Forty years ago, Nutting Associates released the world’s first mass-produced and commercially sold video game, Computer Space. It was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, a charismatic engineer with a creative vision matched only by his skill at self-promotion. With the help of his business partner Ted Dabney and the staff of Nutting Associates, Bushnell pushed the game from nothing into reality only two short years after conceiving the idea.
Computer Space pitted a player-controlled rocket ship against two machine-controlled flying saucers in a space simulation set before a two-dimensional star field. The player controlled the rocket with four buttons: one for fire, which shoots a missile from the front of the rocket ship; two directional rotation buttons (to rotate the ship orientation clockwise or counterclockwise); and one for thrust, which propelled the ship in whichever direction it happened to be pointing. Think of Asteroids without the asteroids, and you should get the picture.
During play, two saucers would appear on the screen and shoot at the player while flying in a zig-zag formation. The player’s goal was to dodge the saucer fire and shoot the saucers.
Considering a game of this complexity playing out on a TV set, you might think that it was created as a sophisticated piece of software running on a computer. You’d think it, but you’d be wrong–and Bushnell wouldn’t blame you for the mistake. How he and Dabney managed to pull it off is a story of audacity, tenacity, and sheer force-of-will worthy of tech legend. This is how it happened.
The Germ of an Idea
The genesis of Computer Space dates back to 1962, when a group of computer enthusiasts at MIT created the world’s first known action video game. They called it “Spacewar!” (the exclamation mark was their idea too). It pitted two human-controlled ships against each other in a physics-based space duel that played out on the $20,000 vector display of a $120,000 DEC PDP-1 computer. For those of you keeping score, that totals up to over $1 million in 2011 dollars when adjusted for inflation.
Spacewar became very popular among computer users at MIT, and it soon caught the attention of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the company that manufactured the PDP-1. Not long after its release, DEC began to distribute Spacewar as a glorified tech demo for PDP-series computers, which spread the game’s code to universities around the world. Over the next few years, fans ported the game to nearly every computer with a vector display, although those were admittedly few and far between–in the 1960s, most universities only owned one or two computers total; the machines were so expensive that only large organizations could afford them.
In 1964, a young engineering student named Nolan Kay Bushnell encountered Spacewar for the first time at the University of Utah, which he attended. He found himself completely enraptured and could hardly pull himself away from the computer. “I loved the game and played it every chance I could get,” recalls Bushnell. “I didn’t get as many chances as I wanted.”
At the time, Bushnell worked a summer job as manager of the games department at the Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington, Utah. There he saw electromechanical coin-operated arcade games that offered completely automated, interactive game experiences.
At that time, pinball machines dominated the coin-operated arcade game market, but manufacturers also offered shooting gallery, racing, and other crude games. Such games relied upon a postwar toolkit of relays, electromechanical components, film projectors, and transparencies to achieve the desired game play and visual effects, and they were prone to breaking down at any moment.
After seeing Spacewar, it occurred to Bushnell that the sci-fi computer game could form the basis for an amazing coin-op arcade machine. But the bright idea was soon followed by the realization that, with computer prices as high as they were, the game simply wouldn’t work as a commercial product. He filed it away in the back of his mind and moved on.
After graduating from University of Utah with a BSEE degree in 1968, Bushnell landed a job at Ampex in California. By that point Ampex had made its name as a prominent audio and video recording technology company; its innovations included the first multi-track audio recorder and the commercial video tape recorder. Bushnell packed up his things and moved out to the west coast, never looking back. He was 25 years old.
On his first day at Ampex as an engineer on the Videofile project, Bushnell met his new office mate, 31 year-old Samuel Frederick Dabney, Jr., known as “Ted” for short.
“I thought he was a nice guy, pretty straightforward, pretty level-headed,” recalls Dabney of Bushnell, whose charm and charisma always seemed to precede any practical engineering skills he might have. “I couldn’t quite figure out what he was capable of doing because, whenever I would ask him a question, he would ask me a question.”
Bushnell recalls Dabney as “a really, really nice guy. Smart guy. Self-taught, but just full of practical knowledge.”
The two hit it off, and Bushnell soon introduced Dabney to his love of board games. The two engineers played chess at first — mostly during office hours — but soon branched out to Go, a complex Chinese board game that was immensely popular in Japan.
