A mere 40 years ago this month, arcade video gaming got its first success story; on Nov. 29, 1972, Atari officially announced the release of Pong, the first commercially profitable arcade video game ever made. How Pong came upon its success — and how it even came into existence — is one of the more fascinating stories in video game history.
First, some housekeeping. Pong was not the first arcade video game ever produced. It wasn’t even the first coin-operated arcade video game. A small number of obscure and unsuccessful prototypes made it into the wild before Pong, but Pong earns its status as the first arcade video game to actually prove popular and earn serious profits. One of those pre-Pong arcade pioneers was a remarkably Asteroids-like video game called Computer Space, created for Nutting Associates by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1971.
The same Bushnell and Dabney that founded Atari in 1972 and released Pong that same year. Computer Space didn’t take off, but Bushnell and Dabney saw the potential of the technology and formed Atari to build games that could be successful. They quickly signed a deal with Bally — then a heavyweight in the pinball machine space — with the promise of delivering an arcade video game hit that the company could distribute to its customers.
Pong was not that promised game. In fact, when Atari first developed Pong, it was never even intended to be sold — Bushnell and Dabney commissioned Pong for an entirely different reason.
WHAT IS THE “REAL” REASON ATARI ORIGINALLY DEVELOPED PONG?
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.