Although it was not the first game released commercially, Pong is considered by many as the one that launched video games into the mainstream. Without Pong, the video game industry that we know and love today wouldn’t even exist, or if it did exist, it wouldn’t be as successful now.
In Pong, two players will be able to control one paddle each, and they must hit the ball back to the opponent by letting the paddle touch the ball, similar to how table tennis is played. The ball’s speed will increase throughout the round, and it is up to the players to keep up with it and stop it from going out of bounds on their side. A point will be given to a player every time the opponent fails to hit the ball back. The player who gets eleven points first wins the game.
With the many contributions to technology and video games that Pong offered to the world, not a lot of people even knew about its origins and how it was created. To fill you in with the proper knowledge of the game, here is a brief history of one of the world’s most iconic video games, Pong.
Computer Space and Atari
Before the creation of Pong, Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, created a complex video game called Computer Space. Developed in 1971, Computer Space lets players control a rocket that is tasked to eliminate two flying saucers on the screen while avoiding bullets or missiles on the screen.
The game was a commercial failure, with Bushnell criticizing its producer, Nutting Associates, for not promoting Computer Space well. However, the game did earn enough money for Bushnell to start his own company that will create games and sell them to manufacturing companies. This company will eventually be called “Atari, Inc.”
Creation of Pong
After the founding of Atari, Bushnell hired engineer and computer scientist Allan Acorn, who had experience working with Bushnell in another company called Ampex. Because Acorn didn’t have the knowledge in video game development, Bushnell gave him a secret project that he can work on to get used or acclimated to designing video games for the company.
The project that Acorn worked on is a simple game where two players compete against each other in a table tennis-like match. Acorn once stated that Bushnell was impressed with the Magnavox Odyssey game Tennis when he visited the Magnavox Profit Caravan in May 1972, and wanted to replicate and enhance the mechanics of that particular game. However, Bushnell said that even before the Magnavox Odyssey was released, he has already played a tennis-like game in another console called PDP-1 in 1964.
In the planning stages of Pong’s development, Acorn studied the intricacies of Bushnell’s previous game, Computer Space, and see if he can apply the programming done on that game to Pong. The Computer Space game was proven to be far too complicated for Acorn, so he decided to apply his own designs and schematics into Pong.
Believing that a tennis game where the ball only goes on a straight line is too boring, Acorn designed the paddles on each side to have eight parts that are invisible to the player’s eye, and whenever the ball touches one of these parts, it will fly to the other side in a different direction or angle. Furthermore, Acorn also designed the ball to increase in speed every time it touches a paddle. The increasing speed gives players who would play the game longer than usual a bit of a challenge to follow the ball.
After three months of development, Acorn was then tasked by Bushnell to add sound effects in the game, particularly sounds that emulate audiences booing at a player whenever he or she loses a round. Because of limited parts or electronics, Acorn was unable to produce the sounds that Bushnell wanted, but he was able to create sound effects for the paddle and the ball using the sync generator already built in the console.
To finalize the look of the Pong prototype, Acorn bought a Hitachi black-and-white TV for $75 at a hardware store. He then placed the interior components of the TV inside a 4-foot cabinet made of wood and soldered the circuits of Pong into the TV so that it can produce the images for the game.
The prototype was then placed for public testing at Andy Capp’s Tavern, a bar where Bushnell and other Atari personnel frequently visit. Before the prototype Pong was brought to the bar, Bushnell already had a good relationship with its owner, Bill Gaddis, as the Atari co-founder once supplied pinballs machines as well as the Computer Space arcade game for Gaddis. Prototype Pong was considered a success in the bar, as hundreds of people started noticing the game and played it for hours.
A few weeks after releasing the prototype in Andy Capp’s Tavern, Bushnell went on a business trip to see the executives of Midway Manufacturing and Bally Manufacturing, who previously offered the first contract to Atari to design a racing game. Because Atari was unable to show the racing game to Bally, Bushnell showed Pong to the executives to see if they would like it to be the alternative to the game that the initially wanted Atari to create. Both Bally and Midway declined the offer, leading to Bushnell finding other manufacturers to fund the game and release it commercially.
