Thursday, October 7, 2010

Commercial Message: "Gaming" Then and Now

When I refer to "gaming," I generally refer to video gaming.  But "gaming" is also a term used by the gaming industry, as opposed to the videogame industry.  So occasionally I am approached by online casino companies, unfamiliar with the actual content of my blog, who wish to sponsor a little commercial exposure.  Usually it doesn't seem like a good fit, but I'm giving in this time -- the gentleman who contacted me understands my style and attitude about advertising, i.e., I am not being asked to deceive you; his company is willing to ante up some petty cash for the exposure; and it's an excuse to write about the early days of "gaming" in gaming.

So consider this a bonus post courtesy of its sponsor, and remember that it contains certain


elements.  If you are looking for a casino online, the sponsor will be very pleased to assist you at the link I have so casually and discreetly embedded in this sentence.
I'm not a gambler, myself.  The math doesn't work for me, and without an element of skill most such games don't interest me on their own merits.  I don't know if the whole Vegas experience was a bigger part of our culture in the late 1970's than it is now, but almost every early console and computer had a bevy of gambling games in its library.  It seems odd, because there was no actual money involved -- the thrill of watching random events play out and hoping for results in my favor never really captured my attention.

Still, obviously somebody was buying these games, and the game and gaming industries continue to thrive together in the modern online era.  So it's worth taking a brief look back at a few of the industry's early "gaming" products.

Atari produced a Blackjack cartridge for the Atari 2600 home videogame console, way back in 1978.  Blackjack, in my opinion, really IS a game -- at least there's some element of prediction and skill involved.  At worst, there's an opposing intelligence (the dealer) to second-guess and bet against, and while card counting is strongly discouraged in the real world, those who can do it well impress me as having mastered a difficult skill.

Of course, on the 2600, the biggest challenge was generating a workable display to support a round of blackjack.  Remember that the system had only a few sprites to work with -- so displaying something as complex as a card took some tricky manipulation of the available shapes and dots, one scanline at a time.  This display features multiple stable, detailed graphic elements onscreen, and is a lot harder to pull off than it looks.  It's no surprise that programmer Bob Whitehead went on to be one of the four legendary co-founders of Activision:

It actually plays a decent game of blackjack, too, especially by the AI standards of the day -- maybe I'm just a foolish risk-taker, but it wasn't very often that I was able to get the dealer to go bust, as shown above.

Mattel's Intellivision console featured much more sophisticated graphics hardware, which the company took pains to show off with the system's original pack-in game, Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, and its famously shifty-eyed animated dealer, way beyond the 2600's capabilities.  But Mattel actually produced a whole series of gambling games as part of an official "Gaming Network" lineup, including this title, Las Vegas Roulette:

The display is impressively detailed, but there's not much true gaming involved with this variety of gaming.  We place a random bet, spin the wheel and see where the ball randomly lands -- with, I should note, a credibly realistic ball-clink sound effect as it settles into place, impressive by Intellivision standards.  We win, we lose, we watch the ephemeral bank balance change, and eventually we put in a different cartridge.  We can't do anything to influence the ball or the wheel, so our gains and losses never really feel like they would in the real world.

Of course, times change, and this provides a convenient excuse to note that, ah, yes, the sponsor funding this post wants you to know that...


... nowadays, you can go win and lose actual dollars playing online roulette.  Please visit the aforementioned link if you wish to do so.

See, this is how the commercial side of the Web works -- it is a marketplace of ideas at its best, but it is also a marketplace of everything else.  My blog is hosted for "free" and can be read for "free" -- just like Facebook is "free" -- but in reality, the requisite electrons are all funded by the advertisements displayed when you visit.  The practical goal driving this post is to help raise the sponsoring company's search rankings -- my oh-so-subtle references will be taken into account by the various spiderbots weaving their webs throughout the Googlesphere, and people searching on the linked phrases above may happen upon the designated site and spend some money there without ever seeing this blog entry. 

Eliza's children are out there, evolved into interesting little marketing AI processes.  They're working for the Yankee dollar, the Euro, the rupee -- and the thought amuses me enough to let them in the door once in a while.

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