Forty years ago this week, Atari introduced the world’s first videogame sensation: Pong. The game, while not the first of its kind, would provide the economic catalyst necessary to jumpstart a new industry.
In 1971, Nolan Bushnell and his partner Ted Dabney created the world’s first mass-produced
commercial arcade videogame, Computer Space, for California manufacturer Nutting Associates.
It made a small splash in the market, but it wasn’t wildly successful. Bushnell wanted to follow up
with a driving game, but quickly found himself at odds with the company’s executive staff about the
direction of its videogame products. He resigned, taking Ted Dabney with him.
Bushnell began to show his driving game idea to other American coin-op makers. Bally, then the
largest arcade amusement company in the US, showed interest in it and awarded Bushnell and
Dabney – then doing business under the name Syzygy – a contract to make a videogame and a
pinball table. Syzygy would design the game and license it to Bally, which would produce the hardware and sell it. Under the new contract, Atari received $4,000 a month to develop the two games, just enough financial room to hire an employee. Recognising his limitations as an engineer, Bushnell reached out to Allan Alcorn, a former colleague from Ampex.
Alcorn, then 24 years old, accepted the offer to work for Syzygy in June 1972. It was a risky move, but Alcorn had grown bored with his work. He was ready for a new challenge at a startup company, and both Bushnell and Dabney recognised his talents as an engineer. That same month, Bushnell and Dabney incorporated their company under a new name, Atari, Inc.
After joining Atari, Alcorn’s first task was to examine the design of Computer Space and learn how it displayed movable images on a television set. Alcorn admired the ingenuity of Dabney’s motion circuitry design, but the schematics were a little too messy for his liking, so he built his own version. Since Alcorn was new to designing videogames (and who wasn’t), Bushnell decided to assign him a warm-up exercise to test his skills as an engineer. As it turned out, the videogame design Bushnell suggested to Alcorn wasn’t an entirely original one.
One month earlier, on May 24, 1972, Bushnell had attended a public showing of the world’s first videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey, whose chief attraction was its ability to play a twoplayer game of electronic table tennis on an ordinary home TV set. The technology had been invented in the mid-1960s by a team of engineers at Sanders Associates, a defence contractor in New Hampshire. One of those engineers, Bill Rusch, had designed an electronic table tennis game while brainstorming game ideas. He sketched out his creation in a memo dated October 18, 1967. The game was simple: it involved two player-controlled spots, which served as paddles, and one machine-controlled spot, which served as a ball. One player would serve the ball, and the other would try to return it by hitting it with his paddle. If he missed, the other player would score a point.
Having been designed in 1967, this ping-pong game eschewed electronic luxuries such a sound effects or an onscreen scoring system. During its development, project leader Ralph Baer and his team kept costs low because they intended to license their design for sale as a home consumer electronics product.
When it came time to assign Alcorn a test project, Bushnell recalled the ball-and-paddle game he had seen at the Magnavox event. He told Alcorn that Atari had obtained a contract with General Electric to develop a home videogame console. Bushnell laid out the basics of the game he wanted, describing a game very similar to the Magnavox ping-pong game, but adding one detail — it would have an onscreen score display. With this brief, Alcorn tried his hardest to keep the game fun and the cost of parts low. First, he put a spot onscreen, then added some paddles. Along the way, Dabney and Bushnell would play it and offer suggestions.
Alcorn deviated from Bushnell’s basic design with his own innovations. First, he divided each paddle into eight segments. Upon hitting the paddle, the ball would bounce off it at an angle depending on which segment it hit. Amazingly, the Magnavox game didn’t do this. Instead, it allowed each player to slightly move the vertical orientation of the ball with a second knob (marked ‘English’) on the Odyssey’s controller. Alcorn’s second idea was to speed up the movement of the ball as the game progressed. During long volleys, gameplay would get more intense as the ball became harder to hit. Scoring a point would reset the speed back to normal. Alcorn also decided to treat the top and bottom of the screen as walls. If hit, the ball would bounce off these invisible walls, rather than fly off the court as in the Odyssey version. As a finishing touch, Alcorn wired in a rudimentary sound effects system that created sounds when the ball bounced off the paddles or walls.