The History of Arcade Machines from 1971

Early Arcade History 1971

In the early 1970s, video games were still in their infancy and mainly consisted of computer installations which were not practice for use within the mass market. Although it was to be a while until video games entered the ‘Golden years’, significant events were starting to turn heads in 1971. This was due to the introduction of two of the first arcade machines, ‘Computer Space’ and ‘Galaxy Game’.

Computer Space

Computer Space is considered the first ever arcade machine, created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney (under Syzygy Engineering) in 1971. The machine is held up as the first commercially produced video game, and its creators went on to co-found Atari together in 1972. The gameplay consists of the player controlling a rocket that is battling two flying saucers, which was designed by Bushnell and Dabney as a coin operated game Spacewar (1962). The machine was originally designed to have a wooden cabinet, however the cabinet was finally decided to be made of fibreglass, and curved for a futuristic design.

There were many early design flaws present in Computer Space, as Bushnell and Dabney ran into many problems in the engineering of the machine. After months of hard work, the two decided that instead of coding the game on a computer, the most efficient method for creating the game would be to make specific hardware to ensuring that the game ran as it was designed.

Initially, 1,500 units were ordered for release in November 1971, as the production company, Nutting, expected an optimistic reception of the game. However, by the spring of 1972 the game had sold 1,000 units. Nutting was disappointed with the sales of the Computer Space, however, after making $1,000,000 from sales Nutting was able to fund production of a two player version of the machine.

Galaxy Games

Around the same time of the production of the Computer Space, another two young entrepreneurs (Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck) had the similar idea of adapting Spacewar to a coin-operated machine. This machine used a fully operational computer to run the game and it therefore held the capability to play multiple games of four monitors. As this game was produced after the Computer Space it is the second video game that charged gamers per play.

The prototype for the Galaxy Games machine cost $20,000 to build, and was designed as a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11 minicomputer attached to a wooden cabinet which included a monitor, controls and seats.

The game charged players 10 cents per game or 25 cents for three games, with the winner being awarded with one free game. The gameplay was for two players, where players battle by the means of two monochrome spaceships (the ‘Needle’ and the ‘Wedge’), with a gravitational force occupying the central star.

The prototype was placed in the Student Union at Stanford University where it had shown to be very successful and was receiving a lot of attention. The second prototype made by Pitts and Tuck and placed in the café in the student union, however it was not used to its capacity, as due to limited space only two monitors out of four were used.

Regrettably, when Pitts and Tuck had completed the second prototype, $65,000 had been invested in the project. Pitts and Tuck had no way of making up the cost through just the earnings from the machine or had the ability to commercially produce the machine for a retail market. The two prototypes are kept in the Computer History Museum in California and are still available to play.