Spacewar! The Game
Many of us have played numerous games online and some of us still do while in the late twenties, but have you ever wondered what was the first computer game ever?
Indeed, the first computer game ever released was Spacewar! and it was released in 1962, and it was a space combat game developed by Steve Russel. There are two monochrome spaceships and they were called ‘the needle’ and ‘the wedge’, and since it is a multiplayer game, each of them is controlled by the player. They are attempting to shoot one another while maneuvering on a two-dimensional plane in the gravity well of a star, which is set against the backdrop of a starfield. Both the ships fire torpedos and they have a limited number of torpedos and a limited supply of fuel. The fuel is used when the player fires their torpedos. There is a cooldown period between the launches.
The game is quite simple and each player controls one of the ships and they must attempt to shoot down the other. At the same time, they need to avoid collision with the star or each other. The player can move clockwise and counterclockwise, they can thrust forward, they can fire torpedos and hyperspace. The opposing player does not know when the opponent is firing the torpedo because the button was silent.
The Story of Spacewar!
There were many games which were created in the ’50s and they were created in the context of the academic computer, and also for demonstrations of the power of computing, especially after smaller and faster computers came to the market. Some interactive games were created by a community of programmers which were mostly students and university employees which were affiliated with the TMRC (Tech Model Railroad Club) led by Peter Samson, Alan Kotok and Bob Saunders. Among other games, there were ‘Mouse in a Maze’, ‘Tic-Tac-Toe’.
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) installed a PDP-1 minicomputer in a ‘kludge room’. So, a group of university employees and a group of students were brainstorming through ideas for programs which will demonstrate the capability of the new computers. Steve Russel, who was an employee of Harvard University, one research assistant, Martin Graetz, and a research assistant Wayne Wiitanen came up with the idea of Spacewar!. Steve Russel said:
We had this brand new PDP-1″, Steve Russell told Rolling Stone in a 1972 interview. “Somebody [Marvin Minsky] had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships.
So here are the names of the people who invented Spacewar!, the first computer game ever: Dan Edwards, Martin Graetz, Steven Piner, Steve Russell, Peter Samson, Robert Saunders, Wayne Wiitanen. Moderator: Christopher Weaver
The first tournament organized took place at Stanford, October 19th, 1972.
Spacewar! took over the industry
“We talked up what was a better demonstration program, and I started promoting the idea that something that taught people how to fly a spaceship would be a good thing,” – Steve Russel
As Stanford University is located in Silicon Valley, it has an entrepreneurial spirit. And the game Spacewar! created the arcade video game industry. Nolan Bushnell, who was an Ampex engineer, came into Stanford’s AI lab at the invitation of the SAIL employee Jim Stein. Bushnell was thrilled with Spacewar and he wanted to see if there is a way to earn money from it. He then came up with the business idea to market that game. At the same time, Stanford graduate students Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck also consider this idea of commercializing Spacewar. They hooked up a PDP-11 to a wooden console which had monitors and controls. This charged 10 cents for a gameplay at the Tresidder student union building at Stanford.
This one was called Galaxy Game and it was almost the same as Spacewar, a nearly straight clone. Galaxy Game was the second version.
“It was Steve Russell’s Spacewar that really opened my eyes to the potential [of video games],” Bushnell told, in a 2007 interview. “And I’ve often credited him as being the true really exciting visionary on the video game side.”
After Atari’s formation, Spacewar’s arcade influences weren’t over. Around 1975, MIT graduate Larry Rosenthal developed his own custom vector graphics-based hardware to play Spacewar without a homemade computer system. With the help of arcade game manufacturer Cinematronics, Rosenthal commercialized the game as “Space Wars,” released in 1977, marking the wide scale commercial debut of Russell’s iconic computer game. It also became the first vector-based arcade game on the market and proved very successful.
After that, Spacewar gained several home adaptations, including a game for the Atari 2600 home console. In 1979, Atari made a smash-hit ‘solo’ version of the PDP-1 classic called Asteroids, giving Spacewar’s legacy a fresh boost that continues to this day.
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