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  • On Game Design: A History of Video Games

    - Jason Weesner

  •  Home Consoles

    In its simplest terms, a video game is a combination of three elements: a CPU (Central Processing Unit), a display (television or computer monitor), and an input device (joystick, button, etc.). The CPU calculates the game's current state, accepts feedback from an input device, and then updates the game's state and outputs the result to the monitor.

    The first video game console I personally owned was the Atari 2600. To witness a very important moment in my development as a video game designer as well as hundreds of thousands of other children across the country, our next destination in the time machine is December 25th, 1978: Christmas morning. Like most of the other houses on our block, there's a Christmas tree in the window with the remnants of a morning of opening Christmas presents. I'd begged and pleaded with my parents for the better part of the year and finally, when I'd just about lost all hope, my Father waited until the very last minute to bring a large, wrapped box out of his closet: an Atari 2600. The pack-in game at the time was Atari Combat: a collection of simple two player battlefields with either tanks or planes and a variety of ammo types. My Dad and I played a variation on tank combat with a maze and reflecting bullets. Things went fine until I discovered and exploited a flaw in the game which allowed me to shoot through some walls and destroy my opponent's tank in an otherwise well-defended position that I wouldn't have been able to reach otherwise. Needless to say, my Dad decided that he didn't care for video games (and hasn't played anything since) while I decided that I would like to try and fix the problem somehow.

    The Atari 2600 Combat game.

    The Atari 2600 was released in 1977 and sold well over 25 million units along with millions of software cartridges ranging from original hits (Adventure, Combat, Yar's Revenge, etc.) to arcade conversions (Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc.) to some of the first movie license titles (E.T. and Raiders Of the Lost Ark). If you think modern consoles like the Playstation or Xbox are expensive at launch, consider this: the Atari 2600 cost $199 when it debuted! However, the Atari 2600 wasn't the first home console. That honor belongs to the Magnavox Odyssey which was created by Ralph Baer (who also created Simon) back in 1972. The original Odyssey (like its successor the Odyssey 2) accepted primitive (and quite large) circuit board cartridges that played a variety of games. Additional overlays came with the games that could be put on the television to depict color! Mr. Baer was kind enough to answer some questions about his background and experiences with home consoles:

    What was your educational background and how did you end up designing the Odyssey? - "I was a radio and TV technician from 1939 to 1943 when I was drafted into the US Army. After I came back from overseas' service in 1946, I went back to school and graduated with a B.S. degree in Television Engineering. While at Loral in 1951, I designed a complete projection TV set along with one other engineer. So I clearly "knew" TV technology, having also worked part-time on design of TV studio equipment while in college. Being totally at home with that technology plus inspiration resulted in the novel concept of using a standard home TV set as an interactive game device (though we certainly didn't use that term back then). It was not a big stretch for me to come up with an answer to the question: "What can we do with 40 million U.S. TV sets now in peoples' homes other than tuning in the few network stations then available. Playing games was my answer."

    "I might mention parenthetically here that having gone to small college long before the early 1950's Space War days; I had no knowledge of other folks playing games on the face of a CRT using PDP-1's. Even if I had, it would have been a long stretch of the imagination to translate that activity into doing some similar with a home TV set."

    Editor's note: a CRT is a Cathode Ray Tube; one of the earliest devices for transmitting information on a television or computer monitor screen. A PDP-1 is a Programmed Data Processor which was the first computer to play Space War!

    Your work basically pioneered what has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Back when you designed the Odyssey, did you have any idea of just how big the home console industry would become? - "First of all, there were eight consecutive developmental game systems which we built during the 1966 to 1969 time period, number seven of which was the Brown Box, the predecessor of the production version, the Magnavox Odyssey 1TL200 system. Secondly, no one could have predicted then how big this new electronic game category would be in a few years, primarily because the unbelievably rapid progress of the semiconductor industry could also not have been foreseen then...and it is, of course, the rapid move from discrete transistor designs to IC's and on to microprocessors (all in the span of less than a decade) that was the rocket that propelled all electronic product design."

    Editor's note: an IC is an integrated circuit.

