Category Archives: Game History
Commemorating SpaceWar! And Its Pioneering Developers
My manager at a game publishing company I worked at years ago came out of the film industry, and as I was discussing some of the early videogames that had influenced me, he interrupted me to say that he had no idea that gamers had such a sense of history. Just as film buffs love classic movies, many of us gamers love so-called retrogames. We are drawn to them not just out of nostalgia for different eras, but also out of appreciation for their originality, inventiveness, and elegant simplicity. Also, those of us who know our game history realize that game developers reach the heights that they do only because they are, to use a well-worn but appropriate phrase, standing on the shoulders of giants.
And so last week I was thrilled to be invited to attend Innovative Lives: The Pioneers of Spacewar!, an event honoring the developers of a 1962 video game that helped launch our industry, hosted by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington. DC. The event brought together, for the very first time in sixty years, seven of the game’s remaining developers — Dan Edwards, Martin (“Shag”) Graetz, Steven Piner, Steve (“Slug”) Russell, Peter Samson, Robert Saunders and Wayne Wiitanen — to discuss the development of their influential video game.
During a cocktail reception before the panel discussion, Lemelson Center director Arthur Daemmrich explained to me how fortunate it was that many of the pioneers of the video game industry were still alive to be interviewed and have their memories and insights recorded for posterity, and that was part of the impetus for hosting this event. Such first-hand recollections allow us to understand the personalities, technologies and social forces that came together to make interactive entertainment one of the most successful industries of all time.
When it was time for the honorees take the stage, I was pleasantly surprised how energetic and enthusiastic these seven octogenarians were. During the panel, moderated by Bethesda founder Christopher Weaver, they recalled how, in 1961, they were all either students or employees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) had donated PDP-1 minicomputer for educational purposes to complement the older TX-0 in MIT Electrical Engineering Department. Even before it arrived, they began brainstorming ideas for programs that would demonstrate the new computer’s capabilities in a compelling way.
It was Russell, Graetz, and Wiitanen who came up with the idea for Spacewar! They wanted to show off the PDP-1’s display capabilities and thought that making a two-dimensional maneuvering program would be a good approach, and being science fiction enthusiasts, decided that the obvious thing to do was spaceships. Professor Jack Dennis, who was responsible for the PDP-1, thought this was a great educational opportunity for the students. In exchange for giving them time to make their game, he asked them to port the TX-O’s operating system to the PDP-1 over a 3-day weekend. His only other requirement was that they not break the computer.
Fortunately, they found the PDP-1 easy to program. Also, two of the students were members of the Tech Model Railroad Club and their knowledge of track relays and circuits helped them to devise the game’s logic. They decided to have the gameplay involve two monochrome spaceships< called "the needle" and "the wedge", attempting to shoot torpedoes at one another while maneuvering on a two-dimensional plane in the gravity well of a star, The ships followed Newtonian physics, remaining in motion even when the player is not accelerating, though the ships can rotate at a constant rate without inertia. The sun in the center of the screen was created as an element the player couldn't control; it helped make SpaceWar! a game of skill.
To make Spacewar! easier for beginning players who founded themselves surrounded by torpedoes, the team added a hyperspace jump feature that players could use to vanish from tough situations, but to keep the feature from being abused, they had the ship reappear at a random position — possibly even a more dangerous one. They also balanced the skill of skilled players by limiting the amount of fuel and torpedoes available to them.
Because of the PDP-1’s limited processing power, the team found that the computer could not have every game element obey real-world physics and update the screen at an acceptable rate. So they decided that the torpedoes fired by the ships would not be affected by the gravitational pull of the star (they were “photon torpedoes”, one of the panelists jokingly explained). However, the team did allow for the game’s starfield to be based on a real star chart, with the star positions modified based on the seasons.
Spacewar! did not work immediately because Russell was “lazy” and didn’t want to write a sine and cosine function for the game. The team eventually got functions from someone else, and Russell emulated these for the game to make it work correctly. The final game worked so well that DEC used it to test its other computers to ensure they were operating at proper performance rates.
Spacewar! was extremely popular in the university programming community in the 1960s. The MIT team made the game public, and other students recreated it on the minicomputer and mainframe computers of the time. Computer scientist Alan Kay noted that “the game of Spacewar! blossoms spontaneously wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer.” By 1972 the game was well-known enough in the programming community that Rolling Stone sponsored the “Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics.”
In the early 1970s, Spacewar! migrated from large computer systems to a commercial setting as it formed the basis for the first two coin-operated video games. Some of the games that were influenced by Spacewar! include Computer Space, developed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, which would become the first commercially sold arcade video game and the first widely available video game of any kind, as well as Orbitwar (1974), Space Wars (1977), Space War (1978) and Asteroids (1979).
