A History of Video Game Innovations

A word about this history

There has been much discussion of the distinction between "video games" and "computer games." For the purposes of this document, any game program which uses a video screen and a user interface will be considered a "video game" - since 20th century computers, stand-alone arcade machines, and game consoles are all of interest to this writer. Also, as regards the era of "The Golden Age," your mileage may vary; here it is deemed to begin with Space Invaders and end with Marble Madness.

This history has been compiled from disparate sources (cited in [square brackets]) and the author cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. If you can make an addition or correction, however, please feel free to do so.

Summary of pioneering tech breakthroughs in the field

First game played on a computer: Noughts and Crosses (Tic Tac Toe), A.S. Douglas, 1952
First action-based ("arcade style") computer video game: Tennis for Two, 1958
First space-themed, genre-defining computer game - Spacewar!, 1962
First video game played on a television screen - Fox & Hounds, 1966
First video game to accept coins - Galaxy Game, Computer Recreations, Inc, 1971
First video game in arcades - Computer Space, Nutting Associates, 1971
First successful arcade video game - Pong, Atari, 1972
First adventure games - Collossal Cave Adventure and Hunt the Wumpus, 1972
First home video game console - Odyssey, Magnavox, 1972
First racing game with steering wheel and gearshift - Gran Trak 10, Atari, 1974
First cocktail table arcade game - Quadra Pong, Atari, 1974
First arcade videogame with a microprocessor - Gun Fight, 1975
First controversial arcade game - Death Race, Exidy, 1976 (See also Space Invaders [1978], Custer's Revenge [1983], Chiller [1986], and Mortal Kombat [1992].)
First "brick-breaking" ball-and-bat game: Breakout, Atari, 1976
First arcade game based on a computer game: Space Wars, 1977 (Also the first vector graphics arcade game.)
First vertical shoot-em-up: Space Invaders, Taito, 1978
First trackball game/video sports game/scrolling playfield: Atari Football, Atari, 1978
First "cockpit" game/first game to track high scores with initials: Star Fire, Exidy, 1978
First head-to-head fighting game: Warrior, Cinematronics, 1978
First game in true RGB color: Galaxian, 1979
First pseudo-graphical dungeon game: Rogue, 1980
First 1st-person flying sim: Red Baron, Atari, 1980 (See also Tailgunner [1979])
First game with a "bonus round": Carnival, Gremlin/Sega, 1980
First game with a character/first to be very popular with female players: Pac-Man, Namco, 1980
First game with pseudo-3D first-person environment: Battlezone, Atari, 1980
First game with secondary weapon and fully realized "game universe" stretching beyond the screen: Defender, Williams, 1980
First game with "different levels" and "boss enemy": Ozma Wars, 1979 (see also Astro Fighter, Phoenix [1980] and GORF, Scramble [1981])
First game with a female programmer: Astro Blaster, 1981
First color vector game: Space Fury, 1981
First game with speech synthesis: Stratovox, 1981
First game with selectable starting level of difficulty: Tempest, Atari, 1981
First laserdisc game - Astron Belt, Sony, 1982
First game with non-monophonic sound: Sinistar (cockpit version), Williams, 1983
First game with true three-dimensional filled polygons and selectable camera angles - I, Robot, Atari, 1983
First driving game to add shooting and other features: Spy Hunter, 1983
First game with a stereo music soundtrack and an ending: Marble Madness, Atari, 1984


Prehistory: 1949 and before

Bagatelle, a precursor to pinball
1777 - a party was thrown in honor of the King of France and his wife at the Chateau D'Bagatelle, owned by the brother of the king. The highlight of the party was a new table game featuring the slender table and cue sticks, which players used to shoot ivory balls up an inclined playfield. The table game was dubbed Bagatelle by the King's brother and shortly after swept through France. Some French soldiers carried their favorite bagatelle tables with them to America while helping to fight the British in the American Revolutionary War. Bagatelle spread and became so popular in America as well that a political cartoon from 1863 even depicts President Abraham Lincoln playing a tabletop bagatelle game. [4]

