The power of Pong 40 years on

Matt Hill charts the history of the arcade title that, four decades ago, invented video games as we know them – and changed the world in the process

[Originally published in ShortList, 8 November 2012] 

It’s November 1972. Chuck Berry is sitting at No 1 for the only time in his career, buzz has begun for a little indie film called The Poseidon Adventure, and a strange yellow, coin-operated cabinet has randomly appeared in the corner of your local pub. Two circular dials control two featureless white paddles, sliding up and down on either side of a deep black monitor.

A white dot – a ball without enough pixels to be an actual ball, more square than spherical – bleeps and bounces between the two. Well, it would if a square could bounce. The entire establishment, inebriated or otherwise, is transfixed. What dark magic is this?

“This” was Pong, created by the founder of Japanese-named, California-based games company Atari as a digital version of table tennis, and America just couldn’t get enough of it. It may have taken another six years for Space Invaders to co-ordinate gaming’s true global takeover from Taito’s Tokyo HQ, but from bars to doctor’s waiting rooms to unlicensed mini-cab operations, for many Atari’s Pong was the first coming, year zero.

“When the original prototype for the machine stopped working in Atari’s local bar, head of engineering Al Acorn, the man who created it, was called in to fix it,” Retro Gamer editor Darran Jones tells us. “When he opened the machine up he found it was crammed with quarters. In the space of just over a week more than 400 games had been played on a single machine.”

Yet Atari’s Pong, 40 years young this year, was not the original computer game – that is generally regarded as William Higinbotham’s 1958 laboratory experiment Tennis For Two. It wasn’t even the original commercial bat ‘n’ ball video game – that particular title belongs to Ralph Baer’s Tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey console, released that very same year. Yet its Pong’s simple, black and white image and basic yet evocative sound effect that continues to be ingrained on society’s psyche for one very good reason.

“Pong was the first video game that was mass-produced and truly successful,” Jones continues. “The likes of Spacewar!, Tennis For Two and Computer Space may have come first, but they were either private projects made on closed campuses or created in small numbers. They certainly weren’t on this scale. Pong shifted 8,000 units in no time, and when it first started appearing across the US, many had never seen anything like it before.”

However, the problem was, within the computer industry, many had – and they were beginning to circle. Well, square

Press start to play…

“Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference.”

So said Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and the man who became regarded as the godfather of video games by improving on a tech idea that already existed, becoming ridiculously successful off the back of it and then being greeted with a legal minefield for his endeavour. Unsurprising, then, that Bushnell was the man to give Apple’s Steve Jobs his first, er, job.

Unbelievably in this litigious age, where smartphone patents lawsuits are traded like Panini stickers, Pong actually began life as a blatant imitation.

It was also supposed to be a training project, although its developer didn’t know about the latter. Bushnell set Al Alcorn the unenviable task of creating a clever ping-pong game based, quite openly, on Magnavox’s “not very clever” Tennis title (Bushnell’s words, not ours).

While the real plan had been to study artificial intelligence for a driving game Atari was working on for pinball industry player Bally, the mechanics that Alcorn delivered based on Bushnell’s tight brief proved addictive in their basic form and, importantly, easier to understand than anything they’d ever seen. Or the general public, as it turned out.

After trials in the creators’ nearby drinking den, Andy Capp’s Tavern, and having overcome funding issues that stemmed from the Mafia’s vice-like grip on the associated pinball industry, Pong was released as a commercial coin-operated arcade machine in November 1972. Bushnell estimates it made $40 a day upon release. By 1973 Atari had 2,500 orders; by the end of 1974 it had made $3.2 million.

The public thirst was such that a home version, somewhat inevitably, became the Buzz Lightyear-esque hot property the following Christmas. Atari signed a deal with department-store behemoth Sears, which reportedly said it would take as many as could be built (in reality, it was 150,000). So, in homes where personal computers had yet to set foot, by the end of 1975, Atari had sold $40 million worth of Pongs and started several thousand sibling-related punch-ups in the process. If the Wii U gets anywhere near its success this year, Nintendo will be a happy bunny.

