial home use did not emerge until nearly three decades later, when Ralph Baer and his team released his prototype, the “Brown Box,” in 1967.
The “Brown Box” was a vacuum tube-circuit that could be connected to a television set and allowed two users to control cubes that chased each other on the screen. The “Brown Box” could be programmed to play a variety of games, including ping pong, checkers and four sports games. Using advanced technology for this time, added accessories included a lightgun for a target shooting game, and a special attachment used for a golf putting game.
According to the National Museum of American History, Baer recalled, “The minute we played ping-pong, we knew we had a product. Before that we weren’t too sure.”
The “Brown Box” was licensed to Magnavox, which released the system as the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. It preceded Atari by a few months, which is often mistakenly thought of as the first games console.
Between August 1972 and 1975, when the Magnavox was discontinued, around 300,000 consoles were sold. Poor sales were blamed on mismanaged in-store marketing campaigns and the fact that home gaming was a relatively alien concept to the average American at this time.
However mismanaged it might have been, this was the birth of the digital gaming we know today.
Onward To Atari And Arcade Gaming
Sega and Taito were the first companies to pique the public’s interest in arcade gaming when they released the electro-mechanical games Periscope and Crown Special Soccer in 1966 and 1967. In 1972, Atari (founded by Nolan Bushnell, the godfather of gaming) became the first gaming company to really set the benchmark for a large-scale gaming community.
The nature of the games sparked competition among players, who could record their high scores … and were determined to mark their space at the top of the list.
Atari not only developed their games in-house, they also created a whole new industry around the “arcade,” and in 1973, retailing at $1,095, Atari began to sell the first real electronic video game Pong, and arcade machines began emerging in bars, bowling alleys and shopping malls around the world. Tech-heads realized they were onto a big thing; between 1972 and 1985, more than 15 companies began to develop video games for the ever-expanding market.
The Roots Of Multiplayer Gaming As We Know It
During the late 1970s, a number of chain restaurants around the U.S. started to install video games to capitalize on the hot new craze. The nature of the games sparked competition among players, who could record their high scores with their initials and were determined to mark their space at the top of the list. At this point, multiplayer gaming was limited to players competing on the same screen.
The first example of players competing on separate screens came in 1973 with “Empire” — a strategic turn-based game for up to eight players — which was created for the PLATO network system. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operation), was one of the first generalized computer-based teaching systems, originally built by the University of Illinois and later taken over by Control Data (CDC), who built the machines on which the system ran.
According to usage logs from the PLATO system, users spent about 300,000 hours playing Empire between 1978 and 1985. In 1973, Jim Bowery released Spasim for PLATO — a 32-player space shooter — which is regarded as the first example of a 3D multiplayer game. While access to PLATO was limited to large organizations such as universities — and Atari — who could afford the computers and connections necessary to join the network, PLATO represents one of the first steps on the technological road to the Internet, and online multiplayer gaming as we know it today.
At this point, gaming was popular with the younger generations, and was a shared activity in that people competed for high-scores in arcades. However, most people would not have considered four out of every five American households having a games system as a probable reality.
Home Gaming Becomes A Reality
In addition to gaming consoles becoming popular in commercial centers and chain restaurants in the U.S., the early 1970s also saw the advent of personal computers and mass-produced gaming consoles become a reality. Technological advancements, such as Intel’s invention of the world’s first microprocessor, led to the creation of games such as Gunfight in 1975, the first example of a multiplayer human-to-human combat shooter.
While far from Call of Duty, Gunfight was a big deal when it first hit arcades. It came with a new style of gameplay, using one joystick to control movement and another for shooting direction — something that had never been seen before.
As home gaming and arcade gaming boomed, so too did the development of the gaming community.
In 1977, Atari released the Atari VCS (later known as the Atari 2600), but found sales slow, selling only 250,000 machines in its first year, then 550,000 in 1978 — well below the figures expected. The low sales have been blamed on the fact that Americans were still getting used to the idea of color TVs at home, the consoles were expensive and people were growing tired of Pong, Atari’s most popular game.
When it was released, the Atari VCS was only designed to play 10 simple challenge games, such as Pong, Outlaw and Tank. However, the console included an external ROM slot where game cartridges could be plugged in; the potential was quickly discovered by programmers around the world, who created games far outperforming the console’s original designed.
The integration of the microprocessor also led to the release of Space Invaders for the Atari VCS in 1980, signifying a new era of gaming — and sales: Atari 2600 sales shot up to 2 million units in 1980.
As home and arcade gaming boomed, so too did the development of the gaming community. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the release of hobbyist magazines such as Creative Computing (1974), Computer and Video Games (1981) and Computer Gaming World (1981). These magazines created a sense of community, and offered a channel by which gamers could engage.