Whether it’s Pong, Super Mario Bros., or Fortnite, there’s something about playing your first video game that captures the imagination. Competition, active participation, and immersion in a new world have been hallmarks of the video game industry since its very beginning. Modern technology has helped create a Rampage-like gorilla of an industry, ringing up more than US$175 billion in sales in 2020. (For children of the 1980s, who furiously pumped coins into arcade cabinets, that’s a whopping 700 billion quarters!) However, it was the ingenuity and conviction of the progenitors of video games that got the proverbial trackball rolling.
While Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Steve Russell invented Spacewar!, the first computer-based video game, in 1962, the gateway to video game mania for many was the introduction of the Atari 2600 in 1977. This system was predated by the first video game console to hit the market, the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. The Odyssey featured a simple ping-pong game that caught Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell’s attention, and he set out to create an enhanced version utilizing digital technology that he felt would be more popular.
“I heard that there was another video game company—I thought that we were the only one in the world—and they were having a display at the Burlingame Hyatt [California],” Bushnell recalls. “So I drove up, saw the demo of the Odyssey, and immediately judged that it wasn’t crisp; it was not good. But they had this ping-pong game, and people were having fun with it. It was really simple. Computer Space [a space combat arcade game that Bushnell cocreated in 1971] had rotating vectors and all kinds of stuff. I mean, it was kind of a technical triumph. But what you find sometimes is that market acceptance is not driven by how hard the technology is but by how simple the game is. And so, I went back, and it was Al Alcorn’s first day at work, and I needed a project for him to get up to speed on the technology. We had a contract to do a driving game, and I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll have him do a simple ping-pong game the way it should be done based on what I saw at Magnavox.’ So we did, and, using our technology, the game, which ultimately turned out to be Pong, was really fun. Ping-pong was on my list to do, but, to be honest, I have to give Odyssey some credit there.”
Creating a new culture in an industry that was still in its infancy was no small task. When Bushnell founded Atari, there were numerous challenges to translating the ideas from the minds of designers to the video screen. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the reality was that Atari was constantly truncated in the games that it wanted to produce because of the construct of the technology that was available.
“Remember, the early video games were state machines,” Bushnell says. “There wasn’t any software. The microprocessor was not really invented until 1974, and it was just a 4-bit slice. The first time that a microprocessor came close to even being used for a video game was 1976–1977. Before that, they were all state machines. If you wanted a digit of a score, you put in a 4-bit counter per digit in a seven-segment decode, and then you hacked it around so it would end up on the screen. It was all counters. There was a crystal clock and a bunch of counters, and that’s how you did it.”
Once microprocessor technology began to advance, a cost-effective vector graphics display was created, which led to popular Atari staples including Asteroids, Lunar Lander, and Tempest. The total evolution of Atari’s games followed along with the rapid gains being made in technology, Bushnell adds. If you owned an Atari 2600, you were playing the games that would leave an indelible mark to this day: Space Invaders, Combat, Adventure, and Yars’ Revenge were just a sample of the diverse genres being released by the company.
Despite founding one of the pillars of an industry, Bushnell remains bullish on creativity continuing to fuel the future of games. “I always believed that the more you balkanize creativity, the better the creativity is,” he explains. “There is something that happens in large organizations that stifles the outlier. You’ll find people who just want to do variations on the same theme. Where you get true innovation is with the little scrappy dogs and cats. Think of the best game—the biggest hit—in the last 10 years. It clearly has to be Minecraft, and that came from the mind of a single person in a Swedish basement.”
In putting on his futurist hat, Bushnell sees innovation in the video game space coming from a number of different angles. He touts esports and the “time-specific” spectacle of events, such as HQ Trivia, as concepts that are challenging, exciting, and on the rise. Although the Pokémon GO craze has quieted since it became a global phenomenon in 2016, Bushnell foresees a rich game focusing on geolocation becoming a hit in the years ahead. Finally, he believes that augmented reality will take off once the technology provides for a modern set of glasses that allow users to “see and paint the world.”
