The History Of Pong: Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry

By Matt Barton,Bill Loguidice

[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.


The story of Pong has been told many times, and of course it makes for a more compelling story if the game's precursors aren't mentioned. Bushnell and Alcorn, much like Jobs and Wozniak (the two Steves who founded Apple), are cultural heroes who are too often portrayed as mad scientist-types, geniuses who woke up one morning, shouted "Eureka!" and went about creating the world's first video games and personal computers, respectively.

As we've seen already, however, Pong was not even the first coin-operated video game, much less the first video game. It wasn't even the first video game based on "pinging" a ball back and forth across a screen, not by a long shot. To begin then, we must recap the events that led up to that fateful day in November 1972.

The origins of today's computing power can be traced to World War II. The U.S. Army was on a continuous quest to gain the upper hand against the Axis Powers, and several promising projects -- and some not-so-promising -- were given funding on the chance that a few might be successful. One such proposal was to create a high-speed electronic device to calculate ballistics firing tables, which at the time was being performed manually by female mathematicians called "computers."

Development of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer -- better known as ENIAC -- began in 1943; however, it did not become fully operational until 1946, when it became the first comprehensive reprogrammable digital computer.

Conceived and designed by John Mauchly and John Eckert, the room-sized ENIAC influenced the development of later increasingly smaller and more powerful computers from a variety of commercial companies, beginning the slow transition from centuries-old mechanical and analog paradigms to fully digital devices.

Unreliable and bulky vacuum tubes used into the 1950s were phased out in the 1960s by transistors that were more reliable, yet less expensive. These transistors were soon incorporated into the Integrated Circuit, or IC, where a large number of these semiconductor devices were placed onto small silicon chips.

Nevertheless, after several decades of innovation in circuitry and refinements in operation and utility -- including a switch to a stored-program methodology that offered a fully reprogrammable environment -- large and expensive mainframe computers still remained the norm.


A modern simulation of OXO running on the EDSAC mainframe.

Despite the size and cost restrictions that limited these computing systems to government and large institutions such as universities, games found their way onto even the earliest mainframes, starting the ongoing trend of implementing video games wherever a viable platform presented itself.

The first known instance of an actual implementation was Alexander Douglas's 1952 creation of OXO (also known as Naughts and Crosses), a simple graphical single-player-versus-the-computer tic-tac-toe game on the EDSAC mainframe at the University of Cambridge. Although more proof of a concept than a compelling gameplay experience, OXO nevertheless set the precedent of using a computer to play games.


A simulated screenshot of what Tennis for Two looked like.

The first known precursor of Pong debuted in 1958 on a visitors' day at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. It was there that William Higinbotham and Robert Dvorak demonstrated Tennis for Two, a small analog computer game that used an oscilloscope for its display.

Tennis for Two rendered a moving ball that was affected by gravity (the first known use of physics[1] in a game) in a simplified side view of a tennis court. Each player could rotate a knob to change the angle of the ball, and the press of a button sent the ball toward the opposite side of the court.

As with OXO, few people got to experience Tennis for Two, but in many ways it can be considered the first dedicated video game system. Without the benefit of hindsight, this milestone was even lost on the game's creators, who, after a second visitors' day one year later, disassembled the machine's components for use in other projects.

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[1] Defined as the science of matter and energy and their interactions, with a focus on the latter when it comes to videogames. 


It wouldn't be until 1962 that the most famous early computer game, Spacewar!, blasted onto the scene. Initially designed by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen, with later contributions from Alan Kotok, Dan Edwards, and Peter Samson, the game was the result of brilliant engineering and hundreds of hours of hard work.[2]

Developed on the DEC PDP-1 mainframe at MIT, Spacewar!'s gameplay was surprisingly sophisticated and ambitious, pitting two spaceships against each other in an armed duel around a star that exhibited gravitational effects on the two craft. Each player controlled a ship via the mainframe's front-panel test switches or optional external control boxes, adjusting each respective craft's rotation, thrust, fire, and hyperspace (a random, evasive screen jump that could cause the user's ship to explode).