To facilitate their regular in-office gaming sessions, Dabney built a go board with an Ampex logo on the back for camouflage. They would set the board on a trash can between their desks while playing, and if management came along, they would flip the board over and hang it on the wall, logo-side out, so no one would know what they were up to.
While playing these games, Dabney says that Bushnell shared his dreams of creating a family-friendly amusement restaurant that would bring coin-operated games out of amusement parks and into the mainstream. The pair examined the concept in detail, even visiting some restaurants together for research. They decided not to act on the idea (for the moment), but it marked the beginning of their plans to go into business together.
While navigating the Silicon Valley social scene, Bushnell made friends with a computer engineer named Jim Stein who worked at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (yes, they were already researching AI in 1969). The lab owned its very own PDP-6 computer and an I3 vector display, which prompted Bushnell to inquire if it could run Spacewar. Stein said yes, and the pair spent hours playing the game on one of the Ampex engineer’s night visits.
Not long after, Bushnell ran across an ad for the new Data General Nova minicomputer in one of his engineering magazines. As one of the lowest-cost minicomputers on the market (a stripped-down base model cost a mere $3,995–roughly $24,600 today), the Nova represented a new era in computing. Bushnell realized that an economically justifiable coin-operated computer game might finally be within his reach.
It wasn’t long before Bushnell dragged Dabney down to the lab to see Spacewar, which Bushnell enthusiastically gushed over. It was then that Bushnell revealed his ideas for a commercial computer game to Dabney. “He said, ‘We’ve got to put a coin slot on that thing,’” recalls Dabney. The self-taught engineer wasn’t too impressed with Spacewar itself, but he wasn’t about to back away from an interesting technical challenge either.
The pair began discussing what it would take to make Bushnell’s idea a reality. “We knew we needed a computer, so we needed a computer programmer,” says Dabney. They enlisted Larry Bryan, another Ampex engineer as their “computer guy.” The trio decided to form a company; Bryan came up the with name Syzygy, an astronomy term for a straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies. Each would deposit $100 into a group bank account to get started.
That was the plan, anyway. Bushnell and Dabney put in their money, but Bryan never did. It actually worked out for the best, because the “computer guy” soon became superfluous to the project. To better make use of a costly minicomputer, Bushnell had planned to hook two game-playing stations to one Nova, which would play two separate games simultaneously. Bushnell worked out the math and found that the Nova, the only computer they could dream of affording, was too slow to meet their needs.
After that, the idea died down. Months went by and Dabney figured their plan to make a computer arcade machine would never materialize. But Bushnell would not be deterred. Dabney recalls the scene of Bushnell’s breakthrough epiphany.
“Nolan came to me one time and he said, ‘On a TV set, when you turn the vertical hold on the TV, the picture will go up, and if you turn it the other way, it goes down. Why does it do that?’ I explained it to him. It was the difference between the sync and the picture timing. He said, ‘Could we do that with some control?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we probably can, but we’d have to do it digitally, because analog would not be linear.’”
What Bushnell had hit upon was an idea to electronically manipulate the video signal of an ordinary television set so they could play an interactive electronic game without the need for a computer. It wasn’t the first time in history that someone had made that realization; Ralph Baer, an engineer at Sanders Associates, had invented the first TV video games in 1967, but Bushnell had no knowledge of that prior discovery.
Bushnell asked his friend if he could put together a prototype that could do exactly what he had described, and Dabney took up the challenge. Dabney moved his eldest daughter, Carrie, into a smaller bedroom and requisitioned her old sleeping space as a lab where he could implement his ideas. Working completely alone, Dabney built a circuit board that could display a single spot on a TV set while allowing a user to move the spot around using switches. “My neighbors would come over and see what I was doing, and they would start laughing at how funny that looked,” says Dabney.
Dabney showed Bushnell his work, completed in the fall of 1969, and the younger engineer was impressed. He handed over the board to Bushnell for further tinkering and forgot about it for the moment, becoming re-absorbed in his work at Ampex. Meanwhile, Bushnell had big plans for Dabney’s new invention.
Next: Enter Nutting Associates
Enter Nutting Associates
By early 1970, Bushnell had already been brainstorming about how to turn Dabney’s video control board into a shipping game. He decided that he needed investment from an outside source to make his dream of a coin-operated video game a reality, but he had no connections in the arcade industry.
