The first successful computer game was a video version of ping-pong, whose “ball” was a blip that bounced back and forth on screen between two paddles.
The ‘paddles’ were moved up and down by two knobs on the console, which was designed to be plugged into an ordinary TV set.
Those who tired of Pong could shell out for the Odyssey – Nothing more than your basic pong machine with plastic overlays for your TV screen (which stuck thanks to static).
There were overlays that looked like a soccer field and a football field . . . but underneath it was still Pong.
Pong was invented by a Californian named Nolan Bushnell in 1971. It was a mixture of his two obsessions: computers and games. The son of Mormon parents, he was the kind of kid who liked to fix radios and washing machines.
Bushnell progressed to engineering student at the University of Utah, where he spent a lot of time playing a game called Spacewar on the huge campus computers.
This made him ponder the potential of adding computer games to the amusement park where he worked during his summer holidays. But the numbers wouldn’t work. “When you divide 25 cents into an $8 million computer, there ain’t no way,” he surmised.
Bushnell moved to Silicon Valley and started his evolution to game god. His breakthrough was to link mini-computers to TV terminals, first in a game called Computer Space, a commercial version of the old Spacewar game. It bombed, mainly because it was too complex for buzzed bar patrons to master.
Bushnell then hired a talented, young engineer named Alan Alcorn and asked him to build the simplest game possible: a ball that bounced between two paddles.
Long before the technological advances that gave us such wondrous details as spurting blood, Bushnell and Alcorn had little choice but to focus on the game’s “playability.”
Bushnell remembers spending “tremendous amounts of time trying to do things like calibrate how much a quarter turn of the control dial resulted in how much movement on the screen.”
They added the “pok … pok … pok” sound effect and reduced the instructions to a six-word mantra: “Avoid missing ball for high score.”
Pong was so simple it could be played by a tipsy bar patron with a beer in one hand. Bushnell was thrilled.
In November 1972 the first Pong game was plugged in at Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale, Calif. By week’s end, the legend goes, the machine broke down because, the repairman discovered, it was jammed with quarters.
A few months earlier, with $250 of his own money and a matching investment from partner Ted Dabney, Bushnell had created Pong’s parent company.
He called it Atari, a term used in the Japanese strategy game GO to politely warn an opponent that he is about to be conquered. Within a year Atari sold 8,500 Pong machines.
By 1975 Atari was selling a home version. The next year Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million.