    Arguably, Simon was the precursor to games like Konami's Dance Dance Revolution. Is it fair to say that innovation was one of the prime directives of technology in the early 1980's? - "Innovation is the "prime directive of technology" at all times, always was, always will be. Coming up with creative electronic games, starting in the mid-seventies was just the natural result of the availability of low-cost electronic components. Then, I was the outside electronics design support for Marvin Glass and Associates, the largest independent toy-and-video game designers in the US at the time. We invented toys and games. The TMS-1000, T.I.'s first low-cost 4-bit processor was available (and I first built it into a programmable record changer) and everybody else was also building games based on that microprocessor,,, I used it and did Simon, Maniac, Computer Perfection, Amazatron, Super Simon and other games with Marvin Glass' support and cooperation. Simon was actually based on a less-than-successful Atari arcade game called Touch-Me. (P.S. You really should read my book, "Video games: In the Beginning"...this stuff is all in there in great detail and accompanied by tons of illustrations)."

    Editor's note: TI stands for Texas Instruments who we'll briefly touch on later with their TI-99 home computer. As for Mr. Baer's book, you can find all the information for it at the end of this article in the series' suggested reading list.

    Where do you get ideas / inspiration for different products? Do you have any philosophies for product design? - "Whether it's being able to play the piano, painting portraits or being an outstanding mathematician, it's all in the either have got "it" or you don't. Put creative inspiration together with technical knowledge (also gene-dependent) and you get novel products. If you are missing one or the other ingredient of this combination, you will never create truly novel products. That is not to say that you cannot get great product development from designers and engineers who do not necessarily have original product ideas of their own. We would be in trouble without them. The bottom line is: Do what you're naturally talented amount of practicing will make you a violin virtuoso if it isn't in your genes. As to philosophies for product design: Try to imagine what would be neat to do that isn't already being done (a tough requirement) and come up with ideas that will meet that requirement. it ain't easy."

    Do you currently play any video games? - "Rarely. I mostly watch them over the shoulders of my grandkids. I am, however, still involved in creating novel video game accessory products and, in fact, just signed a license agreement for one with a major producer..can't talk about it though."

    To date, there are roughly four periods of home consoles: the 8-bit 1st generation, the Nintendo days (or the 8-bit 2nd generation), the 16-bit era, and the 3D "next" generation. Additionally, it's important to note a paradigm shift around the middle of the 16-bit generation when the compact disc became the preferred media of choice and radically altered the production model for making game. There are plenty of resources available both on the net and in your local bookstore / library to discuss all of these consoles and ensuing events in more detail, so I'll just provide a general overview starting with...

    The 8-bit 1st Generation: this first generation is easily defined by four events: the Atari 2600 enabling the transition of home consoles from a hobbyist market to a mass market, the start of the console wars, the birth and boom of the third party market, and the great video game crash.

    Atari was founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Their first product was an arcade game called Pong which was inspired by Bushnell seeing the original Odyssey. In 1974, Atari made its move into the home console market with a home version of Pong. Here are some quick facts about Atari:

    • In 1976, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs worked on Breakout and other projects for Atari before leaving Atari to form Apple computer.
    • Atari 2600: at its 1977 debut, the 2600 cost $199. It sold 25 million units through its lifetime.
    • Atari 5200. 1982. this system was in direct competition with the Colecovision as the successor to the Atari 2600. Unfortunately, the system wasn't backwards compatible with the 2600.
    • Atari 7800. 1986. $140. The 7800 was released during the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System, but enjoyed very little success even though Atari had included backwards compatibility with the Atari 2600.
    • Atari Lynx. $190. 1989. 2 million units sold. This was a handheld system that was graphically superior to the Nintendo Game Boy, but, again, stood no chance of success against the market dominance of the Nintendo brand.
    • Atari Jaguar. $250. 1993. 2 million units sold. This was the last gaming system that Atari released. It was intended to compete with Sony's first generation Playstation and the Sega Saturn.

    So, what is a "console war"? Just about every successful product ever made has spawned numerous competitors, successors, and imitators. Video game systems are no exception to this trend. After the huge success of the Atari 2600, several traditional toy companies jumped in on the home console phenomenon to varying degrees of success. The three biggest competing products up against the Atari 2600 came from Magnavox (formerly a television and stereo manufacturer who started the home console business with the original Odyssey in 1972), Coleco (the COnnecticut LEather COmpany), and Mattel (makers of Hot Wheels and Barbie!).

    A couple enjoying a quiet, romantic evening of Odyssey entertainment.