The opportunity Bushnell needed fell into his lap in February 1970 during a visit to the dentist. While getting his teeth checked out, Bushnell described his current project to the doctor, who recalled a patient of his that worked as marketing director for a local coin-op game company.
That patient happened to be Dave Ralston of Nutting Associates, a small arcade game maker based in Mountain View. Nutting’s marquee product at the time was Computer Quiz, a general trivia arcade machine that projected questions onto a screen and allowed users to choose answers with push button controls. (No computers were actually involved.)
Bushnell called Ralston, and two days later he was in Nutting Associates’ offices pitching to both Ralston and Bill Nutting, president of the company, on his idea for a coin-operated Spacewar game. At the time, Nutting Associates was in financial decline, almost wholly dependent on its three-year-old Computer Quiz game to get by. The pair were anxious for another product to revive their business, so they said yes to Bushnell’s idea while also extending an offer to hire him as chief engineer of Nutting.
Sensing Nutting’s desperation, Bushnell pitched an amazingly lopsided deal that allowed him and Dabney to retain the rights to Computer Space, licensing it to Nutting for production in exchange for a 5% royalty on unit sales — even though Bushnell would develop the game as an employee. Nutting would provide the facilities for Computer Space’s development and pay its manufacturing costs.
“I was very careful,” recalls Bushnell. “In my employment contract, I excluded the video game technology and all the shop right issues and told them that I would not work on the design of the video game on their time until it was ready to be put into production, which is something that I would allow them to pay for.”
Before Bushnell came along, Nutting Associates had no in-house capability to design a game for itself. Computer Quiz had been created by Bill Nutting’s brother, David, who lived in Chicago and operated his own amusements company. “They didn’t have an engineering staff,” says Dabney, “and they didn’t have anybody that understood how to fix their machines when they broke. Nolan convinced him he could do that.”
So, in a sense, Bushnell became Nutting’s engineering department when he joined Nutting in March 1970, quitting his job at Ampex without a second thought. Meanwhile, Dabney stayed behind at his old employer. He wasn’t ready to give up his secure job for a risky proposition — yet.
Bushnell, on the other hand, was convinced that video-based arcade games were the future of the arcade amusement industry. They would be solid state, having no moving parts other than the controls, so they would be easy to deploy and maintain. At Nutting, he set out to build the first coin-operated video game ever created. As it turned out, he wasn’t completely alone.
A Coincidence Six Miles Away
Around the time Bushnell started developing Computer Space at Nutting, a Stanford alumnus and his high school buddy had just begun work on their own coin-operated version of Spacewar. Unlike Bushnell’s version, their game would rely on a real computer to function.
In 1971, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck bought a $14,000 DEC PDP-11/20 minicomputer and a $3,000 vector display with money gathered from family and friends. Tuck built controls and enclosures while Pitts began programming a custom reproduction of Spacewar with the goal of creating a coin-munching pay-to-play amusement device.
With the “war” in “Spacewar” being an unpopular subject on university campuses at the time, they chose the title “Galaxy Game” to describe their work.
Just as Tuck and Pitts were finalizing their game, they received a call from Nolan Bushnell, who had heard about Galaxy Game through mutual contacts. Neither party knew of the other’s effort when they started, so Bushnell was understandably intrigued.
“I can remember thinking ‘Gee, I’ve got to meet with these guys,’” recalls Bushnell. Over coffee at Stanford, the Nutting engineer told Galaxy Game’s creators about his plans for Computer Space and invited them over to Nutting’s offices to take a look.
“We went in there and Nolan was literally an engineer with an oscilloscope in hand working on Computer Space,” said Pitts in an interview with Tristan Donovan for the book Replay: The History of Video Games. Pitts and Tuck were impressed with what Bushnell was pulling off technologically, but they felt their game was superior because it was true to Spacewar.
Bushnell, who was sizing up potential competition, felt relieved when he learned that the pair had not unlocked any secret recipe that would allow a computer-based arcade game to thrive in the 1971 coin-op market. At over $17,000 per machine, just for parts, Galaxy Game had no ability to scale to the point where it could appear in more than one or a few locations. It would have required too much up front cost, too much maintenance, and too much time for the payout in coins to even equal the cost of the equipment involved.
