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PONG 1972: GAME, SET, MATCH
It wasn’t the first game. Not by a long shot.
In fact, Pong wasn’t even the first digital tennis game. Some say it wasn’t even the most complicated or most advanced, or even the most innovative game of its day.
So why do so many people consider Pong the godfather of video games?
It might be because Pong is just a fun word to say. Go ahead. Say it out loud. You know you want to. I’ll wait. Heck, I’ll even join you.
Pong. POOOOONG! Pingity-Pong Pongity-Pong.
Before Atari decided on the name Pong, the game was code-named Darlene, after one of the early Atari employees. While Darlene is a perfectly fine name, it isn’t nearly as fun to say as … go ahead. I know you can’t stop now. POOOONG!
See, it’s fun! And in the end, the game was just as simple as rattling off a bunch of pong nonsense, and that is what made Pong so great. It was easy. The games before Pong were interesting, and innovative, and difficult, and usually could only be played by other computer and software engineers. But Pong didn’t need instructions, only cost a quarter to play, and instead of sitting inside a computer lab, the first Pong machine stood in a busy tavern. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pong has been featured in many popular TV shows like That ’70s Show, King of the Hill, and Saturday Night Live.
For now, let’s rewind a bit and see how Pong came to life.
In the early days of computer games, there was a ton of confusion about who created what first. Part of the problem was that creating games at that time required hardware that cost mountains of cash, and part of it was that people didn’t really understand what games were back then.
Although there were a lot of inventions that could make a pretty good claim to being the first video game, there’s no doubt who made the first successful game. It was video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell.
While attending the University of Utah in 1962, Bushnell spent most of his time studying in the computer engineering lab. While he was there, he got the chance to play a game called Spacewar! and he was hooked. The game was played on a living room–sized computer called a PDP-10, and it was complex, challenging, and most of all, addicting.
The problem with Spacewar! was that it was so difficult you needed to be an actual astronaut to pilot the game’s digital ship.
Up until that point, the closest thing people had ever seen to a video game was probably pinball. If you haven’t seen a pinball machine, you really should try to find one. Basically, you shoot a one-inch metal ball up through a slot and it bounces around, knocking over “pins” and bouncing off lights and rubber-coated bumpers. Sounds like fun, right? Well, it was, and still is, a popular form of gaming, but what Bushnell saw on the PDP-10 changed everything.
Attending college was expensive back then—still is, actually—and to pay for school Nolan worked in the arcade of a local amusement park called Lagoon.
The arcades in the 1960s didn’t look at all like the arcades of today. They were filled with pinball machines, photo booths, and mechanical fortune-tellers. While Nolan Bushnell loved the arcade’s shiny lights and loud sounds, he could see an even brighter future just out of reach. Bushnell had a vision of people dropping quarter after quarter into digital machines to play games like Spacewar! But the technology needed to make that happen didn’t quite match Bushnell’s vision. It took nearly a decade to put his dream into motion, but in 1972, the planets aligned and Bushnell started Atari.
In 1960 it cost twenty-five cents to play a game of pinball. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? I mean, it still costs a quarter to play most arcade games today. Well, do you know what else cost twenty-five cents in 1960? A GALLON of gas. If arcade prices jumped up as fast as gas prices, it would cost around three dollars to play a single game!
Nolan Bushnell was a pretty good engineer himself, but he was also smart enough to hire Al Alcorn, who Nolan recognized at once to be a better engineer than he ever dreamed of becoming. Under Bushnell’s direction and with Alcorn’s impressive engineering abilities, Atari was ready to test their invention in a few short months.
On November 29, 1972, the modern video game industry was born when Bushnell installed his Pong arcade machine in a local bar, crossed his fingers, and hoped that the game would be a hit. Word traveled fast in Sunnyvale, California, and people flocked to Andy Capp’s Tavern for a chance to give Bushnell’s electronic tennis game a try.
Al Alcorn had no experience in computer games, so Nolan Bushnell assigned him the job of creating Pong as a warm-up exercise. Talk about making a good first impression on your boss!
Between the time Bushnell played Spacewar! in 1960 and the launch of Atari in 1972, the world had changed a lot. Russians sent the first human to space in 1961, the computer mouse was invented in 1964, the first portable calculator was invented in 1967, and the first man walked on the moon in 1969. Oh, and the US used the Internet for the first time in 1969.