While technology moves evermore forward, Atari has left its stamp on the entire video game industry. While the company was one of the trailblazers in coin-operated arcade games, it is also known for success via the razor–razorblade model of selling one item at cost or at a loss (the gaming console) to later sell paired products at a profit (video games).
Ask anyone who worked at Atari during the height of its popularity, and you’ll hear a variety of stories about Bushnell’s casual work/play business approach at that time, which range from parties, food fights, and hot tubs to plenty of long hours and hard work. “One of the things I am quite proud of is the whole idea of the high-tech ethos of a focus on outcomes and dress-down casual,” he says. “When I started as an engineer, you came to work in a white shirt and tie. I’ve always said that, to be innovative, you almost have to be a bit of a rascal. If you are a lockstep conformist, you’re not innovative. You need to be willing to break a few eggs.”
Getting a leg up
As a pioneer in a nascent industry, Bushnell leaned on elements of his education to aid in his success. He cites two classes as being particularly responsible for his later achievements: business law and accounting. Anyone who is interested in entering into the game business should understand a little bit about patents and copyright as well as licensing and the ways that you can lose the rights to your own work, Bushnell advises. In addition, students who are planning on going into business must speak the languages of finance and accounting. “If you don’t know your way around a PnL [profit and loss sheet], you’ll never be anything other than a cog in a wheel,” he adds. “Maybe I always look at things through the eyes of an entrepreneur, but those two disciplines I really recommend to anyone who is in academia to brush up on.”
What would he advise students about those hard-partying tales that seem affixed to the Atari legacy? “Well, you know,” Bushnell laughs, “it’s OK to be wild and crazy, but you just don’t want to be stupid.”
EA Sports–It’s in the game
One of the most significant shifts in the video game industry was introduced by Electronic Arts (EA) Founder Trip Hawkins, and it included how games and engineers were perceived. The approach was hatched after Hawkins’s time in the 1980s working with influential engineers at Apple, including Steve Wozniak, Bill Atkinson, and Larry Tesler.
“My ‘big idea’ was to treat software engineering as an art form and the engineers as artists,” Hawkins says. “. . . I crafted the strategy of the company around this core idea, including the creation of a virtual studio comprising a suite of breakthrough development tools, packaging like record albums, and contracts that blended in Hollywood principles. Even while I was still in school, I had concluded that a strong culture was the best organizational model for a business. My time at Apple reinforced this belief and how to make it a reality.”
Hawkins adds that while culture is about values, it was not difficult to tie it to vision and strategies. The goal was to hire people who had similar values and were inspired by EA’s plans. In essence, making great games comes down to “great people, with great passion about great ideas, that have the technical capacity to execute those ideas and the determination to finish them properly,” he explains.
That passion and execution were never more apparent than when EA began tackling the genre of sports games. During the company’s nascent days, the limitation of 8-b gaming systems made sports games a seemingly impossible challenge. While EA would become synonymous with the popular series of Madden NFL football games, it was One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird that kickstarted the company’s evolution of sports games. One on One allowed players to control two of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) biggest stars and incorporated an authenticity to the gameplay that included a 24-s shot clock, personal fouls, instant replay, and the ability to perform backboard-shattering slam dunks (complete with a janitor sweeping up the resulting mess). Allowing people to step into the high-tops of two NBA greats resulted in EA’s best-selling game at the time.
However, for Hawkins, who played football through his first year of college and, at times, considered becoming a coach, tackling the action on the gridiron was the goal. The limitations of mid-1980s technology made it very difficult to construct a game that looked like real National Football League (NFL) action with 11 players on each side of the ball—and Super Bowl-winning head coach and legendary broadcaster John Madden was adamant that the game must look like the product on the playing field. EA’s Joe Ybarra put his nose to the grindstone and met the challenge, overcoming various roadblocks presented by the Apple II computer, including insufficient memory, pixels, and disk storage; lack of a sound chip; and slow gameplay when more than 14 players appeared on the screen.