It should come as no surprise that at the conclusion of the panel, Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences president Meggan Scavio presented these developers with the organization’s Pioneer Award, honoring individuals whose career-spanning work has helped shape and define the interactive entertainment industry through the creation of a technological approach or the introduction of a new genre. As the Spacewar! creators became the AIAS’ ninth through fifteenth Pioneer Award recipients, we in the audience — which included such other video game pioneers as Ultima creator Richard Garriott, Deus Ex creator Warren Spector, Zork creator Dave Lebling, and Defender creator Eugene Jarvis — gave them a rousing standing ovation, for the game industry would probably not be what it is today without their contributions.
In Memory Of Harlan Ellison: My Literary Idol, And For An All-Too Brief Time, My Friend
One of the highlights of my game development career was working with legendary author Harlan Ellison on adapting his classic short story “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” into a video game published by Cyberdreams in 1995. Last week, I was saddened to learn, along with millions of his other admiring readers, that Harlan had passed away during his sleep at the age of 84. He left behind his loving wife, Susan, as well as a body of work marking him as one of the most influential speculative fiction writers of the twentieth century.
I met with Harlan only a handful of times, but I feel like I knew him my entire life. He wrote my favorite episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”, of one of my favorite television shows, Star Trek, of which I instantly became a fan while watching its premiere when I was eight years old. It was Star Trek’s first time travel story, in which one of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s Doctor McCoy steps through a time portal and inadvertently changes history by saving a woman, Edith Keeler, from being killed in an automobile accident. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock go back in time and prevent McCoy from intervening in Keeler’s death, despite Kirk having fallen in love with her. I adored that episode for its weighty theme that would in later Star Trek stories be stated as “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and the emotional depth of Kirk’s sacrifice.
However, a few years later, I read in Stephen Whitfield’s book The Making of Star Trek that although Harlan received sole credit for writing the script, it was actually extensively rewritten by series producer Gene Coon and script supervisor D.C. Fontana, for Harlan’s teleplay being prohibitive expensive to shoot and the characters not behaving as per the writer’s guide. It was this revised version that was filmed and went on to win the Hugo Award for “Best Dramatic Presentation,” while Harlan’s original teleplay won Writers Guild of America award for “Best Episodic Drama on Television.” Harlan accepted both awards, but complained bitterly over the next several decades about having been rewritten.
It had been an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. In 1975, I saw an episode of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow talk show in which Harlan appeared with actors DeForest Kelly, James Doohan and Walter Koenig to discuss Star Trek, and Harlan dominated the hour by blasting the series. I later asked Doohan at a Star Trek convention about what he thought of what Harlan said, and Doohan replied, “I wanted to punch him in the nose.”
Many people felt that way about Harlan, for he had a reputation for being argumentative, abrasive, and cantankerous. I first saw him in person on a writers panel at the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention, where he verbally eviscerated people with whom he had worked in the past and skewered the sacred cows of those present as he discussed atheism, Scientology, violence and sexuality. As latecomers entered the room, he enthusiastically welcomed them with “Welcome to the Butt Fuck Hour!” While his personality was 180 degrees from my own, I had to admit that I admired him for being such a gleefully outspoken iconoclast.
Yet Harlan was able to channel his inner demons into a prolific career writing some of the most disturbing and riveting words ever put to paper, comprised of 1,700 short stories, more than 100 books, and dozens of scripts, as well as a wide range of criticism and essays covering literature, film, television, and print media. His work won numerous literary awards, including multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and Edgars.
Arguably his greatest work was his 1967 Hugo Award winning story “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.” First published in an issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. It is a dystopian tale of an insane supercomputer named AM that destroys the Earth’s entire population in a nuclear holocaust, save for five individuals who it has mercilessly kept alive for mercilessly humiliate and torture for the next 100 years. I first read this unforgettably horrific tale in the anthology, “The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time,” and it instantly became my own favorite story, for I was an innocent and wholesome lad who nevertheless had a wide-eyed fascination of the grotesque and dangerous, dipping my toes every once in a while into their murky waters. That and other chilling stories inspired me to later create video games that occasionally explored the dark side of humanity.
And so when I next saw Harlan in person at the 1994 Game Developers Conference with game designer David Sears announcing that they were adapting “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” into a video game for Cyberdreams, I thought, “That should be me up there with Harlan.” My envy turned into prophesy when, a few months later, Cyberdreams president Pat Ketchum offered me a job as a producer at his company, and I was put in charge of “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”’s development, with David Sears having left the project to accept a position elsewhere.
My first meeting with Harlan was more of a social occasion – a Cyberdreams party to celebrate the company’s next wave of games. In addition to Harlan, other partygoers included two other Cyberdreams collaborators, Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax and Blade Runner’s hover car designer Syd Mead, as well as a local television news team. Harlan was already a bit giddy when I introduced myself to him as the game’s new producer, David Mullich. “Bullocks?”, he impishly replied. “Like the department store?” He then moved on to film a piece for the television crew.
A couple of weeks later, giving myself time to fully get acquainted with the design work that had been done on the game so far – a half-completed game design document, a set of storyboards, and some prototype gameplay – I went to have my first subsequent conversation with Harlan at his home. It was a rather unremarkable house in the upper-middle-class hilly neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, save for the stone gargoyles that stood watch around the roof’s perimeter and were protected from thieves and vandals by a coil of razor wire.
