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All in the Family was the most popular television show in America, President Richard Nixon had just been reelected and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
November 1972 was also the month that a video game called Pong debuted and captured the public’s fancy. Pong was not the very first video game, but this coin-operated ping-pong arcade game from a Sunnyvale, California, upstart named Atari became the industry’s first true smash.
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“I don’t think you’re overstating it by saying that it really did give birth to the industry,” says Trip Hawkins, 68, who founded the Electronic Arts video game software giant a decade after Pong showed up.
A half century following Pong’s debut, Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell, now 79 and living in Los Angeles, is reminiscing about the game’s origins — and its influence.
“I did not think it would be commercially successful,” Bushnell says. Nevertheless, “I pretty much foresaw the main crack of the video game business. I knew it was going to be big. Did I think it was going to exceed the movie business? Probably not.”
Citing data from the IDC research firm, the Motion Picture Association of America and PwC, the Big Four accounting firm formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, MarketWatch declared during the pandemic that the video game industry was a bigger moneymaker than the movie and North American sports businesses combined.
A $100 home video game console called the Magnavox Odyssey, which connected to a TV, had been a source of Bushnell’s inspiration. Odyssey did not produce sound or display a score, and the three square dots visible on the TV screen passed for a ball and paddles in a bundled tennis game. Players had to stick a colorful plastic, translucent overlay on top of their TV screen to add a tennis court background or visual elements for other bundled Odyssey games.
What was to emerge as Pong began as a training project for Al Alcorn, the first engineer Bushnell hired at Atari. He “did such a good job on it that the game became fun,” Bushnell says. “And the funner [it got], the more I said, ‘Well, maybe this is commercially viable.’ ”
Magnavox eventually sued Atari over a patent dispute. The case was ultimately settled out of court.
(An aside: Future Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was another relatively early Atari employee.)
Challenge: Create games that are hard, sort of
Pong’s popularity swelled in bars and arcades. Patrons paid a quarter to compete on upright cabinet or cocktail table versions, and Bushnell says the goal was to have people last in the game for around three minutes, though average game play was probably a little shorter than that.
The objective was to turn a knob that controlled the paddle that hit the ball on your side of the net to get it past your opponent on the opposite side. You could angle your shot if you hit it off the edge of the paddle.
“One of the things we used to do a lot was called tensioning. A game needs to be hard enough, but not too hard,” Bushnell says. “That’s why you do level ups, because you get good at one level and want to make it harder for the next level.”
After three volleys, the ball in Pong would speed up. After 11, it would speed up even more. Then the paddle size would drop in half.
Early video games weren’t solitary
Pong required two players, and the game became a social anchor of sorts.