Insert coins to continue…

Before Bushnell and his boys could even begin thinking, “Let’s make a home version,” Atari came under attack from – you guessed it – our old friends Baer and Magnavox, who had cottoned on to Pong’s domestic success and were shouting, “My idea!” while chucking around legal papers at the many imitators that had popped up in Pong’s wake, like 10ps in an arcade.

“Pong prided itself on being accessible but it was heavily cloned,” says Jones. “Lots of small electronic firms created their own versions. It should come as no surprise that many popular games on Apple’s iOS are built around similar principles.”

After documents, including a signed guest book that proved Bushnell had played Baer’s Tennis before Pong was released, were shown to the court, Bushnell agreed to settle, outlaying $700,000 in the summer of 1976 for Atari to become an official licensee. However, this not only meant that all imitators – sorry, “licensees” – had to pay royalties, but also that Magnavox owned the rights to anything Atari created in the coming year. Bushnell’s response? His firm took a 12-month hiatus.

“I believe that business is war,” Bushnell once told Eurogamer. “I believe it’s OK to whack your competition if you can. That’s what it’s all about. But you want to do it kind of fairly. I have no idea how you define that.”

As many of the copycat companies counter-sued for commercial reasons – Nintendo, whose first video game was a Pong knock-off, tried famously, and unsuccessfully, to overturn the decision by drawing attention to Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two, though the court ruled that because it didn’t use video signals, it wasn’t a video game – the home version of Pong had a backlash of its own.

For the first time, video games were a big hit and, in turn, big news. Plugging those hypnotising, outdoor activity-destroying paddles’ dark magic into the living room TV set was never going to please everyone. As Pong gave way to Atari’s multi-game VCS console, which added the likes of Combat and Pac-Man to Pong, rumours spread of domestic television carnage that would befit the Daily Mail today.

“My parents gave me some lame excuse that if you hooked up an Atari to your TV it would ruin your television,” says Chuck Van Pelt, founder of the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. “So I wasn’t allowed one.” In fact, much of the trouble was put down to cheap copies made of inferior parts, yet the trouble with being an icon is that everyone remembers your name.

Pong forever

As well as being the forerunner to every competitive two-player video game played on a single screen in existence, from FIFA to Street Fighter, Pong directly inspired many gaming greats. Nintendo’s clone saw off their financially barren years and fuelled a gaming institution, Metal Gear Solid publisher Konami traded the jukebox business for arcades after seeing Pong’s success, while Tekken creator Namco actually rose from Atari’s internal arcade division.

“Bushnell sold Atari just four years after he created it for $28 million,” says The Guardian’s Simon Parkin, “but not before he and his designers had defined the basic vocabulary of video games, proto-verbs the industry still uses today. The company was the first to view game designers not as production line workers but as creative artisans tasked with defining the language and boundaries of a new medium.”

Four years after Bushnell’s sale, Atari had an annual turnover of $2bn and one of Silicon Valley’s largest R&D divisions as its Atari VCS console continued to champion gaming to the masses. Bushnell went on to invent the car navigation tech in sat-navs – and sell it to Rupert Murdoch for $50m in 1989 – create the Chuck E Cheese pizza chain, dabble to much personal cost in robotics and even become a BAFTA fellow, but it’s his gaming heritage that has endured.

“I consider early video games to be like Chess was 4,000 years ago,” reckons Bushnell. “Both contain fundamental traits which have stood the test of time. They have created frameworks which are still adhered to today.”

While Nintendo’s Wii was the most recent high-profile phenomenon to reference Bushnell and Alcorn’s magic directly, Wii Sports’ dressed-up, 3D take on his family-unifying focus making gaming socially acceptable again, its influence has permeated popular culture far and wide.

From Saturday Night Live skits to Frank Black song titles via a particularly great Ogilvy Mather ad for American Express that had US tennis star Andy Roddick trading shots with an enormous, pixelated white bar, Pong is shorthand for retro cool and an easy route to geek-chic cache.

Or as Kang, The Simpsons’ ever-invading alien overlord, declared, it’s the human race’s “crowning achievement in amusement technology”.

For the original article with extended sidebars and AR video content, view this ShortList issue virtually here

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