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Old November 19th, 2012, 02:30 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is online now
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An All-New Way To Play

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The Syzygy Video Computer System (VCS), original 1977-era model. [1]

Syzygy means
Syzygy means “fun”.
Syzygy means “games”.
And the Syzygy Video Computer System brings playing fun games into the comfort of your own living room!

– Commercial for the Syzygy Video Computer System (VCS), first aired on November 24, 1977

One of the defining technological patterns of the 20th century was the development of a new medium for each successive generation. Film, which had been pioneered late in the previous century, developed gradually into full-colour, full-sound, “talkie” motion pictures by the 1930s; radio, by comparison, had a much shorter gestation period, emerging fully-formed perhaps a decade after it had been invented – though it had the advantage of building on the infrastructure laid down by the telegraph and the telephone, both of which had preceded it. Television, which also shared this infrastructure, nevertheless also took a great deal of time to perfect; the earliest prototypes had been invented in the 1920s, but the medium would not fully saturate the market until the 1950s. Perhaps it was because it also had the visual aspect in common with the movies; in any event, by the 1970s, another new medium, one that would alarm traditionalists just as all the others had done previously, was due to make itself known. And so it did, right on schedule.

video game was, as might be expected from its name – unlike all previous media (save, perhaps, for certain examples of avant-garde theatre), interactive. It was primarily focused on the visual experience – the sounds produced by the primitive machines on which these video games played were not a selling point, as they were produced by technology similar to – though even less sophisticated than – the synthesizers that were becoming increasingly popular in various genres of music. Therefore, like the other two dominant vehicles of visual media, films and television, video games had an extremely long development process. The technology which made their genesis possible had evolved from the computational revolution of World War II and the years that followed; perhaps not coincidentally, many of the earliest video games were combat simulators. This would remain true even into the 1970s, the decade that saw their major breakthrough into the popular consciousness. Tactics were simple, and easy to simulate; the wide variety of genres and themes endemic to every other medium, which entailed plot, characterization, literary devices, and use of visual and sound effects, were far beyond what the technology could deliver at the time. This lack of maturity was strikingly reminiscent of the growing pains felt by the nascent film industry at the turn of the century.

Along with combat simulators, many of the earliest video games replicated traditional board games. No less a luminary in the field of computers than Alan Turing wrote the very first chess program in order to test his theories of artificial intelligence. The “Sport of Kings” was extremely popular in the Soviet Union, and computer engineers there were eventually tasked with creating the
ultimate program to challenge the gaggle of Grandmasters who hailed from the region, particularly the World Chess Champion during the era in which video games would first make headlines: Viktor Korchnoi. [2] Meanwhile, another early video game sought to replicate table tennis, and would have a great deal more success; this pioneering experiment, in turn, would foresee the great success that a later entrepreneur would have with this idea…

What is popularly credited as the “first video game” – though it was nothing of the kind – was the 1971 game
Computer Space. [3] Just as had been the case with so many other alleged breakthroughs of the past, it was not actually the first – merely the last that could plausibly claim to be the first. Likewise, the game’s designer, Nolan Bushnell, was actually far better at self-promotion than he was at creating video games, or even coding or computing in general. Bushnell, like Thomas Edison and Ray Kroc before him, was able to build on the works of others and properly package them for mass consumption, and it was this crucial skill which made him – and the company which he would eventually helm, Syzygy [4] – synonymous with the burgeoning industry. Being in the right place at the right time certainly helped; it was easy to see why Computer Space had emerged as such a hit. It had been released in 1971, at the very peak of Moonshot Lunacy, and it was one of a great many space-related novelties released at the time. It had been based on the pioneering Spacewar!, released one decade earlier, and represented the culmination of a long period of attempts to bring a similar experience out of the computer science laboratories and into the marketplace. Computer Space, even if it were not the first video game, had been the first to become available to the general public, and (considering that it had been based on the penny-arcade model) was obviously the first to generate revenue and, consequently, turn a profit.