1. It was cheap. Only twenty-five cents.
2. You played it against your friends, and what’s more fun than humiliating your friends in a game of digital Ping-Pong?
3. Pong was just plain fun to say. PONG! PONG! PONGITY-PONGITY-PING-PONG! PONNNNG!
4. Pong was EASY. All you had to do was hit the ball back to your opponent, and the game took care of the rest. Even the score! Told you we’d get back to Pong being EASY.
Back and forth, back and forth, until someone earns eleven points. Drop in another quarter and play again. And again.
The play again pattern happened so many times that first night at Andy Capp’s Tavern, that by the next day Al Alcorn received a call telling him Pong was busted. Frustrated and a little worried, Alcorn rushed over with a bag of tools. Turns out it didn’t take an engineer to see what was wrong.
Pong was shown in the 2008 Disney film WALL-E. The two main characters, WALL-E and EVE, are shown in front of the game, and later on, WALL-E plays the game by himself in one of his many attempts to awaken EVE from her sleep mode.
Inside the homebuilt cabinet, Alcorn had rigged a milk carton to catch quarters. There were so many quarters jammed inside that Pong had stopped working. Alcorn emptied the quarters into his tool bag, turned Pong back on, and walked out with a huge grin on his face.
Everybody loved Pong, and soon people were lining up at Andy Capp’s Tavern before it even opened, waiting outside to ambush Pong and give it another go.
Bushnell had struck gold, and he did everything he could to grow Atari as fast as possible. He leased out a huge abandoned roller-skating rink and started production of Pong arcade cabinets right away. There were obstacles in the way, the first being that he had to hire people who had no knowledge of how to build an arcade game, but the setbacks did little to slow Bushnell’s vision. His dream of a video arcade was on the horizon, and he was determined to make it a reality.
Pong wasn’t the first digital tennis game, a fact that would later cost Bushnell and Atari a lot of money as they settled a court case with Magnavox for patent infringement (basically, copycatting). In April of 1972, Bushnell got a sneak peek at a new video game system called the Magnavox Odyssey, an invention by computer science engineer Ralph Baer. The Odyssey was battery-operated, hooked directly to your TV, and featured a digital tennis game very similar to Pong. The system launched in August of that year, three short months before Pong found its way to Andy Capp’s Tavern.
A free-to-play version of Pong was conceptualized by Nolan Bushnell to entertain children in a doctor’s office, initially titled Snoopy Pong after the popular Peanuts character Snoopy. Bushnell also designed an arcade cabinet similar to Snoopy’s doghouse, but opted to rename the game Puppy Pong to avoid legal action. Probably a good idea considering his case with Magnavox.
HOT TUBS, POOL TABLES, AND SODA MACHINES
Another thing that Atari pioneered was the idea that in order to make creative games, you needed a creative space to work in. Back in the early days of Atari, the company was housed inside an old warehouse. There were very few walls, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was blasting from boom boxes spread around the office, and the place was rife with hippie culture, man.
Atari employees were encouraged to celebrate victories by partying at the office. The hours were long, but why go home when there is a hot tub in the office, drinks of all kinds in the fridge, music jamming in the air, and everywhere you looked there was a nerd just like you, giving up their personal time to make great games? I can’t help but imagine them as the modern-day Robin Hood’s Merry Men, but with fewer green tights and more flip-flops and cutoff Levi’s shorts.
It was a creative place and a creative time, and it worked. It led to what would come to be known as the golden age of video games. And in the video game biz, when someone finds that something works, others follow.
Creative and crazy offices are still part of the appeal of working in the game industry. EA in Redwood Shores, California, boasts its own Starbucks, multiple arcades, a theater, a soccer field, a sand volleyball court, a full gym complete with a full-sized hardwood basketball court, a day care for parents who work and want to be close to their young children, an amazing restaurant that serves everything from sushi to hamburgers, and that’s just the beginning.
Video game companies around the world love to let their creativity inspire their offices, and their offices inspire their creativity. It’s actually really helpful, and if you don’t believe me, you can try it out yourself. Try hanging a couple of cool posters in your room, put a handful of amiibos posing on a shelf, stack a few books from your favorite author on your bookshelf (hint, hint).
If you do, I’ll bet you’ll start to imagine new and cool creative ideas. But do me a favor. When you get a good idea, write it down! Because I’m telling you from experience, if you don’t write them down, they will float right out your door and move on to the next guy or gal.
Ideas are funny like that.
Copyright © 2016 by Dustin Hansen