Guest Columnist: Spacewar! - A Journey Into Gaming History

RAKtheUndead | 18 Sep 2008 21:00
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That element was the implementation of a star, placed in the middle of the playing space, which not only provided an obstacle to be avoided, but also created a gravity well that would constantly draw the spacecrafts towards it until the players broke free. However, the star produced new gameplay possibilities. While novice players would be preoccupied with avoiding the gravity well, advanced players knew how to use it to their advantage, slingshotting around the star to gain momentum.

However advanced and well-balanced Spacewar! was, however, it would have been just another footnote in the history of computer games instead of the huge influence it was if it hadn't been for a few key characteristics of its development. The first of these was the computer for which it was designed. The affordability and relative ease-of-use of the PDP-1 opened up the computer market to a much larger proportion of the universities in the United States, and while any previous games had been designed for computers whose cost made them relatively rare, the PDP-1 sold in hundreds; unprecedented numbers for the computer industry.

The second characteristic was that the source code was never patented, remaining in the public domain to this day. Of course, programs weren't patented during the 1960s; the real money in computers was selling the hardware, not the software. Because of this, the code that Steve Russell had slaved over for months was copied and given out to anybody who wanted it, spreading the game to universities across the United States and causing a sensation everywhere it went. The game became so popular that DEC even included on every PDP-1 it sold.

As more and more people came in contact with Spacewar!, many were inspired to try their own game projects, in the same way that those early demonstration programs had inspired the members of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Some programmers changed the source code, producing variants of the game, others developed versions of the game for later DEC computers, while others began to consider their own games.

One of the players with his own ideas was a young electrical engineering student named Nolan Bushnell. Attending the University of Utah, he saw the game in action, and was struck by the financial potential of computer games if they could be brought to a larger audience . His ponderings resulted in Computer Space, a coin-operated version of Spacewar!. Without Spacewar!, there would be no Atari, there would be no breakthrough hit for the games industry, and the course of computer game history very well may have been changed utterly.

Why was this game constantly updated and redeveloped for so long in the world of gaming? Simple answer: the gameplay. Not only had Steve Russell created one of the first multiplayer games ever, he had also created one of the fairest and most balanced multiplayer games in existence. With its ostensible simplicity and its hidden depths of strategy, Spacewar! not only kept people playing to the point of mastery, but also managed to make it that even novices could play and have fun with it.

Spacewar! is nothing less than a triumph. Not only can it claim to be one of the most important computer games ever devised, it can count itself as a timeless classic. Still fun to play almost fifty years after it was developed, Spacewar! deserves more recognition than it gets.

by Richard Kiernan (RAKtheUndead)

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