Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A History Of Computer Games, Part Two - The 80's and The North American Video Game Crash of 1983

The 1980's for the video games industry was all over the place, a decade of trials and tribulations, success and failures.

On the back of the PC revolution, the video games industry was about to get into full swing, a rapid growth of technology and more powerful computer systems meant we seen one of, if not the biggest developments in the industry, the transition of video games from arcades and into homes.

From very early on in the 1980's we begin to see the introduction of some of the most iconic games in gaming history. Pac-Man in 1980, Donkey Kong in 81 and Mario Bros in 1983 are just a few. But in 1983 came the North American Video Game Crash, almost destroying the then fledging industry. Too many poorly made games and a massive choice of systems to choose from, a media frenzy.

With the shift from arcades into homes we began to see the very first 'game ports'. Unfortunately many of these ports were, as I've stated, of a poor quality and were widely criticised. Pac-Man is one of the most successful arcade games of all time, and one of the most recognizable video game characters of all time. After its release in the US in 1980, Atari obtained the license to port the game to its Atari 2600 home console. When Atari did this, there were around 10 million Atari consoles in households across the US, but, with this figure, Atari decided to manufacture 12 million copies of the game, with expectations that the game would increase sales of the 2600. Atari were too confident, and published a prototype port of the game not to miss that years holiday season. The quality of the games was so bad on the Atari 2600, many consumers asked for refunds. The game barley resembled its arcade counter part and Atari incurred huge financial losses from around 5 million unsold game cartridges.

Above; Pac-Man arcade vs the Atari 2600 version

Another disaster was E.T. After the film was released it was quickly licensed to become a video game. Head of Warner Communications, owner of Atari, told the CEO of Atari, Ray Kassar, that he wanted the game out by Christmas (6 weeks). Clearly Atari hadn't learnt from their mistakes, Kassar said, “We had literally six weeks to produce a brand new game, manufacture it, package it and market it. It was a disaster. I mean, the programmers hated it. Nobody liked the game”. It is still to this day considered one of the worst video games of all time. Almost all of the 5 million copies were returned to Atari, and, by the end of 1983 Atari had lost nearly $536 million.

There was an overwhelming amount of poorly produced games appearing at this time and video games were rapidly loosing value. Another reason, as I have suggested, for the crash is too many consoles. Today we have three home consoles to choose from, Xbox360, Wii and PS3, were as in the early 80's there were literally dozens of consoles competing against each other. With a huge amount of confusion sparked by the diversity of consoles available there was a loss of publishing control. Today all games for consoles are controlled by the console manufacture, but in the early 80's there was a loss of control and there was a boom in third party games being developed, the market became flooded and it was more bad news for the industry.

The last contributor to the crash was the computer. By the early 80's home computers had significantly dropped in price, they offered superior graphics and sound as well as other uses such as word processing. Many consumers felt that a computer was a much more sensible and practical investment than a console.

In 1983 the industry came to a sudden halt, lasting for two years. But why don’t most people know about the video game crash of 83? Well, the crash was primarily bad for the industry not the consumers, who were treated to an array of, all be it poor, but cheap video games.

The crash had some long lasting affects, starting with the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) released in 1985, new measures were taken to control third party development with the 'lock-out chip' built into the system, as well as some of the best and most memorable games ever including Metal Gear in 87, The Legend Of Zelda and Final Fantasy. The most important change for me however was the shift of the video game market from the US to Japan, and even today Japan has the majority control over the home video games console market.

Sadly Atari never recovered from the crash, but from 85 onwards the industry as a whole began to recover after the release of the NES. Towards the end of the decade Nintendo had released the first ever portable games console, my first console, the original Gameboy and the world was introduced to 16-bit technology with the release of the Megadrive from Sega.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A History Of Computer Games, Part One

Thomas Watson, President of IBM 1943 - “The world will probably eventually need five computers”.

To understand the history of computer games, their roots and origins, I feel that it's particularly important to firstly recognize and understand the history of computers. Computer games are purely a form of entertainment, whether its an FPS or a simulation game, the keyword is 'game', it's existence is simply to give the user some form of enjoyment and release from the daily grind of reality.

For this blog though, I'm going to try my best to avoid the subject of game, and instead focus solely on computers. Why were they invented? Who invented them? How have they evolved and developed? And finally and probably most importantly for the intention of this string of blogs, at what point did somebody decide that there should be a computer with only one intended use, playing games?

From just a few hours of research, I've began to get a real sense of the scale and diversity of the computer's history, and the impact the computer has now had on our lives. It seems computers are now literally in everything (i.e. the microchip), and come in an almost infinite amount of forms. Yet the strangest thing is we somehow take all of this for granted.

From day numero uno, to this day, whatever computers appear to be doing, all they're actually doing is maths, very quickly. This is our first clue then as to where computers come from.

For me, computers really appeared as early as the Victorian era, as so much of what we now call civilization has come from. The Industrial Revolution! The Machine Age! It couldn't have been done without men. Men called 'computers'. Men who did maths with a pencil. The major problem was that these 'computers', men, made mistakes. Possibly the first major step then, towards what we today would define as a 'computer', was to get rid of human error. The men with pencil's needed to be replaced with something more reliable. A mechanical brain? Ironically, what it took to come up with the goods, was a man with a pencil! Charles Babbage.

Charles Babbage was known to everyone who mattered in Victorian London. He was Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, basically, he was a complete number junkie, obsessed with order, maths and tabulation. What he came up with was a machine. It was what his Victorian audience would of called a miracle, but what we today might call a computer. What he built to fuel his thirst for order was what he called his Difference Engine.

