After Hours

Geek Trivia: What is the 'real' reason Atari developed the original Pong?

When Atari first developed Pong -- the first commercially successful video arcade game ever -- it was never even intended to be sold.

The original Pong prototype was created by Atari engineer Allan Alcorn strictly as a training exercise. When Alcorn was hired by Atari, he had never developed anything like a video game before, so Bushnell secretly assigned Alcorn the task of developing a rough clone of the table tennis simulator made successful on the Magnavox Odyssey home game console. Bushnell told Alcorn there was an actual customer -- General Electric -- for the product, but Bushnell never intended to sell the game that would become Pong. It was simply there to get Alcorn familiar with building video games.

Alcorn over-delivered, creating a relatively advanced game that allowed players to influence the angle of their volleys based on where the pixel-ball struck their simulated paddles. Bushnell had promised Bally a driving simulator, but Alcorn's Pong looked so good that Bushnell tried to substitute Pong as the game that would fulfill the contract. To prove how viable Pong would be, Bushnell had the first prototype installed at Andy Capp's Tavern in Menlo Park, CA. The game quickly malfunctioned -- because it was overstuffed with quarters. Customers couldn't get enough.

Bushnell then had to backtrack and talk Bally (and then Midway) out of wanting Pong, so Atari could distribute the hit game itself. That was a smart move, as the success of Pong exploded over the next few years and was the foundation of Atari's success.

Not bad for a training exercise.

That's not just some accidentally amazing business acumen; it's a viability-verifying volley of video game Geek Trivia.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

4 comments
Rodo1
Rodo1

...guys mentioned in the article at Ampex Corporation in Sunnyvale, CA during this time. One day, Nolan told me of their intentions of starting Atari and asked if I might be interested in joining them. My response was, "Nolan, who the hell would ever play a video game?" I have been kicking myself ever since, needless to say!

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

The Magnavox Pong was just tossed on top of the trash in a barrel. After getting striped down and the paddles (controller) on seperate boxes, adapted to work with an oscilloscope instead of a TV. (No TV's allowed in work spaces on US Navy warships). Talk about a small screen. 1970.

Good Old Dad
Good Old Dad

First came across the game in our local watering hole, where we had stopped for a refreshment after work. It was mounted in a low round table so we could sit in comfort, sip our drinks and gaze down into the Pong-y depths. After the first few rounds, someone noticed that the cash box had been removed, allowing one quarter to be circulated through, ad infinitum. Don't know how many games I played, but it was easily in the hundreds. Got kicked out after last call at 2:00 a.m. Went back a few days later - the cash box was back in and the line up was several people deep.