Retrospection is only natural when we come to a milestone of a great accomplishment. I’ve done my share of anniversary posts, but perhaps none live up to the potential grandeur of this one. Fifty years ago, sometime at the end of November 1971, Computer Space was first shipped by Nutting Associates to its distributors. The first arcade video game is remembered often merely for its prescience, but I’m here to argue that there should be something else we look at it for as well.
In nearly all look backs at this game, authors must struggle with the question of whether it was even a commercially viable product. Alex Smith covers some of the variant perspectives in his older post on Computer Space, with Nolan Bushnell himself vacillating on whether to deem it a success or a failure. The consensus today appears to be that it was not a success because it didn’t achieve its goals of igniting video games as a new category of game as Pong eventually did. Whether because of its complexity, because of Nutting Associates’ inability to sell it successfully, its price, or any other number of factors, one of the most debated historical questions in video games has come up a resounding negative.
Today though, we’re going to take a different sort of perspective. Whether or not Computer Space reached all the locations it meant to reach, it did find a very specific diehard audience: In the arcade. This may seem strange to say if you’re unfamiliar with the coin-op industry of the 1970s. If you see all of coin-op entertainment as “arcade games”, you may wonder where else they could go. However, the market which the creators and Nutting were primarily targeting was one primarily dominated by bars and taverns. This is revealed by the anecdotes of their initial market tests, which were all confined to these spaces, though with different audiences and locales within that range.
Arcades in this period were primarily a factor among the inner cities. They were a destination spot same as a movie theater, often adjacent to a movie theater or other larger establishment. In general their reputation was spotty and though they held many games their population was such that the coin-op industry didn’t consider them an especially large factor to cater to. This was beginning to change with a large sweep of novelties being introduced in the late 1960s like Periscope, Speedway, and Helicopter but there were only so many places to put these machines. The arcade market wasn’t expanding because many cities restricted the growth of large game establishments due to their reputation.
This changed when Aladdin’s Castle came on the scene. Founded in 1968, the mall-based arcade chain swept quickly out from Illinois and began to establish locations in vacant mall lots across the United States. Challenging the reputation of the smoke-filled, dangerous halls of the inner cities, they created a clean and welcoming environment by restricting disruptive behavior and always having an attendant on duty. The clientele shifted towards the teen demographic, which tended to enjoy different sorts of games than the bar and tavern regular. Though this shift was slow going, the market for technologically advanced games because broader due to Aladdin’s Castle’s influence and this became hugely important for Computer Space.
Outside of the coin-op trades, there are no general mentions in print of this new video game in 1971. Only in mid-to-late 1972 does the first mention appear of Computer Space on location at a Daytona, Florida boardwalk arcade. From there, steady mentions of its appearance in arcades continues through 1973 with many linked directly to Aladdin’s Castle. It appears that the founders of the arcade chain were huge supporters of the game. The new video games fit in well with this vision of these arcades being wholly divorced from the smoky back alley arcades. Computer Space was exciting in a way that Pong was not, and that did make a difference.
The Aladdin’s Castle founders weren’t ignorant to the problems with the game though.
Ninety per cent of the people who put their quarter in Computer Space never play again because they don’t understand it, but once you learn the game you’re hooked.Merill Millman, Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, November 25, 1974 page C-1
This sort of dedicated spirit represented a type of play which had existed for games like pinball but had basically never taken hold in novelty games. People who would return to a game to learn its depth and complexity. Ones who would stay for hours to make their single quarter last and eventually rack up high scores. The arcade player. Video games with depth and replay value like Computer Space were the scion of the people who would make the coin-op industry into a several billion dollar industry about a decade later. A new audience was being cultivated and given a space to play these new game categories at places like Aladdin’s Castle.
That isn’t to say that other types of operators didn’t also play a role in the game’s acceptance however. New blood entering the industry in the late 1970s saw the benefits of the new types of amusements and pushed the rest of the industry for the acceptance of different technology. Chief among this wave would be Gene Beley, a California operator I’ve noted previously. He purchased a Computer Space very early and was the first noted operator who had a Pong as well. Beley picked up quickly that solid state technology could radically alter and improve operator’s lot in the industry, so he ran to the industry trades and became an advocate for this kind of technology. Video games were creating an awareness which was pushing distributors to become more open to this radical change.