With Bushnell unable to find a new partner for Pong, Atari decided to form another facility that can handle assembling Pong arcade cabinets by spending the line of credit that they received from Wells Fargo. Pong was then released on November 29, 1972, after they have finished assembling enough arcade cabinets to sell to bars and other establishments.
Atari’s Pong manufacturing project was a success, but because their facility was too small and there weren’t enough employees to assemble the cabinets, they were prevented from keeping up with the demand and were only manufacturing ten cabinets a day. However, Atari eventually made the assembly process easier and faster, thus allowing them to manufacture more cabinets. They were also given enough funding by foreign partners to release Pong to countries outside the United States.
To capitalize further on the success of Pong in arcades, Bushnell tasked his employees to come up with new ideas and concepts to manufacture the game. After a few weeks of brainstorming, Harold Lee, an engineer for the company, proposed a concept wherein Pong can be played at home using a small console that connects to the TV.
The proposal was approved, and Lee, along with Acorn, worked on the console that has the codename “Darlene,” which they got from one of the names of Atari’s employees. Once they have created the program, Harold Lee then asked for the assistance of another Atari engineer, Bob Brown, to build the prototype hardware.
The prototype had wires encased inside a wooden panel, and the players would be able to control the paddles on the TV screen using rotary switch knobs located on each side of the console. When the prototype was finally made in 1974, Bushnell and the vice president of sales for Atari, Gene Lapkin, visited toy and electronic stores and asked them if they would like to sell the Home Pong console. Many companies rejected their offer, as they view Home Pong to be too expensive for consumers to buy. However, there is one company that was intrigued by the potential of the console to be the biggest toy or arcade game in the market, and that company was Sears Sporting Goods.
Sears initially offered Atari an exclusive deal to sell the product, but Bushnell wanted to look for other retailers before signing the contract with Sears. After a failed attempt to market Home Pong in Atari’s booth at the 1975 New York Toy Fair, Bushnell finally agreed with Sears’ offer.
During a meeting with Atari, a representative for Sears, Tom Quinn, wanted Bushnell and his company to produce 150,000 units to sell in Sears stores for the Christmas season. Although Atari is incapable of producing that much consoles during that time, Bushnell still pushed through with the deal.
In order to manufacture 150,000 units, Atari opened a new factory using the funds given by Don Valentine, who is known to be a great venture capitalist. Atari finished manufacturing 150,000 units just in time for Christmas, thanks to the supervision of Jim Tubb. The units were released in 1975 under the Tele-Games brand launched by Sears, but Atari was allowed to attach their name to the consoles the following year.
Sears reported that all the consoles available during Christmas were sold out, making Home Pong the most successful product that Sears has ever sold in their stores. A few years after the release of Home Pong, many imitators started to pop out to capitalize on the success of the game. A company called Coleco launched the Telstar console in 1976, which has three different versions of Pong in it. Nintendo, a company that almost all video game enthusiasts are familiar with today, released the Color TV Game 6 in 1977, and that console had six versions of Pong.
Sequels to Pong
Because of the success of the original Home Pong, Atari was prompted to release sequels to the console to keep the game fresh and to allow the developers to apply new features or gameplay mechanics. The first single, Pong Doubles, allows four players to play the game, although the matches are played on a 2-versus-2 situation. The other popular sequel was Quadrupong, where four players are not allowed to play against each other.
Atari also released a sequel to the game in 1976 that is played by only one player, although the game didn’t carry the Pong brand in its title. The sequel was called Breakout, and the objective of the game is for the player to move the paddle around at the bottom of the screen and try to hit the blocks on the top using the bouncing ball at the center.
Although Atari doesn’t manufacture consoles anymore, the company is still able to publish games and remake them into modern versions. As of today, the original Pong game, along with its remasters and remakes, is available in more than ten home and portable consoles, including the Sony PlayStation, the Nintendo DS, and even the PC.