When Galaxy Game made it debut at the Tresidder Memorial Union, a student community building on Stanford’s campus, the intense space simulation attracted a sizable crowd of fans, some of whom would wait hours for their chance to play. Tuck and Pitts charged 10 cents a game or a quarter for three games, with a free game going to the winner.
Galaxy Game did well enough that the duo created a second version of the game a year later (interestingly, that version could support multiple games on a single machine like Bushnell had originally planned), but the high cost of the hardware prevented the idea from going any further. “They were kind of funny guys that were technical, but not real focused on world domination,” says Bushnell. That was fine with Tuck and Pitts, who seemed content to merely dominate a single building at Stanford.
So how did both Bushnell and the Stanford duo hit upon the same idea almost simultaneously (and only six miles apart)? If history is any indication, commonly-available advances in technology tend to make certain innovations so obvious that it would be amazing if they didn’t happen. It then becomes a case of when, not if, such an invention will develop.
It’s rare that only one person invents an idea without another independently doing so shortly afterward. It had happened before with Bushnell (although he didn’t know it at the time), who wasn’t the first to invent television video games. Ralph Baer had beat him to it by a mere three years. Bushnell was, however, the first to make them work in a commercial arcade setting. But not before putting in a half-year of intense work that began when he walked into Nutting’s office on his first day as chief engineer.
Bushnell’s Rotating Rocket
With Ted Dabney’s video control board in hand, Bushnell set out to create his own interpretation of Spacewar at Nutting’s modest headquarters in Mountain View. Bushnell’s contribution to the game was somewhat analogous to those of both game designer and programmer today. Dabney had created a basic board that could put spots on a TV screen and could move them around (a system); Bushnell would design circuitry that would decide what spots to put on the screen, where, and how they would interact and respond to controls (the program).
Of course, there was no computer system or software involved. Bushnell would render his electronic game logic in hardware using medium-scale integration ICs, transistors, and diodes. It wasn’t easy.
In an era long before computer-aided design (CAD) tools existed, Bushnell spent most of his working hours at a drafting table located just outside his office door at Nutting. He utilized common engineering stencils to draw diagrams and schematics in pencil on C-size vellum. “I spent more time there than I ever did sitting in my office chair,” recalls Bushnell. He worked long hours–usually from 8 AM to midnight–in a furious push to finish his new game before a large amusement trade show in October 1971.
While Bushnell worked on the logic circuitry, Dabney visited Nutting’s offices at night to craft other aspects of the game’s hardware system, including the power supply, coin mechanism, control panel, and the sound generating circuitry. He also built the game’s prototype cabinet, a simple wooden upright-oriented box that looked similar to the Pong cabinet that he would design a year later.
Bushnell wanted his Syzygy partner to join Nutting, and Dabney still resisted. But by mid-1970, Bushnell had made such impressive progress on the game that Dabney reconsidered his position. “I was still working at Ampex,” recalls Dabney, “and I’d come in after work and see what was going on. I was blown away by what Nolan was able to accomplish. It was fantastic.” Dabney finally gave in and joined Nutting full time in the summer of that year.
According to Dabney, Bushnell’s greatest personal design triumph involved the on-screen rotation of the rocket ship, which was composed of an outline of dots with small gaps between them. “One of the hardest things to do was to get the rocket ship to actually rotate,” says Dabney. “That was a very, very difficult thing to work out.” But Bushnell did figure it out, and he says his solution is the aspect of Computer Space’s design he is most proud of.
ROM chips, the read-only integrated circuits that store digital data, were very expensive in 1971. To manufacture them inexpensively, per unit, required mass production runs to the order of thousands of chips, which was not something Nutting would have invested in for a limited-run arcade unit. So Bushnell electronically stored the shape of the rocket ship and saucer using the most basic form of read-only memory available: discrete diodes on a circuit board, which he whimsically laid out to resemble the actual shapes they represented on the screen.
In other words, if you look at the production Computer Space “memory board” (as it is labeled), you will see the outline of the on-screen rocket ship and the saucer represented as diodes soldered in place. To keep things simple and inexpensive, Bushnell wanted to have as few of these images as possible on the board.
