An upright cabinet of Pong signed by Pong creator Allan Alcorn.
|Release date(s)||November 29, 1972|
|Display||Vertical orientation, black-and-white raster display, standard resolution|
Pong (marketed as PONG) is one of the earliest arcade video games and the very first sports arcade video game. It is a tennis sports game featuring simple two-dimensional graphics. While other arcade video games such as Computer Space came before it, Pong was one of the first video games to reach mainstream popularity. The aim is to defeat an opponent in a simulated table-tennis game by earning a higher score. The game was originally manufactured by Atari Incorporated (Atari), which released it in 1972. Allan Alcorn created Pong as a training exercise assigned to him by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell based the idea on an electronic ping-pong game included in the Magnavox Odyssey, which later resulted in a lawsuit against Atari. Surprised by the quality of Alcorn's work, Bushnell and Atari co-founder Ted Dabney decided to manufacture the game.
Pong quickly became a success and is the first commercially successful arcade video game machine, which helped to establish the video game industry along with the first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey. Soon after its release, several companies began producing games that copied Pong 's gameplay, and eventually released new types of games. As a result, Atari encouraged its staff to produce more innovative games. The company released several sequels that built upon the original's gameplay by adding new features. During the 1975 Christmas season, Atari released a home version of Pong exclusively through Sears retail stores. It was also a commercial success and led to numerous copies. The game has been remade on numerous home and portable platforms following its release. Pong has been referenced and parodied in multiple television shows and video games, and has been a part of several video game and cultural exhibitions.
Pong is a two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis. The player controls an in-game paddle by moving it vertically across the left side of the screen, and can compete against either a computer-controlled opponent or another player controlling a second paddle on the opposing side. Players use the paddles to hit a ball back and forth. The aim is for each player to reach eleven points before the opponent; points are earned when one fails to return the ball to the other.
Development and history
Pong was the first game developed by Atari Inc. (incorporated in June 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney). After producing Computer Space, Bushnell decided to form a company to produce more games by licensing ideas to other companies. The first contract was with Bally Manufacturing Corporation for a driving game. Soon after the founding, Bushnell hired Allan Alcorn because of his experience with electrical engineering and computer science; Bushnell and Dabney also had previously worked with him at Ampex. Prior to working at Atari, Alcorn had no experience with video games. To acclimate Alcorn to creating games, Bushnell gave him a project secretly meant to be a warm-up exercise. Bushnell told Alcorn that he had a contract with General Electric for a product, and asked Alcorn to create a simple game with one moving spot, two paddles, and digits for score keeping. In 2011, Bushnell stated that the game was inspired by previous versions of electronic tennis he had played before; Bushnell played a version on a PDP-1 computer in 1964 while attending college. However, Alcorn has claimed it was in direct response to Bushnell's viewing of the Magnavox Odyssey's Tennis game. In May 1972, Bushnell had visited the Magnavox Profit Caravan in Burlingame, California where he played the Magnavox Odyssey demonstration, specifically the table tennis game. Though he thought the game lacked quality, seeing it prompted Bushnell to assign the project to Alcorn.
Alcorn first examined Bushnell's schematics for Computer Space, but found them to be illegible. He went on to create his own designs based on his knowledge of transistor–transistor logic and Bushnell's game. Feeling the basic game was too boring, Alcorn added features to give the game more appeal. He divided the paddle into eight segments to change the ball's angle of return. For example, the center segments return the ball a 90° angle in relation to the paddle, while the outer segments return the ball at smaller angles. He also made the ball accelerate the longer it remained in play; missing the ball reset the speed. Another feature was that the in-game paddles were unable to reach the top of screen. This was caused by a simple circuit that had an inherent defect. Instead of dedicating time to fixing the defect, Alcorn decided it gave the game more difficulty and helped limit the time the game could be played; he imagined two skilled players being able to play forever otherwise.
