Retrospectacles: PONG (a.k.a. “Golly gosh! It’s like I’m Andy Murray!”)



Are you the kind of person that looks at all the new and exciting games posted here, shrug your shoulders and say aloud to nobody in particular, “Still not as good as Pokémon Red” (or Blue depending on your flavour)? No? Well you still might get some kicks out of delving into the history books of gaming, reliving some classics and laughing at the people (me) that can’t afford a PS3 / xbox360. So what better way to start our retrospective journey than with the game that pretty much kick-started the industry: PONG.

Yes, this is the tale of the first commercially successful video game ever produced. And what a tale it is, rife with lawyers, the mafia (more of a cameo appearance) and men with far too much time on their hands before the advent of the internet. And it all starts in a small tavern in Sunnyvale, California…

The year is 1972. The regulars of Andy Capp’s Tavern walk in, sit at the bar and order a pint (or “a bud” as they might say round those parts). Suddenly they feel a slight shiver down their spine… something just doesn’t feel right and not just as a result of alcohol. They look left, they look right and suddenly they see it. A box. But not just any box, this is a box with a screen and a couple of twisty knobs. The men wince in pain at the thought, but approach slowly out of curiosity. Edging around the dusty pinball machines two men take a giant step for mankind towards the contraption seeing the word “PONG” written above the screen. The men hold their noses. Below the screen a slot beckons for a quarter, a man politely obliges. What follows we will never know as the men’s eyes were far too bloodshot to recount the tale accurately.

What they had witnessed was probably the most impressive job application in history. Having just established Syzygy Engineering earlier that year, co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney were looking for new staff. And who better to fill this role than computing science and electrical engineering graduate Allan Alcorn. But as with all things in life, it wasn’t quite that simple. Mr. Bushnell wanted to test Alcorn’s abilities before hiring him and so to test his prowess he asked him to plagiarise a tennis simulation he’d seen demonstrated on the fledgling Magnavox Odyssey home console (more on this later).

What he created exceeded all expectations. Not only did he greatly improve upon the physics engine of the original version to include acceleration and angular deviation depending on where the ball hit the paddle (making it play just like real tennis) but he also stuck it inside a delightfully rustic and equally massive cocktail cabinet (which as we all know really impresses the lady friends when it dominates your living room). Furthermore he also introduced sound to video games with the timeless classic “beh…beh…beh…” noise further adding to the realism of the first ever sports game. And so with all the pieces in place they decided to test it out in their good friend Andy Capp’s tavern with the ensuing drama accurately recreated above.

Meanwhile back at Syzygy corporate headquarters a small problem had arisen, namely (no pun intended) that they couldn’t call themselves Syzygy as someone had beaten them to it. So after much deliberation, Dabney and Bushnell settled on the word “Atari” which in the game of Go literally means when some stones are in danger of being taken. Perfect sense right there. Atari Inc. had been founded. And no sooner did they rejoice in this new name than they received a call from a Mr. Andy Capp complaining that his PONG was jamming up. The reason? The quarters had overflowed into the mechanisms with people coming from all over just to play the game. Seeing green, Atari marketed out their PONG to other bars and arcades making some cash while they were at it but not enough that they could wipe their… PONG cabinets with it. However funding was difficult as investors viewed PONG as a type of pinball (??!!) which at the time was associated with the Mafia (cameo appearance over).

Fast forward 2 years to summer 1974. Millions are sitting at home watching Wimbledon wishing that they too could play with the masters but without having to give up the ass-groove they had perfected after years of sitting on their sofa. Take a bow Atari engineer Harold Lee for identifying this niche market and suggesting the concept of having ‘PONG in your house, all day, every day’. Fast forward another year of development and “Home PONG” is born as a much smaller box hooking up to a TV without the cocktail cabinet to drink brandy in an armchair beside an open fire with (to keep it family friendly of course). All Atari needed now was the funding to mass-market it. Stand up Mr. Tom Quinn, representative of Sears’ sporting goods department. In Christmas of 1975 Atari sold a whopping 150,000 units over the holiday season alone and went on to sell several more in the following years. The videogame industry had officially become a lucrative enterprise.

Remember the plagiarised Magnovox Odyssey? Seeing how successful Home PONG had become they finally decided that now would be an appropriate time to sue. Although court proceedings were never carried out Atari settled for $0.7 million. Pretty impressive for a company in its third year of business. Next year? Atari was sold to Warner Communications for approxiamtely $30 million. Plagiarism wins again.

So that is pretty much it for Atari’s original PONG. Sequels were made (including the awesome sounding QUADRAPONG for 4 players) but the most interesting outcomes are found throughout the industry. Ever heard of Nintendo? The first game they commercially produced that gave them the money to stick in the industry? A PONG clone of course. Metal Gear Solid? Inspired by PONG (or at least Konami were). So why not relive the legend today! Perhaps you to will be inspired to form a multi-million pound industry! Or maybe you’ll get bored after 5 minutes and opt for beer pong instead… Whatever the case the game can be found here.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to destroy a nation’s hopes and dreams again by losing to a Spaniard and sulking about it. It’s that realistic.

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