It wasn’t the first game ever made, but it has arguably been the most influential. Meet Pong, the first game of the Atari company. Founded by Ampex engineers Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1972, Atari’s name was taken from a move in the game of Go (the loose equivalent of “atari” would be “check” in chess). Bushnell’s and Dabney’s previous game, Computer Space, was a commercial failure, being too difficult and dense for the average gamer to enjoy. Bushnell though that the next big hit would be something just as complex. What happened was the opposite. Read more after the jump.
Bushnell set his new engineer, Al Alcorn, to work on a simple test. He said, paraphrased, “I want a ball, two paddles, and a line down the middle.” Bushnell didn’t intend this game to be Atari’s flagship product, but that’s just what happened. Pong proved to be a huge success precisely because it was so simple and intuitive. The ball was served automatically, each player’s paddle was controlled by a dial, and the ball moves just as you would expect–the angle changes based on how the paddle hits it and the faster the paddle goes, the faster it makes the ball go. Bushnell was pleasantly surprised to find that females were just as adept at Pong as males, perhaps even more so, because the tactile response of turning a dial is more intuitive than pushing buttons. Fast-forward to about 16:00 in the video below:
Bushnell knew quite a bit about business and about the art of winning over potential customers. Before Bushnell started Atari he worked at a midway where his job was to get customers excited about playing the various games. Of course, he couldn’t stand next to the Pong cabinet all day, so he wrote the instructions to be mysterious and interesting. The instructions on the cabinet read, “Avoid missing ball for high score.”
It was so enticing, in fact, that customers would visit Andy Capp’s Tavern just to play Pong. The owner, a man named Gattis, would come to open up in the morning and would find customers waiting outside! Pong‘s popularity showed no signs of slowing down as Atari expanded distribution and it soon became iconic of the industry as a whole. New companies would form throughout the ’70s just to release their own version of Pong. Atari revisited its flagship product many times with ports to other hardware, sequels, and spin-offs. Pong Doubles introduced two extra paddles. Breakout! had the player destroy a wall of blocks with his ball and paddle–you may recognize this game as Brick, included in older Nokia phones.
The impact that Pong had on the industry was not only enormous but also long-lasting. There were a few video games before Pong, but they were mostly one-off efforts– little curiosities or scientific experiments. Pong was the first profitable video game, and thus kicked off the industry. Earlier in 1972 there was a game console called the Odyssey by Magnavox–it was, in fact, the first home console. I think it’s safe to say that without the immense popularity of Pong that the Odyssey too would have been a curiosity of history. There is a lot more to this story, but we’ll get more into that later.
If you want to experience the simple fun of Pong, don’t fear! You can play a flash version of the original right here or a (not as well-designed) version on Atari’s website here. As for playing the original original version, well, that’s a little more complicated….
Obviously it can be quite a challenge to go out and buy an arcade cabinet that stopped being manufactured around 1975. Even though Pong is one of those games that everyone should play, not everyone can own their own cabinet. The simplest, albeit not necessarily the most legal, way around this is via an emulator. Emulators are computer programs that emulate the functions of hardware (chips, motherboards, etc.) using software (computer code). Emulators reside in a legal grey area because although companies can’t copyright the way a computer works, they can copyright the file that makes the computer work (called a BIOS). Games themselves are copyrighted (usually) and duplication of such games is illegal unless you’re making a back-up copy. Having a back-up ROM and using that ROM to play on an emulator, instead of using the original to play on a console, is not stealing–but I’m not a lawyer so don’t quote me. I usually don’t even try to play my old games in their original forms; as soon as I buy them I put them in storage so they don’t break, and then “my friend” switches on my computer to use an emulator. Fortunately many games are re-released on various platforms ensuring that most gamers won’t ever need to bother with emulators. Still, these ports usually don’t present an authentic, accurate recreation of the original and sometimes that lack of authenticity can spoil the atmosphere or mood of a game. On the bright side, emulators can sometimes add features that the original console/computer lacked such as HD picture or modding support. You can read more about emulators here.
For arcade game capture, “my friend” uses MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) to run the game and Bandicam to record the screen. I’ve tried using Fraps and Camtasia Recorder but they were not only huge resource hogs, but produced extremely large video files as well. Here is a game of “my friend” playing against himself (keep in mind that without the original dials, control is very tricky. The right paddle was controlled by a mouse and the left was controlled by a steering wheel):
There are USB dials that you can buy, but they cost $30.00, and I didn’t want to spend that for just the one game. Maybe someday.
And here’s a match played on ponggame.org with my friend Misato:
This version is a little more friendly to keyboards, but we still had problems, as you can see. Oh well, what’s important in having fun with your friends. Especially when they move back to Japan and you can’t have fun in person anymore. :(
Emulator: MAME 1.50
ROM: Pong (Rev E)
Legally buy PONG: here