The History of Computer Gaming Part 4 - The Text Is Mightier Than The Sword
The History of Computer Gaming - Part 4
- by Marty "Retro Rogue" Goldberg

Welcome to part four in a multi-part series meant to entertain and astonish you with the history of gaming on computers. Yes kid, there was a time when games didn't require the latest 3D accelerator cards and teams of designers. All it took was access to a computer, a little knowledge, and a little "hacker" spirit to get going and do it your self.

So everyone fasten your seat belt while Sherman sets the Wayback Machine to the early 1970's. A time when mainframes and mini-computers were more plentiful on college campuses and text based interactive games began development. We'll cover 4 of the most influential games and groundbreaking games developed in this time period. So be prepared for Part 4 to be a long one. Our first stop is 1971 and the University of California - Irvine.

Star Trek

The SDS Sigma 7 mainframe
In 1971, the University of California - Irvine had a Sigma 7 mainframe (a 32 bit timesharing mainframe created by SDS in 1966. SDS would later merger with Xerox in their attempt to enter the computer research field. A fact that will become important later in the series).

Though there were vector and crt terminals available, they were far and few between and certainly used by much more important students and staff than a high school senior sneaking on the system to program in the Sigma's version of BASIC.

The ASR33 Teletype by Teletype Corporation, one of the most widely used teletypes.
Mike Mayfield was a high school senior that year, hanging around with a group of friends who were in to what most of the "smart" kids were at that time - Star Trek. At that time already taken off the air and returning in it's rerun format (which continues to this day), Mike and his friends thought of various Start Trek themed ideas they could do with a computer. The sessions came about after Mike had seen a version of Spacewar playing on the Sigma at the university. Wanting to make a game like that as well, he managed to gain access to an ASR-33 Teletype and "borrow" an account on the system and proceeded to begin teaching himself BASIC out of a book.

This would be a text only game because of the circumstances, and the group started to brainstorm ideas for the Star Trek game Mike would implement.

We ended up coming up with a lot of unimplementable ideas. One idea that did stick was the idea of printing a galactic map and a star map to give you some idea what to shoot at, and having phasors reduce power exponentially, like they would if they shot in all directions. It may seem pretty simple now, but for a bunch of high school kids in the early seventies, it seemed pretty cool.

Communications and storage problems kept the program spartan, since the terminal only communicated at 10 characters per second, and the game had to be saved and re-entered every day through paper tape storage (just as it had for the Spacewar hackers at MIT years earlier).

The HP-35 Calculator
Programming away alternately under the names of Centerline Engineering and Custom Data (two fictitious companies he wanted to create), Mike had caught the hacker spirit. The game was soon done, though it had yet to create an impact. By that time, Mike had gotten an HP-35 calculator. The HP-35 was the very first scientific calculator, with the ability to be programmed with elementary scientific equations for it to solve. In the early 70's, digital calculators were undergoing a renaissance as newer demands and an increasingly competitive market inspired newer techniques.

That previous year, a development that changed the face of computing had taken place at Intel. Intel was a custom semiconductor manufacturer, developing custom chips and circuits for various clients. A designer there decided the easiest way to make a specific calculator a customer by the name of Busicom wanted was to have it be a tiny computer. Storing many of the formulas and directions in a ROM chip, and having another small ram chip for storing input and output, that left a final chip that would coordinate it all - a central processing unit of sorts. Thus, due to the miracle of Large Scale Integration (LSI - a method of forming traditionally larger circuits in a smaller format on silicon chips) the microprocessor was born. It would be several years before the effect would be fully felt in the computer industry, but it did have an immediate impact in the calculator market.

The HP-2000 mini-computer.
Mike began learning to program the HP-35, and made frequent trips to the local HP sales office. During one of the many trips they learned about his Star Trek program, and made him an offer. He could use their HP2000C time-sharing computer if he transferred his Star Trek program over to HP BASIC for them.

