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The first computers were developed for military use, and quickly found their way into research and academic institutions, and eventually businesses. It was decades before computers were small enough and affordable enough to be available to regular people. With such a grounding in serious use, you might think that computer games were a relatively late development. But games have been a part of computers since almost the very beginning.
Gaming before computers
The history of computer gaming begins before the history of computers.
At the end of the late 19th and beginning of the early 20th century, one of the most popular exhibitions at fairs and lecture halls was the Mechanical Turk. This was mechanized robot that could actually play chess with an audience member.
It turns out these chess-playing automatons were actually a clever trick. They were mechanical puppets, not robots, run by a chess playing human operator. Similar contraptions seemed to play tic-tac-toe, checkers, or other games.
At this time in history, the technology didn’t exist to create actual mechanical game opponents. Still, in the imagination of the public, such a thing was possible. It was only a matter of tie before it became a reality.
Gaming before games
During War World II, an early analog computer was used to run flight simulators, feeding data into the mock-up cockpit for display on the instruments. While this was used for training purposes, there are certainly elements of what became computer games, so one might think of this as a proto-game.
Interestingly — as described below — most of the early games were, in some ways, realizations of the promise made by the Mechanical Turk. That is, they were human-to-human games played against a computerized opponent. It wasn’t until a second generation of computer enthusiasts starting designing games that truly new games were invented, games where the computer acted more like referee or game host than like opponent.
These early flight simulators tended in that direction — the pilot wasn’t playing against the computer, but was simply working within an environment it created.
The first real computer games
After the War, there was a flurry of computer research activity in the 1950s. Partly out of a sense of fun, partly to display possibilities, and partly as legitimate research into artificial intelligence and machine learning, early computer scientists started building simple games.
It’s hard to know when and where the very first computer game was developed, but one of the earliest was a computer that could play tic-tac-toe. Several other games, in the spirit of the Mechanical Turk, were developed through the 1950s. There was a program that could play Nim, a simple math-based 2-player game involving the strategic removal of beads from a board. There was a checkers game, demonstrated on national television. There were even a few chess programs, but none that could beat even a moderately decent player.
All these games taught their creators, and the world, about the nature of computing and the limits of deterministic intelligence.
There were also war games, with the computer taking the role of the Soviet Union against the United States. These were more like the flight simulators than like modern games, though. Since the “Soviet” opponent was incapable of novel thinking, any scenario that developed had to have been pre-programmed.
Eventually, the possibilities for computers as a game medium began to be recognized. In 1958 one of the first two-player games, recognizable as such, was developed. It was called Tennis for Two, and was similar to the later game Pong. It was played by two people using knob-like controllers and used an oscilloscope as a display. It was a humble start, but it clearly prefigured the rise of video games a few decades later.
Through the 1960s and 70s, computer gaming developed in essentially two fronts — parallel tracks that in some ways continued into the first few generations of widespread popular game consumption.
On the one hand there were graphics and physics-based games, with Tennis for Two being the first major example.
In the early 1960s a graphics based game called Spacewar! became the most widely distributed game when the manufacturers of the computer it was designed for included it in every machine they sold.
This inspired other programmers to design similar games. In the 1970s another space-based graphical game, Computer Space became the first commercially released game, and the first arcade video game. Compared to coin-operated mechanical games present in arcades at the time, it turned out to be a bit too difficult — but it was a start.
The other style of game that developed was text-based story-telling games. Many of these were related to the table-top Dungeons and Dragons style of game play, with a player interacting primarily with text, and having an opportunity to stop and think at each decision point. The hugely popular Oregon Trail began this way as well, on a mainframe in the early 1970s.
Computer Games vs. Video Games
When computers finally made it into mass public adoption, one of the only things many people could find to do with them was play games. They weren’t quite powerful enough — or reliable enough — for professional work.
The two strains of game design — graphics and physics-based vs. text and decision based — became each the dominant mode of game play on video game consoles and desktop computers, respectively.
While there has been a huge amount of crossover and blurring of lines, there are still elements of this divide today.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an online game server?