“I had really studied the game,” Hawkins recalls, “but I still had a zillion questions for John Madden, and he was a great teacher. He was also a strategic and management genius. He helped me a great deal with the playbook, coach AI [artificial intelligence], and many other design details. The hard part was trying to do it all on the Apple II. The game became much more powerful and fun when we could develop it from scratch for 16-bit machines like the Sega Genesis.”
The results have been staggering: since its release in 1988 (as John Madden Football), Madden games have gone on to sell hundreds of millions of copies, and the series currently owns the exclusive license to the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA). If you want authentic NFL players and teams, Madden is the only game in town.
Licensing has become pervasive in modern gaming, particularly in the sports genre, as Madden continues to power the allure of controlling the actions of your favorite players and teams through enhanced graphics and gameplay. Initially, convincing a professional league and its athletes to hop onboard a game in its infancy was not without its challenges.
“It was easy to get in touch with the NFLPA and convince them to work with us in a reasonable way,” Hawkins says. “They were excited because it was something new they could do for their players, who had almost no income from any kind of merchandise or licensing in those days. After that, you’ve got successful games and athletes as proof that it works, and you’re over the top of the hill. When the business got bigger, there were problems from exclusives and different problems from having too many licensees. Quite frankly, the biggest barrier was the greed of the leagues. I was not surprised that I could design and publish the first game with famous athletes in 1983 but that it would be more than a decade before EA could make a reasonable deal with the NFL.”
Next-gen and nostalgia
With EA churning out hit games, Hawkins moved on to another project, forming the video game console company 3DO in 1991. The 3DO became the most powerful gaming system at the time, but the US$599 price tag was a shock to consumers, who were accustomed to popular hardware systems that cost fewer than US$200. While the console’s technology was next generation, the games did not live up to the 3DO’s capabilities and, along with the arrival of the Sony PlayStation in 1994, sales flopped. Despite the setback, the 3DO is often fondly remembered as a precursor to many popular gaming elements.
“The 3DO concept was ahead of its time but pioneered in many areas that later became mainstream features of the video game mass market, including the squad play you see in modern social games and esports,” Hawkins explains. “We did that first with FIFA’s [the Fédération Internationale de Football Association] six-player mode on the 3DO. Digital video, 3D sound and graphics, true multimedia, and network games were possible, and this was even before the World Wide Web. Today, when I see Epic challenging Apple’s 30% rake, I feel for developers because I was also trying to avoid the industry settling for high console license fees. Sony came into the market later with the first PlayStation and invested [US]$2 billion to build their business. We never had even 10% of that budget or the power of the Sony brand.”
As games evolve at a rapid pace, Hawkins professes a love of many of the pioneering releases, citing the Vectrex console, Atari’s Battlezone, the Commodore Amiga, and the Sega Genesis among his personal favorites. The 3DO remains close to his heart as well. He continues to extol the virtues of games and believes that the best games are “simple, hot, and deep.”
“They definitely have a soul, which is the part that ultimately grabs you deep in the gut and forges meaning and lifetime memories,” Hawkins says. “Today, you had also better be thinking very shrewdly about game design in the context of virtual goods economies. Those are the games that will dominate the future.”
If EA’s mantra was “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” the brain trust behind id Software leaned into putting the player directly into the game. Programmers John Carmack and John Romero teamed with game designer Tom Hall and artist Adrian Carmack to thrust gamers into a harrowing first-person shooter 3D environment. The team at id had already struck gold with the release of Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 (which was inspired by Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein in 1981) and began work on the game that would revolutionize first-person shooters—DOOM.
