‘Spacewar!’: Birth of the Game Industry

It was a pilgrimage of sorts.

Some of the biggest, most established names in the nearly $140 billion game industry quietly descended on Washington D.C. this week.

Names like Warren Spector, Richard Garriott, Todd Howard, Ted Price, Tracy Fullerton, Ed Fries — museum curators, university chairs, association leaders. It was a cabal of creators there not as speakers, but listeners and fans. They were there to honor the birth of an industry that has grown to what would’ve been unimaginable heights decades ago. 

For an hour Thursday night, packed into Coulter Plaza Stage in the bottom floor of the Smithsonian American History Museum’s west wing, the video game industry’s thriving present sat quietly facing its inceptive past: a group of seven elderly men neatly arrayed in chairs recounting the almost accidental creation of the video game industry through the birth of its first released game.

A lark
“It was just a lark. Just a way to learn how to do something.”

Martin “Shag” Graetz sits near Steve “Slug” Russell and Steve Piner as he recounts the work that went into the creation of the first shared, popular video game: “Spacewar!”

Nearby sit the other living members of the team behind that game: Wayne Wiitanen, Peter Samson, Robert Saunders, and Dan Edwards. The final creator, Alan Kotok, died in 2006 of a heart attack at 64.

The museum has just closed and it’s still hours before the VIP reception where the seven will hobnob with some of the greats of the industry. It’s two hours before the seven take to a small stage to discuss the creation of the game and to receive pioneer awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences for that work.

For now, they’re seven men sharing a small rotunda with four journalists, remembering those heady days of early software development where anything they created was, almost by definition, pioneering. This trip to Washington, D.C. and the time spent recollecting their work for the Smithsonian’s archives is the first time the entire group has been in the same room together, ever.

There’s a pregnant pause as things get underway in the small room, the seven looking back and forth between one another before deciding who should talk first. Russell breaks the silence.

“I was working at MIT on the artificial intelligence project,” he said, “and down the hall, a new computer appeared in the fall of 1961.”

The thing about this specific computer, a PDP-1 by Digital Equipment Corporation, was that it had a display and a typewriter — both unusual additions for the relatively few computers of the time.

To show off the new display feature, MIT’s AI laboratory co-founder Marvin Minsky wrote a program to display random dots on the screen. But the more Russell, Graetz, and the others in the group messed around with the computer, the more they realized that it had much greater potential. So they started talking about creating a new sort of demo to show that off.

“The space race was in the news at the time and the Russians got a man in orbit in January, and the U.S. later on, so behind, but trying to catch up,” Russell said. “I realized that very few people appreciated what it took to maneuver a spaceship.”

Graetz added that he, Russell, and Wiitanen were always going to bad science-fiction movies and loved reading the Skylark series of science fiction by E.E. Smith.

“We were thinking of Skylark, of space, and ships roaring around and shooting,” Graetz said. “We came up with this idea of having spaceships running around and weren’t quite sure what to do with it. We had to do some interaction, so there had to be a battle and somehow we came up with ‘Spacewar’ as a name for it.”

After some back and forth and college-student buck-passing, Russell says he was “shamed into writing code.”

“Shamed into writing code.”

By that winter, he had a demo program that placed two spaceships on the machine and allowed two people to move them around in a realistic way.

They didn’t quite realize they had created the first rudimentary game, even after investing time in building out features and making it better. They worked to speed up the ship response time. They created a central star with its own gravitational pull, added photon torpedoes and a hyperdrive.

“You could get a basic education in maneuvering in space in ‘Spacewar!,’ but most people didn’t understand what was going on until the central star was added to the thing,” Saunders said. “Now you start to see how it is that a larger orbit takes much more time than a smaller one. You learn the three halves law that was cooked up by Kepler in the 17th Century.”  

Samson, annoyed with how unrealistic the backdrop of the blossoming game looked, coded up stars based on real star charts and even designed them to change realistically if a battle lasted long enough between the two spaceships.

“Half the memory was taken up with the star tables,” Samson said.

By the spring of 1962, “Spacewar!” was routinely being tested and improved and the small team decided it was ready to be shared with others, so they added it to the PDP-1 usergroup. While only about 50 of the PDP-1 computers were ever made and sold — they cost upwards of $1.5 million each in today’s dollars — each system was often used by a large number of students.

Soon the game was a hit and eventually, PDP-1 creators Digital Equipment Corporation were pre-loading the game on their expensive systems to test them to make sure they worked correctly.

It wasn’t until years later than the team realized that what they had created in “Spacewar!” was essentially an arcade game running on an incredibly expensive machine.

“I was at Stanford, and had gone down to the Oasis (burger joint),” Russell said. “There were a bunch of guys playing pinball machines there. Eventually, it got to midnight and they threw us out.”

Russell said he had to run by the lab to pick up some stuff and discovered a familiar crowd at the computer.

“Lo and behold some of the guys playing pinball machines at the Oasis walked in and started playing ‘Spacewar!’ I said, ‘Oh, it is an arcade game. It is a substitute for pinball machines.’”

Graetz said that the group never really saw the creation as anything particularly important. He called it a lark, a way of having a good time. Sometimes, too much of a good time. It wasn’t long after the game’s creation that Jack Dennis, who oversaw the time that students could use on MIT’s computers, started to regulate how often they could play “Spacewar!”

“It didn’t take long until Jack Dennis lowered the boom on us,” Graetz said. “We were only allowed to use the PDP-1 during launch hours and after like 5, 6 in the evening.”

And other projects, including testing code for new versions of the game, always took precedence over playing the game.

That ever-evolving code was passed around on user groups, modified and improved over the years, with Russell always adding in the best bits to the source code. Today that original copy, now more than 50 years old, is still running on a PDP-1 at the Computer History Museum in California.

“It’s available on the web,” Russell said. “There are no outstanding user complaints, there are no crash reports and support is still available.”

“Take a bow”
The evening’s talk, which filled every seat, leaving some standing around the edges watching in silence, was moderated by Chris Weaver.

Weaver, Bethesda Softworks founder, brought the men of “Spacewar!” together as part of his work archiving the history of video games for the Smithsonian.

Earlier in the day, he interviewed each on camera, with plans to create the oral history of the first video game. He believes, he said, that the history of such creations can’t be captured through a single source or even a single telling, but, like the medium such histories hope to explain, need to be interactive. One day, he hopes to create an interactive compilation of those interviews he conducted for the Smithsonian, so future generations can explore the birth of “Spacewars!” from every angle.

Up on stage, he leads the panel of creators through the game’s inception, its transformation, and importance, plucking stories from the men as they recount their lives and creation.

Somewhere near the middle of that hour talk packed with anecdotes of nicknames, silly interactions, and thoughtful observations, the group is surprised by their elder, the man who through his request for a PDP-1 demo at MIT all those years ago sparked the team to create “Spacewar!”

Dennis’ sudden appearance in the audience allowed him to clarify a few things but also gave the seven on stage a chance to ask something of their illustrious audience: Deliver a standing ovation for the man behind the men.

“Come take a bow,” one of the “Spacewar!” creators said.

Dennis carefully worked his way free of his front-row chair, walked up a small set of stairs and slowly to the center of the stage. Tucking one hand behind his back and the other in front of his waist, he smiled and slowly, deeply bowed.

The applause echoed.

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