On This Day: Nov. 29, 1972
This is way the video game revolution began — not with a bang, but a Pong. Before gamers could swing like Spider-Man, rock a Tanooki suit like Mario or go fast like Sonic, they twirled knobs controlling elongated rectangles in an effort to keep a pixillated square ping-ponging back and forth across a virtual net. If that sounds as incomprehensible as a Metal Gear Solid storyline... what can we say? We were all noobs back in the early '70s.
Besides, what's primitive now was positively space-aged when upstart developer Atari unveiled Pong for the masses just ahead of the 1972 holiday season. Founded by engineers Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in June of that year, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company's first game designer was Allan Alcorn, who earned his $1,000-a-month paycheck by developing an in-house version of a table tennis game developed by electronics giant, Magnavox, for their maiden foray into at-home gaming, the Magnavox Odyssey.
Rather than follow their rival into living rooms, Bushnell decided to focus on building a version that could be played in more public venues. "I want to make a game that any drunk in any bar can play," he reportedly told Alcorn. "Simple enough for a drunk to play." Atari had a Pong prototype cabinet ready by the late summer, and soft-launched it at Andy Capp's Tavern — a local Sunnyvale watering hole. Legend has it that that Pong proved such a hit with customers that Bushnell was frequently called in to un-jam the quarter slot.
Regardless of whether or not the quarter cup really did runneth over, the Atari founders felt emboldened enough by their test drive to announce on Nov. 29 that they'd be rolling out Pong cabinets for the rest of the country to play. That represented a significant shift from their initial plan of merely licensing the game for other companies to distribute, and Bushnell had to secure a line of credit from Wells Fargo to adjust accordingly.
Renting an old roller-skating rink and recruiting a workforce that included high school dropouts, Hells Angels and the recently paroled, Atari's Pong assembly line started slow... like only 10 cabinets per day slow. But as the operation streamlined, that number kept rising until they were capable of producing enough cabinets for both domestic and international establishments eager to get customers hooked on Pong. Eventually, some 35,000 cabinets were in use in the U.S. alone, each one banking roughly $200 a week.
What Happened Next
Within two years, Atari was no longer content with cornering the market on bar drunks. By 1975, the company had launched a home version of Pong that was available exclusively through Sears. Two years after that, the inaugural Atari 2600 cartridge-playing console went on sale and Pong was among the games included on the Video Olympics cart.
But success inevitably incurred additional costs. Atari pivoting to home consoles led to a lawsuit with Magnavox that was eventually settled out of court. Meanwhile, rival game companies started to manufacture their own takes on Pong — not to mention subsequent games — in an early version of the console wars that would be fought many times over as the modern video game industry took shape. To stay competitive, Bushnell sold the company to Warner Communications in 1976 and was fired two years later.
Thanks to the foothold Pong established, Atari remained at the forefront of that first wave of the video game revolution. The company's cabinets were mainstays at video arcades, and the 2600 handily outsold its console competitors in an increasingly saturated market, with pioneering games like Adventure expanding the possibilities of the still-young form.
But disaster struck in December 1982 when Atari bet big on a child-sized alien. The company reportedly paid a record $21 million to make a video game based on Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but a rushed development process resulted in a near-unplayable experience. Thousands of unsold E.T. cartridges were buried in a New Mexico landfill, an apt metaphor for what happened to Atari when the video game market collapsed in 1983. It took two years for a certain mushroom-eating plumber to usher in the next phase of gaming history — one that quickly ping-ponged past Pong.
Where We Are Now
After trading hands multiple times, Atari was scooped up in 2001 by the French company Infogames, which rebranded itself as Atari two years later. As gaming giants like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft have pushed the medium forward, Atari has fully embraced its status as a retro brand as evidenced by its most recent release — the Atari 2600+, which emulates vintage games from the company's back catalogue including, of course, Pong.
But you don't need an Atari console to play Pong these days. Free versions of the game proliferate online, and Atari has also licensed their game to airlines and smartphones. You can even find in-home cabinets from the vintage gaming experts at Arcade 1Up. This revolution may not have been televised — but it still can be played.