Video Game Audio 103. The First Beeps & Music.


This is part III of my article series on video game sound. If you haven’t already, I recommend you start with Part I: Video Game Audio 101. Fiction or Interface. An Introduction. Part II is found here.

In 1952 computer scientist Alexander Shafto Douglas created a virtual tic-tac-toe game called OXO for demonstration purposes for his thesis about Human-Computer Interaction.

As far as I know, this is the first game a human could play against a computer. Earlier video games could only play against themselves.

Here’s an emulated version.

An emulated version of OXO. The thumbnail is a photo of the original game.

Later in 1958, the scientist William Higinbotham created the video game Tennis for Two on an oscilloscope.

The reason was that the Brookhaven National Laboratory opened its doors to the public once a year so those interested could see what the scientists were working on.

Unfortunately, the exhibition mostly consisted of posters. Boring!

So Higinbotham created Tennis for Two so the visitors shouldn’t be so bored.

The game was a huge success, and I suspect it influenced the later PONG! game from 1972.

Around 1961-62 a group of researchers from MIT created the game Spacewar.

Spacewar looks more like an actual video game compared to its predecessors.

Check it out below:

However, one major thing was missing from all these games: sound!

The first video game beeps

Then in 1971, things began to change as sound was introduced to video games.

That was when Nutting Associates released the coin arcade game Computer Space, a fighting game in space.

Nutting Associates was founded by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell, who coded the game and built the arcade cabinet.

Both later went on to create the company Atari as well.

And even though nobody can hear you scream in space, the game introduced sounds representing rocket engines, missiles, and explosions.

The use of sounds in space suggests it borrowed from sci-fi tropes already established in film.

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Another fun fact is that a white version of the arcade machine was featured in the dystopian sci-fi movie Soylent Green (1973), which takes place in 2022.

So I guess the creators thought that’s what everyone would have at their house in the future. They were not totally wrong.

Unfortunately, Computer Space wasn’t a financial success. But Bushnell and Dabneys next game and company were.

That game was PONG! And the company was Atari.

Here’s a nice video that goes into the history of PONG.

PONG was a huge success, and the game was cloned thousands of times.

Here’s a commercial from 1976 where the game has been cloned to the Telstar home video game system:

The available hardware limited early video game sounds

That the sound in PONG ended up as it did was a bit of an accident.

Bushnell wanted the sound of people cheering when someone scored a goal. But the sound designer Al Alcorn couldn’t make the computer reproduce this.

Instead, we ended up with the iconic noise you hear anytime someone makes a goal.

As Karen Collins points out in Game Sound (2008, p. 9), the sounds in PONG weren’t as much an aesthetic choice as they were technologically determined.

That didn’t stop Bushnell from advertising PONG as a game with “Realistic sounds of ball bouncing, striking paddle.

TEarly video game sound was dependent on the sound chip in each machine. Different sounds required different sound chips.

Game designers always had to find a way to fit the audio into the available computer memory.

Sound designers and composers coded the melodies and sound directly on the sound chip. And they had to get creative.

If they wanted a short melody, they had to limit it to a specific time in the game – fx at game over.

The fun thing is that even though sound in video games no longer depends on specific sound chips, I know from my talks with sound engineers and composers working in video games that they STILL have to get creative.

Fx they have to compress the file sizes of each audio file to a minimum.

Storage space and RAM are still issues; audio has to fight for memory space with the rest of the game elements – from graphics to the game engine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, back to the old days.

New sound chips helped drive the development of video games and computer sound. But they were complicated to program.

Nonetheless, the early experiments lead to the establishment of conventions and tropes we still hear in video games today.

Fx, the sounds of an arcade machine had to be loud, percussive, and over-the-top to make itself heard above the rest of the noise from the arcade.

Because of this, many of the early arcade machines favored sound effects above melodies.

That is, until 1978, when Space Invaders changed everything.

Space Invaders: the first video game music

Here’s a video displaying the original British 1978 Taito version of the game (as opposed to the US Midway version).

Space Invaders was developed by Japanese Toshihiro Nishikado and released by Taiko in 1978.

Space Invaders became a huge success both in Japan and the US. Around 60.000 arcade machines were imported to the US by Midway/Bally.

The game became so popular that whole arcades sprung up with only this game.

An Urban Legend says that the game was so successful that it led to a shortage of 100-yen coins in Japan. This isn’t true, however.

In the US, the price of one arcade machine was around $1700 – a huge investment for small arcades – but because of the game’s popularity, you could get a return on your investment in one month.

As with all successful games of that era, Space Invaders has also been cloned and copied into numerous versions.

Space Invaders heralded the future of game sound

The background music in Space Invaders consists of a loop of four descending bass tones. That’s it.

But it’s the first type of background music in video games we know of. And it’s a shift away from mere percussive explosive sounds.

As the game progresses and the aliens get closer to destroying your base, the loop picks up in speed. This affects the player, who feels more stressed as the game progresses.

Speeding up music to stress the player is still used in games today.

Fx, the other day, I played Sonic Racing, and in the last round, the music sped up, which has the same effect: get your act together or lose the game!

It’s unclear whether the increased speed of the music loop in Space Invaders is intentional.

It might simply be a consequence of the technology at the time: whenever an alien was destroyed and removed from the screen, the processor had to update fewer graphics.

And this might have caused the game and game sound to speed up. But I’ve read both that it was intentionally coded and that it was a result of the screen not having to draw as many pixels, thus freeing up processing power. So I guess the verdict is still out.

The nonlinear and interactive nature of video game sound

Space Invaders was a sign of things to come within video game sound, and despite the simple melodic loop, the game has many basic things in common with today’s video games.

First of all, the combined soundscape in Space Invaders, which besides the melodic loop, also consists of laser sounds and explosions, is nonlinear, i.e., it changes based on the player’s interaction with the game, and no two games are the same.

So the soundscape depends on the player’s skills, when the player shoots, how long the player survives, and so on.

The soundscape is also interactive, a result of the interaction between the interface and the player through the video game’s gameplay.

The interactive and nonlinear nature of video games differentiates them from movies in terms of music and sound effects.

From a music creator’s point of view, it raises questions about how you compose something for a game when you don’t know how long the player will play the game. And how do you make it non-repetitive?

From the game engine designers’ point-of-view, sound and music must be integrated into the games and interact with all the rest of the components.

Sound must carry fictitious, narrative, and rule-related information to players at the same time. Not an easy task!

This has been solved in numerous different and creative ways over the years, which I’ll get back to in later articles.

In Closing

Despite its simple beginnings, Space Invaders became a precursor of what to expect regarding video game music and sound.

One of the huge selling points of arcade machines in the years following Space Invaders was the sound and its ability to attract customers.

In the next article, I’ll look at the 1980s and how actual melodies started to be included in arcade games.

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Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.