Sunday, March 22, 2009

Books: So you wanna learn about the history of video games...

I'm writing a research paper in Advanced Patent Law about whether or not gameplay concepts should be patentable subject matter. These patents cover the actual mechanisms in the game interface and game world (like a method for getting the pedestrians to jump away from your car in "Crazy Taxi"), not any physical computer hardware or even software code.

In order to get the broader picture, I've been examining the history of gaming and the games business. Here are two books that stood out:

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

This is an interesting biography of the two people who birthed the modern first-person shooter, John Romero and John Carmack. It starts with portraits of "The Two Johns" during their childhood days, follows them through the early success of shareware games like Commander Keen, details the blockbuster success of "Doom," and finally explains what led to the breakup of the dynamic duo at id software.

It's written by David Kushner, and he does a great job of capturing the anarchic freewheeling of the early days of computing, as well as the "death march" game development cycle that's become common in the industry. There are also smaller details that show that the author must have conducted considerable interviews with the people at id - you learn about the plot of Carmack's D&D campaign, for instance.

Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984

My first video game system was an NES, so I missed out on an entire generation of home consoles - back when game machines had wood grain and one button joysticks. But in truth, the video game industry's roots stretch all the way back to big university labs and bulky mainframes. These machines were simple by our standards, playing games like "Tennis for Two." How we got from there to today's cutting-edge parallax-mapped polygons is a fascinating visual journey.

"Supercade" is a big book that celebrates that journey. It would be at home on any gamer's coffee table, especially if someone appreciates the Golden Age of video games - Pong, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong. Hundreds of games are referenced, some famous, some obscure. There are articles alongside some of the key game entries, but the real fascination for kids today will be at considering how game graphics made up of simple colored blocks and lines could have astounded arcade audiences a few decades ago.


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