Three months into development, Bushnell told Alcorn he wanted the game to feature realistic sound effects and a roaring crowd. Dabney wanted the game to "boo" and "hiss" when a player lost a round. Alcorn had limited space available for the necessary electronics and was unaware of how to create such sounds with digital circuits. After inspecting the sync generator, he discovered that it could generate different tones and used those for the game's sound effects. To construct the prototype, Alcorn purchased a $75 Hitachi black-and-white television set from a local store, placed it into a 4-foot (1.2 m) wooden cabinet, and soldered the wires into boards to create the necessary circuitry. The prototype impressed Bushnell and Dabney so much that they felt it could be a profitable product and decided to test its marketability.
In August 1972, Bushnell and Alcorn installed the Pong prototype at a local bar, Andy Capp's Tavern. They selected the bar because of their good working relation with the bar's manager, Bill Gattis; Atari supplied pinball machines to Gattis. Bushnell and Alcorn placed the prototype on one of the tables near the other entertainment machines: a jukebox, pinball machines, and Computer Space. The game was well received the first night and its popularity continued to grow over the next one and a half weeks. Bushnell then went on a business trip to Chicago to demonstrate Pong to executives at Bally and Midway Manufacturing; he intended to use Pong to fulfill his contract with Bally, rather than the driving game. A few days later, the prototype began exhibiting technical issues and Gattis contacted Alcorn to fix it. Upon inspecting the machine, Alcorn discovered that the problem was the coin mechanism was overflowing with quarters.
After hearing about the game's success, Bushnell decided there would be more profit for Atari to manufacture the game rather than license it, but the interest of Bally and Midway had already been piqued. Bushnell decided to inform each of the two groups that the other was uninterested—Bushnell told the Bally executives that the Midway executives did not want it and vice versa—to preserve the relationships for future dealings. Upon hearing Bushnell's comment, the two groups declined his offer. Bushnell had difficulty finding financial backing for Pong; banks viewed it as a variant of pinball, which at the time the general public associated with the Mafia. Atari eventually obtained a line of credit from Wells Fargo that it used to expand its facilities to house an assembly line. The company announced Pong on 29 November 1972. Management sought assembly workers at the local unemployment office, but was unable to keep up with demand. The first arcade cabinets produced were assembled very slowly, about ten machines a day, many of which failed quality testing. Atari eventually streamlined the process and began producing the game in greater quantities. By 1973, they began shipping Pong to other countries with the aid of foreign partners.
After the success of Pong, Bushnell pushed his employees to create new products. In 1974, Atari engineer Harold Lee proposed a home version of Pong that would connect to a television: Home Pong. The system began development under the codename Darlene, named after an attractive female employee at Atari. Alcorn worked with Lee to develop the designs and prototype, and based them on the same digital technology used in their arcade games. The two worked in shifts to save time and money; Lee worked on the design's logic during the day, while Alcorn debugged the designs in the evenings. After the designs were approved, fellow Atari engineer Bob Brown assisted Alcorn and Lee in building a prototype. The prototype consisted of a device attached to a wooden pedestal containing over a hundred wires, which would eventually be replaced with a single chip designed by Alcorn and Lee; the chip had yet to be tested and built before the prototype was constructed. The chip was finished in the latter half of 1974, and was, at the time, the highest performing chip used in a consumer product.
Bushnell and Gene Lipkin, Atari's vice-president of sales, approached toy and electronic retailers to sell Home Pong, but were rejected. Retailers felt the product was too expensive and would not interest consumers. Atari contacted the Sears Sporting Goods department after noticing a Magnavox Odyssey advertisement in the sporting goods section of its catalog. Atari staff discussed the game with a representative, Tom Quinn, who expressed enthusiasm and offered the company an exclusive deal. Believing they could find more favorable terms elsewhere, Atari's executives declined and continued to pursue toy retailers. In January 1975, Atari staff set up a Home Pong booth at a toy trade fair in New York City, but was unsuccessful in soliciting orders due to the fact that they did not know that they needed a private showing.