At the time Babbage publicised his ideas for the Difference Engine, the idea that a machine could be instructed seemed a radical concept. Babbage only built a demonstration piece, but, to his Victorian audience it seemed that what they were watching was a machine capable of thought, they found it hard to keep up! Babbage was well ahead of his time it seemed. But what was the potential of his ideas? Sadly it was never realized, Babbage made a few 'errors' himself and his Difference Engine was never made. At one point Babbage's ground breaking machine was ridiculed and dismissed. In the end it was even claimed that it would never have come to anything anyway. But, in 1991, engineers at the Science Museum did build the cog wheels 'computer', and it did work!

I wont go into explaining how it worked right now, it worked using what Babbage called the 'unerring certainty of mechanism', but it did do its job, it eliminated human error and was capable of astonishing calculations. It is so sad that it was never built, and amazing to think how different things could have been if the Difference Engine had been made.

Charles Babbage recognized the need for even more powerful machines despite the lack of people who now took him seriously, and, before he passed away he did come up with what he called the Analytical Engine, something that worked in almost exactly the same way as a modern electronic computer, this thing even had integrated memory! But sadly, like his Difference Engine's the device remained on paper.

For me then, Babbage's machines were truly the first computers, possibly not what we're familiar with today, but machines capable of immense calculations without error. What if they had of been made in the 19th century though? The Empire would have been even more efficient, Britain even more powerful, the first World War probably wouldn't of started in the first place!

It wasn't until the middle of the next century, 80 years later, that the need for a mechanical computer surfaced once again. During World War 2, Alan Churing was the man needed to crack the Lorenz Cipher, an almost impenetrable code used by the German high command and Hitler himself. What Churing invented to crack the code was Colossus, the worlds first electronic computer.

Colossus' life though is shrouded in mystery, it is believed that the machines and their plans were destroyed in the 1960's, and bound by the official secrets act, officially, Colossus didn't exist at all. Another tragic story of 'what ifs?'.

Today, Alan Churing is generally considered to be the father of the modern computer. But where am I heading? How have we reached the point of what we today consider a 'home computer'? And where are all the games?

After WWII, Britain was in a prime position to exploit the technology of Colossus, but due to the secrecy surrounding it (it never existed), we were almost completely written out of the whole history of computing. Then the whole industry was developed by our rather less secretive friends, the Americans!

The idea that a home computer would become an everyday machine used by civilians seemed like a huge no no due to the sheer size of computers, until 1958, and the birth of the silicone chip. Yet from all of my research from my point of views it seems like it wasn't until the mid 80's that computers weren't just tools used by the government and that they weren't going to be machines just used to do serious maths.

But what about games? It could be debated forever. It is considered that the first 'true' video game was invented by a physicist in 1958, a table-tennis like game played on an oscilloscope. I don’t agree. For me personally, Atari are the inventors of the video games as we know them today with the Atari 2600. The first commercially available home video game, not an experiment or a prototype, but an electronic computer designed solely to be a games console, for no other purpose than simple pleasure for the average being.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Be all you can be!

Hi everyone, my name's Joe. If you're not already aware I have been on the Game Art Course at DMU previously. I started the course in September 2009 with my partner Sophia Leong, but in January 2010 Sophia suffered a stroke and was in hospital for quite some time. She is now in Melton Mowbry undergoing rehabilitation and is making outstanding progress. Basically, if there's a God, in January last year he decided to pull his pants down and take a dump all over my life! (Sophia's brain injury hasn't been the only crap I've had to deal with), but that’s another long story for another time. The one thing to note now is that what has happened to Sophia has been a massive shock to me, but with an amazing amount of support from friends and family I am beginning to see some light at the end of a very long tunnel. I always like to believe that things could always be worse no matter how bad they get, and to try and give myself some perspective on things I always try to tell myself that there is somebody, somewhere worse off than myself, (although every time I think that my mind jumps to the Fawlty Towers episode when Basil is told that, to which he replies, “is there? Well I'd like to meet him!”).

So here I am back on the course. I was initially drawn to Game Art and Design at DMU due to the fair amount of traditional artistic skills, drawing and painting etc., that are incorporated within the course and the idea that the course would help me to transfer these skills into the digital medium.

For me, right now, everything still feels a little 'up in the air' with everything else going on around me in life. So for now, I'd basically just like to work hard and make it through the year, but in the future who knows? I did at one point aspire to work for Naughty Dog at their Santa Monica studios, being a huge fan of their Crash Bandicoot and more recently Uncharted games. But, with the shit hitting the fan as of late, my life being the faeces in this instance, I'd basically just love to finish the course with a good degree under my belt, and thinking more practically, in the long term I've always thought I'd like to be an illustrator for children’s books, I think I'd really enjoy that. All I really want is to get Sophia home with me and take care of her, and having a job as an illustrator may give me the opportunity to balance work with whatever needs Sophia may have, and, I could possibly even work from home. Being realistic, having a decent education and a good, well paid job would be massively positive and beneficial for myself and Sophia.

As I mentioned earlier, my dream job would probably be working for Naughty Dog, possibly as a concept artist or environment artist. Naughty Dog currently have a few vacancies, six in total in their art department and one of the main aspects of the company that I find wonderful is how much they value the role of art within the industry, asking for skills such as 'a fundamental knowledge of art history, art styles and artistic principles', as well as, 'aesthetics in game and film', obviously values which I also feel strongly about and have an interest in away from the course.

I could probably go on but I think I'll leave it here for today, I'm running out of breath!

Glad to be back!