Over the years, the game was improved many times and inspired many clones and spiritual successors, including the first commercially sold arcade video game in 1971, Computer Space, which was designed by Bushnell and Dabney for Nutting Associates. Unfortunately for the parties involved, Computer Space landed with a thud.

Featuring a stunning, smooth-edged fiberglass cabinet with metalflake chips embedded in the clearcoat finish[3] that came in a range of colors, a large screen and a multibutton control panel that wouldn't look out of place in an Apollo moon mission, Computer Space was intimidating, particularly to a public that had never seen a video game.

Bushnell, who can perhaps best be described as an entrepreneur with a vision and background in engineering, was able to identify the root cause of Computer Space's failure -- it was implicitly designed for the enjoyment of his engineering friends -- and banked on the simplicity of Pong, right down to its angular wooden cabinet and controls, to drive the success of his new company, Atari.

Unfortunately for Bushnell's still undeniably impressive legacy, it has been proven that he took the idea for Pong from inventor Ralph Baer, who designed the first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey.

Baer conceived the basic ideas behind the Odyssey during the 1950s, but his concept for a television video game was so novel that he was unable to garner enough support to even build working prototypes until the mid 1960s. His first attempt to build a home video game console was a simple game of tag featuring two squares, which soon morphed into his "Brown Box" prototype. The prototype included several additional diversions, including target shooting and the pivotal paddle and ball games.

After being rejected by several TV manufacturers, Baer finally signed an agreement in 1971 with Magnavox, who released a refined version of the prototype the following year, renaming it the Odyssey Home Entertainment System (model 1TL200).

Although relatively limited in capabilities, requiring considerable manual intervention and imagination from its players, the Odyssey nevertheless had many basic features in its forward-thinking design that would eventually become standard. These included detachable controllers, additional controller options (a light rifle/gun), and interchangeable game cartridges. The cartridges enabled play for each of the various activities, but in reality these plug-in cards simply turned the console's built-in features on or off, like a selector switch.

Twelve games were included with the system; ten more were released separately. The Odyssey could display only white squares and lines on a black background, so two different sizes of color overlays were provided to enhance game play and accommodate different types of televisions.

In addition, many games also included external enhancements, such as playing cards, maps, dice, and game boards. Much of the system's playability came from the use of these accessories, as there was limited onscreen interaction. The system registered only object collisions, and there was no sound or score tracking.


The original Magnavox Odyssey in its organizer case. Note the rolled-up television overlays and extensive array of real-world playing pieces.

Perhaps the Odyssey's most enduring legacy, however, was inspiring Bushnell at a Magnavox product demonstration in 1972. Later that same year, Bushnell cofounded Atari, and with engineer Alcorn developed Pong, which was clearly derivative of one of the Odyssey's paddle-and-ball games.

As Baer puts it, "The fact that Nolan Bushnell developed Pong after he played a ping-pong game on an Odyssey 1TL200 at an L.A. Magnavox dealership demo in May of 1972 is also well-known."[4] Incidentally, although Baer credits Bushnell with the title of "father of arcade video games," he proclaims himself "the father of home video games." We'll have more to say about Baer in a moment.

"Mezrabad" described the Odyssey's Table Tennis in a tongue-in-cheek review for Armchair Arcade, where he pretends he's back in 1972 playing this game with his son for the first time. The review shows the striking similarities to Pong:

Table Tennis uses both Player Spots, Ball Spot, and Line Spot. It is the only Odyssey game that uses Cart #1. It uses no overlay. Cart #1 is inserted into the Odyssey's slot which automatically turns the Odyssey "on" and it begins its "broadcast" to your TV. Remember, this is only being broadcast to your TV. Don't call your neighbors and tell them to please turn to channel 3 or 4 to watch you play Table Tennis.

