Gaming 002: Attack of the Arcade Era!

How microprocessors got us out of the house to game. And then, got us back in.

OK I admit, this one was kind of a lazy title. I needed a teaser for the end of Gaming 001, and that’s what I came up with, with only a vague idea of what Gaming 002 was going to be about. In general though, my concept here was to be semi-chronological, and try to follow things along my journey through the past 40 years of gaming.

The problem though is, the story of the arcade era has been done a lot. I can for instance recommend the excellent Netflix docuseries High Score , that covers the early arcade days, and the console and PC home gaming revolution.

So instead of a only a recap of the arcade era of the early 80’s, I thought I would try to add in a bit about how the advent of the microprocessor and cheap computing brought us into the arcade, and then got us out of it.

That Which Gets You Out Of The House Has Value

I like many have started to seriously question whether I need to go back to the office once the pandemic is over. Being a software developer in my case gives me the luxury of having such a choice, and I do know it’s not a choice one everyone is lucky enough to have.

For me though this is a familiar kind of calculus: will the outside-the-house version of Thing X be better in some way than the inside-the-house version version of Thing X?

Thing X in this case, being work. Let’s set aside for a moment the obvious fact that I really should be going out and getting some more sunlight, change of venue, and interacting with people in a real, non-zoom way. Assuming I find other ways to do that, what does going into the office buy me, versus staying home? The answer, even before the 2020 Pandemic, has been: Less and Less.

I’m not working with local people really any more, my teammates are all in different countries now. My office meanwhile moved further away, and the new floorplan features smaller, less private offices. And my home setup has gotten better to compensate, with nicer equipment, and better connectivity, finally. (I’ve got a whole Mad Ned Memo series probably on how it took our town forever to get broadband, ending with me drinking moonshine in the Town Hall. )

There are lots of potential Thing X’s: X=Shopping at the Mall, X=Business Travel, X=The Movie Theater, X=In-Person Learning… I’m sure you have something you’d rather not go out for any more, and the world has found a way to keep you home and still do that.

The outside world has a problem, it now needs to lure us there. There needs to be value in going out, because it has become pretty easy to stay in and get the same benefit. In a lot of cases it could be the social benefits, or the change of venue from being cooped up. But any way about it, that which gets you out of the house, has value, of some sort.

Hey I thought this was going to be about Space Invaders and stuff. Where’s the arcade part?

Glad you asked. This was all a pretty long lead-in to the granddaddy of all these Thing X’s, which arguably can be defined as:

X = Games

Arguably. Because if you consider TV, it got people in the house instead of going to the theater. But I wasn’t around for that transition.

My timeline though does intersect with a strange, brief period when people went out of their houses and paid money to play computerized games, one quarter at a time.

The Arcade Era.

If you read part 001 of this series (yes I promise to stop at a thousand!) you heard my supposition that as long as there were machines, people were trying to play games on them, or at least be entertained by them. That post stops in 1977, just as the microprocessor was coming on the scene.

Computer-driven games were of course well established by then, at least a decade of mainframe games had come and gone. I remember a mid-seventies visit to the Boston Museum of Science and seeing a circular kiosk there with several terminals connected to a Honeywell 6180. People could play the computer in tic-tac-toe, “Hunt the Wumpus”, guess the number, and other only-fun-in-the-70s games.

People had never seen anything like it, and they stood in line to play. I remember entering the little, futuristic alcove to play on my turn. As I stepped in, a pressure mat activated the screen, like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was all very magical, being in the presence of the machine - like visiting a sacred temple. It was one of the briefest and perhaps earliest interactions I ever had with a computer.

I am hoping this sets the stage for how crazy the later 70s/early 80’s gaming scene got. Although there were plenty of computer games before then, few had played any, or directly interacted with a computer in any form.

Microprocessor and IC miniaturization, led by companies like Intel, Fairchild, and Motorola, would change this forever, in the span of less than a decade. The obvious change was the cost - computers could now be built much more cheaply, and put into consumer-aimed devices. But probably more significant was the economics. Designing a CPU chip was a huge investment of time and money. Building the equipment and process, purifying the silicon, making circuit masks, verifying and debugging the result, still ran in the millions.

Once created though, the cost of manufacturing a system using these chips was much, much lower than it had been in years prior. So you ended up with a product that could be made pretty inexpensively, provided you could get enough volume to amortize your initial investment. And there was and is only one answer to getting sales volume: the individual consumer.

The chip companies knew this, and were looking for new markets to get that volume. Early home computers like the Altair 8800 popped up, along with early home video game systems like Pong, and later, the legendary Atari 2600, featuring color graphics and a huge library of interchangeable games.

Teenage me would have killed for one. But, I believe the list price for an Atari VCS was $300 or so, which in 1979 dollars was out of the price range for our middle-class family. Even at that premium though, plenty were sold. If the 8-bit processors of the day were a little cheaper and a little more powerful, there may never have been an arcade era at all. We could have skipped it and gone straight to gaming in our homes.

But as it was, the early microprocessors (like the 6507 chip powering the Atari 2600) did not have enough horsepower to drive a lot of pixels on a TV screen. Memory chips were equally expensive, and a lot of memory was needed for displaying computer graphics for even a simple video game.

Atari and other console makers of the pre-1980s had to compromise in order to keep the price low enough for consumers to afford, and cost limits meant home machines were pretty basic.

There emerged from this a secondary market for microprocessors, consisting of newcomers to gaming like Atari, but also older mechanical game and pinball companies like Taito, Namco, Stern Electronics, and Williams Electronics. These latter companies were rightly concerned about the technology shift going on, and were making moves to video to preserve their market share in the entertainment and amusements market.