In order to produce a fluid rotation animation, Bushnell wanted as many as 16 directions that the rocket could point. He came up with a way to do that using four images of the rocket that could be mirrored, each one being flipped once on its X-axis and Y-axis.
He then realized that an image of the rocket ship pointing straight up, when mirrored left-to-right, would result in the exact same image, so he settled on four representations of the rocket ship at different angles. “The first one was tilted just about five degrees off vertical,” recalls Bushnell, “so when I folded it, the next image was pointing 10 degrees in the other direction.” His clever scheme produced a surprisingly smooth rocket rotation for a video game created in 1971.
Bushnell also managed to implement apparently complex machine-controlled behavior of the player’s foes using a simple procedure. The two flying saucers, the target of the player’s fire, would merely detect which quadrant of the screen hosted the player’s rocket ship and it fire in that direction. “It was a total cheat,” says Bushnell of the approach, but the world’s first video game AI worked well given the technological limitations.
When he was finished, Bushnell’s logic boards appeared stunningly well-engineered to Dabney, who today raises the possibility that Bushnell received significant help with the design from his former colleagues at Ampex, especially Steve Bristow, who later joined Atari. Bushnell and Bristow both deny this. “I did none of the design work, but was involved in the construction of prototypes,” Bristow told me in a recent e-mail. For his part, Bushnell doesn’t recall Bristow being involved in the project at all: “I was the logic engineer, pure and simple.” Confusion may have arisen on Dabney’s part because Bristow engineered a later two-player version of Computer Space for Nutting.
Regarding who gets credit for what work, it is worth noting that Bushnell filed a US patent (No. 3793483) in 1972 that covered Dabney’s invention of the Computer Space video control circuitry–not the logic circuitry Bushnell created. Dabney is not listed as an inventor on the patent, which was awarded solely to Bushnell in 1974. Dabney was never aware of the patent until recently, though the fact that Bushnell didn’t include his name on the patent doesn’t keep Dabney up at night. “Nolan would never share something like that with me,” he says. “That’s just the way he did business.”
Next: The Finishing Touches
The Finishing Touches
Circuit boards, wires, and components amount to very little in the commercial arena without a pleasing exterior to attract customers; every arcade game needs a proper cabinet. Dabney’s wooden prototype Computer Space cabinet had functioned well for testing, but Nutting decided that the game needed a futuristic, attention-getting appearance to thrive as a product.
Bushnell took the task of the cabinet’s final design upon himself, sculpting a pleasing shape in gray modeling clay. He designed a sweeping, vertically-oriented enclosure with a protruding control panel assembly that coyly leaned off-center to one side. Rounded corners on nearly every part of the unit took away any intimidating edge and gave the appearance that the cabinet had been extruded as a molten dollop of technology from an alien video game gun.
Bushnell handed the sculpture off to Dabney, who shopped the model around to various cabinet makers in the area. Dabney settled on a local fiberglass manufacturer named John Hebbler that specialized in seamless hot tubs and swimming pools. The fiberglass expert did the rest. Bushnell recalls encountering the finished result sitting at Nutting Associates one day. “All of a sudden, there was a yellow one, full size, in the lab. You could have pushed me over with a feather,” says Bushnell.
While Nutting had the first Computer Space units painted in solid, primary colors, most of the later Computer Space cabinets shipped in variously-colored sparkle finishes reminiscent of a 1970s motorcycle helmet.
Bushnell’s cabinet design, which drew on Dabney’s prototype, would set the prototype for arcade video games to come, although its rough configuration wasn’t without precedent. Computer Space sported a display on top, controls in the middle, and a coin box at the bottom in an all-in-one stand-up unit similar to electromechanical arcade games such as Sega’s Missile, released only two years prior.
As a finishing touch, Bushnell’s game received a christening from Nutting’s director of sales, Dave Ralston. He settled on the name “Computer Space,” and it wasn’t hard to see why. The Computer-themed name made logical sense not only because of the pseudo-computer nature of the game, but because Nutting’s most prominent machine was called Computer Quiz. And as for the “Space” part–well, the game took place beyond the Earth’s terrestrial purview.
Near the end of the summer of 1971, Bushnell and Dabney had finished a complete, working prototype of the game, but they wondered if anyone would like it. They were about to find out.