While at the show, they met Quinn again, and, a few days later, set up a meeting with him to obtain a sales order. In order to gain approval from the Sporting Goods department, Quinn suggested Atari demonstrate the game to executives in Chicago. Alcorn and Lipkin traveled to the Sears Tower and, despite a technical complication in connection with an antenna on top of the building which broadcast on the same channel as the game, obtained approval. Bushnell told Quinn he could produce 75,000 units in time for the Christmas season; however, Quinn requested double the amount. Though Bushnell knew Atari lacked the capacity to manufacture 150,000 units, he agreed. Atari acquired a new factory through funding obtained by venture capitalist Don Valentine. Supervised by Jimm Tubb, the factory fulfilled the Sears order. The first units manufactured were branded with Sears' "Tele-Games" name. Atari later released a version under its own brand in 1976.
The success of Pong attracted the attention of Ralph Baer, the inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey, and his employer, Sanders Associates. Sanders had an agreement with Magnavox to handle the Odyssey's sublicensing, which included dealing with infringement on its exclusive rights. However, Magnavox had not pursued legal action against Atari and numerous other companies that released Pong clones. Sanders continued to apply pressure, and in April 1974 Magnavox filed suit against Atari, Bally Midway, Allied Leisure and Chicago Dynamics. Magnavox argued that Atari had infringed on Baer's patents and his concept of electronic ping-pong based on detailed records Sanders kept of the Odyssey's design process dating back to 1966. Other documents included depositions from witnesses and a signed guest book that demonstrated Bushnell had played the Odyssey's table tennis game prior to releasing Pong. In response to claims that he saw the Odyssey, Bushnell later stated that, "The fact is that I absolutely did see the Odyssey game and I didn't think it was very clever."
After considering his options, Bushnell decided to settle with Magnavox out of court. Bushnell's lawyer felt they could win; however, he estimated legal costs of US$1.5 million, which would have exceeded Atari's funds. Magnavox offered Atari an agreement to become a licensee for US$0.7 million. Other companies producing "Pong clones"—Atari's competitors—would have to pay royalties. In addition, Magnavox would obtain the rights to Atari products developed over the next year. Magnavox continued to pursue legal action against the other companies, and proceedings began shortly after Atari's settlement in June 1976. The first case took place at the district court in Chicago, with Judge John Grady presiding. To avoid Magnavox obtaining rights to its products, Atari decided to delay the release of its products for a year, and withheld information from Magnavox's attorneys during visits to Atari facilities.
Impact and legacy
The Pong arcade games manufactured by Atari were a great success. The prototype was well received by Andy Capp's Tavern patrons; people came to the bar solely to play the game. Following its release, Pong consistently earned four times more revenue than other coin-operated machines. Bushnell estimated that the game earned US$35–40 per day, which he described as nothing he'd ever seen before in the coin-operated entertainment industry at the time. The game's earning power resulted in an increase in the number of orders Atari received. This provided Atari with a steady source of income; the company sold the machines at three times the cost of production. By 1973, the company had filled 2,500 orders, and, at the end of 1974, sold more than 8,000 units. The arcade cabinets have since become collector's items with the cocktail-table version being the rarest. Soon after the game's successful testing at Andy Capp's Tavern, other companies began visiting the bar to inspect it. Similar games appeared on the market three months later, produced by companies like Ramtek and Nutting Associates. Atari could do little against the competitors as they had not initially filed for patents on the solid state technology used in the game. When the company did file for patents, complications delayed the process. As a result, the market consisted primarily of "Pong clones"; author Steven Kent estimated that Atari had produced less than a third of the machines. Bushnell referred to the competitors as "Jackals" because he felt they had an unfair advantage. His solution to competing against them was to produce more innovative games and concepts.
Home Pong was an instant success following its limited 1975 release through Sears; around 150,000 units were sold that holiday season. The game became Sears' most successful product at the time, which earned Atari a Sears Quality Excellence Award. Similar to the arcade version, several companies released clones to capitalize on the home console's success, many of which continued to produce new consoles and video games. Magnavox re-released their Odyssey system with simplified hardware and new features, and would later release updated versions. Coleco entered the video game market with their Telstar console; it features three Pong variants and was also succeeded by newer models. Nintendo released the Color TV Game 6 in 1977, which plays six variations of electronic tennis. The next year, it was followed by an updated version, the Color TV Game 15, which features fifteen variations. The systems were Nintendo's entry into the home video game market and the first to produce themselves—they had previously licensed the Magnavox Odyssey. The dedicated Pong consoles and the numerous clones have since become varying levels of rare; Atari's Pong consoles are common, while APF Electronics' TV Fun consoles are moderately rare. Prices among collectors, however, vary with rarity; the Sears Tele-Games versions are often cheaper than those with the Atari brand.
