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The History of Atari: 1971-1977

November 6, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 20 Next

Alcorn added small details like ball English and simulated physics that went beyond Bushnell’s original concept, but still kept the design elegant, and cheap.

“Since I was under the impression that this was to be a real product I worked hard to make it playable and inexpensive.” xxii - Al Alcorn

After Nolan Bushnell saw how well Pong was turning out, he and Ted Dabney decided to test-market it at one of the locations on their pinball route, Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale California. xxiii It was an almost instant success. People started lining up before the bar opened just to play the game. Some wouldn’t even order anything -- just play Pong. Unlike the pages of instructions for Computer Space, Pong instructions are the model of simplicity: “Avoid missing ball for high score."

“Two weeks after installing the game, Al Alcorn got a late-night phone call from the manager of the bar. The game had broken down, and he wondered if he could fix it. When Alcorn went to check the machine, he found a most unusual problem. There were so many quarters jammed into the coin drop that the game had stopped working. xxiv Under the coin-drop was a plastic milk jug with the top cut off, and it was filled with quarters, making the “credit” mechanism not work.

“When we first put it on location I asked Nolan what would constitute good performance. I think he said that if it did $25 a week that would be a good game. It was doing over $100 per week right away.” xxv - Al Alcorn

“At that point in time, I knew I had a successful business.” xxvi
- Nolan Bushnell

A successful test-market, however, did not mean instant sales. In the fall 1972 Bushnell set out on a road trip with a portable version of Atari's Pong machine to look for potential buyers. The Pong game was offered to Bally first, but they declined to purchased it, preferring a game that did not require 2 players. Bally had contracted Atari to do a driving game, and Nolan tried very hard to get them to accept Pong instead, but Bally refused.

Other amusement manufacturers at the AMOA trade show didn’t “get it” either. In 1972, the pinball and other amusement game manufacturers made machines with many electromechanical and moving parts. Pong had only two moving parts and this baffled them. They didn’t understand or envision the industry changing.

Instead of persuing established manufacturers, Bushnell decided to manufacture Pong himself. It was not an easy sell to Dabney or Alcorn, who thought Atari was a technology company that would license its inventions, not manufacture them.

“Nolan had to convince us to be in the manufacturing business. In the end it turned out to be the best strategy” xxvii - Al Alcorn

It was his boldest move yet, and would prove ultimately successful. He leased an old roller rink in Santa Clara and converted it into a production line manned by low-paid hippies. The first Pong game shipped from this facility in November 1972. xxviii

On November 19th, 1979 Pong was officially released,xxix and the “Steam Age” of the coin operated video game began.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 20 Next

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