Distributors also played a critical role here. Many of the California-area distributors for Nutting Associates also became the first distributors for Atari. Portale Automatic, C. A. Robinson, and Advance Automatic would remain powerful West Coast distributors through the video era. They all took Computer Space, had some level of success with it, and were interested in giving more of a chance to a new product category. Even if – in the words of Bill Nutting – they had to force the game into the hands of some distributors, nobody at the time was calling this category a failure. The reach had merely been limited by the recognition of its atypical audience which frequented different joints than the standard jukebox locations.
Fitting with Nutting’s previous entries of their Computer Quiz game into non-standard locations, Computer Space could also be seen in California-area malls both in common areas and within stores as seen in the 1973 documentary Games People Play. Perhaps even more notably, many of the cabinets remained active on location until the Golden Age more or less demanded replacement of even the fanciest antique. Computer Space also influenced many notable game creators such as Howell Ivy of Exidy, Larry Rosenthal of Vectorbeam, David Sheppard of Atari, Jerry Lawson of Fairchild, and undoubtedly others. It was a high tech game for the high tech mind and that seemed to be just fine for the time.
It may be a bit anachronistic to believe that Computer Space was intended to be a mass market game despite the fact that a game like Asteroids hit that mark eight years later. While there’s little contemporary record of its release, what does appear to be true is that the game was meant to stand out. The form of it was meant to be a novelty in the purest form, something nobody had seen before, and supposedly built on a computer running several million operations a second. In a sense it was intimidating, while in another sense it was a gentle introduction to such fierce electronic technology. If one is looking at the game as a failure because it failed to be an integrated fixture in the way that Pong was, you should first ask if that’s what this initial game was intended to be.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of perspective as to whether you want to consider Computer Space as a success or failure. What did it have to do to be a success? Could a first for a new type of product ever be a truly overwhelming hit? Even if Pong had come in first, could it have had the same sort of impact without some priming in a more limited setting?
Time and time again, the refinement of video game innovations to mass market acceptance proves to be an iterative process. Only through the diligent recognition by those who love games at their core of what mechanics and changes can be accepted by a general audience do we see each gradual innovation. That’s why I’ll stand on my side of the fence: Computer Space – for what it was in it’s time – was a success.
“As American As… Daytona’s Boardwalk.” Florida Today, 27 Aug. 1972, p. Sunrise 6-8.
“High School Artist Chosen to Do Mural.” The Los Angeles Times, 1 Jan. 1973, p. 23.
“25c-a-Game Pinball ‘Respectable.’” Lansing State Journal, 22 Jan. 1973, p. 32. Jones, Grahame L.
“Castle Has Coin Slots.” Fond Du Lac Commonwealth Reporter, 11 Sept. 1973, p. 36.
“For Fun and Games Visit Jackson’s Newest FAMILY RECREATION CENTER.” Clarion-Ledger, 2 Nov. 1973, p. 26. Gugliotti, Jan.
“New Club Brings Downtown to Life.” Plain Dealer, 17 June 1973, pp. E1, E6. Rados, William.
“Fun and Games Cost 25c at Mall’s New Penny Arcade.” Chronicle-Telegram, 25 Nov. 1974, p. C1.
Dougherty, Steve. “The Pinball Papers.” The Ithaca Journal, 8 Feb. 1975, pp. C4–C7.
Bloom, Steve. “Who Really Invented Video Games?” Video Invaders, Arco Pub., New York, 1982, p. 8.
Fregger, Brad, and Rodney Charles. Lucky That Way: Stories of Seizing the Moment While Creating the Games Millions Play. Sunstar Pub. Ltd., 1998.
Geiman, Rodney. Interview via phone. 2016-08-30.
Beley, Gene. Interview via phone. 2016-11-11.
Smith, Alexander. They Create Worlds. the Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry. CRC Press, 2020.