Several publications consider Pong the game that launched the video game industry as a lucrative enterprise. Video game author David Ellis sees the game as the cornerstone of the video game industry's success, and called the arcade game "one of the most historically significant" titles. Kent attributes the "arcade phenomenon" to Pong and Atari's games that followed it, and considers the release of the home version the successful beginning of home video game consoles. Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton of Gamasutra referred to the game's release as the start of a new entertainment medium, and commented that its simple, intuitive gameplay made it a success. Many of the companies that produced their own versions of Pong eventually became well-known within the industry. Nintendo entered the video game market with clones of Home Pong. The revenue generated from them—each system sold over a million units—helped the company survive a difficult financial time, and spurred them to pursue video games further. After seeing the success of Pong, Konami decided to break into the arcade game market and released its first title, Maze. Its moderate success drove the company to develop more titles.
Sequels and remakes
Bushnell felt the best way to compete against imitators was to create better products, leading Atari to produce sequels in the years followings the original's release: Pong Doubles, Super Pong, Ultra Pong, Quadrapong, and Pin-Pong. The sequels feature similar graphics, but include new gameplay elements; for example, Pong Doubles allows four players to compete in pairs, while Quadrapong has them compete against each other in a four way field. Bushnell also conceptualized a free-to-play version of Pong to entertain children in a Doctor's office. He initially titled it Snoopy Pong and fashioned the cabinet after Snoopy's doghouse with the character on top, but retitled it to Puppy Pong and altered Snoopy to a generic dog to avoid legal action. Bushnell later used the game in his chain of Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants. In 1976, Atari released Breakout, a single-player variation of Pong where the object of the game is to remove bricks from a wall by hitting them with a ball. Like Pong, Breakout was followed by numerous clones that copied the gameplay: Arkanoid, Alleyway, Break 'Em All.
Atari remade the game on numerous platforms. In 1977, Pong and several variants of the game were featured in Video Olympics, one of the original release titles for the Atari 2600. Pong has also been included in several Atari compilations on platforms including the Sega Mega Drive, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS, and personal computer. Through an agreement with Atari, Bally Gaming and Systems developed a slot machine version of the game. The Atari developed TD Overdrive includes Pong as an extra game to be played during the loading screen. In 1999, the game was remade for home computers and the PlayStation with 3D graphics and power-ups. In 2012, Atari celebrated the 40th anniversary of Pong by releasing Pong World. 
In popular culture
Pong has appeared in several facets of popular culture. The game is prominently featured in episodes of television series: That '70s Show, King of the Hill, and Saturday Night Live. In 2006, an American Express commercial featured Andy Roddick in a tennis match against the white, in-game paddle. Other video games have also referenced and parodied Pong; for example Neuromancer for the Commodore 64 and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts for the Xbox 360. The concert event Video Games Live has performed audio from Pong as part of a special retro "Classic Arcade Medley". Frank Black's song "Whatever Happened to Pong?" on the album Teenager of the Year heavily references the game's elements.
Dutch design studio Buro Vormkrijgers created a Pong-themed clock as a fun project within their offices. After the studio decided to manufacture it for retail, Atari took legal action in February 2006. The two companies eventually reached an agreement in which Buro Vormkrijgers could produce a limited number under license.
In 1999, French artist Pierre Huyghe created an installation entitled "Atari Light", in which two people use handheld gaming devices to play Pong on an illuminated ceiling. The work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2001, and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León in 2007.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pong.|
- Pong-story.com, the most comprehensive site about Pong and its origins.
- The Atari Museum An in-depth look at Atari and its history
- RetroGaming Roundup Part 1 of 2 hour interview with designer Al Alcorn
- Pong variants at MobyGames