OriginsNolan Bushnell came into contact with Spacewar at the University of Utah, in 1964. He immediately fell in love with the game and couldn't get enough of it. At the time, he had a summer job in the games department of an amusement park, where he got very familiar with very successful coin-operated arcade machines. It immediately occurred to him that combining the two and creating a coin-operated version of Spacewar could be the invention of a lifetime.
However, the technology back then was prohibitive of this idea, as the hardware necessary to implement Spacewar's gameplay - a full computer - was too expensive for an economically viable coin-operated arcade game. Bushnell decided to move on, but never gave up the idea entirely.
A few years later, in his first engineering job after graduating, he met fellow engineer Ted Dabney. Dabney was also very fond of gaming and, after realizing that hardware costs had dropped significantly, it wasn't long before Bushnell shared his Spacewar idea with him. They debated for some time how they would implement the game and ran some hardware tests. However, their conclusion was that the required hardware was still not appropriate for a profitable coin-operated machine.
Instead of giving up, the duo ended up rethinking the entire concept and came up with a design that wouldn't require a computer at all, hence drastically reducing production costs.
Hardware and developmentTo eliminate the need of a computer to create the game, Bushnell wondered if it was possible to electronically manipulate the video output of a regular television set. He challenged Dabney to design a prototype illustrating this concept, who accepted it. After a few months of work, he eventually managed to do it. The prototype - a circuit board that displayed a user-controllable square on a TV set - proved that it was possible to have basic interaction on a screen without using a computer or even a CPU.
Knowing that they were finally on the right track, Bushnell decided they should implement a redesigned version of Spacewar, better suited for the arcades and taking into consideration the technical limitations of their approach. He removed the star in the middle of the playfield to eliminate the gravity pull, and turned the game into single-player by adding the two system-controlled flying saucers as opponents.
The game was made from simple ICs, transistors, and diodes. All game logic was implemented directly in hardware circuitry - there was no software and the system had no RAM nor ROM chips to store data. The shapes of the player's ship and of the enemy saucers were stored in discrete diodes in one of the 3 circuit boards, a clever idea that Bushnell came up with. Making the ship rotate on screen was one of their most challenging tasks, and required 4 representations of the ship to be stored in different angles, with the remaining angles obtained by mirroring these.
The game's graphics were displayed on an adapted 15" black-and-white vacuum tube TV set from General Electric.
Cabinet designDuring development, a basic wooden cabinet was assembled by Dabney, similar to the one he would later create for Pong. However, Bushnell felt that a pleasing futuristic cabinet would be more suitable to an arcade audience. He took upon himself the task of designing the cabinet, using clay to model it. Dabney then took the model and looked for manufacturers, settling with an expert that would produce it in fiberglass.
The game was released in three different colors: blue metalflake, red metalflake, and, less commonly, yellow. There are reports of other colors but it's unclear if they were painted post release. There is, however, confirmation of an official white prototype.
2-player versionThe 2-player version of the arcade was only available in green metalflake. Bushnell and Dabney had little to do with that version of the game, perhaps explaining why not much is known about it - including its release date.
Public receptionWith 1500 units sold, the single-player game performed rather modestly at the arcades. Its learning curve wasn't accessible for the general public, who not only had no prior exposure to video games, but were also unprepared to pilot a ship in a zero-gravity environment with conservation of momentum. The 2-player version later sold another 1500 units, but that was still below expectations.
Although the reception wasn't great, Computer Space was responsible for the dawn of the arcade video games. Bushnell and Dabney went on to create Atari soon afterwards, one of the most successful video game companies of all time.
Media appearancesComputer Space cabinets have been showcased prominently:
- 1973 movie Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston;
- 1975 movie Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg;
- 1995 episode D.P.O. of series The X Files;
- Lots more here.