1869 - a British inventor named Montegue Redgrave settled in America and manufactured bagatelle tables out of his factory in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. In 1871 Redgrave was granted US Patent #115,357 for his "Improvements in Bagatelle" [ipdb], which replaced the cue at the player's end of the table with a coiled spring and a plunger. The player shot balls up the inclined playfield using this plunger, a device that remains in pinball to this day. This innovation made the game friendlier to players. The game also shrunk in size and began to fit on top of a bar or counter. The balls became marbles and the wickets became small "pins". Redgrave's innovations in game design are acknowledged as the birth of pinball in its modern form. [Pinball firsts]

By the 1930s, manufacturers were producing coin-operated versions of bagatelles, now known as "marble games" or "pin games". The table was under glass and used Redgrave's plunger device to propel the ball into the upper playfield. In 1931 David Gottlieb's Baffle Ball became the first overnight hit of the coin-operated era. Selling for $17.50, the game dispensed five balls for a penny. The game struck a chord with a public eager for cheap entertainment in a depression-era economy. Most drugstores and taverns in America operated pinball machines, with many locations making back the cost of the game in a matter of days. Baffle Ball sold over 50,000 units and established Gottlieb as the first major manufacturer of pinball machines. [4] Before Baffle Ball, coin operated entertainment machines were mostly of the "strength tester" or "peep show" variety. [5]

1940 - George Stibitz implements the first over-the-phone computer communication - the precursor to today's online networking.

"The Iron Age": 1950-1968

1950 - Ben Laposky creates some of the first "computer art" using oscilloscope images generated with analogue electronics and recording them onto high-speed film. [2]

1951 - the Whirlwind Computer is introduced, the first to use a video display monitor rather than an oscilloscope. [2] The monitor was a "vector" type, using beams of light to draw straight lines - rather than rectangular pixels. "Bouncing Ball" was a program designed to show off this new hardware, one of the first "demos"; much later, a bouncing ball demo called "Boing!" would become famous for showing off the capabilities of the Amiga computer (1985).

1952 - A. S. Douglas was working on the EDSAC computer in Cambridge University writing about the interaction between humans and computers. He invented what could be seen as the very first video game, Noughts And Crosses. This Tic-Tac-Toe game displayed a grid of nine boxes on the EDSAC matrix display and players input which box to place their X or O by use of a device somewhat similar to a telephone dial. Unfortunately the EDSAC was necessary in order to play this game and so Noughts And Crosses did not prosper beyond Cambridge. [via computerspacefan.net]

1958 - Willy Higinbotham creates "Tennis for Two" at Brookhaven national labs. Higinbotham said he wanted to create a program that would make people more comfortable with computers and technology in that tense nuclear/cold war era. Tennis for Two is recognized as the first video game, and obviously inspired Pong (1972) and its many subsequent imitators, as well as evolutionary followers such as Breakout (1976).

1961-62 Spacewar! is programmed at MIT by TMRC, the Tech Model Railroad Club, some of the very first hackers. [2] The first space-themed game, Spacewar was a huge influence on dozens of games to follow, and featured the first implementation of hyperspace, as well as bells and whistles like "expensive planetarium," a subroutine that drew stars in the background in their correct relative astronomical locations (see also Star Castle, Sept. 1980).

1962 - the first commercial modem is manufactured, the Bell 103 by AT&T. The Bell 103 was also the first modem with full-duplex transmission, frequency-shift keying or FSK, and had a speed of 300 bits per second or 300 baud.

1964 - Douglas Englebart invents the computer mouse.

1965 - Nolan Bushnell sees Spacewar! and thinks to himself that a computer game could be successful and profitable if located in a stand-alone enclosure in a public place.

1966 - Ralph Baer begins the "TV game project," which will later become the Odyssey. Fox & Hounds, (also known as "The Chase Game,") is the first program for the "TV Game"; it's the first videogame ever played on a TV screen. Two players each control a small square, and one player must make his square touch the other's in order to "catch" him and make the other square disappear.

1967 - "Firefighter" is created for the TV Game. It's a simple concept - push the button to turn the screen blue.

"The Bronze Age": 1968-1976









The Golden Age: 1978-1984





1981 is the peak year for arcade video games. Gamers drop 20 billion quarters into machines this year, for a total combined play time of 75 years. [5]










Also in 1981: [4]




"The Plastic Age"










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