The Development of the Video Game “Pong” was a Training Exercise for a New Gaming Developer at Atari and Wasn’t Originally Intended to Be Released

Daven Hiskey 6
Today I found out “Pong” was originally meant only as a training exercise for a new gaming developer at Atari, Allan Alcorn, and wasn’t intended to be released as a consumer product.

When Alcorn was hired by Atari in 1972, Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari along with Ted Dabney, told Alcorn that he had recently signed a contract with GE for Atari to create a very simple electronic table-tennis game.  The only stipulations were that it needed two paddles, one moving spot for a ball, and to have digits that displayed the score.

In fact, there was no such contract and Bushnell just wanted to give Alcorn something very easy to develop as Alcorn had no experience with video game design and development, though he did have a background in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.  Even though it wasn’t ultimately meant for public consumption, Bushnell wanted Alcorn to think it was so that he would take it seriously and really put a lot of effort into it.

With the initial set of stipulations for the game, Alcorn found it quite boring, so decided to spruce it up a bit by making the ball bounce off the paddle at different angles, depending on what segment of the paddle was hit.  He also had the ball progressively move at a faster rate after each successful return.  By a happy accident of a defective circuit, the game also featured a space at the top of the screen which was unreachable by the paddles and which Alcorn felt made the game more fun, as skilled players could try to aim for that spot.

Despite the fact that it was initially meant as a training exercise, Bushnell and Dabney were impressed with what Alcorn had come up with in the few months he had been working on the project.  While still pessimistic about its marketability, they decided to try the prototype out at a local bar, Andy Capp’s Tavern, to see how it did.  If it did well, they figured they’d try to sell it to Bally Manufacturing or Midway Manufacturing, two companies they had contracts for other games with.

Both Bally and Midway were interested initially in the game.  However, within about a week of the test run, the game started malfunctioning and Alcorn was sent out to fix it.  What he found was that the game was malfunctioning because the milk carton used to collect the coins had overflowed and eventually some of the coins began causing shorts in the coin operating circuitry.

The manager of the tavern also told Bushnell that he actually had customers lining up before opening time, just to come in and play the game.  At this point, Bushnell backtracked on his offer to sell the game and decided to have Atari manufacture it.  To do so, he convinced Bally that Midway didn’t think the game had any potential.  He then convinced Midway that Bally thought the game had no potential.  When the two competitors heard this, they both withdrew, leaving Bushnell free to do business with them later, while still retaining the rights to Pong.

After funding and then manufacturing difficulties, Pong as an arcade style game was finally released and was wildly successful, earning an unprecedented $35-$45 per day, per machine.  An even bigger step forward for it, though, was when Atari released a home version of Pong, originally through Sears Sporting Goods under Sears’ “Tele-Games” brand name.  That home version sold 150,000 units the first Christmas it was released.  From that and subsequent sales, this simple training exercise became the first ever commercially successful video game, spurring the video game boom that followed.

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Bonus Facts:

