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Atari's Pong is now half a century old

Happy birthday, Pong, and thank you for inspiring countless sequels and knockoffs, as well as the careers of an entire generation of video game designers.

Video Transcript

BRANDON QUINTANA: "A game that is easy to learn, but difficult to master." This was the concept Atari founder Nolan Bushnell instilled into 24-year-old engineer Allan Alcorn, prior to their development of one of the most recognizable games of all time, "Pong," 50 years ago.


"Pong," a video game in which a square is bounced between two rectangles controlled by players, was released on November 29 of 1972, by Atari, only a few days more than 50 years ago. However, despite how much time has passed, and the massive changes the gaming industry has endured since then, "Pong's" influence on the world of video games remains prevalent today.

Contrary to what some may believe, "Pong" actually isn't the first home console game, or the first arcade game. It wasn't even the first game to emulate table tennis. However, Atari founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney do hold the claim to the title of first arcade game, with their release of "Computer Space" the year prior.

Unfortunately, "Computer Space" wasn't nearly the success you'd expect the first-ever arcade game to be. That was mostly due to players finding the game's instructions to be too complicated. Atari's next game needed to be much more simple, but even Bushnell couldn't have foreseen just how simple it would be.

That's because "Pong" was actually never even intended to be the massive success that it was. It was intended to be a simple task given to 24-year-old Allan Alcorn, in order to test his programming skills. That's when he came up with a simple table tennis-themed video game called "Pong." Deposit a quarter, and don't miss the ball. Those are all the instructions needed in order to play.

A crude "Pong" prototype was tested in a small bar in California called Andy Capp's Tavern, and Atari's expectations weren't very high. A few weeks later, Allan Alcorn received a call from the bar's owner, informing him that the cabinet was no longer working properly and needed to be repaired. This wasn't really a surprise, as again, the machine was only really meant to be a prototype.

However, once Alcorn opened up the cabinet to repair it, he discovered that it was filled with quarters to the point at which it was jammed, and that was causing the malfunction. This was the first clear indication that this simple arcade game was going to be a success.

This influenced Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to open up his own facility, and manufacture "Pong" arcade cabinets on his own. He utilized an abandoned roller rink near Andy Capp's Tavern, and went on to sell 8,000 cabinets in a few years. "Pong" quickly became the first commercially successful game, which led to the major rise of the arcade gaming industry in the 1970s, which Atari would dominate until the early '80s.

In 1975, three years after the game's debut, Atari would go on to revolutionize the gaming industry once again when they released their version of "Pong" that would be played at home on a television set. Initially branded as the "Sears Tele-Games," due to an exclusive deal with Sears, the "Pong" home console was exactly what it sounded like-- a device that allowed you to play "Pong" from the comfort of your home.

It had two paddles and two knobs used to control the game. This new Atari home console was just as simple and addictive as the original arcade cabinet, and quickly entered the homes of many American families in the 1970s. Just like with the arcade iteration, home "Pong" quickly spawned many copycats, as competitors saw how successful the game has become.

However, in 1977, Atari proved to be one step ahead of the entire industry once again, with their release of the Atari 2600, a video game home console that popularized the use of ROM-based cartridges that stored their own individual games. This allowed gamers to swap the game they were playing for another, rather than having one whole device dedicated to one game. Now, instead of just playing "Pong," Atari home console owners could play a number of games on their own home television.

This technology had been utilized prior to the 2600, notably by the Fairchild Channel F, but it was Atari's successful utilization of it that led video game consoles to use ROM cards for decades after the 2600's release. Once again, Atari wasn't first, but they nailed the execution. Atari went on to successfully lead the video game market up until the early '80s, when video games took an unfortunate turn. See the video game crash of 1983.

However, the impact of this tiny blue bouncing between two user-controlled rectangles will likely live on as long as video games do. That's likely because Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's philosophy, "Games need to be easy to learn, but difficult to master," is a concept that can be applied to nearly any good video game to this day.

Take a game like "Elden Ring," for example-- a game in which learning the mechanics is as easy as any video game. At the beginning of the game, after getting your ass handed to you by this giant crab, the game takes you through a simple dungeon in which you're shown basic mechanics of combat, which you test on weak foes.

By the end of this dungeon, you more or less have all of the basics needed to play the game. Had the game continued to throw difficult enemies at you-- like that crab guy-- no one would want to continue playing, because they'd get too frustrated just trying to learn the basics. Learning would be too difficult.

On the other hand, if the game just continued to be as simple as the first dungeon in which every enemy could easily be killed with one shot, players wouldn't have an incentive to play on, as mastering the game would be too easy. A simple concept with a major impact that stood the test of time. Much like what could be said about "Pong," a very simple video game with a major impact on the gaming world. Even today, 50 years later.

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