There is no one answer, there are a lot of different kinds of game servers. Online gaming has existed even before the internet, through local networks, with text based game over terminal. However, more colloquially, a game server generally refers to a dedicated computer that runs the server code to allow multiple human players to exist in the same game instance.
What types of game servers exist?
There are quite a few different ways in which to setup a game server, and if often depends on the game genre being served. There are Dedicated Servers for action-oriented games, and most console platforms have pretty comprehensive infrastructure for delivering real time updates. There are also peer-to-peer systems, which is more common for strategy games, and there are "Listen Servers" which effectively mean an ad-hoc small dedicated server running on a single computer.
How does a dedicated server work?
Dedicated Servers are effectively persistent, regardless of who is connected to the game. If the game is persistent, it will continue to exist and run even if there are no players. If a game requires a session to be started, then at least one player needs to start it, and the session will continue until all players leave. A dedicated server requires low-latency hosting in order to function well during gameplay.
Who runs a dedicated server and why?
For consoles, most servers are managed by the developer or the distributor, being run as a service and totally unseen by game players. However for some console titles, and for a lot of PC titles, "clan" groups or professional providers will often set up their own servers, setting the game rules exactly as they desire. This allows deep control over the game experience, and the server administrators are able to act in whatever authority model works best for the situation (latency requirements, max player caps, cheating punishments.)
What are the needs for a game developer rather than a game player?
Being a developer and offering a dedicated service for multiplayer, generally means a lot of setup and enterprise level relationships with the hosting provider(s). Depending on the type of gaming server being setup, a developer needs to take into account high bandwidth, high CPU and high memory. If they wish to perform deep technical analysis of in-game statistics, they will need a rather large data solution as well. Additionally, raw bandwidth speed sometimes is not enough, having a dedicated provider for data streaming (such as PubNub) can aid in real time communication speed.
Can I setup a dedicated server on my home computer?
Many games that rely on dedicated servers for multiplayer can have that server run locally on the same computer that is running the game client. So Player 1 would setup the game server on their computer, and then boot up the game and connect to "localhost" - while Player 2 would login to the IP address of player 1. This can sometimes be challenging since firewalls and blocked IP ports can be a major issue. Also, most computers running on an at-home internet connection will be limited to just a handful of players. Additionally, home-hosted multiplayer games are difficult to keep running persistently, even if the electricity is affordable, most home internet service providers either charge for a dedicated IP address or don't allow them at all.
When should I decide to purchase a dedicated server?
If you intend to host games with more than a dozen people active at once, or plan on having a game which exists is either in a persistent state (never turns off) - then I highly recommend a dedicated server. Also, for any game which requires match-making from a lobby, where you would like to be the server administrator very often, a dedicated server makes a lot of sense. Depending on the game you are playing, and who is supporting you, it might be possible to ask for donation to offset the cost.
What games are the most popular for dedicated servers?
The most popular game will change every few years, but there are a consistent few near the top. In Western markets, Minecraft is perhaps the most prolific in terms of private server use. Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games are now very popular and are a mix of private and proprietary servers, with League of Legends and Dota 2 having the biggest share of dedicated servers. First person shooter games (FPS) also tend to have dedicated servers, with the long time popular options like Counter Strike. East Asian markets tend to have a lot of private servers for MMORPGs, games which involve large open worlds, character development and monster killing.
How should I figure out what dedicated server provider to use and how to set it up?
First take into consideration the game you are setting up the server for. What is most important for this particular game? For Minecraft, memory and storage are much more important than in an FPS, because Minecraft generates a world that gets modified over time. For FPS and MOBA games, storage isn't as important as network latency, it's most important that every click gets transmitted right away. Once your needs are established, compare providers based on price, but also on global coverage of their datacenter network. Unless you specify that your server is meant for a single country, you will probably have many international players which may effect the latency.
I now have a dedicated host figured out, how do I setup my game's server code?
You're on your own for that one, every game is different and has very particular steps to setting up correctly. However, the internet is full of amazing tutorials, and if you've elected a web host that specializes in game-hosting, you might be able to get help in your setup. Most games that offer private hosting will have dedicated host software for you to install, and it will come with a comprehensive guide. However, the more modifications you attempt to make, the more technical knowledge you will need to learn. Start with the basics and keep expanding from there!