It's difficult to impress on a modern audience how important and influential Spacewar! is in the history of computer games. Spacewar! was not the first computer game - early experiments in computer entertainment date back to 1951, when the Ferranti Nimrod was displayed to an astounded audience at the Festival of Britain - but it would introduce elements of gameplay that would still be used decades into the future, as well as inspiring some of the pioneers of arcade gaming. Spacewar! is one of the most seminal and groundbreaking games ever designed and one that would strongly influence the course of computer games for years to come.
The story of Spacewar! begins in 1961 on delivery of a brand new DEC PDP-1 to the computer laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The PDP-1 was a revolution in its own right - it was one of the first useful minicomputers, producing the computing power of a then-current room-sized mainframe in a package the size of three refrigerators placed side-by-side. It was easy to use, at least by the standards of the time; just a few years earlier, a computer was a behemoth that took an entire team of personnel to operate, while the PDP-1 could be turned on with the flick of a switch and operated by a single person. Most of all, though, it was relatively affordable by the standards of universities, costing $120,000 in an era where most computers cost millions of dollars. The PDP-1, and subsequent designs by DEC, would help inspire generations of computer enthusiasts.
One group of enthusiasts, Steve Russell, Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen of the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, had seen the PDP-1 in action, and they had plans for it. They had witnessed several technical demonstration programs that showed some of the potential of the computer, including a game of Tic-Tac-Toe, which got the group thinking. They had all had previous experience with computers, ones which made the PDP-1 look like a toy in comparison. They decided that they would develop their own technical demonstration - a computer game - one that would push the new hardware to its limits.
The early elements of the game were decided on quickly. It would be one of those eternal "opposites" battles, like red versus blue, or left versus right. Inspired by the fantastical space battles of the Lensman science-fiction series by E.E. Smith, the two aggressors would be two spacecraft, the "Wedge" and the "Needle," and the aim would be to destroy the opponent using a supply of missiles while avoiding enemy fire by moving around the screen using the spacecraft's rocket thrusters, which had limited fuel to encourage strategic use. For truly desperate situations, a hyperspace mode was devised, which could save a player from the brink of destruction, but thanks of the random nature of the hyperspace feature, it could not be relied on.
By February 1962, a barebones model of the game had been developed, programmed by Steve Russell. It was missing many of the later features that would dictate the gameplay and aesthetics of the game in years to come, but the concept worked. With this in mind, the group began working, along with other enthusiastic members of the Tech Model Railroad Club, to more fully develop the features.
The gameplay of the early model of the game was fun, but lacked strategy. A new element was required to prevent it from going stale, and it is this very element which cements Spacewar!'s place in gaming history as more than just another early technical demonstration, but a fully-realised game in its own right.