As noted, video games were generally the province of laboratories prior to the 1970s, after which they finally became available to the general public. As with motion pictures, the earliest mass market video games first appeared in public venues, in this case called
video arcades, a term co-opted from the midway games available at amusement parks. The term “arcade” was naturally used to refer to those public areas housing large numbers of game cabinets, similar to the turn-of-the-century moniker nickelodeon to refer to slideshows of five-cent moving pictures (which evolved into movies). The electronics which powered these new video games were housed in arcade cabinets, with only the audio/video output and the manual controls usable for direct operation by the external users. These were so named because they were coin-operated in the standard penny-arcade fashion, completely enclosing (or housing) the electronic circuitry upon which the games were programmed. Computer Space was sold to arcade operators in these very cabinets. Usually the player would be allowed to continue with the game until the allotted time elapsed, or he was judged to have “lost”, at which point more money would be required. As video games came equipped with battery-backed memory, high scores could be recorded, allowing for greater replay value, and competition with friends (or rivals).

The Computer Space arcade cabinet.

The success of
Computer Space convinced Bushnell to strike it out with an entirely different game, Pong, based on the aforementioned table tennis games of yore. Even more simple than Computer Space, it was also, surprisingly, an even bigger hit – to the point that the entire video game industry was considered synonymous with the word “Pong” in the early 1970s. That Pong was the greater success is not considered surprising in retrospect; Computer Space may have been more ambitious, but this allowed it to become more dated, more quickly, in technological terms, along with (needless to say) cultural terms, as soon as Moonshot Lunacy began to decline the year after Pong was released. [5] It would only regain its popularity with the release of the home version in the mid-1970s, in the wake of examples in other media, such as Moonraker.

Syzygy Incorporated, the gaming company which Bushnell co-founded with his fellow developers, would become the driving force of this nascent industry. It was the development of home versions for
Computer Space and Pong that would gradually give way to a home “console”, which would be capable of playing both games, though only one at a time. Each of them, sold individually for home use, provided Syzygy with some of the valuable seed money they needed for expansion into this home market on a permanent, consistent basis. [6] Their double success in this arena was also very attractive to creditors, as they had now established a pattern. The initial public offering of Syzygy Inc., in 1975, was a modest success that, in the eyes of some analysts, was a sure sign of economic recovery beginning to take hold; the longer-term picture was somewhat less clear, as is always the case with the “dismal science”. [7] Whatever the indicators, this allowed Bushnell to consolidate control of his company with admirable efficiency.

The Syzygy Video Computer System, or VCS, was
also not the first console for home use; it followed the Magnavox Odyssey of 1972 (and was contemporary with the earliest home microcomputers). However, the Odyssey had been little more than a peculiar novelty; in order to “operate” it, graphical overlays (translucent sheets, in other words) needed to be placed over the television picture tube. Most “games” operated in a largely identical fashion, and even the programming allowed for little differentiation between them. Unsurprisingly, those who had become interested in the video gaming experience stuck to the public arcades, or continued to buy their “home games” one at a time (including both Computer Space and Pong), until the VCS. It was sold, in all places, at Sears, a mid-market department store, alongside radios and television sets, as opposed to toy stores or specialty shops. [8] Syzygy marketing naturally focused on the unusual name, with radio and television commercials for their product explaining how to pronounce it, and often juxtaposing it with simple, easy-to-understand words like “play”, “fun”, and “game”, for these were what “syzygy” really meant.

