Thursday, 24 November 2011

a history of computer games, part one: 1950s - 1970s

While the 1950s are the years when computer really began to accelerate, the origins of computers go back even further than that.  Some of the most well-known examples of early computers are the ones that were developed and used in the Second World War.  During the early 20th century, World War II was a huge driving force between the development of technology and huge steps forward were made, but it was still at least a decade before the first games began to emerge.

Before that could happen, there were several more steps that technology had to take.  The first was the ability to store programs.  Previously, programming would have had to be entered manually into the machine. The ability to store programs not only made the process of using computers much faster, it allowed easier editing and refining of programs.

The mid 1950s saw the construction of the mitt tx-0, an experimental computer built at the Lincoln Laboratory.  It was notable because it was created for use by students, whereas previously computers had been used exclusively by businesses for number crunching, and to eliminate human error in calculations. This sudden availability of computers outside of the business world was the second big step; the majority of games for the next few decades would not be made by specialist companies, but by individual hobbyists or small groups with a shared enthusiasm for computing. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that the pioneers of the first games almost all had some connection to universities where the machines were available.

There are quite a few contenders for the title of ‘first’ computer game. Certainly most well-known early computer game is Pong; its primitive two-dimensional interface is immediately recognisable, and could be considered  iconic for early video games. Pong was the first game that was produced commercially, and would have initially been playable on an arcade-style machine in public places.

However, as early as a decade beforehand, games were already beginning to emerge. What prevented these games from becoming mainstream at the time was the size and cost of the hardware needed to run them. The predecessor of Pong, ‘Tennis for Two’ was exhibited for about half a year at the Brookhaven National Laboratory before being dissembled for the parts. The game ‘Spacewar!’ was made by a small group in 1961, a full eleven years before Pong came out, but even though it was popular with the computer communities who played it on pre-existing systems such as university computers, it would have been prohibitively expensive to make it available to the public.

a brief introduction

Hello, my name is Jen.  It’s good to meet you too, reader.

I’m from a small town in Bedfordshire, about an hour and a half’s drive from Leicester, although I’m currently living in student halls. 

I’ve always had an interest in art, something I presume almost everyone on this course has in common.  My interest in following it as a career was sparked from watching the ‘behind the scenes’ special features in movies, most notably the three Lord of the Rings movies.  I was fascinated with the process that took simple sketches of an idea and brought them to life, whether it was through the extensive sets, the props, or characters and scenery made entirely with CGI.  I also began scouring the Internet for articles, concept art and videos about the process behind some of my favourite games.

I actually looked at several animation courses while I was hunting through universities, and the idea of doing a course specifically in game art didn’t originally occur to me.  It was pure chance that I was looking into the animation course next door, and wandered into the game art room for the afternoon presentation.  In hindsight, I’m glad I chose this course rather than any of the animation courses I looked into; I have much more of an interest in games than in film.

I enjoy horror movies, particularly psychological thrillers.  I also enjoy reading fantasy series, particularly ones that flesh out an entire alternative world, for instance the Lord of the Rings series, but also less conventional fantasy such as the Mortal Engines series by Phillip Reeve.

After two years of using traditional media during Art A-level, over this coming year I look forward to developing new skills specific to the course, such as using 3D software more effectively and learning how to texture my models, something which I have no experience with.  With the help of constructive feedback and criticism I’ll continue improving my 2D art, refining the technical aspects of drawing such as composition and perspective.

Over the next few years, I hope to improve my artwork to the point where I’m at a sufficient standard to get a job in the games industry.  My ideal job will always be something where I’m using my artistic skills.  I’m not sure yet whether I’ll find a specific part of the industry I’ll decide to specialise in, but hopefully the practical work I’ll do during the course will help me discover what I’m good at, and which aspects I enjoy the most.

I looked at a few different job specifications, and no matter what the specific description of the job – character artist, environment artist, etc, - they all emphasise the importance of the same skills; familiarity with Photoshop, a 3D program (usually 3Ds Max) and the ability to produce photorealism in both 2D and 3D. These are all skills I hope to develop over the next three years.