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Archiving the Creation Processes of the Video Game Industry

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26 January, 2009 (13:57) | Emulation and Vintage Gameplay | By: TimA

Spacewar! is arguably the first videogame ever created. It was released in 1962 on the PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processing) computer which had marked a massive shift in the philosophy of computer design when it was released just three years earlier in 1959. For today’s gamer, Spacewar! seems rather simple. There are two spaceships. Each player controls one spaceship. Each player tries to shoot the other player’s spaceship. There are four commands: turn clockwise, turn counter-clockwise, thrust, and shoot. And that’s basically it. No one wins. The ships will be regenerated until the two players get bored and decide to stop playing.

That being said, there are some aspects of Spacewar! that are considerably innovative, even by today’s gaming standards. At the center of the screen is a wormhole created by a dieing star. The spaceships are constantly pulled towards the wormhole and the players must maneuver the spaceships so that they do not fall into the wormhole while at the same time avoiding the bullets of the other spaceship. As the player must also somehow attempt to shoot the other spaceship, the gameplay that results from simultaneously coordinating three separate actions is quite sophisticated and was not seen again until at least the 1980s. The gravitational pull that is constantly tugging at the spaceships is based on the actual laws of gravity and the PDP-1 made 100,000 calculations per second to determine the motion of the spaceships in relation to that gravitational pull. The “thrust” command, for instance, does not actually move the spaceships forward (as it almost certainly would in any videogame that were released today). The command actually slows the spaceship down so that the user can gain control of the ships so that it does not go spinning into the wormhole. If timed correctly, the thrust command can use the force of gravity to propel the spaceship into the orbit of the dieing star so that the spaceship will go around the wormhole. The resulting motion is something akin to the way that comets travel around planetary bodies rather than crashing into them. One must be parsimonious with the thrust command, however, as the ships have a limited supply of fuel. The bullets that are the spaceships’ ammunition are also subject to the gravitational pull of the star and will circle around the star at the same rate as the spaceships.

While certainly sophisticated, Spacewar! lacks a lot of the customary modern game conventions. As mentioned earlier, the game does not designate a “winner” and a “loser.” While one spaceship can destroy another, the ships will just be regenerated ad infinitum until the players decide to end the game. Neither does Spacewar! tally “wins.” Also, as mentioned earlier, the spaceships have a limited fuel supply, however there is no bar at the bottom of the screen alerting the player as to how much fuel remains. Also, the spaceships seem to disappear randomly, for no apparent reason, only to reappear at the starting position. It is not obvious whether this is due to some sort of internal, unspecified time limit or if it is just a glitch. All in all, while Spacewar! is a game that could certainly not be played for hours (or even one hour), the need for players to simultaneously coordinate three actions will definitely provide at least fifteen minutes of engrossing gameplay for the modern gamer.

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