The Future of Videogames, 1977

In January 1977, the Electronic Engineering Times organized a three-day gathering of designers, manufacturers, consultants, and suppliers hailing from the nascent electronic game industry. Eighteen talks from this First Annual Gametronics Conference were later collected in the Gametronics Proceedings, archiving a fascinating glimpse into the diverse and exciting future of electronic games, comprising everything from coin-operated arcade machines to touch-based input devices to the then-new ‘programmable’ (i.e., cartridge-based) TV games pioneered by Fairchild’s Video Entertainment System (VES).

At this point in videogame history, there was little certainty about the industry’s trajectory besides its potential to grow. ‘A billion dollar industry is in the making,’ is the Proceedings opening line, and this point is reiterated by multiple presenters. But whether that growth would bloom in arcades or homes or somewhere else was unclear. Rather it’s the speculation about electronic games’ potential that makes the Proceedings such an interesting time capsule.

Fittingly, Ralph Baer, the primary designer and engineer of the Magnavox Odyssey, delivered the keynote, ‘Television Games: Their Past, Present and Future.’ Much of his talk is dedicated to the now-familiar story of his conception of the first TV game prototype while working at Sanders Associates, Inc. and its subsequent years-long research and development in various skunkworks engineering divisions prior to forging a deal with Magnavox to release it as a consumer product in 1972. As for electronic games’ future, Baer makes a few logical predictions based upon the market’s movement in 1977: an influx of cheaper dedicated consoles based on the General Instruments all-in-one AY-8500 chipset, more and better electronic game accessories (e.g., light guns), and new, more sophisticated games that utilize programmable ROM.

His more provocative speculations involve TV games’ convergence with broadcast cable television, wherein he sees four viable categories. The first is interactive sports games with backgrounds supplied by cable broadcast. So, for instance, you might play a hockey game while the (non-interactive) playing field is piped in by your cable provider. The Magnavox Odyssey famously used screen overlays to provide game-appropriate backgrounds, so I imagine Baer thought a better solution would be broadcast ‘underlays,’ since the processors of the time could not adequately provide graphical backgrounds. The second category uses cable to transmit ‘additional active symbology,’ meaning that the graphics for the opposing hockey team, for example, are generated and broadcast remotely. Think online games via cable TV. Baer’s third example, ‘interactive, microprocessor controlled TV games,’ works when ‘digital data is transmitted to store game rules, character symbology, etc. needed for the operation of a particular game,’ which is then complemented with the broadcast background of category two. But whether data is transmitted from or to the home via a console is not specified. Lastly, Baer describes ‘home viewer-participant game show,’ wherein both game data and complementary visuals are broadcast via cable.

Obviously, each of these categories became reality, though at different times and via different technologies and media. Category two is the weirdest and most intriguing, because that trajectory leads to the explosion of FMV/laserdisc/VHS games in the 80s and 90s, wherein game elements are laid atop a pre-recorded ‘broadcast’ to create fairly advanced ‘graphics’ at the expense of limited interactivity. A less-explored avenue, though, is the use of video as a non-interactive background element. A few obscure laserdisc games like Cube Quest (1983) experimented with this approach (with stunning results), but video backgrounds seemed to die away as hardware architectures became sufficiently advanced.

Baer is uncertain whether the cable industry will adopt his proposed technologies, but he sees an equally viable means of video transmission via tape:

Stretching our imagination a little further, we can visualize road-racing games in which our TV set becomes a convincing view through the windshield. While the pictorial imagery comes from the tape, we will do electronic processing of this video information to suit it to your steering wheel commands. Meanwhile digital data will be extracted from your video recording…[to] allow your microprocessor to react to such things as sideswiping or collisions or running off the road, perhaps by using the digital data to identify various pictorial objects in terms of their location on screen.

Again, Baer’s description calls to mind laserdisc FMV games, though to my knowledge, I don’t recall a game that directly manipulates video footage in realtime based on player inputs. Rather, FMV used player input to navigate pre-recorded clips, like we might skip through chapters on a Blu-Ray. What Baer describes is more akin to VJing and, again, still holds creative potential for contemporary game design.

A less expected perspective on electric games’ potential comes from self-described ‘Video Design Consultant’ Stephen Beck via his talk, ‘TV Game Design: Parameters, Pitfalls, Potentials.’ Beck situates videogames within a media history starting with radio and television and likens their participatory nature to artists and experimenters in the 1960s working with television as an ‘active participation tool,’ using video synthesis to transform TV from a passive to an active medium. He says:

We are now in the midst of a “video revolution” which ushers in the era when a person can control the television picture rather than just watch it — surely the most profound change in the nature of television since the inception of broadcasting itself.

Knowingly or not, Beck was using the same rhetoric of active control that Magnavox had used five years earlier to market the Odyssey. A Magnavox press release from 1972 read, ‘Now for the first time, TV viewers can interact with their sets and relate to them in a positive active way, not just as passive viewers.’ Subsequent Odyssey marketing would make this a common refrain.

Beck’s presentation begins with detailed technical descriptions of how a television display works and how certain ‘spurious edge effects’ of the technology can limit game design. He notes, for example, how most contemporary games use analog potentiometer controls that primarily offer vertical object movement exclusively (i.e., the paddles in Pong) due to the display’s greater vertical resolution. Horizontal object movement in turn displays more ‘jitter’ as a result—an interesting platform-specific observation that partly explains why paddle games of the era were flipped from the ping-pong player’s traditional vertical viewpoint.

Beck then shifts gears to games’ potential and the necessity for a new industry category: the ‘video design consultant,’ or what we would now call a game designer. He says:

Unlike the current lines of toys and games which basically utilize plastics and print technology, the TV games will require knowledge of programming and animation, placing new demands for conceptioning on games consultants. While a person in the past could draw or print their game idea, the TV game will require specification of game algorithms and skill at portraying the elements of the game on a TV screen matrix. (141)

For Beck, TV is a fundamentally different medium than plastic toys or even computers — ‘an action medium of color and sound, almost exactly the opposite of a computer terminal’ — one that demands new skills in programming, animation, and graphic design. And it’s clear Beck’s prescience is due, in part, to his background as an artist. In the early 1970s, he developed the Beck Direct Video Synthesizer and produced several influential video works that, like videogames, used the television as a canvas for direct visual manipulation. Many of his works from the 1970s, like Video Weavings (1976), are reminiscent of patterns found in videogames of the era.

In a tantalizingly brief concluding statement, Beck proposes ‘electronic video art’ as a possible avenue for growth ‘as TV games evolve into more creative devices.’ Though he showed one of his video synthesizer pieces to the Gametronics audience, he didn’t elaborate on what exactly the convergence of art and videogames might look like, saying only that the new programmable game systems would open up ‘non-game areas of practical and creative significance.’ And browsing Beck’s gameography today, it’s unclear whether he figured out how to realize that convergence either.

The era of game history Gametronics represents is routinely glossed as a precursor to videogames’ ‘true’ beginnings in the second-generation of cartridge-based consoles. But even before Atari or Nintendo cemented our idea of what home videogames could be, there were artists, inventors, engineers, and, yes, video design consultants thinking through videogames’ diverse potential, not only as commodities or entertainment, but as art and tool and medium and electronic canvas. At times, reading through the Proceedings, I get the sense that there were fewer prejudices about what games could or could not be because there were fewer established rules and conventions. Engineers and artists could have equal say over what game design might mean, and their biggest foes were the limits of these new wondrous machines.