Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto V to much fanfare last week, selling a chart-busting $800 million worth of games on its first day. To put this in perspective, the biggest opening for a Hollywood film is currently The Avengers at $207 million.
The game reportedly had a development and marketing budget of $265 million, which means they have already made their money back three times over. It's definitely impressive, and more so if you realize that the film industry began in 1906 and the video game industry didn't officially get its start until 1972.
The question of what was the first video game is often debated, but what is clear is that the modern industry got its start with the Magnavox Odyssey which first became commercially available in 1972. It was the brainchild of Ralph H. Baer, a German-born American, self-taught in radio repairs, who was assigned to military intelligence during the Second World War.
Baer eventually ended up working for a company called Sanders Associates where he started work on something called the “Brown Box" in 1966. It was a video game console that played a number of different games and had advanced technology inside, including the ability to connect a light gun that was used to interact with the television. Baer finished the box in 1968, officially completing work on the first video game console 45 years ago. He and his company then began a very long search of finding the right partner to bring the product to market for the general public.
In 1971, Sanders Associates was successful in licensing the Brown Box to Magnavox who, at the time, were best known for making TVs, radios, and record players. They also manufactured the first plasma panels as far back as the 1960s. Released as the Magnavox Odyssey, the product was successful in selling approximately 330,000 units during its lifetime, but was never really the hit that they had hoped for. (Sony's PlayStation 2, by comparison, is the most successful of all time, selling just over 157 million units during its lifetime, which dated from 2000 to 2013.)
While gaming in general has advanced light years when compared to what the Odyssey offered, the similarities are still striking. Two players competing against each other with a device hooked up to a television, using controllers operated by our hands. The Odyssey’s graphics looked like they were from the stone age and there wasn't any sound, but the games were surprisingly fun and competitive to play, even now.
Today, a single game like Grand Theft Auto V will sell more than $1 billion worth of product. The industry itself will bring in billions and billions of dollars. Without Baer's Brown Box from 45 years ago, however, the video game industry wouldn't even exist. It is easy to forget just how far we have come and how hard some individuals have fought to make it happen. It took Baer over three years to find the right partner to bring the Odyssey to light. Atari's Nolan Bushnell was inspired by the Brown Box enough to put Pong into bars and changed the arcade business forever. And Nintendo and Sony have pushed the industry to the heights it is at today.
As the video game world mourns the loss of former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi (who ran the company for more than 50 years and transitioned it from a playing-card maker to video game juggernaut) I think it's more important than ever to remember our roots and celebrate them. It's amazing how entertainment in our homes has evolved and changed with the times and culture and will continue to do so for the next 45 years. It's definitely far from game over. In fact, it's just getting interesting.
Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC/Methapharm. You can reach him via-email at email@example.com or by snail mail care of The Brantford Expositor.