    • Magnavox Odyssey 2: the successor to the original Odyssey, the Odyssey 2 debuted in 1978 and sold 1 million units sold over its lifetime. As a competitor to the Atari 2600, it's graphics and sound capabilities were about the same, but it also offered an underutilized, full membrane keyboard which was well ahead of its time. The Odyssey 2 library offered a few unique titles (the board game-like Quest For the Rings for example), a ton of simplistic sports and arcade games, and a couple of copycat titles that got Magnavox in some legal hot water (a Pac-Man clone called K.C. Munchkin and a Donkey Kong clone called Pickaxe Pete).
    • Colecovision: the Colecovision debuted in 1982 and, at the time, was considered the crème de la crème of home gaming consoles. Coleco struck deals with Nintendo, Universal, and Konami to create near arcade perfect ports of games like Donkey Kong, Ladybug, Congo Bongo, and Zaxxon. In addition Coleco manufactured a number of hardware expansion accessories like a steering wheel, a full computer system called the Adam, and even an Atari 2600 emulator! Over its lifetime, Coleco sold 6 million units of the Colecovision.
    • Mattel Intellivision: In 1979, the house that Barbie built released the Intellivision ("Intelligent Television") for $299! The system featured a slight improvement over the Atari 2600's graphics and sounds, but featured a much more complex controller that included a numeric keypad and color overlays for each game. Mattel sold over 2 million units in 1982 alone!

    There are three different types of developers: first party, second party, and third party. First party developers are owned by a company that produces the hardware they're developing on like Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo. Second party developers make software specifically for one platform usually due to part ownership by a console manufacturer or publisher. Third party developers make software for whatever platform they want and are usually independent. During the height of the Atari 2600's popularity, software for the platform was made exclusively by Atari until several employees broke off from the company and started their own development company. This was the birth of the "party" system as it's known today.

    • Activision: Activision was started in 1979 by Atari programmers David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead. Activision's first big success was Pitfall which pretty much ushered in the genre of the platformer (a term named for the action of a character jumping from platform to platform like Mario or Sonic).
    • Imagic: Imagic was founded in 1981 by Rob Fulop who was the programming lead on Night Driver and Missile Command for Atari. Cosmic Ark and Demon Attack were two of Imagic's big hits with Demon Attack release on the Atari 2600, Intellivision, and Odyssey 2 (one of the few third party titles for this console).
    • M-Network: one of the stranger third party developers was actually an offshoot of a first party developer: Mattel. Starting in 1982, Mattel released a bunch of ports of their Intellivision titles for the Atari 2600 including Astro Smash, Armor Battle, and a couple of Tron licensed games!

    Intense competition, product pricing, and an over surplus of software resulted in an event that would change the video game landscape forever: the great video game crash. The events that lead up to the great video game crash took place in the United States from 1983 - 1984. Low quality, high profile titles like Pac-Man (Atari 2600) and ET (also on the Atari 2600) were over manufactured and sold poorly. In the case of Pac-Man, the cost of development was well over one million dollars which was unheard of at the time. Atari manufactured 12 million cartridges, but only sold 7 million. For the ET game, Atari paid around $20 million dollars for the rights to ET and sold only 1.5 million of the 4 million cartridges produced. Ouch!

    The average game in 1982 cost around $30. Due to a glut of first and third party titles, the market became quickly flooded with product which meant that more titles ended up in the discount bin and developers and publishers started to see profits drop. At the time, video games sold mostly through toy and hobby shops instead of electronics shops which were still mainly appliance (televisions, refrigerators, etc.) sellers. As consumers became wary of new software and stopped buying games, toy and hobby shops stopped selling the games and a ton of inventory got sent back to the manufacturers. As profits dropped, Mattel, Coleco, and Magnavox dropped out of the video game business.

    The Colecovision was one of the bulkier consoles
    around at the time, but also one of the most powerful.

    The original 8 bit generation video games are simple by today's standards: the graphics are rudimentary, the sounds are distinctly electronic, and the controls are mostly limited to single digital joysticks and a few buttons. But, there's an elegance to these old games that owes a lot to these limitations and can serve as an inspiration to today's video game designers. Simplicity is elegant when it's done right. We'll come back to this sentiment in a future article, but, for now, take a look at any of the games we've mentioned so far and see just how fun they are with seemingly so little to work with.


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