So Mike set about porting it over (though he eventually decided just to rewrite it because of the vast difference between the Sigma and HP BASIC), not realizing the impact he was to have when he completed it in October of 1972. Just as much of the software the original MIT hackers wrote a decade or so before was distributed through DEC, the Star Trek game wound up being distributed through HP by that February of 1973. And it was this version that was to come to the eye of famous publisher David Ahl (then employed at DEC).

David Ahl, famed publisher of 101 Basic Games, Creative Computing magazine, and Atari Explorer magazine.
Liking it so much, he and several other DEC employees converted it over to DEC's BASIC Plus that summer and published it in a Dec newsletter he ran. David soon put together a book published by DEC called 101 BASIC Computer Games, a legendary book that was one of the first (if not the first) game programming books and collections of games for computers in general. The converted Star Trek game was featured in this book under the title of SPACWR and became the standard Star Trek game. But the story doesn't end there.

The Data General Nova 800 mini-computer.
Work soon began on the version of Star Trek that most people are familiar with. In early 1974 a man by the name of Bob Leedom was working at Westinghouse, whom had just purchased a new Data General Nova 800 mini-computer (with a then insane amount of 32k of timeshared user memory). Wanting to put it to good use, he began staying late nights and converting the code over to Data General's version of BASIC. After getting it up and running, he and several other employees began hacking the game to improve it by adding new features and game play.

As a result, although we kept the two original displays the same (the short-range and long-range scans, covering the current and current-and-surrounding quadrants, respectively), we "improved" nearly everything else about the interface. A few of these are:
  • Three-letter commands (NAV, SRS, LRS,...) instead of numbers
  • Non-stationary Klingons (if your shot doesn't destroy them, they wake up and move to a new location)
  • Damage and status reports by Spock, Scott, Uhura, and others
  • Several features having to do with navigation, maneuvering, and fire control
  • A beefed up library computer that added:
    • a generalized course direction calculator for firing torpedoes and getting to starbases [as opposed to just in-quadrant torpedo calculations]
    • a table of galaxy quadrant names.

After completion he decided to send the game in to Menlo Park based People's Computer Company for publishing in their newsletter. PCC was the name of a group of computer hobbyists and professionals who were interested in bringing computing to the general masses. Their view (obviously a leftover of 60's politics) was that until then, computers had been used for "evil purposes" by the military (i.e. the Vietnam war) and big business. Seeking to un-demonize the role of computers in society, the sought to educate the average person. Their methods besides the newsletter were potluck dinners where a free flow exchange of computer information was the norm, and publicly accessible terminals connected to a mainframe they ran. The idea was anybody could have free time on the computer to explore this heretofore privileged realm. Many of the people involved with PCC or that subscribed to it's newsletter, would go on to become highly influential in the coming personal computer revolution. In the meantime however, the submission to PCC's newsletter provided one important impetus.

Our soon to be publisher David Ahl was also a subscriber to the newsletter and saw the new Star Trek game. He was going to be starting a unique magazine in September of that year by the name of Creative Computing, and contacted Bob to see about publishing his version of Star Trek in it. Creative Computing was to become the very first "personal computing" magazine. A magazine geared towards the average person and promoting the use of computers in education, hobby, and general personal use - ideals shared by PCC. Within a year the magazine would be in place to become the flagship printed source for the "personal computer revolution" when the first commercial personal computer, the Altair, was announced. Bob's version of Star Trek was published as Super Star Trek, and when David re-released a souped up version of 101 Basic Computer Games as simply Basic Computer Games in the mid 1970's (geared towards the new personal computers, many of which were running a version of BASIC written by a new company called Microsoft), it was included in there. Sold all over the world, Super Star Trek became the version of Star Trek most associated with the name.

  • The original HP2000 BASIC Code of Star Trek by Mike Mayfield
  • Super Star Trek re-written in C by Tom Almy and available Here for DOS, OS2 and WinNT systems.
  • Star Trek for Win9x, an enhanced version of the original Star Trek.
  • Open Trek an open source 3D version of the original Star Trek available for Win9x and Linux.

NEXT: I smell a Wumpus....

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