Atari PONG arcade game

Atari's PONG bounces into arcades, 1972

PONG and Atari - The Entrepreneur Builds An Industry

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Atari 1972

Rally, a pong clone by For-Play

Rally, one of the first games to copy PONG, released by For-Play in March 1973

PONG Starts a Rally

1973 sees the start of a trend that will dog the industry forever more…a flood of imitations following in the wake of a hit game. Literally dozens of PONG clones flood the market, with possibly the first being Rally in March of 1973, by a company playfully named For-Play.  Another early entry comes from Ramtek, makers of computer displays and terminals. They get their quick jump onto the bandwagon from the fact that one of the owners of Andy Capp’s bar, home of the first PONG prototype, is also the VP of finance at Ramtek. Seeing reports of the money that Bushnell’s game brings in clues them into the great earning potential of this type of game. Other clones include Midway’s Winner, although they go the legit route – the company is the only manufacturer who bothers to obtain a license from Atari for the technology. Winner also has video-out circuitry, allowing for the game to be broadcast on a TV set at the location, if a bar wants to annoy everyone in the place, for instance. The rest of these unofficial imitations come from outfits like Nutting Associates, Bushnell’s old employer. Their 1973 Wimbledon, where players use physical sliders to control their paddles, at least has the innovation of being one of the first true-colour video games (along with Atari’s own true-colour version of Gotcha, closely preceding Nutting’s game, see below). Other companies add token improvements to their games over the original, such as the ability to vary ball speed or giving the players a button to serve. In the case of Ramtek, they create what is touted as the first video game that can accommodate lone players as well as a two-player mode with Clean Sweep. A kind of primordial version of Atari’s later hit Breakout, in Clean Sweep the gamer uses a paddle to knock a ball upwards into a playfield full of dots. When the ball moves through the dots they disappear, the goal being to erase them all and thereby achieving the titular clean sweep.

Marquee for Winner IV, an arcade video game PONG clone by Midway 1973

The marquee for Winner IV

Brunswick Astrohockey, a pong-type arcade video game

Brunswick Astrohockey ad, featuring the remote control model for mounting behind a bar, 1974

Some of the variations on the PONG theme include:

Elopong – Taito, Hockey TV, Pong Tron, Pong Tron II  – SEGA, Paddle Ball – Williams, Pro Hockey – Taito, Super Soccer, Tennis Tourney, Paddle Battle – Allied Leisure, TV Football, TV Ping Pong, TV Tennis – Chicago Coin, TV Ping Pong – Amuntronics, TV Table Tennis – PMC, Winner (made under licence from Atari), Winner IV – Midway

Along with all the clones Atari makes themselves:

Dr. PONG, Pin PONG, PONG Cocktail,
PONG Doubles, Puppy PONG, Quadrapong,
Rebound, Spike, Super PONG

Even old-time billiards and bowling champ Brunswick gets in on the video ping-pong action with Astrohockey, developed by HID/Visco Games and built at the Brunswick factory in Muskegon, Michigan. Theirs is a similar innovation to Midway’s Winner, where a model with a remote control monitor is available for mounting above bars. Amusement industry trade magazine RePlay estimates that there are just a bit under 100,000 Pong-type arcade games sold through all this mania, with a fraction of that actually being from Atari. All due to a fatal mistake by Bushnell in not patenting the board designs of PONG quickly enough. On February 19, 1974, Atari is eventually granted Patent No. 3793483 for “circuitry that covers an efficient method of generating motion of an object on video display.”  Initially Bushnell takes all this copying of PONG as a badge of honour, telling trade magazine Cash Box in the spring of 1973“We’re really very pleased by the number of manufacturers who are trying to copy PONG. It tells us that our product is superior and that the rest of the industry is interested, and willing to follow our lead into new, high profit areas.” However, Atari also takes a more proactive approach, mislabelling chips on the motherboards to foil competitors trying to copy their design. Still, things get so brazen with these PONG copies that, during a trade show in the fall of the year, Bushnell stands up during a Q&A session with “leading” video game developers during a seminar about the future of the industry, and demands they admit they’re building their futures on the back of the game his company designed. Whether it has slipped Bushnell’s mind that he himself built his company on the backs of Ralph Baer and Magnavox remains a mystery.  Still, Atari isn’t exactly hurting… around the same time as Bushnell’s somewhat justified tirade, his company announces yet another move of corporate offices, to a bigger complex at 14600 Winchester Blvd., Los Gatos CA.

Atari co-founder Ted Dabney and Bushnell become good friends over the early years of the company, with Dabney giving Bushnell the nautical bug by teaching him to sail, and the two going in together on a 41-foot sailboat they name, appropriately, PONG. By early 1974, however, Dabney is feeling pushed-aside and under-appreciated, and is indeed way over his head running Atari’s exploding production facilities. He is also rattled by all the new competition, most of whom have bigger cash reserves and larger presences in the entertainment sector than upstart Atari. Dabney sells his ownership share of the company to Bushnell for $250,000, and as part of the deal, also walks away with the profitable coin-op collections route he and Bushnell had set up. He also takes the rights to the name Syzygy, with a plan to operate independently as Syzygy Game Company. This leaves Bushnell as Atari CEO, and an 80% stake in the company.

