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  • On Game Design: A History of Video Games

    - Jason Weesner

  •  Home Computers

    Around the same time that I got my Atari 2600, my Dad decided to invest in his own state of the art machine. In 1979, much to my Mom's chagrin, he came home with a large, tan box with a rainbow colored Apple logo on it. In his words, the Apple was "state of the art" which translates to an incredibly successful marketing campaign by Apple to put their product in the hands of a public that really didn't know why they needed it yet. Dad played around a bit with Visicalc (early spreadsheet program like Excel) as well as Wordstar (word processing), but it wasn't until I sat down and fired up Apple Basic that I quite realized what we'd bought.

    Home computing was originally the realm of hobbyists and tinkerers. In the late 1970's, home computers became big business, mass-market items which steadily began to appear in more and more homes as they became more affordable and more versatile. Arguably, the most popular computer at the time was the Apple II. At $1300, it wasn't exactly cheap and it didn't offer the graphical or audio prowess of some of its soon-to-be competitors like the Atari 400 / 800, IBM PC Jr., or Vic-20 or 64. Apple games were limited by the Apple's 48K of RAM (Random Access Memory where game assets are stored during execution) and large 5.25 floppy diskettes with a little over 100 Kilobytes of storage. The graphics were mostly low resolution and low color with a rudimentary system of objects called shape tables and an inefficient means of display (for games) based on page flipping (buffering two different screen images and flipping between them). Sound effects were either blips and bleeps or crude attempts at wave synthesis that sounded like a McDonald's drive-through speaker on the fritz. But, it wasn't all bad news for the Apple II's capabilities. What it did offer was a period of refinement and reinvention for a number of board game genres that took them from the paper and pencil world to the digital world.

    For the first time, home computers put the power of development into the hands of the public. Budding video game designers had access to languages like BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), Pascal (an early form of object oriented programming), and COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) which offered relatively powerful and intuitive means of talking directly to the home computer hardware. As more hardware manufacturers got into the home computing business, the allure of game development began to manifest itself in more game-related features like sprites, high resolution graphics, dedicated sound chips, and a wider variety of controllers.

    Radio Shack's home computer lacked color graphics of any sort,
    but featured a built-in monitor and floppy drive. Some of the
    original text adventures first appeared on the nicknamed Trash 80!

    Home computers and gaming became synonymous as early developers harnessed the power of high level languages (like BASIC) as well as lower level languages like assembly and machine code which allowed direct access to the hardware and, as a result, greater speed in otherwise slow graphics routines. The first generation of computer video games fell into four categories: board game translations (computer automated gaming processes like turns, movement, and asset management), arcade games (Sierra Online's Cannonball Blitz and Jawbreaker had more than a passing resemblance to Donkey Kong and Pac-Man respectively), role playing games (Wizardry and Ultima were predecessors to games like Final Fantasy), and a slew of both text and graphic-based adventure games. Here's a rundown on some of the more popular, early home computers:

    • Tandy (Radio Shack) TRS-80: 1977. $599. Black & White. Cassette tape.
    • Atari 400 and Atari 800. 1979. These entry-level home computers were Atari's first and most successful foray in to the home computer market. The 400 had a membrane keyboard that was difficult to use while the 800 had a full keyboard. Though they never reached the popularity of the Apple II, both systems were great gaming machines with arcade quality graphics and sound.
    • Tandy (Radio Shack) Color Computer (CoCo): 1980. $399.
    • IBM PC Jr. 1984. $649.
    • Commodore PET: 1977. First computer I programmed on. Tape drive. Black & White.
    • Commodore VIC-20: 1980. $199. 2 million units sold.
    • Commodore 64: 1982. $595. 17 million units sold!

    Today's computers are far more powerful than their predecessors, but are still comprised of the same basic components: processors, hard drives, graphics adaptors, and random access memory. In a future article in the series we'll take a look at how home computers became ground zero for video game development and revolutionized the process of game design while heralding the dawn of the modern video game designer.

    Jason Weesner, Crystal Dynamics, is a senior game designer which means that he's old enough to remember D-Paint, knows his way around a Galaga machine, and occasionally requires a hearing aid to take directions.


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