Pong was the first video arcade game from Atari, the company set up in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in Sunnyvale, California. Bushnell's interest in computer games is believed to have been inspired by former MIT student Steve Russell, who introduced Bushnell, then an engineering student, to the Spacewar! computer game during his tenure at the University of Utah in the mid-1960s.
Bushnell and Dabney had subsequently designed the Computer Space arcade game, based on Spacewar!, for Nutting Associates. Bushnell's initial vision for Atari was to create game concepts that could then be licensed to other companies, presumably on the basis that these partner companies would bear the cost (and associated risk) of manufacturing arcade game units while Atari could take a cut of the profits with relatively little financial exposure. As often happens in life, things did not work out quite as Bushnell intended.
Atari's first major contract was with the Chicago-based Bally Manufacturing Corporation, who hired Atari to produce a driving game for them. Bushnell had hired Berkley graduate Alan Allcorn as an engineer, based on his background in computer science and electrical engineering, and despite Allcorn's complete lack of experience with computer game technology.
Legend has it that Bushnell asked Allcorn to write a simple tennis game as a training exercise, using a specification that was based on a tennis game written for the Magnavox Oddyssey game console by Magnavox creator Ralph H. Baer (Atari would later settle out of court a lawsuit filed against them by Magnavox for alleged infringement of Baer's patents). The result of Allcorn's efforts impressed Bushnell and Dabney so much that Bushnell decided to offer it to Bally Manufacturing in place of the promised driving game.
The game concept itself was deceptively simple. Each player controlled a rectangular "paddle" that could be moved up and down at one end of the screen. The "ball" consisted of a small square dot that moved from one side of the screen to the other at fixed speed. The idea was for each player to prevent the ball from getting past their own paddle, and score points by getting it to go past their opponent's paddle. The points accrued by each player were displayed at the top of the screen.
Allcorn improved on the original game specification, which he apparently felt was too boring, by changing the angle at which the ball was returned depending on where exactly the ball made contact with the paddle. If the ball struck the paddle in the centre, it would be returned at the same angle at which it made contact. As the point of contact moved away from the centre and towards the edge of the paddle, however, the angle of return was increased. The speed of return also increased steadily, being reset to its original value only after one player or the other had failed to return the ball.
At the request of Bushnell, Allcorn subsequently added sound effects to simulate the sound of the ball striking the bat. Initially unsure of exactly how to achieve this, Allcorn experimented with the electronic component used to generate the game's electronic timing signals and found that it could also be used to generate various audio tones. A cheap Hitachi monochrome television was purchased as the game's display unit, and mounted inside a wooden cabinet.
The cabinet also housed the necessary game electronics. In order to test the marketability of the game, it was decided to install a prototype at a local bar called Andy Capp's Tavern run by one of Atari's existing customers, Bill Gattis. This was in September 1972. At the time, Atari's bread and butter work consisted of the supply, repair and maintenance of pinball machines installed in local bars and restaurants.
The initial reaction of customers in Andy Capp's Tavern to the new game was highly favourable, and the game's popularity grew rapidly. Within a week or so of the installation at Andy Capp's, Bushnell undertook a business trip to Chicago to try to sell the game concept to Bally Manufacturing. There are conflicting accounts of how these negotiations proceeded, but the end result was that Bally turned the game down for one reason or another. Meanwhile Atari had received a call from Bill Gattis saying that the game was behaving erratically, and Alan Allcorn was sent out to fix it.
On opening the game cabinet, Allcorn found the problem to be that the coin receptacle (which had been improvised using an upturned plastic milk container) was overflowing. This was an almost unprecedented turn of events, but highlighted just how commercially successful the game could be. Bushnell concluded that his failure to sell the idea to Bally Manufacturing was actually a good thing under the circumstances, and decided that Atari should manufacture and distribute the game units themselves.
Despite the reservations of both Dabney and Allcorn, and initial difficulties in finding a financial backer, Atari duly started to manufacture Pong arcade game units. The first dozen units were installed at various locations around southern California. The game's reputation quickly spread, and revenue from the installed units exceeded expectations. Subsequent interest in the game led to more orders, and by the end of 1973 Atari had overcome various teething problems and obtained sufficient funding to expand their manufacturing operation. They were soon shipping game units to destinations both within the United States and overseas.
By the end of 1974, it is estimated that Atari had achieved sales valued at over three million dollars. The total number of Pong consoles eventually produced is believed to exceed one hundred thousand, although only about a third of these were produced by Atari. The company initially failed to apply for a patent for the game's technology, leaving the door open for its competitors to produce Pong clones.
Atari responded by producing sequels that added new features to the original game, and began working on a home console version. The home console was first proposed in 1974 by Atari engineer Harold Lee, who worked together with Alan Allcorn to produce the initial designs. They were later joined by Atari engineer Bob Brown in the construction of a prototype.
Atari managed to attract the attention of the Sporting Goods department of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. department store chain, and eventually secured a contract for one hundred and fifty thousand units. The units went on sale in Sears' retail stores during the 1975 Christmas season, bearing the Sears Tele-Games logo. The Christmas sales campaign was a success, and in the following year Atari released a version of the console bearing its own brand name.
Once again, Atari's competitors cashed in on the popularity and commercial success of Pong, producing their own versions of the Atari home game console. Some of these competitors made their first foray into the games market with clones of Atari's console version of Pong, one notable example being Nintendo. Nevertheless, Atari continued to prosper and Nolan Bushnell sold the company to Warner Communications in 1976 for an estimated thirty million dollars.
That same year Atari released a game called Breakout, which was originally conceptualised by Bushnell as a single-player version of Pong. Alan Allcorn, as project manager, assigned Steve Jobs to design a prototype circuit board. Jobs was a college dropout who had originally been hired by Atari in 1974 as a technician. Jobs subsequently enlisted the help of electronics wizard Steve Wozniak, whom he had met in high school. Jobs and Wozniak later became co-founders of Apple Computers.
Although opinions differ on just how much of an influence Pong has had on the history of computer gaming, many pundits assert that it was the game that kick-started the video game industry. It has certainly earned its place in the gaming hall of fame, and its enduring success is in no small part attributable to its essential simplicity. Anyone could play Pong, even if they had little idea of how the technology worked, or had never previously played a computer game.
Perhaps more to the point from a commercial point of view, people were willing to part with their hard-earned cash in order to play. It has even been claimed that Pong was the first example of social gaming, since it was essentially a two-player game (later versions would allow four players to play simultaneously). Pong has even found its place in popular culture, having been parodied or alluded to in various comedy sketches, advertising campaigns, and artistic works. You can play a number of online versions of the game here.
This article was first published on the TechnologyUK.net website in January 2009