The World Reacts
Nutting decided to place a Computer Space test unit at a Palo Alto restaurant and bar called the Dutch Goose to see how people liked it. The novel space game proved initially popular and received high praise from players at the location, but the enthusiastic response turned out to be misleading. Nutting didn’t realize it at first, but the clientele of the Dutch Goose consisted mostly of technically-adept Stanford students, which highly skewed the results.
Soon after, Bushnell and Dabney conducted another test of Computer Space in a pizza parlor with a more diverse demographic. As people tried the game, the pair listened in from a distance to gauge the public response. At first, players weren’t sure what to make of the technology or how it as supposed to work, recalls Dabney. “They’d say things like, ‘Well, you’ve got to do this. Otherwise, the rocket ship is going to get mad at you.’”
Most players found difficultly operating the machine, which combined a surprisingly realistic simulation of Newtonian mechanics with unintuitive push-button controls. The machine expected first-time video game players to understand how to pilot a rocket ship in a zero-gravity, frictionless environment in which conservation of momentum kept the ship moving unless it encountered an opposing force. If a player thrusted the rocket ship forward, it would keep moving unless he or she rotated it around 180 degrees and thrusted in the opposite direction. That’s a tricky maneuver to figure out even today, much less in 1971 with a row of four buttons–no joystick.
Even so, it’s unlikely that such a simulation would scare the average video game player now. At the time, however, very few humans on Earth had used their fingers to control an electronic image like that. With no prior exposure to video games, members of the general population had not built up the dexterity and coordination required to successfully play a multi-button interactive game. “People learned how to play video games as a group over time,” says Bushnell. “I think they could have handled it much better two or three years later.”
In response to the control problems, Dabney attempted to simplify the control panel design with a cast aluminum handle that a player could turn to steer the rocket ship. It proved even more problematic. “As soon as we got it in the field,” recalls Dabney, “some kids just ripped it off.” The modified controls never made it into production.
Control and gameplay difficulties aside, almost everyone who encountered Computer Space found themselves drawn to it. The sheer novelty of controlling an image on a TV screen attracted many gawkers, some of whom had trouble believing that the machine generated the imagery itself. Bushnell and Dabney regularly witnessed people at test locations searching around the game cabinet for secret wires that might lead to a TV station or some more complex apparatus hidden from view.
“Their whole center of gravity was that TV images came from stations, period,” recalls Bushnell. “The idea that you could generate something locally–remember, there were no VCRs, no DVDs–the only thing that a TV could play was a TV station.”
Dabney recalls the wonder as well. “They were blown away by it. That is something that really boggled their brains. All of a sudden, there’s a TV picture that they have control of. It was totally new to them.”
The Rocket Launches
Computer Space made its public debut in Chicago, Illinois on October 15th, 1971 at the Music Operators of America show, a prominent trade show for coin-op amusements. Not too long before, Nutting had built four Computer Space units (in bold red, white, blue, and yellow cabinets) for display at the show. Bushnell and Dabney accompanied them to Chicago, proud of their new creation.
When it came time to unpack the machines, Bushnell and Dabney made a terrifying discovery: the TV displays in every unit had ripped loose during transport and crashed to the bottom of their cabinets. “We thought we were hosed,” says Bushnell. They had built four Computer Space units to give the appearance that the game was in production or close to production. In truth, those were the only complete Computer Space machines in existence.
With no back-ups to call upon, the two engineers attempted to rebuild the units on the spot. They got three of them working, but the forth one proved damaged beyond repair. Thinking quickly, they made the best of the situation by turning the damaged machine around, opening up the back, and showing off the internal workings as if they had always intended it to be that way.
During the event (which turned out to be the world’s first public unveiling of a commercial video game), Bushnell and Dabney encountered significant skepticism from their colleagues in the amusement industry. “I remember one guy saying, ‘You guys don’t know the point of this. They’ll steal the TVs out of these things,’” recalls Bushnell.
While most coin-op manufacturers reacted with puzzlement, the operators that actually bought and placed the machines were ready to try something new. In the coin-op industry, money was king. At the end of the day, if a machine made money, it didn’t matter how crazy it was. “They all thought that it would be a good idea to try a few,” says Bushnell. “We came back from the show with a good order book.”