These companies had developed a business model that could afford to build video game systems costing more than $300. Pinball had paved the way for this model, where machines were leased or sold to amusement center and arcade operators, who collected income by charging for their use, usually in the form of the US Quarter Dollar coin.

With more money to devote to building hardware, these companies could create more powerful systems, capable of running more sophisticated games than what you could play at home. In many cases the microprocessor chips used in these machines were the same variety as the home systems - but arcade machines would have more memory, specialized hardware for handling video, and in some cases, specialized displays.

A notable example of this is Vector Graphic displays, a technology that used the usual CRT tube from a television, but instead of scanning lines to form an image, drew them from point to point. The crisp, bright, oscilloscope-like result was striking, and launched a big series of arcade hits such as BattleZone, Asteroids and Tempest.

Arcade machines featured bigger screens, more exotic controls, and much better graphics and sound systems than their home system counterparts, and the value proposition was there to get kids out of the house, and spending quarters.

Coin Detected In Pocket

Spend quarters, I did. In the classic 1979-1982 peak arcade years, I was a high school student, nerdy enough to seek out games at every opportunity, and with some mobility and money to get me to the arcade on a frequent basis.

I do not remember Space Invaders game having that much of an impact on me. It was definitely one of the earliest games around, and I played it, but other better space games were soon to follow, like Galaxian, Asteroids, and (my favorite) Defender.

Many dollars spent trying to get past the first couple of levels of that game, which was an innovative but super-hard Williams game where you tried to save humanity from alien abduction with your laser-equipped gunship. There was also Berzerk, a Stern Electronics game that featured early, primitive voice synthesis that would announce “coin detected in pocket” as you passed.

When my friend and I would sometimes head to the arcade on a weekend, we would usually gravitate towards the oddball, non-mainstream games. Things like Crazy Climber, a building-climbing game featuring two Y-axis-only sticks you alternated like arms to climb the building.

During a brief stint of mine trying to make Android games, I built a rip-off of this, called “Trumped Up”, featuring Donald Trump climbing his own buildings for cash. It was done during the 2016 primaries and we thought it would be a fun, apolitical attempt to cash in on the circus-like antics and coverage of Trump and his run. (It of course turned into anything but apolitical, and also the game didn’t make a cent.) Great learning experience about writing retro games though, may devote a post to that one.

Speaking of rip-offs, another weird one was an obscure game actually called “Rip Off”. This vector-graphics 1980 title by Cinematronics was ground-breaking, in that it allowed multi-player co-op play. Probably the first co-op game I ever remember playing. It was also kind of the OG Tower Defense game, where you attempted to protect a cache of triangles in the center of the screen, while ships tried to latch on and steal them. You could be shot and you could die any number of times, as long as at least one triangle remained on-screen.

Too many games to go into. The thing I would say is, there was this huge explosion of creativity and diversity of video games, in this time window of the early eighties. People were always looking for a new game to play, arcade owners always looking for a new attraction, manufacturers wanted to sell new machines.

Many iconic games and game styles, like shootem-ups (shmups), tower defense games, fighting games, even RPG games trace their roots back to this time. I may have missed a few lunches, and lost a few quarters too quickly during it all. But I really enjoyed being there for this part of computer game history.

The Part of the Story We All Knew Was Coming

All through this late 70’s/early 80’s period, there was a steady stream home computer game offerings of various sorts. I mentioned the Atari 2600, but there were other cheaper {and more expensive) systems coming out all the time. Hand-held computer games for instance - I plan to talk in more depth about some of the early handheld computer games in the next article in this series.

There was for a while a general two-tiered system going on, where the ‘pro’ version of the game was in the arcade, but you could play a lesser version of it at home. For example Atari 2600 home versions of Asteroids, Donley Kong, and Pac Man were available, but lacked the same graphic quality and gameplay of the arcade version.

What happened next is predictable, and very well documented. Much has been written about the famous “1983 Video Game Crash”, the time when arcades finally went bust, and home gaming took over.

There were many cited factors to this crash, but the short version is that the continuous, disruptive improvements in cost and capability of computer technology (microprocessors being foremost) eroded the value proposition of going out of the house to play games. You could play the ‘pro’ version of arcade games, even at home.

There may have been a social element to going to the arcade, but it wasn’t the main point. When you think about it, playing computer games is mostly about escaping the real world in favor of an alternate one. So as soon as technology got us to where it could be done at home, little was left to lure us out into the world to game.

There are of course exceptions. Alternate Reality / AR games like Pokemon Go. Barcades. Dave & Busters. Going to a friends house for some Super Smash Bros. The beachside boardwalk, which still has those skeet machines and some video amusements, too. And whatever ridiculous arcade game they build for mall shoppers to try.

But the calculation of the computer-based gaming Thing X equation has always resolved towards home, with only novelty outside situations providing the occasional counterbalancing offset. And it is not just the playing aspect that moved this way.

After you could play games at home, the internet happened, and suddenly you could play games with friends, at home, removing some of the social benefit of the leave-the-house option. And finally after that, Steam, and Mobile Apps and stores, removing shopping, the one last thing you did outside the house related to computer games.

Is it a bad thing? I reach the same conclusion I did in the first part of the series. In short, no. People are social animals and will continue to get together, both in and out of the house, and be entertained. Games will continue, better and more amazing. You just won’t be fishing for a quarter to play one.

And you can still play many of these old gems, if you like. Games at most Barcades are free. But the beer is $7.

Next time: Gaming 003: Show Me Your Bits

Join our weekly list to stay up to date with upcoming gaming series and computer industry articles! It’s free!

Explore Further