  • According to Nolan Bushnell, Atari was named after a term in the game “Go”.  In that game, when you are about to capture another player’s piece, you say “atari”, which is somewhat equivalent to “check” in Chess.  The word itself is derived from the nominalized form of the Japanese word “ataru”, meaning “to hit the target”.
  • Bushnell may or may not have gotten the idea for Pong from a previously developed table-tennis game made by Magnavox.  Specifically, Magnavox alleged that before Atari developed Pong, Bushnell played their table-tennis game on the Magnavox Odyssey, which was the world’s first home video game console.  He had supposedly played it a few months before at a trade show in San Francisco, though he denies even being at the event, let alone playing the game.  The only witnesses to the event that claimed they saw him there and saw him play the game were all Magnavox employees.  Whether he was there or not, Pong’s success resulted in Magnavox suing Atari for supposedly infringing on their patents. It is important to note here that there had been previous electronic table tennis games out long before Magnavox’s and which Bushnell had played (going all the way back to his college years).  So it was thought Atari would have won the battle in court due to prior art invalidating Magnavox’s patents (although, Nintendo unsuccessfully later counter-sued Magnavox on these grounds and lost).  However, the case never went to court because Atari didn’t have the money to defend themselves at the time (it was estimated it would cost about $1.5 million).  Due to the fact that the legal issue was in doubt, Magnavox instead gave Atari extremely favorable terms for settling out of court, requiring only $700,000 in cash, among a few other stipulations.  They also agreed to then go after all the Pong copy-cats out there and force those companies to pay high royalties, which would help Atari’s Pong sales.   Unlike the Pong competitors, Atari didn’t have to pay royalties after that initial $700,000 license was purchased.
  • Another stipulation in the Magnavox settlement was that Atari would hand over the rights to whatever new consumer products it made for the next calendar year.  To get around this problem, Atari simply stopped producing any consumer products for one year, keeping everything in development for that span.  They also timed the agreement such that it was made a week before the annual major Consumer Electronics Show.  This way, they could develop things for a year, but not release anything, then have a huge release the following year at the trade show.  Atari then gave Magnavox’s lawyers the run-a-round when they periodically stopped by to see what Atari was working on during that span.
  • Ralph Baer, who created the video table tennis game Magnavox owned for which they sued Atari for, also created the first shooting game to feature a light gun, similar to what would later be used by Nintendo in Duck Hunt.  Baer also was the inventor of the “Simon” pattern matching game.
  • The reason Bushnell didn’t originally think Pong would be marketable was that he felt that the resulting game would be far too simplistic to entertain anyone.  This is interesting because, before co-founding Atari, Nolan Bushnell (and Dabney) created a game called “Computer Space”, which was the world’s first coin operated video arcade game that was commercially available. In the game, the player would fly through space and have to destroy other ships encountered before they destroyed the player.  This game was extremely unpopular when tested out with the general public, with the chief complaint from people being that it was too complicated and difficult to understand what you were supposed to do.  The exception was on University Campuses where the game was very popular, particularly with electrical engineers. Despite all this, Bushnell didn’t learn his lesson.  As Alcorn stated: “…Nolan gave me it because it was the simplest game that he could think of.  He didn’t think it had any play value.  He believed that the next winning game was going to be something more complex than Computer Space, not something simpler.  Nolan didn’t want to tell me that because it wouldn’t motivate me to try hard.  He was just going to dispose of it anyway.”  So, in some respects, Bushnell became “the father of video games” almost despite himself.
  • The project to design the home system of Pong was code-named “Darlene”.  Darlene was an apparently very attractive woman who worked at Atari…. Nerd flirting or sexual harassment?  (or both)
  • In the original plan for Pong, Bushnell and Ted Dabney wanted Alcorn to create cheering and booing sound effects to happen every time a point was scored or lost so that he would get some experience with sound effects.  Fortunately (because that would have been really annoying) Alcorn didn’t know how to make those sounds and the board already had too many parts.  Instead, he came up with another solution for the now famed Pong sound effects: “I poked around the sync generator to find an appropriate frequency or a tone.  So those sounds were done in a half a day.  They were the sounds that were already in the machine.”
  • Shortly after the release of Pong, Atari created a separate company called “Kee Games” that would act as a competitor to themselves with the connection between Atari and Kee Games kept a secret.  Kee Games was managed by Bushnell’s neighbor, Joe Keenan.  The payoff to this was that the two companies could give “exclusive” deals to certain distributors who required that stipulation.  The games sold would then be near exact copies of one another with very slight differences so that the distributors wouldn’t get too suspicious.  This ruse was discovered a year after it was instigated.
  • Once it was discovered that Kee Games was created and more or less run by Atari, Kee Games was shut down.  However, because Joe Keenan had done such a phenomenal job at running Kee Games, he was made president of Atari when Kee Games was dissolved.
  • The Atari 2600, which was the first Atari system to be able to play multiple games, currently holds the record for the longest-lived home video game console, in terms of continual production, at fourteen years and two months, finally being retired in 1992.
  • Initially, the Atari 2600 wasn’t very popular due to the fact that many people didn’t understand you could play other games besides the various derivatives of Pong, which had slowly dwindled in popularity.  In its first year after its release, the Atari 2600 sold only 250,000 units.   However, with the release of Space Invaders, licensed through the company Taito in 1980, sales skyrocketed with Atari grossing $2 billion that year and by 1982, Atari had sold 10 million consoles and nearly just as many of each of its most popular games, including Space Invaders and Pacman.
  • The Atari 2600 featured one of the more powerful home-based system CPUs on the market when it was created.  This processor, a specialized version of the MOS Technology 6507, featured a whopping 1.19 MHz clock speed and their cut-down version of the chip could only address a max of 4 kB of memory.  The console itself had 128 bytes of RAM.
  • The Atari 2700, which was never publicly available, had wireless remotes that had 1000 foot range.  The problem with this was, of course, that any other Atari consoles within 1000 feet could be affected by these remotes.  It also featured touch sensitive buttons, rather than the traditional plunger style.  Unfortunately, problems with the system itself and interference issues from the huge range of the wireless controllers caused  it to be shelved.
  • Just four years after founding Atari and on the cusp of releasing the soon to be wildly successful Atari 2600 console, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for around $30 million (about $120 million today).  Just 9 year later, Warner sold Atari to the founder of Commodore International, who had left that company, Jack Tramiel, for $240 million in stock, which is equivalent to over half a billion today.
  • The proto-type of the original Pong arcade game was made by hand wiring all the circuits and then running the video output through a $75 Hitachi black and white television purchased by Alcorn at a Payless near the Atari offices.  He then enclosed it all in a wood box and added a milk jug to collect the coins.  The only instructions for how to play the game were “Avoid missing ball for high score.”
  • Interestingly, the groundbreaking Magnavox Odyssey’s failure as a home game console is largely thought to be because people didn’t understand it would work with any TV.  Most thought it could only be used with Magnavox TVs.  This and other marketing failures by Magnavox allowed companies like Atari and, eventually, Nintendo, to take over a market that likely would have been Magnavox’, given how far ahead of the competition Magnavox was at the time.
  • Nintendo entered the home video game console business in 1977 after releasing Color TV Game 6.  This console could play six different versions of ping pong.  They followed that up with Color TV Game 15, which, not surprisingly, had 15 versions of the game.  These Pong clones by Nintendo were actually quite successful, selling over one million units and saving the then struggling business from going under.

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