Believe it or not, there was once a world without video games.
Settle down, settle down, those dark ages are long gone. But yes, once upon a time, waaaaaaaaaaay back in the early 1970s, back before early modern conveniences like cell phones, the Internet, Pretzel M&Ms, oxygen, and fire, there were no video games.
Two little sticks on a screen fixed all that, and the first video game was born. And with my first article here on GotGame.com, it’s time to give honor to the game that everything from Ace Combat to Zelda owes its existence to.
Pong, This Is Your Extra Life!
Pong started as a test project for Allan Alcorn when he was brought on to Atari, Inc. in 1972 to develop a driving game. Alcorn had no experience with video game programming, so the project was just given as a throwaway project to acclimate Alcorn to video game design. But when the prototype was put in a local Sunnyvale, CA bar, what started as a pre-project quickly became a cash cow, pulling in as much as $40 a night. In quarters dropped, that’s 160 games played a night. In bottom line talk, that’s an extra $1200 a month!
Quickly, Pong was elevated from test to marquee item for Atari, who not only decided to keep the paddle-based game for itself, but then lied to Bally and Midway, whom Atari was developing for, claiming the other wasn’t interested in their project. Atari started to create arcade cabinet versions of Pong and ship them out to other bars throughout the US, and later internationally.
The success of Pong would lead to the idea for a home version. Code named Project: Darlene, the home set would have a single microchip that would be the highest-performing chip in a home device to that date.
Yeah, no joke. **BLOOP**BLEEP** would be considered high-performing.
Atari pitched Home Pong to toy retailers around the nation, who thought that the device would be too complicated and expensive to sell. But Sears department stores took interest, and made an offer. Atari, however, declined the offer, thinking they could get better terms through a national toy chain. After a year though, nothing had taken.
Atari set up a booth at a January 1975 toy trade show to showcase Home Pong, but still could not solicit any orders. They did, however, run into Tom Quinn, the same Sears sales executive whom they met with a year prior. Awkward…
Realizing that it would probably be their best option, Atari accepted Sears’ new offer. Great, deal sealed, now can they make 150,000 units of the game by the holiday season? Atari executive Nolan Bushnell knew that they could only make about half that in time. What could he do to save the deal?
What any other business executive would do in that situation: lie. The deal was struck at 150,000 units.
With a little help from Atari’s venture capitalist friends and long hours, the order was fulfilled and Pong was introduced to homes nationwide.
From 1975 on, Pong has been ported, revamped, and re-imagined several times over, starting with the Atari 2600 running to its most recent incarnation on the Nintendo DS. Games like Arkanoid and Breakout have been spun-off from Pong, taking the game elements and using it in a solo-player format, pitting the player against bricks or other destructible items. It’s appeared in TV, music, and artwork, and tennis superstar Andy Roddick duked it out with the famous paddle in an American Express commercial. Themes, sound effects, and power-ups have been introduced, and more than two players have been able to bounce the pixelated ball around, but the premise has always remained the same – don’t drop the ball.
Here’s to 37 years of not dropping the ball, Pong.