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How Atari's Pong Got Made

What started as a ‘throwaway’ idea launched a multibillion dollar home video game market

retro photo of woman and boy playing Atari game Pong on old television

Interfoto/Alamy; Background: AARP

 

With a half-century’s hindsight, the video game Pong looks primitive. The table tennis game from 1972 consists of two paddles, a square ball, a score counter, and some canonical bleep and bloop sound effects — and many decades later, it still frustrates and delights. Its humble beginnings and simple graphics notwithstanding, Pong was revolutionary: It kick-started the multibillion dollar home video game market.

Play Pong!

AARP members can play Pong and other Atari classics including Centipede, Asteroids, Missile Command and Breakout at AARP Games.

It might then be surprising to find out that the idea for Pong was once called “a throwaway.” The cofounder of Atari (previously called Syzygy), Nolan Bushnell, wanted his first hire, Allan Alcorn, to learn the company’s proprietary technology for an earlier video game called Computer Space, a space combat arcade game developed in 1971. It featured a player-controlled rocket maneuvering around flying saucers and was designed in a custom futuristic fiberglass enclosure.

“The technical term for it is a state machine, in which everything was basically driven by counters and flip-flops and Boolean gates,” Bushnell says. “For example, if you wanted to change anything in the game, you actually had to change the circuit. There was no software involved.” As a training exercise, Alcorn was instructed to design a table tennis game for the state machine

The prompt for Alcorn came after Bushnell researched whether they had any competition. The Magnavox Odyssey, the first commercial home video game console, premiered with 12 games, one of them being a primitive table tennis game. Like many creatives, Bushnell had a working list of game ideas — and ping pong was one of them.

“When I looked around, people were kind of having fun with what I considered this game that was clearly inferior to our technology. And so I thought it would be a good training objective for [Alcorn],” Bushnell says. “I felt that a simple game would allow him to learn this new technology. It was a new way of thinking, really. State machines weren’t taught in college.”

Alcorn got to work: “It was the very simplest video game one could ever think of. I made it as playable and as fun as I could.” The prototype was set in a cabinet designed by Atari cofounder Ted Dabney. Bushnell, having been the manager of the games department of an amusement park, instinctively knew this new kind of game could be monetized: “It was a very small step for me to think that if I put a coin mech on one of these monitors that it would make money.”


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Atari soon test-marketed Pong by installing it in Andy Capp’s tavern in Sunnyvale, California, a local bar owned by a friend. Bushnell soon got a call telling them the game was broken. “Three days later the mechanism jammed because the coin box completely filled up,” Bushnell said. “So, when we first heard that the game was broken we were worried, but it was the kind of broken that we were glad we had.”

Alcorn was blown away by the response: “Very much to my surprise, it became a hit right away. I’m blessed by having the opportunity to create something that changed the world a little bit, you know?”

Atari quickly built 12 coin-operated prototype units, 10 going to arcades. Unable to find a manufacturer for Pong, Atari made it themselves. Advances in technology were also serendipitous. “It was all driven by what we call in-channel MOS: metal oxide silicon. It was a silicon process that came along and it would go fast enough that we could put the whole Pong game on a single chip. That allowed the home game to be built,” Bushnell says. “Al saw the technology and he said, ‘I think we can do this.’ So it was totally technology-driven opportunism.”

Today, the simple game that started a gaming revolution is mostly a fond but distant memory, but AARP members can play Pong — along with other Atari classic games — any time they want. At the end of 2020, AARP Games debuted a suite of retro Atari games that include Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command and Breakout.

“In addition to surfacing positive nostalgic memories, the Atari games help promote concentration, eye-hand coordination and competitive fun,” says Maura White, director of Audience Marketing at AARP. “Many who play at AARP Games report feeling mentally stimulated. They also like to beat their own scores in an effort to develop mastery and feel a sense of accomplishment. By having the Atari games on AARP.org, users can easily stay in touch with exclusive offers for Members and other key information to help them in their daily lives.”

Simple to Learn, Hard to Master

Bushnell is still gaming, with a focus on stimulating the brain

Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell is still interested in video games, but is using them as an interactive tool to facilitate learning as we age. He’s on the board of Anti-Aging Games.

“How do you build your brain?” Bushnell asked when beginning the research that led to Anti-AgingGames.com. “Because we can’t help but get older, but we can maybe keep from getting dumber.”

Currently he’s developing an educational company called Lernip and companion book called Lernip: The School of the Future. “It’s kind of a combination blueprint and manifesto of how we can fix education in the world,” Bushnell says. “If we can fix education, I think we can fix the world.”