Atari/Sears Tele-Games Pong

Pong is not only an example of one of the earliest arcade video games but also a very successful game that despite its simplicity is still relevant today due to the ease of play and its role in help early games gain popularity with the general public. If you don’t know the game is a two dimensional tennis game that simulates table tennis using only a ball and two vertical lines which act as paddles. Pong was one of the first games to really gain some steam early in video game history and succeed in capturing the attention and popularity of the general public. The game was originally manufactured by Atari Incorporated who released the game in 1972. The creator of this famously classic game was Allan Alcorn who developed the game as a training exercise under the direction of Nolan Bushnell the co-founder of Atari. Bushnell received his inspiration for creating the game from a similar game that was released on the Magnavox Odyssey which eventually led to a legal battle between Atari and Magnavox. Upon Alcorn’s presentation of his game Bushnell and Dabney were so impressed with his work that they decided to begin to manufacture the game for commercial sales.

Gameplay

As previously mentioned Pong is a two dimensional table tennis simulation in which two players control opposing paddles which are represented as two vertical lines which can be moved up and down in an  attempt to get the ball past each others paddle which results in a point being earned. Come the end of the game the player that failed to return the ball the most is declared the loser while the player that managed to outmaneuver the loser is crowned the Pong champion.

How the Game Came to Be

Pong was the first game that Atari Incorporated which was owned by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1972. After Bushnell produced a game by the name Computer Space which proved to be less commercially viable than he had hoped Bushnell decided to form a company that would be capable of creating more games by licensing the games to other corporations and gaming companies. The first contract that Bushnell managed to procure was for Bally Manufacturing Company to develop a driving game. Shortly after the founding of the company Bushnell brought Allan Alcorn aboard due to his past experiences with computer science, programming, and electrical engineering. Both Dabney and Bushnell had previously worked with Alcorn at Ampex which was Alcorn’s former employer. Believe it or not but previously to being hired by Atari Alcorn the developer of one the most famous games of all time had no experience in the field of video games and due to this fact Bushnell assigned him a “beginner’s project” to ease him into the field, little did they know that this warmup project would soon become one of the best selling games in history. Bushnell’s instructions were very simple, Alcorn was to create a game with two paddles, a moving ball, and a digits which would be used to keep score which would then be used in a product that General Electric had contracted. Around 2011 Bushnell admitted that the game was inspired by his experiences playing other versions of virtual tennis such as the one released by Magnavox although he believed that the Magnavox equivalent of the game left a lot to be desired when he played it back in 1972 and that he and his employees could optimize the game which they certainly succeeded in doing.

When working on the project Alcorn felt that the game was not interesting enough and began to add more components to make it more fun and exciting. For example he divided the paddles into eight segments which would modify the angle at which the ball would be returned to the other player, he also increased the movement speed of the ball during periods in which the ball was being rapidly returned between the paddles to add difficultly, One component of the game the was initially the fault of a malfunction was that the paddles could not reach the edge of the screen however upon playing the game Alcorn felt that it increased the difficulty while also helping to regulate how long a match could actually continue to be played. After several months of development Bushnell told Alcorn that he wanted there to be realistic table tennis sound  effects to be included in the game but due to limited space and a lack of the knowledge concerning how to incorporate those sounds using digital circuits Alcorn discovered that the sync generator was capable of creating a variety of tones he used the sync tones as the soundscape for the game.

After completing the game development process Alcorn purchased a black and white television from Hibatchi and used his television engineering skills to mount the television inside a wooden cabinet and soldered the other necessary components of the game inside as well creating an early version of the arcade machines which would become so popular in coming years. Bushnell and Dabney were so excited with the prototype Pong game that they placed inside a nearby bar called Andy Capp’s Tavern which also hosted pinball machines which Atari supplied to the bar owner Bill Gattis. After the game proved to be a booming success and growing in popularity with each night that Bushnell went to attend a meeting with Bally and Midway Manufacturing companies intending to sell Pong as the contract completion in place of the planned racing game when the prototype began to have problems which it turned out were being caused by incredible number of quarters inside the machine. Upon discovering this Bushnell backed out of selling it to either manufacturer and sought out a loan from Wells Fargo in order to develop a production line for the machines since it would result in better earnings for Atari than simply selling the design. Atari finally announced the release of Pong on November 29th, 1972 and before long the company was no longer capable of producing the units at the rate of demand and by the end of 1973 the company with other manufacturer’s assistance were shipping units worldwide.

Home Units

Due to the incredible levels of success achieved by the game Bushnell soon had employees creating other products and in 1974 an engineer for the company by the name of Harold Lee proposed the creation of a home console that could be played using a television. Alcorn and Lee worked together on the project which was codenamed Darlene after a company employee to create and develop the necessary designs and prototypes for the home console using the same type of technology they were using to create the arcade games that people loved so much. Once the prototypes were finished Bushnell and sales representative Gene Lipkin approached various retailers about selling the product and ended being denied due to fear that it would not sell well until they approached Sears.  At the time Sears was carrying the Magnavox Odyssey and around 1975 after a trade show demonstration a deal was struck between the two companies and the first 150,000 units began production in the new Atari factory and were branded beneath Sears Tele-Games name until Atari released its own brand in 1976.

Patent Disputes with Magnavox

The unbelievable success that Pong achieved managed to get the attention of Ralph Baer who had invented the Magnavox Odyssey and his employer at the time Sanders Associates. Sanders Associates had developed an agreement to manage the licensing and sub-licensing of the Magnavox system including issues such as infringements on the exclusivity rights of the product but despite heavy pressure from Sanders so far Magnavox had not sought any legal action against Atari and the large number of imitation Pong products which had been created. Finally during the spring of 1974 Magnavox filed lawsuits against a variety of companies include Atari, Bally Midway, Allied Leisure, and Chicago Dynamics for infringements upon Baer’s patents on digital ping pong that had been filed previous to the release of Pong. Atari and Bushnell chose to settle outside of court and Magnavox offered Atari a license agreement for about $.7 million and the other companies found to be in violation were required to pay royalties to Magnavox. While the other cases were being settled Atari withheld its future projects for fear of losing them to Magnavox until the lawsuits had become settled with Magnavox making out like a King.

Impact of Pong On Video Games

Pong was an unbelievably successful game and following its release it is estimated that their machines earned roughly four times the revenue of any other coin operated game machines. Bushnell once stated that the game was earning roughly $40 a day which previously had been unheard of in the coin operated machine business. The company also made excellent profits on its arcade unit sales which were marked up roughly three times the cost to produce a unit. The success of the game and the fact that Atari did not file patents on its arcade game unit resulted in competitors quickly creating similar style machines produced by companies like Ramtek. The Home System was also a tremendous success selling nearly the entire 150,000 unit order during the first Holiday season in 1975 and it became Sear’s most popular product earning Atari a Sears Quality Excellence Award, Due to the success of the Home System many other competitors arose with their own similar models including Coleco’s Telstar, a bunch of new Odyssey consoles and the Nintendo Color TV Game. Many sources credit Atari and Pong with the success of the arcade game and the beginning of home video game consoles as the motivator for other companies to step into the ring and produce their own versions of the products.

Sequels and Reissues of the Game

In order to compete with the numerous copies of Pong that began to flood the market Atari and Bushnell decided to create sequels to the original such as Double Pong, Super Pong, and Quadrapong which used similar graphics but added new variants to the games such as playing with partners or a four way free for all. The game has also been reproduced in a variety of new systems allowing Atari to still earn money on is prize product due to the fact that it was made available in future Atari consoles as well as locations such as the Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Network.

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