Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game

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The Finishing Touches

Space Rocket poster

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

computer space controls

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, as seen in soylent green

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

Cover of the original Computer Space flyer, 1971
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

atari developers

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.”

This story, "Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game" was originally published by Technologizer.

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