The VCS, much like media appliances before it, was also intended as furniture as much as it was a telecommunications device, with (as was the aesthetic in the 1970s) muted colours, and (faux) wood-grain panelling. Unlike other devices, the VCS required the use of audio-visual feed into an
existing medium – in this case, television – in order to function properly. Television would provide the visual and audio output necessary to provide an immersive and interactive experience that would attempt to replicate that of the arcades. However, the technology simply could not keep pace with the continuing breakthroughs made by the cabinet makers, which would remain a truism for many years to come. Not that it stopped Syzygy from trying. Operating the controls involved an analog stick, commonly described as a “joystick”, which allowed 360 degrees of motion within a two-dimensional plane. Depending on the game, this allowed complete freedom on a “map”-type layout, or forward and reverse motion on a simulated “track”, popular on driving simulators. Spaceships, perhaps the most popular vehicles in games of the 1970s, could alternate between these two formats, depending on the mechanics of the game in question. On arcade cabinets, the joystick was properly built-in; the Syzygy VCS, on the other hand, had the controls (prominently featuring the joystick) connected by a cord to an outlet on the main housing of the circuitry. Wireless technology that would be analogous to the remote control was far more complex and would require precision in receiver technology, which cost/benefit analysts deemed to be far beyond the comparatively slight boost in convenience that it would offer to consumers.

Syzygy, though they had developed the VCS, did
not have exclusive dominion over the games created for that system. For the VCS, in contrast to the arcade cabinets which each had individual games programmed for them, was obviously able to play many games using the same hardware and processing power. One could “plug” any number of game “cartridges” into the receiving port of the console, for a different playing experience; at least, as much as could be possible given the technical limitations of the VCS, in addition to the restrictions of using the single controller, which consisted of the joystick and two “action” buttons. Some clever programmers got around this by having the switches on the console itself, which ostensibly controlled audio and visual settings, tie into the gameplay. Several producers made games for the system even without the direct approval of the company. It was clear that the “house”, referred to in the parlance of the industry as the “first-party developer”, was not the only game in town, and this would have a devastating impact on Syzygy even during the years when they held a virtual monopoly on home video game consoles. And in the years that followed, all bets were off


[1] The model pictured is (of course) one of the Atari VCS, exclusively made for Sears department stores (hence the term
“Video Arcade” in lieu of the Atari logo). As I am not a graphic designer, you have my permission to imagine a Syzygy logo in its place. It obviously wont look like the OTL Atari logo.

[2] IOTL, Korchnoi never became the World Chess Champion, though he did challenge for the title on several occasions. ITTL, after Boris Spassky was allowed to hold onto the title in 1972 once it became clear that Bobby Fischer would not challenge him (as detailed here), he was then challenged by Korchnoi in 1974; he would then lose to the man who, IOTL, has often been described as the greatest Grandmaster never to win the World Chess Championship.

[3] Bushnell and his eventual business partner, Ted Dabney, designed this game and sold 1,500 copies, but it did not do very well at all IOTL. However, ITTL, a combination of various factors, not the least of which is Moonshot Lunacy (you didn
t think we were finished with that old chestnut, did you?), result in the game becoming an unexpected smash hit, and it is therefore Computer Space, not Pong, that is remembered as “the first video game”.

[4] Yes, Syzygy. That was Bushnell
s first choice for his company name IOTL, but it was taken (possibly by hippies, no less), so he went with Atari instead.

[5] Pong ITTL has less of an
“out-of-nowhere” rise to success, having a clear antecedent in Computer Space, but the perception of it being more “universal” is still seen as critical at this (very) early juncture. As noted, it also ages better than Computer Space, because simpler games tend to be more addictive (as OTL has repeatedly shown).

[6] Obviously, only Pong was sold for home use IOTL.

[7] In addition to the pattern (as opposed to the OTL
“fluke”); the economy is still in better absolute shape ITTL than IOTL, which gives investors the means and the motive to buy into an IPO of Syzygy Inc. It helps, of course, that the 1970s were a far less economically risk-averse era than the present day.

A famous TTL slogan for the VCS (and one that might as well have been, IOTL)? “Its not just a game; its a piece of furniture!


Thanks to Electric Monk, and to my newest consultant, Andrew T, for their help and advice in the making of this update! This is just an introductory taste of the video gaming industry, which I hope to revisit quite often in the second half of this timeline. Obviously, this industry has seemingly limitless potential so early in its history!
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

Find out more on the Alternate History Wiki or TV Tropes

Last edited by Brainbin; December 2nd, 2012 at 06:15 PM..
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