Table Tennis is designed to help proud new Odyssey owners learn how to manipulate the controllers of the Odyssey. Two controllers come with the system. They are little white boxes with knobs on the right and left sides. The left knob controls horizontal movement of the Player Spot and the other knob controls the vertical movement of the Player Spot.

In the center of the left knob is yet another knob which controls the "ENGLISH" of the Ball Spot. I think "ENGLISH" refers to something in the real-world game of billiards that governs how a ball's trajectory curves due to its spin. This "ENGLISH" control allows a player to control the trajectory of the Ball Spot after deflecting it with the Player Spot. The Odyssey Manual always capitalizes the word "ENGLISH" so forgive me if you think I'm shouting.

Oh, and I guess I should make this clear. When I say a controller "controls" the movement of a Player Spot, I mean that there's a little white rectangle/square on YOUR TV SCREEN that moves depending on how you turn a knob on your controller. Really! Yes, it is astonishing at first. Not since I discovered the vertical hold dial have I had this much fun with my TV.[5]

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[2] Steve Russell developed the first version of the game in 1961. It wouldn't be significantly and recognizably improved in a collaborative manner until the 1962 version. See http://tinyurl.com/3xhe5j.

[3] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Nutting_ComputerSpace-Blue.JPG.

[4] http://www.pong-story.com/inventor.htm.

[5] See Mezrabad's complete "Chronogaming" series on the Magnavox Odyssey here: http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/taxonomy/term/948.


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.

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[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.


By the early 1980s, nearly all of today's familiar video game and computer elements were in place. These elements ranged from input devices such as multifunction digital and analog controllers to online services, like the proprietary CompuServe and The Source, each of which featured a selection of relatively sophisticated multiplayer games (see book Chapter 24, "Ultima Online (1997): Putting the Role-Play Back in Computer Role-Playing Games"). However, before all of that happened, Pong had one more significant role to play.

In Sunnyvale, California, from the early to mid 1970s, gifted hacker Steve Wozniak ("Woz") worked as an engineer specializing in calculator technology at Hewlett-Packard (HP), where he reunited with an energetic summer employee by the name of Steve Jobs, whom he had befriended when the two were in high school.

The friendship generated a series of external business partnerships. For example, Jobs helped to sell Woz's underground "blue box," a device that "phreakers" (a type of hacker targeting the phone system) used to make free long-distance calls and to eavesdrop on conversations.

Jobs was hired as Atari's fortieth employee in 1974 as an hourly technician and, after a short hiatus for a spiritual journey to India, returned the following year to work at the innovative company that was about to repeat its arcade success with a home version of Pong.

Jobs, now a night-shift engineer, was tasked with creating Breakout for the arcade, which was designed to be a single-player, vertical Pong.[9] The goal of the game was to destroy rows of blocks at the top of the screen by bouncing a ball off a small, movable paddle at the bottom.

Atari was unable to lure Woz away from HP after witnessing his impressive self-built home Pong clone. Nevertheless, because he was a fan of both Atari arcade games and up for any engineering challenge, he agreed to help Jobs complete the assignment.

Woz completed the bulk of the work in about four days, with an efficient design that used far fewer chips than any other Atari arcade game at the time. For the impressive effort, Jobs received a nice payout and bonus -- most of which he kept for himself -- and a reengineered Breakout would become another Atari arcade hit.[10]


The Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) conversion of Breakout (1978).

After years of hardware hacking and his two dalliances in video games, Woz began development on a television computer terminal. Inspired by regular meetings at the legendary Homebrew Computer Club -- in which many early industry pioneers shared their ideas and passions -- Woz created and showed off what would become known as the Apple I.

Although nothing more than an elegantly designed circuit board with a low-cost MOS 6502 microprocessor, 4 KB RAM, and expansion connectors, the Apple I nevertheless laid the foundation for what was to come. Atari and HP were not interested in the idea, so the two Steves formed their own company, Apple Computer, on April 1, 1976.


