Garwulf’s Corner: The Most Important PC Games of All Time — The Birth of the Computer Game
Originally published October 19, 2016
After the first run of Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist came to an end, I sold a series of feature articles to PCGamesN, titled “The Most Important PC Games of All Time.” Unfortunately, they didn’t get the traffic that my editor there had hoped, and since I had retained the rights to the series as a whole (owning your own little publishing company has some benefits, after all), I was able to run one of the outstanding installments on The Escapist as a bonus column.
As mentioned in the opening installment, video games are not a young medium.
Back when I wrote The EverQuest Companion in 2002–2003, it appeared as though the electronic game began with Ferranti’s Nimrod, a dedicated game-playing computer unveiled in 1951 at trade shows in the United Kingdom and Berlin, causing such a stir that riot police had to be called in. Nimrod played a little strategy game called Nim, and only lasted a year or two before Ferranti took it apart and moved on to something else — it was astounding and revolutionary, but the company couldn’t figure out any commercial application for a machine the size of a living room whose sole function was to play a game. But Ferranti wasn’t the first. The year before, Dr. Josef Kates had created Bertie the Brain, which played Tic-Tac-Toe, for the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition.
But Kates wasn’t the first either — in 1947, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann created and patented the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, which used an oscilloscope display to play an artillery game. But even they weren’t the first — Nimrod had been the second Nim-playing machine, and was based on Nimatron, a computer built by Edward Conden and Westinghouse Electric for the 1940 New York World’s Fair.
To put this into perspective, this makes the electronic game almost as old as television, the strategy video game genre 76 years old, and the artillery game sub-genre 69 years old.
But why do we have such short memories about this medium? Why do we keep thinking of video games as beginning in the 1970s and 1980s?
For one thing, video games took a long time to mature — more than any other medium, video games are bound to the technology that runs them. While video game consoles and arcade games existed throughout the 1970s, the games they played could legitimately be considered simple toys due to the fact that the hardware running them was rudimentary at best. It was only once computer technology standardized the use of the integrated circuit and the advent of the minicomputer and the microcomputer that electronic games could reach a level of complexity and sophistication allowing the medium to mature. There is also the problem of obsolescence — while you can find and listen to Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast today, many of the earliest video games lacked forward compatibility. Even a relatively recent title like the original release of King’s Quest (1983) would be rendered nearly — if not completely — unplayable on a modern computer, and when Sarien.net acquired the rights to offer the game on the Internet, it had to completely recode it in modern HTML. As a rule, video games from the early 1980s and 1970s can be a challenge to get running, many games from the 1960s are lost, and most — if not all — video games from the 1950s now exist only in the memories of those who programmed or played them.
Regardless, people working with computers actively created games throughout the 1950s, ranging from combat simulations (run by the RAND Corporation, which started with the computer determining the paths enemies would take and growing progressively more complicated over time) to tennis games (the earliest of which was Tennis for Two, created in 1958 by William Higinbotham) to business management simulators (such as The Management Game, used in schools such as Carnegie Mellon University in 1958). Most of these games were built by scientists and academics in isolation, running on computers that the general public had no access to, and could not be copied from one computer to another. Under these conditions, a video game industry was a physical impossibility, and most of these games are now lost.
In the 1960s, things began to change. Minicomputers such as DEC’s PDP-1 (costing $120,000 per machine) appeared in universities, enabling students and university employees to create computer games for entertainment in their spare time. The first was Spacewar!, a two-player science fiction game created in 1961 by Steve Russell, Wayne Wiitanen, and Martin Graetz. Spacewar! opened the floodgates — the video game world of the 1960s and early 1970s resembled the open source world today, with computer students actively creating, sharing, and refining games. By 1975, most of the modern video game genres had been invented, with the possible exceptions of real-time strategy games and physics simulators.
It had taken 35 years, but the video game had finished its baby steps, and learned to walk.
It had also splintered into two separate media — the video game and the computer game. The video game had begun to appear in video arcades with Pong in 1971, along with the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console, in the same year. These were little more than toys — the technology of the early consoles was primitive, allowing for only the most rudimentary of games. The computer game, on the other hand, was more sophisticated, allowing for genres such as text adventures and flight simulators and first person shooters. However, until the development of the personal computer in 1977, the computer game remained in the universities.
And then, as 1981 rolled around, everything changed once more. The personal computer as we know it — the IBM PC and PC clone, as well as the Apple IIe — had began to appear in homes. Home computers were expensive enough that those families who could afford them often only bought a single computer for the entire household, and prior to the PC usually attached it to their television. The earliest machines could do tasks such as word processing…but that’s not what they were usually used for. They were used to play games.
And, for the first time, a computer game industry became viable. What had been a medium in its childhood could now begin to mature. With this coming of age came new possibilities and means of play, taking what had come and pushing it into uncharted territory.
This growth was not limited to single player games. In 1978, two games appeared that would define multiplayer games for years to come — the first was MUD, short for Multi-User Dungeon, developed by Roy Trubshaw at Essex University, who then handed it over to Richard Bartle; the second was Millieu, created by Alan E. Kleitz. Both were text adventure games that allowed multiple players to interact with each other over the network. In 1980, MUD became the first Internet multiplayer game when Essex University joined ARPAnet and put their servers online.
These multiplayer games became a staple of how people used computers to interact with one another. In the same year that MUD and Millieu brought several players together at once in text adventures, the Computer Bulletin Board System was launched in Chicago, allowing people with home computers to dial in with their modems and interact on message boards. These BBS systems were usually run by hobbyists, and were soon hosting multiplayer games, such as Legend of the Red Dragon (created by Seth Robinson in 1989) and Trade Wars (created in 1985 by Chris Sherrick), which allowed players to log in, build empires, and marry or murder one another in-game.
By 1985, this was extended into what we would now recognize as a Massively Multiplayer Online game, as CompuServe released Islands of Kesmai. Created by John Taylor and Kelton Flynn, Kesmai allowed multiple players to interact at once in a ASCII graphics environment, with users paying between six to twelve dollars per hour to log into CompuServe and play the game.
These disparate beginnings were what defined the entire medium, and provided the foundation for the video games to come. The home computers made a video game industry possible that could extend beyond the simple electronic games that appeared on consoles or in arcades. The BBSes became a channel through which aspiring game developers could release shareware titles, eventually coming to compete with, and even supplant established triple-A game companies. And time and time again, the entire medium would be redefined, sometimes by as little as a single title or person. It took almost 40 years, but by the mid-1980s computer games — and video games as a whole — was finally ready to mature into the medium we know today.