Image showing comical Atari ad about its competitors, 1973

Atari, amused (frustrated?) about this rampant PONG bandwagon climbing, ridiculed their competition with this comical ad, printed in the May 19, 1973 issue of trade publication Cash Box


Despite all the copycatting, Atari s the clear market leader, pulling in $3.2 million in video game sales for 1973. Bushnell knows that the only way to compete is to out-innovate the competition; from the start Atari has allocated 7 – 8 percent to R&D. They start selling their second original video game idea, Space Race, in July of that year, with a limited edition version wrapped in a funky fiberglass shell. They also licence a version of this game to Midway under its working title, Asteroid. Atari also continues to mine the PONG bonanza with PONG Doubles in September. Also pushing the boundaries in cabinet design like Space Race is Atari’s Gotcha in October, the first arcade maze game. Its design causes some controversy with pink rubber joystick coverings, which result in the game being referenced internally at Atari as “the Boob game”. The costing (and probably wear-and-tear concerns) of these questionable covers has them removed from the game shortly after release, although one also hopes taste has something to do with it. A version with its screen tinted with a colour overlay is also released, along with a version generating real colours, which makes it the first colour arcade game.

Gotcha, an arcade game by video game company Atari, founded by Nolan Bushnell

Atari president John Wakefield on the left, co-founder Nolan Bushnell on the right, look like a couple of high-school freshmen copping a feel, with the “boob game” Gotcha (1973)

Atari, Kee Games and Tank Arcade Game


Realizing he is ill-equipped to handle the day to day management of the rapidly growing Atari, in August 1973 Bushnell installs his brother-in-law, psychologist Dr. John Wakefield as president, with Bushnell holding the title of Chairman. Wakefield remains as president until mid-way through the next year, when Bushnell re-assumes the title. Strong competition in regards to technical innovation comes with rival Kee Games, headed by Joe Keenan. In late 1973 several key Atari employees defect to Kee, including early Atari engineer Steve Bristow. Kee releases Elimination around the same time, a game that lets four players compete in a square Pong-type battle, where when a player lets the ball past their paddle into the hole they are protecting four times, they are eliminated from the board, leaving the rest to battle it out. In December of 1973 Joe Keenan announces that his company has reached an agreement to license the game to Atari, who sells their own version as QuadraPong. In 1974 Kee releases Bristow’s Tank. Gameplay consists of two tanks facing off in a maze, while trying to avoid land mines scattered about. The game breaks new technical ground by incorporating ROM chips to hold graphics memory, enabling it to display more complicated detail on-screen than the simple square and rectangular blocks of PONG. Tank becomes the biggest hit of 1974. This same year, Bushnell announces that Atari has ‘acquired’ an interest in Kee and that “We are happy that the people at Kee and at Atari have been able to resolve the problems that led to the original split last summer.”  As it turns out, the whole thing has been an elaborate ruse: Kee is actually a secret subsidiary of Atari, set up in a “split” from from the game company to circumvent a holdover from the pinball era where regional distributors demanded exclusive rights to a company’s games. As per the acquisition announcement, Joe Keenan will remain as president of Kee, with financial support from Atari. The company goes on to follow up Tank with three sequels, including 1978’s Ultra Tank, which allows players to battle the computer, if there isn’t another human tank driver handy. It also offers eight different options in game play to players, including different play fields, mines, bouncing or guided shells, as well as a “camouflage” mode where the tanks only appear when firing or when hit. Choices are made by flicking toggle switches on the cabinet. Eight is also the number of people who can play Tank 8 simultaneously, a game released in 1976 and allowing eight players to stand around the unit with their own controls and battle against each other. Other games manufactured by Atari under the Kee label are:

Elimination – 1973, Formula K – 1974, Spike – 1974, Twin Racer – 1974,
Crossfire – 1975, Indy 800 – 1975, Tank II – 1975, Flyball – 1976,
Quiz Show – 1976, Sprint II – 1976, Drag Race – 1977,
Sprint 8 – 1977, Super Bug – 1977, Ultra Tank – 1978

Tank, an arcade video game by Atari

Two players face off on the cocktail version of Atari/Kee game Tank, 1977

The Rise and Rise of Atari

1974 sees Atari with an 81% increase in sales for the first half of the fiscal year over the same period the previous year. By May they have 300 employees, mostly young, long haired hippies listening to rock-music blaring from speakers, filling three shifts, day and night, generally producing 200 game boards a day from their Los Gatos manufacturing plant. Atari also makes moves, under the auspices of VP of operations Lloyd Warman, to becoming an arcade operator themselves, opening several Atari Game Centers in the Bay area, filled with their early games like PONG, and Gotcha. One big attraction to drive gamers into their Fun Centers is undoubtedly Atari’s very first racing game, Gran Trak 10, hitting the arcades in March of 1974. Reports come in of Gran Trak 10 pulling in $60, $80…. even $100 dollars a day at prime locations. Stores in the Atari operations division includes the 1300 ft2 Atari Family Game Center, located on the terrace level of the BayFair Regional Shopping Center in San Leandro. Opening on May 31, 1974, it is a more fuller implementation of Atari’s vision for “themed” video game arcades, whether it be “Gay Nineties”, “Old West” or the always wonderful 70’s catch-all “Space Age”. With 16 Atari games installed there, it sounds like the very apex of the video game arcade…. but after replacing Warman with Gene Lipkin, Atari would abandon the Atari Game Center concept by Spring of 1975.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell on the Atari factory floor with arcade video driving game Gran Trak 10

Nolan Bushnell on the Atari factory floor with their hit driving game Gran Trak 10, 1974

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Comments >>

  1. avatarBill Caldwell

    I worked for Atari during all of this and left after Warner took over. Lots of good memories!!! i wish they would include and give credit to one of their important and creative engineers Doug Robinson aka Robinson, he was a very important part in the success of Atari!

    IT WAS A VERY FUN COMPANY TO WORK FOR!!!!!

    Bill

    Reply
    1. avatarWilliam

      Thanks. Pong pretty much started the whole industry, although Atari only made a fraction of all the Pong-type games that flooded the market in the wake of their success.

      Reply

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