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The History Of Pong: Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry

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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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Comments


Gary Colabuono
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I'm certainly looking forward to this book, but since the roots are in coin-op will there be a section on Golden Tee? A lot of of old-timers like me still spin that trackball down at the pub.

Sean Parton
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For a very entertaining take at Pong, I recommend people look up "World of Pong", the very first "MMO" pong game.



http://gmc.yoyogames.com/index.php?showtopic=377083



Link to download in first post.

Bill Loguidice
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Thanks, Gary. It's a book on the greatest games of all time regardless of platform, though it does obviously have a fair share of arcade games as main topics or mentioned throughout the text. You can check out the book's main page here for more info on the contents: http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/2214

Roberto Alfonso
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Wow, the book sounds really nice! I am awaiting the "Elite" bonus chapter, that was a game ahead of its time... even today very few games have the scope the original Elite had.



It is curious that the book sorts the chapters alphabetically instead of chronologically. One would think some games depended on previous launched ones in order to have achieved what they did.

Bill Loguidice
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It's hard to argue that the industry as we know it today was not started by Pong, Tim. Obviously there were many things that had to happen before, during and after (which we discuss here and in other chapters), but Pong is the one game that anyone can point to that first caught on with the general public, which is obviously key (if only a few people heard of or experienced something, was it particularly influential?). And if you're referring to Chainmail as the precursor to D&D, both of those were quite influential on our industry and the latter's influence is discussed throughout the book, as is Tolkien's, which undeniably influenced those.

Matt Ackeret
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"the unfortunate misconception that it would work only on Magnavox televisions"

[citation needed]



This sounds very UL-ish, much like the myth about the Nova not selling well in Spanish speaking countries.

Roberto Alfonso
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Well, remember the landfill with Atari ET cartridge... that was pretty outrageous... but true.

Bill Loguidice
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Hi, Matt Ackeret. While it does sound like a bit of an urban legend, all the evidence points to it being true. We didn't feel that a direct citation was necessary since we're merely repeating "common knowledge" and it's not supporting a particular argument. If you'd like a reference, though, check here: http://www.pong-story.com/odyssey.htm#P7 or refer to contemporary advertising or the fact that it was sold at Magnavox dealers. Probably the biggest single factor all told in the system's lack of enduring success, besides the fact that the system itself was often an afterthought in regards to profound gameplay elements (relying more on imagination, playing pieces, overlays, etc.), was the idea that it was the first home system. Being first often means conceptually you're foreign to people who in this case likely had a tough time with the idea that you were using the TV in an interactive manner. If time ever permits, I'd love to research and speak with people who were owners at the time and see if there was a perception that the Odyssey could "break" your TV. I'm sure that was a genuine fear, just like there was that fear with parents back in the early 80s that our use of modems would somehow break their phone or phone line.

Aaron Knafla
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@Bill Loguidice

First of all, it is refreshing to see that some us still remember that a hacker writes code and a cracker breaks code. Thank you. =)



You are correct about Pong jump starting the industry. I don't know how anyone could argue.



@Tim Carter

As for the influence of fantasy role playing, that's (somewhat) valid. But, it's important for people to consider how women feel about bloody combat with swords, elves, and magic. Frankly, the majority of them could care less...



Pong was something everybody could play, understand, and enjoy. It's legacy is set in stone.


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