“When you talk about first-person shooters, DOOM is really the one that defined the genre as it was going to become more popular,” says Romero. “When we were making DOOM, Ken Silverman already made Ken’s Labyrinth with his dad, and he was the one who built the Build engine. Everybody was already copying Wolfenstein because, as a programmer, it was something that you could mentally break down and understand how it could be done with this technique called raycasting.”
“While we were making DOOM,” Romero continues, “André LaMothe, who was starting to write his books about 3D programming, came and talked to us for his very first book. We told him exactly how raycasting worked, just me and John [Carmack], and we gave him all of the answers he wanted because we believed in giving everyone as much information as we had. We didn’t have a problem telling anyone how we did anything. We just won’t give the code we’re writing. DOOM’s source had the biggest impact once it was released.”
Following the success of Wolfenstein, id was not under pressure to hurry up and start working on its next game because it was “rolling in money,” recalls Romero. An idea was spawned as a result of one of the group’s Dungeons & Dragons games, where the end of the campaign featured demons “flooding in and destroying everything.” John Carmack thought that it would be cool to have a game where you are fighting tons of demons, Romero explains, and he also had the idea of the title, DOOM, which was the name of Tom Cruise’s cue stick from The Color of Money.”
The overall goal was to identify the technological challenge and exceed the accomplishments of Wolfenstein; DOOM was to be more impressive, look better, and feature improved AI. The founders worked to their strengths: John Carmack was focused mainly on the engine, Hall covered the locations in the world, Romero turned his attention to the monsters and what it was that players would be fighting and doing, and Adrian Carmack concentrated on what would become indelible images of art.
In January 1993, prior to beginning programming on the game, the company set the stage by distributing a press release that proclaimed, “Heralding another technical revolution in PC programming, id Software’s DOOM promises to push back the boundaries of what was thought possible on a 386sx or better computer.” Even with the added self-imposed pressure to produce an experience previously unseen, the founders of id kicked around a wealth of ideas: What if there was a multiplayer mode? Why aren’t we using a local area network to play games with or against each other? How can the breakthroughs on Wolfenstein be improved upon?
One of the most obvious upgrades DOOM provided was an inventory of weaponry that was unmatched: fists, chainsaw, pistol, shotgun, chain gun, rocket launcher, plasma gun, and the BFG. (Google that acronym for clarification; IEEE Potentials is a family-friendly publication.) In many of the previous shooter games, more advanced weapons nullified the others that were attained earlier in the game. With DOOM, every weapon had a purpose and none nullified any other.
That was a massive improvement, Romero adds, because players had to keep every one of those weapons. Why would someone use a plasma gun if he or she could use the BFG? The BFG uses 40 plasma blasts at one time, and players didn’t need to kill some creatures with 40 blasts. It all balanced out extremely well and became a unique part of the design. Even with players packing high-powered heat, DOOM succeeded in creating an environment bathed in uncertainty and dread.
“The music was going to help us with the ambiance—cool, spooky stuff—but we also want to hear those monsters moving around,” Romero explains. “In Wolfenstein, because of the number of doors that were everywhere, we were very limited in where sound could travel. With DOOM having windows everywhere, we could have audio flooding everywhere through the game. So, when you make a pistol shot, it floods through all of the windows and stops on doors and closed surfaces. But everywhere else it goes, and everything wakes up that is not what we call ‘deaf.’ We could flag monsters as deaf, and they will only activate when they see you. It saves monsters from just emptying the map and coming toward you. When the monsters moved, they made a wandering sound that was an eerie noise, and there were different sounds for all of the different characters. The more different monsters you put in an area, the more sound escape you are going to get. The audio design just felt really rich because of those ideas.”
Along with the sound came the fury. Speedrunning (playing a game with the intention of completing it as fast as possible) saw its genesis with DOOM. In Wolfenstein, Romero added par times in the levels. For example, if a player completed a level, a message on the screen would say, “Par 1 min 30 s.” With DOOM, id turned on the ability to record for everyone else, and, during that time, it also enabled speedrunning, which has since become a phenomenon on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of videos of nearly every game in existence.