Many variations on the paddle-and-ball theme hit the arcade. Shown here is Atari's Avalanche with simulated color overlay, which tasked players with catching boulders. The Atari VCS would receive an unofficial port of the game via Activision's popular Kaboom! (1981), which replaced the boulders with lit bombs.

Working out of Woz's bedroom and eventually Jobs's garage, they began production on the Apple I. The persuasive Jobs negotiated with local hobbyist computer store, the Byte Shop, for an order of units worth $50,000.

Credit, time, and supply constraints were tight, but the Byte Shop order was met, with the computer store providing full-stroke keyboards and wooden cases to complement the circuit board. Through the Byte Shop and magazine coverage and advertisements, the company had slow, but steady growth.


Taito's arcade Arkanoid (1986) would take the concepts in Breakout to the next level, with powerups, different types of enemies, and multiple levels.

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[9] The concept was from Bushnell and Steve Bristow.

[10] Breakout was released May 13, 1976, and inspired a long line of clones and knock-offs itself.


By the time the Apple I was officially released, Jobs and Woz were already thinking about adding new features; they frequently updated its design and shared their progress with the club.

The result was the Apple II, which -- despite the short gap between releases -- improved on the Apple I in nearly every way, including a complete molded plastic enclosure with full-stroke keyboard, external peripheral ports, and eight easily accessible internal expansion slots.

Breakout was a direct influence on that legendary computer, as summarized nicely on Wikipedia:

[As Woz stated,] "A lot of features of the Apple II went in because I had designed Breakout for Atari. I had designed it in hardware. I wanted to write it in software now." This included his design of color graphics circuitry and the now infamous beep and click sound circuitry.

It also directly influenced his design of Integer BASIC (which he referred to as "Game Basic"), with his Integer BASIC version of Breakout being the first "proof of concept" application running on the prototype Apple II. His desire to play Breakout on his new computer also led to the addition of a paddle interface, and ultimately the bundling of paddle controllers and a cassette tape containing the code for Breakout for the Apple II's commercial release.[11]


An example of different types of home paddle controllers. From left to right: Commodore's high-resolution paddles for their VIC-20 and C-64 computers, the default controller for the Bally Astrocade consoles that functioned as both a joystick and paddle, Atari's VCS paddles, and a Nintendo Entertainment System paddle for use with its home version of Arkanoid. Though little seen today outside of custom home arcade cabinets and controllers, at one time, paddles (also known as "spinners" in their unrestricted form) were a popular form of control.

Pong led to the birth of the industry and Breakout, which led to the Apple II and Space Invaders -- yes, Space Invaders! Instead of taking a passive role in destroying the opposing blocks by bouncing a ball (or square) as in Breakout, Space Invaders (Taito, 1978; Arcade) took the basic concept and layout and gave the player the active ability to fire at will at the opposing aliens.

Space Invaders, described in detail in book Chapter 16, "Space Invaders (1978): The Japanese Descend," invigorated a flagging arcade industry, and upon its conversion in 1980, was instrumental in the breakthrough success of the Atari VCS, knocking the final ball out of Pong's court, allowing the industry to advance and evolve.


Atari's popular Warlords arcade game from 1980, shown with simulated color overlay, is still receiving homebrew ports for various classic systems today. Warlords combined elements from Pong and Breakout in a four player free-for-all where each player has to defend their castle walls and the king within.

Pong is still instantly recognizable today, and continues to receive new updates and variations. It's often used as a first project for aspiring programmers or hackers, and the title's direct legacy is still very much relevant.

However, as the first video game to capture the public's imagination and lead to pivotal industry milestones, its ultimate influence is well beyond that of any other title in this book, and for that deserves to be at the top of any "best of" list.

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[11] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breakout_(arcade_game)#cite_ref-9.

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