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The History Of Pong: Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry


January 9, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next
 

Nevertheless, what distinguishes Bushnell's design and Alcorn's implementation is that the gameplay in Pong was pared down to just up/down paddle movements, with any "English" (really just a sudden change in direction) merely a result of where the ball strikes the paddle. Also, unlike Table Tennis, which tries to adhere to most of the rules of Ping-Pong by making balls hit to the top or bottom of the screen fly "off the table," the top and bottom of Pong's screen function as walls that bounce the ball off them.

With the complexity stripped and the game controlled via a single paddle (dial), Pong could be played anywhere -- even the aforementioned bar -- where a thirsty patron could hold a Schlitz in one hand and the dial in the other. With the addition of the iconic sound effects and automatic scoring that encouraged friendly competition, the experience was complete and a huge success for Atari.

Atari's success with Pong led several other companies to copy the game's concept. Magnavox later won a lawsuit against Atari for patent infringement, forcing the fledgling company to settle for a lump sum and other manufacturers to pay hefty licensing fees for years to come. Baer, a meticulous engineer with an array of broad patents, was certainly not willing to stand by as Atari and others profited (in his view, unfairly) from his basic ideas.[6]

Although the Odyssey received a small sales boost from the popularity of Pong and the various clones that sprung up in the arcade, the console never really overcame its limited marketing and the unfortunate misconception that it would work only on Magnavox televisions.

When Atari created a home version of Pong, complete with the arcade version's automatic scoring and sound, the then-dominant retailer Sears agreed in 1975 to distribute it under their own brand name, Tele-Games. The arrangement was a huge success, and legitimized the viability of Baer's original plan to market video game systems for home use. Atari released its own branded version of the console starting in 1976, just as an explosion of Pong clones saturated the home video game market.


Coleco's popular home Pong clone, the Telstar Alpha. Besides "Tennis" (Pong), the unit also played "Hockey," "Handball," and "Jai Lai."

In 1975, chip maker General Instrument was looking to develop a low-cost "Pong-on-a-chip" as an answer to Atari and Magnavox's proprietary Pong and Pong-like systems. General Instrument succeeded with the AY-3-8500 chip, which could play as many as six paddle-and-target games, depending on the vendor configuration.

Baer received early information on the chip's development and contacted Coleco's president, Arnold Greenberg, about the possibilities. This led to Coleco's entry as the preferred vendor for the first and largest supply of chips and to the company's successful development and marketing of the Telstar.

After supply caught up to demand, a wide range of companies produced hundreds of variant clone systems from the original General Instrument chip and future incarnations, but Coleco, along with rivals such as Atari and APF, had the greatest success in the fixed-game video game market.[7]

 
"Hockey" on the Coleco Telstar Alpha, which was surprisingly similar to "Tennis" -- just with more paddles.

Although these machines were popular and offered increasingly sophisticated features, there were simply too many systems for the market to sustain them all. This was particularly the case after fully programmable consoles appeared that used interchangeable cartridges for more diverse gameplay possibilities, starting with Fairchild's Video Entertainment System (VES) in 1976.[8]

This home video game breakthrough was followed one year later on the home computer side with the release of the preassembled and relatively user-friendly Apple II, Commodore PET 2001, and Tandy TRS-80 Model I systems, each of which featured its own interchangeable software, first on cassette tapes and then disks.


Coleco's intriguing Telstar Arcade from 1977, a primitive color cartridge-based system with a wild control panel that played many of the same types of games found on dedicated Pong units.

---

[6] See Baer's 2005 book, Videogames in the Beginning, for more details on the man, his inventions, and the various lawsuits: http://tinyurl.com/ys26h4.

[7] Of the many Pong-like and single-game-chip variations that Coleco produced in the Telstar line, the Telstar Arcade was the most unusual, because it accepted cartridges and did not use any of the standard General Instrument chips, instead having custom microcontrollers within each cartridge.

[8] Later known as the Fairchild Channel F System II, with rights passing on to Zircon. In a competitive nod to Pong-style systems, two-player hockey and tennis games were built in and accessible from the VES's "G?" prompt without a cartridge inserted. Tennis (button 2 at the "G?" prompt) was pure Pong. Hockey (button 1 at the "G?" prompt), however, used every one of the game controller's special features to independently control both a partially mobile offensive player and a fixed-path goalie through fairly sophisticated motions. Nevertheless, the game still utilized typical blocky line-based graphics and Pong-like sound effects.


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