While the thrill of the hunt (and being hunted) along with a chilling aesthetic captured the imaginations of gamers, there was plenty of thought behind the gameplay that placed you knee-deep in the dead. The team at id also repeatedly bet on itself, confident that it was best positioned to self-publish and promote DOOM. At the time, since shareware worked so well, id decided to give away the first episode so people could pass it around, get excited about it, and then be inspired to purchase the other two episodes. When id looked at uploading DOOM, it also knew it was going to be on “this thing called the Internet,” Romero says, which people were using for email at the time. The company foresaw that the Internet was going to become more popular and that, by the time DOOM was released, everyone would be “FTPing the game from sites or going to bulletin board systems (BBSs).” As a result, the game was released on BBSs and the Internet.
Back in the 1990s, brick-and-mortar stores were still booming. Gamers ran out to big box stores like CompUSA to browse the latest releases. Knowing the importance of gaining real estate on the shelves of retailers, id sweetened the deal to secure a commitment to have its games featured in stores.
“Jay, our business guy, contacted them and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to put out the first episode of our next game on the Internet and BBSs, but we want to get it in the store,’” Romero recalls. “We said, ‘We want you to put it in the store for us. This is a nonexclusive deal. We want you to take it, you can charge up to [US]$9 for it, and we make no money on it. The store can keep the entire [US]$9.’ You could go into the store and see 10 different boxes of DOOM and then pick the coolest box art, but it was all the same shareware—and all of those different boxes are collectables now.”
There’s no school like the old school
Today, millions of global eyeballs and trigger fingers are glued to the latest Call of Duty and Madden releases, and local arcades are designating a larger footprint to virtual reality games. The graphics are stunning, and the technology is at the cutting edge and always moving forward. However, the trailblazing games of yesteryear are neither gone nor forgotten. Atari, Nintendo, and Sega have all released classic retro consoles that have proven to be a hit with consumers. For those who yearn for early arcade experiences, Arcade1Up has hit the jackpot by manufacturing three-quarter-scale versions of classic arcade cabinets, such as Centipede, Pac-Man, Rampage, and Star Wars, among many others. Maybe old-school games scoring with consumers in a day and age when new releases provide a near-cinematic experience is proof of the old adage, “Beauty is only skin deep.”
“Don’t allow an amazing cinematic-like presentation to lure you into think that graphics are the be-all and end-all of a game,” Bushnell advises. “Since Atari had comparatively primitive graphics compared to today, it spent a lot of time on fine-tuning the timing and challenging nature of the games it was creating. In some ways, in terms of gamesmanship, the early games were better crafted than many of the current games because, once you create the stunning graphics, it gets harder to make changes in timing and skill level. I don’t think the games today, in general—and I don’t want to make a blanket statement—they are not as fine-tuned as in the early days just because they don’t have to be.”
Hawkins agrees that the pioneers in the industry were sticklers about gameplay. “I love the nostalgia in today’s culture and am delighted that my children are so curious about the 70s and 80s,” he says. “From a game standpoint, back then, it was 100% about perfecting the gameplay and core game mechanics, so all of the successful games are brilliant designs. They had to entertain you and hold your attention without the pretty pictures we have now.”
What often gets lost in focusing on the beauty of a game is its level of challenge. For those well versed in the classics, one thing is (often woefully) apparent—those games were very hard.
“There were no instructions or tutorials, and you were expected to have literacy in the games that were already out,” Romero explains. “Nowadays, you would call them masocore games—very hard, unforgiving, no tutorial, 1980s-style games. There were a lot of RPGs [role-playing games]. If you had a Super Nintendo or a Sega Genesis, there were really great RPGs that don’t demand anything like that. There’s a huge library of games for each of those systems, and there’s still a massive collectors’ market out there for all of those old games and systems.”