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Pitts recalls making America's first coin-op

Winning battle with Bushnell, but not war.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Bill Pitts, maker of America's first coin-operated videogame, has lamented choosing the "geek path" and staying "honest" to Galaxy Game's inspiration, Spacewar!

In doing so, he handed the coin-op market to Nolan Bushnell, the man who would go on to found Atari and make his fortune. But the two could very easily have become business partners.

"He had heard of us through mutual contacts," Pitts told author Tristan Donovan in his new book Replay - The History of Video Games (re-printed here with the author's kind permission).

"He called me up and said, 'Hey, come on over and see what I'm doing. I know you're building a version of Spacewar! using a whole PDP-11 [computer] and that's gotta cost a lot of money and I just want to show you the one I'm doing because I think you're going to lose a lot of money.'"

Pitts and business partner Hugh Tuck - whose parents were funding Galaxy Game - met Bushnell in the summer of 1971. "I was curious. I didn't know what was inside their game," said Bushnell.

But Bushnell, who was working on a cheaper adaptation of Spacewar!, was disappointed by Pitts and Tuck's expensive unit, which housed a $20,000 PDP-11 computer.

Pitts was no more enthusiastic about Bushnell. "I was very impressed by his engineering skills but our game was absolutely true to Spacewar!. It was a real version of Spacewar!," he said. "Nolan's thing was a totally bastardised version."

A few weeks later, in September 1971, Galaxy Game became America's first coin-op videogame. It was installed in student hub Tressider Union, and with a cheap asking price of 10 cents a go or 25 cents for three - plus a free game for the winner - crowds flocked; at times they were "10 deep", recalled Pitt. "Everybody was really excited about it, so Hugh and I decided to build version number two," he said.

"Version number two" would cut costs by featuring two games on one cabinet, and have proper fibreglass casing. But by the time the unit was complete, Tuck's family had invested $65,000, a fortune in 1971. The cost was too monstrous to ever be recouped in 10-cent instalments and Pitts and Tuck had to give up.

On the other hand, Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space was created with bespoke hardware that needed no expensive central computer. That had meant dropping the duels and gravitational fields of Spacewar! and opting for a spaceship shooting two flying saucers instead.

Computer Space did "fantastically well" to begin with, but was tested on an audience Bushnell hadn't realised was student-dominated. When Computer Space was rolled out proper in bars across the US, the game struggled; Bushnell said it was "too complex" for the working man's beer bars. "Compared to the games that came after it looks like a flop. But I had never created a million-dollar product before," he added. "It represented a reasonable royalty stream for me." And with it, Bushnell had birthed the arcade videogame scene in the US.

Bushnell would go on to found Atari and rewrite the history books with Pong.

Pitts concludes: "The truth is Hugh and I were both engineers and we didn't pay attention to business issues at all. My driving goal was to recreate Spacewar! with coin operators on it. Nolan was much more of a businessman than I was. His emphasis was to take Spacewar! and try to drive it down a business path, whereas I was trying to drive it down a geek path by being honest to the game."

Replay - The History of Video Games goes on sale tomorrow, 19th May for £12.99. Tristan Donovan explores, in that chapter alone, every angle of the Spacewar! scene, recalling Pitts' addiction to breaking and entering disused Stanford University buildings where he eventually stumbled onto the AI laboratory and the "amazing" computer that played Spacewar!.

Bushnell also shared his experience of the first Atari Pong production line: "They were horrible. We had a bunch of heroin addicts and things like that. They were stealing our TVs," he said. "We were young and dumb is what I like to say. But we learned quickly."

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