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The History Of Pong: Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry

January 9, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next
 

[In the first in a series of Gamasutra-exclusive bonus material originally to be included in Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton's forthcoming book Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time, the duo presents a history of Pong, the game that jumpstarted the game business, and some of the innovations it inspired.]

Although it wasn't the first, Atari's Pong was the first video game to get the ball rolling -- or bouncing, as it were. Humble even by contemporary standards, Pong was an effort to introduce a video game so intuitive that even a child (or inebriated bar patron) could grasp it instantly.

It was in many ways a reaction to the first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space, from 1971, an overly ambitious effort based on Spacewar!, a pioneering mainframe computer-based space combat simulation from the 1960s developed by and for engineers (which will be covered in an upcoming article, "Spacewar! (1962): The Best Waste of Time in the History of the Universe").

Unfortunately, Computer Space proved too complex for the first wave of would-be gamers to handle. Whereas Computer Space had boldly gone where no coin-op had gone before, Pong merely asked players to "avoid missing ball for high score." The banal but intuitive gameplay made it the right game at the right time.

In 1972, most Americans were just getting used to color television; the idea of playing an actual game on a TV screen was revolutionary. What Pong really achieved, then, was demonstrating to the masses that computers were far more than esoteric tools for engineers and rocket scientists. It was the TV game of the future -- a future they were now part of.


A classic image of Pong as displayed by the Coleco Telstar Alpha home system.

The modern video game industry was born on November 29, 1972, in Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. The game was Pong, a machine recently constructed by Al Alcorn, an engineer working for gaming entrepreneurs Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who had recently incorporated under the name "Atari."

As curious patrons gathered around the machine, others plunked quarters into its slot. Although the patrons that night were undoubtedly enthusiastic, we can only wonder if any were aware that history was being made.

Here was the dawn of a new form of entertainment, a medium that asked for more than eyeballs and silence. For too long people had been asked to watch passively as others performed for them. Now they were asked to perform themselves, to become part of the action on the screen.

Three decades and hundreds of thousands of video games later, we can only imagine what it must have been like to be a patron in Andy Capp's Tavern that night, marveling at the modest machine that Alcorn had built with a few cheap parts and a $75 black-and-white television from a Walgreens drug store.


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