Gauging operator interest after the show, Nutting decided on a somewhat ambitious production run of 1,500 Computer Space machines; this was at a time when the best-selling electromechanical games rarely sold more than 2,000 units, though a few blockbusters sold as much as 10,000.
Bushnell likes to point out, correctly, that the coin-op industry before video games came along was very small. The industry’s reach had previously been limited by reliability issues with complex electromechanical units, so deploying 2,000 machines out in the field and keeping them all operating properly was a minor miracle.
Nutting Associates shipped the first Computer Space cabinets to customers in November 1971. The game sold fairly well for the first commercial video game–estimates range from 500 to 1,000 units–but it was no blockbuster. Still, Bill Nutting was confident enough in the game’s success that he fired his director of marketing, figuring he no longer needed Ralston to generate sales.
Dabney says that sales of Computer Space seemed disappointing to him at the time, but Bushnell is more upbeat about the results. “I thought it was a great success, but it could have been better,” he says. The machine grossed about $3 million dollars in unit sales, of which the Syzygy partnership received five percent. “For a farm boy from Utah, that was a lot of money,” he says.
That means Bushnell and Dabney earned roughly $150,000 (1971 dollars) to take home between them, plus salaries from their full-time jobs at Nutting. Along the way, the machine they created launched the video game industry. It is hard to look at those facts and come to the conclusion that Computer Space was a commercial failure, as it is commonly portrayed by journalists today.
While it may have founded an industry, people forgot Computer Space as quickly as it came. With only 1,000 units sold at most, very few people played the game, and it quickly became overshadowed by the monumental success of Pong, which sold 19,000 units and spawned dozens of imitators the following year.
The closest Computer Space ever came to mainstream fame was a prominent appearance in the 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston. Computer Space’s curvy fiberglass cabinet looked so futuristic that the film’s producers had no problem portraying the game as the state-of-the-art of home entertainment in the year 2022.
If one manages to play Computer Space today, it holds up surprisingly well considering the relatively primitive electronics involved (give it a shot with this simulator). For his part, Bushnell is still proud of his creation. “I personally think at the time, and with the technology that was available, it was a tour de force,” says Bushnell. “But time passes on. It had its day, and those days are over.”
The days of Computer Space may be over, but the heyday of the video game, as an art form and cultural force, has just begun. There is little doubt, if our world keeps spinning, that people will be enjoying technological descendants of Computer Space for generations to come.
Coda: The Birth of Atari
Bushnell and Dabney left Nutting Associates not long after the release of Computer Space. Bushnell wanted to create a revised version of the game, but he and Bill Nutting disagreed over who would own the rights. So the Syzygy duo took their earnings, along with some money from a few arcade locations they had acquired, and used it to found Atari, Inc. in June of 1972. Its first product, Pong, set the world on fire.
“I’m still glad I decided to get out of Nutting, because they were not good guys,” says Bushnell. ” It was very clear to me that the video game business was going to go nowhere if I continued to license all my products to them.”
A two-player version of Computer Space, equipped with joysticks, emerged from Nutting Associates a year later, designed by Steve Bristow. It failed to significantly expand the appeal of Computer Space, especially in the face of Pong. (Dabney and Bushnell had no involvement in the two-player version aside from their original contributions to the game.) Nutting Associates continued to create video games, including an unauthorized clone of Pong, until 1976, when the company closed its doors.
After a falling-out around 1973 over Atari management issues that ended in Dabney leaving the company, Bushnell would regularly exclude Dabney from his oft-told tale of Computer Space, Pong, and Atari for at least two decades. As a vigorous self-promoter, Bushnell had no problem soaking in the limelight as the founder of the video game industry when the press came calling. Eventually, probing journalists and enthusiasts of the generation that grew up with video games forced Atari’s proud co-founder to expand the company’s creation story and include a few names he had left out. Today, he gives Dabney, and many other Atari engineers, ample credit for their work.
For all his griping about Bushnell hogging the credit, Dabney insists that he is not bitter about Bushnell and their dissolved partnership. In fact, Dabney is quick to offer hearty praise for the man as a powerful visionary force. “He’s an absolutely brilliant guy when it comes to imagination and ideas,” he says. “We were there because of Nolan, and none of it would have happened without him.”