Harlan didn’t remember me from the party when I opened the door. When I reintroduced myself as the game’s new producer, he muttered with irritation about the rotating staff at Cyberdreams and directed me to plug in my computer at booth in the kitchen. As I spent a few minutes trying to locate the power outlet (it was built into the booth, facing up, with a potted plant sitting on top of it), he hurled some barbs at me about being “another member of the Cyberdreams brain trust.” Fortunately, I expected him to be difficult to work with, and so I ignored his insults.
I understood from his past history was that what Harlan wanted most was not to have others make him look bad – or rather, not distort his work, especially in a medium with which he was unfamiliar. So, as I was showing him the work in progress, I explained to him that I was not just a fan of his work, but that I’ve had success in creating other games with dark psychological themes, particularly my adaptation of the surreal spy television series, The Prisoner. Eventually, his sneers turned into nods, and I saw that I was gaining his trust.
I needed that trust, because it was up to me to finish writing David Sear’s design document, because Harlan had a thousand projects going on at once and no time to do more than meet with me every few weeks. The first time I showed him a dialog scene I had written, he looked at it and said, “Who wrote this shit?” When told him that I did, he immediately reddened and apologized. I replied, “That’s okay. Compared to you, my writing is shit. So, go and make it better.” He then retreated into his office for a half hour while I sat in the kitchen, watching a Spider-man toy figure appearing to climb up the kitchen cabinets. When Harlan returned, he handed me back a much better written scene.
Eventually my confidence grew to the point where I could criticize his work. He would occasionally have me a rewrite that I wasn’t happy with, and when I told him, “Harlan, you can do better than this,” he would agree and go back to his office to do another draft. Occasionally, I would indulge my fan boy curiosity by asking him questions about his life. One time when I stayed late enough for us to get some Thai food delivered to us for dinner, I talked about my time working as The Walt Disney’s Company’s first video game producer. Harlan then told me that he too had worked for Disney, but was fired on the first day when he stood up in the Studio commissary and described how he wanted to make an animated pornographic film with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Harlan’s charming wife, Susan, had joined us for dinner, and she told us the story of how they had met in pub in Great Britain. I don’t remember whether she said that he had thrown a bottle at her, or she at him, but knowing Ellison’s lascivious reputation, it was probably the latter.
While his behavior was often profane, he could be compassionate. At the end of the year I sent him a copy of our family Christmas letter, in which we described our infant son’s battle with cancer. (Our son eventually won that battle and grew up to be a fine man, but it was a difficult period for my wife and me, and I channeled that horrific experience into the dialog I wrote into the game.) After Harlan received the let, he called me to ask me why I would send a Christmas let to someone who was Jewish, but then asked me with sincerity and concern about my son and how he was doing.
One of my favorite memories of Harlan was when it was time to cast voices for the game. One of my friends knew John DeLancie, who had played the mischievous, omnipotent being Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I thought he would be perfect for the voice of the insane supercomputer AM. When I told Harlan that I had spoken to DeLancie on the phone and he was interested in the part, Harlan immediately said, “No! No one from Star Trek.” Knowing the story behind his experience on Star Trek, I was not surprised. “Why don’t you perform the role?” I suggested. “You as an evil supercomputer is perfect typecasting!” Harlan agreed.
On the day we recorded AM’s dialog, I sent a limousine to drive Harlan to the recording studio from his home. As he got out of the car, I could see that he was upset. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He told me that he had barked at Susan that morning, and he was feeling guilty about it. “Susan’s a lovely person, and you should feel bad about yelling at her,” I said. “But she’s loved you all these years, and she’ll still love you when you get home, so let’s get to work now.” He seemed to brighten up at that.
I discovered that underneath his curmudgeonly, abrasive exterior, Harlan was actually quite a caring but insecure person. If you earned his trust, I found he was quite charitable. The night that “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” won the Game Developers Conference Award for “Best Game Adapted From Linear Media,” I called Harlan from the ceremony and told hem, “You won!” He immediately shot back, “WE won? That’s great!”
He put his warm sentiments to paper too. When Computer Gaming World awarded the game with their “Best Adventure Game of the Year Award”, Harlan wrote a letter to the editors thanking them for the honor, but informing them that they failed to mention my name in addition to him and David Sears:
“David Sears and I worked very hard on I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. And we both get our accolades in your presentation. But someone else who had as much, or more, to do with bringing this project to fruition… is David Mullich. He was the project manager and designer after David Sears moved on. He worked endlessly, and with what Balzac called ‘clean hands and composure’ to produce a property that would not shame either of us. It simply would not have won your award had not David Mullich mounted the barricades.”
I’m thankful to have that thoughtful gesture with which to cherish his memory. But sadly, it was one of the last times we communicated, and I regret not having continued our friendship after the game was completed. It is said that one should never meet one’s heroes, for they will always disappoint you, but Harlan was someone who never disappointed.