Noisy coin-operated arcade machines have been a familiar sight and sound of every amusement attraction for more than 30 years. Some of the more flamboyant coin-ops feature giant replicas of supercar interiors for players to sit in, or they are housed inside expensive 4D theaters with throbbing peripherals for a more immersive gaming experience.
However, it took a far simpler machine 43 years ago to kickstart “coin-ops” domination of arcade halls. That industry-shaping machine was Pong.
Pong was invented by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney (both USA), the two Atari founders revered as godfathers of gaming.
Bushnell’s dream of “inventing” coin-operated arcade machines dated back to 1965 when he first played Spacewar! while studying engineering in Utah. Spacewar!, a two-player game featuring duelling spaceships, was co-created by technology student genius Steve Russell in 1961 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.
Although Spacewar! was an outrageously expensive piece of kit, Bushnell saw the potential in digitized gaming to revolutionise mainstream entertainment.
In 1970, with computer technology rapidly advancing and costs falling, Bushnell and Dabney set about building their own clone of Spacewar!, a coin-op prototype that could be played in pinball arcades, pool halls and amusement parks. That game was Computer Space.
In 1971, the duo sold the Computer Space prototype to quiz machine maker Nutting Associates who manufactured 1,500 machines. Computer Space became the First commercially available arcade videogame.
However, despite the machine’s obvious innovation, the public found Computer Space’s space combat too difficult, and its concept too alien. As a result, few people wanted to play it and the machine made little money.
Not to be deterred, Bushnell returned to the drawing board. Taking inspiration from the Table Tennis game on the Magnavox Odyssey – the First videogame console and Best-selling first-generation videogame console – he devised a game where players attempted to keep a moving ball alive with an on-screen paddle.
It was a more simple and instant concept than Computer Space, and in order to bring the idea to life, he and Dabney founded their own company - Atari, Inc. - naming themselves after a word from the Japanese board-game Go.
Al Acorn was Atari’s first employee, and it was Acorn who built the solid-state circuitry in the new game’s prototype. Pong was born, and so too was the basic mechanics for subsequent coin-op machines.
Pong featured two paddles, a white dot for a ball and a dashed line “net”, loosely replicating the real sport of table tennis. Its instructions were short and plaintive, telling gamers to “Avoid Missing Ball For High Score”. For consumers who had never played videogames before, this was the perfect introduction.
Atari’s fledgling prototype became the first coin-operated Pong machine and was fitted at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California (USA). Before long, locals were flocking to the bar, turning their backs on traditional jukeboxes and pinball tables to sample Pong’s beautifully simplistic game-play.
And when the machine broke down after just a few days, Al Acorn discovered that the machine had become crammed with too many coins, all of which had been packed into its overworked insides by over-eager punters.
Yet despite the long queues gathering outside Andy Capp’s, Bushnell and Dabney still couldn’t convince larger companies of Pong’s commercial potential. Like a record company rejecting a youthful The Beatles, Chicago-based pinball giant Bally/Midway was one such company who declined the opportunity to mass-produce Pong. So instead, Atari took the bold decision to build the machines itself.
It proved a very wise move. In its first year alone Atari sold 8,000 Pong machines, making it the First commercially successful arcade videogame. Other companies, including (ironically) both Bally/Midway and Nutting Associates would leap onto the bandwagon, creating their own iterations of Pong. Tens of thousands of Pong clones swiftly flooded the market.
Magnavox, the makers of Odyssey caught wind of the game’s similarity to its own Table Tennis, and threatened legal action. Atari swiftly came to an out-of-court agreement. So too did coin-op rivals Allied Leisure Industries who tried to sue Midway for supposed copyright infringement of their own Pong clones – The first videogame lawsuit.
Yet despite all this competition, Atari’s Pong would still go on to sell 35,000 machines, cementing its place as the market leader in this new “bat and ball” genre.
In 1973, Atari remained ahead of the game by producing a four-player sequel called Pong Doubles - The first four-player videogame. And years after Pong’s coin-op launch, the trail-blazing game made another bold step, this time recreated as a miniaturised domestic version for TVs called Home Pong. The game was pre-installed into a console and played with paddle-knob controllers.
Curiously, Pong remains enjoyable and playable to this day – proof that simplicity is no bar to videogaming greatness!