It’s hard to believe that PONG is a half-century old. But it was 50 years ago, on Nov. 29, 1972, when an upstart company in Santa Clara, California called Atari announced a crazy product: a ping-pong game played on a TV screen, mounted inside a wooden cabinet.
It was the second attempt by the company to carve out a new entertainment genre: the first was Computer Space, a video coin-op game the company had produced the previous year under the uncomfortable business name Syzygy. Sketched out by co-founder Nolan Bushnell and assembled by Al Alcorn, PONG would go on to massive success, creating an entire industry that, within a decade, would be worth $3.2 billion dollars.
As part of a marketing push (an area where CEO Ray Kassar excelled at), Atari created a two-minute ad for arcade game Dig Dug. The funny thing about all this hoopla is that Atari hadn’t actually made the game: it was licensed by the company from Namco for release in North America.
Taking five days to film, the full ad ran in theatres during the summer of 1982, while a shorter 30 second version ran on TV. Originally, 60’s singing and dancing sensation Chubby Checker (The Twist) was to sing the catchy theme song in the ad, but Atari ultimately went with a younger singer, perhaps for reasons of demographics. You can hear Chubby’s versionhere on the Atari Museum Public Group on Facebook. The song was posted by Matt Osborne, the son of Don Osborne, who was Atari’s VP of Marketing at the time. Upon listening to it, I’m sure you’ll agree that Atari made a huge mistake not going with Chubby.
As for the visuals, the various special effects in the ad were handled by production designer Jim Spencer and crew, who among other projects had the effects-laden movie Poltergeist under their belt. They would subsequently work on films like Innerspace and Gremlins.
Created by advertising agency Young & Rubicam and directed by Manny Perez, the spot would go on to snag a 1983 Clio award in the Cinema and Advertising category. It might not be high art, but at least it reflects the most important aspect of the video game it’s shilling: it’s a lot of fun. It also got the job done for Atari; by their estimations the theatrical ad and shortened TV spots had by August of 1982 increased public awareness of Dig Dug by a whopping 227% over markets without the ads. This converted into 30% higher coin drops for the arcade game in those same markets. I can Dig that!
A lot of people might remember the manic ads that Sega put out in the 90’s (SEGAAA!), and consider them the apex (or nadir) of video game advertisements.
But Atari kind of created the mold here, with this insane 60 second spot that aired in 1983, announcing the crossing of their arcade hit Pole Position over to the 2600 and 5200 video game systems. You know that any ad which starts with a giant hand reaching down and shaking the douche-bag corporate executive “who keeps interesting things from happening” and family out of their VW Rabbit and into Formula One racecars is DEFINITELY a keeper.
Please enjoy the mayhem, and remember: THIS WAY, CLARENCE!
After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon, in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:
In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured.
Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines. Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.
The story of the Atari Lynx handheld console is another one for the “Squandered Chances by Atari” file. You find a lot of these in the later years of the company. 30 years on, let’s take a look at this ill-fated marvel.
Heading into the final stretch of the 80’s, product sales are failing to meet the projections of computer game company Epyx. The C64 is dropping off the scope as a gaming platform, and a hardware project is draining resources, called Handy. It is designed by Dave Needle and R.J. Mical, of the Amiga computer development team at Commodore. Handy is to be the world’s first colour hand-held game device but is proving to be an elongated drag on Epyx, with two years and a reported $8 million sunk into its development.
The ill-fated Atari Lynx
Another problem for Epyx is that its games are some of the most pirated computer titles around, with practically everyone with a C64 playing Summer Games and Impossible Mission but few actually paying for the privilege. The Handy project is eventually sold to Atari, via a deal that makes the video game and computer company a part owner of Epyx. Announcing the colour handheld system as the PCES or Portable Color Entertainment System at the Summer CES in 1989, Atari eventually renames the system as the Lynx. Meanwhile, Epyx reorganizes, dropping the distribution part of the company to focus on game development for consoles. They also lay off 85% of their workforce, along with the departure of Mical, Needle and company head David Morse.
Atari/Tengen arcade port of Rampart, one of the better games for the Lynx
The new name of Atari’s handheld device highlights the fact that up to eight of the devices can be linked together via a cable, for head-to-head play. It also sports a 3 1/2-inch colour LCD screen with a resolution of 160×102 pixels, capable of displaying 16 colours at a time out of a palette of 4,096. A powerful screen indeed, but also responsible for the reputation of the Lynx as a notorious battery-killer. Inside the case also resides a 16mHz 65C02 processor.
Lynx sees a limited rollout, first hitting the New York City area on September 1, 1989. In the early part of 1990, the system begins selling in five more markets: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. It is available nationally through 1990. While technically superior to the recently released Nintendo Gameboy portable game system, the $149.95 Lynx and its games lineup ultimately fail to compete against Nintendo’s juggernaut.
Today the Visual Cortex is sporting an Intellivision magazine ad, featuring the system’s well-heeled attack dog, author George Plimpton.
Plimpton featured prominently in a series of attack ads by Mattel that highlighted their system’s advanced graphics capability, especially when compared with the anemic visuals of their chief rival, Atari’s VCS/2600 unit. You might be excused for thinking, “Why Plimpton?”. Well, Plimpton came to national prominence as a kind of high-brow intellectual for the Budweiser set, a sportswriter who would poke fun at his high-falutin’ ways by attempting to play sports at the pro level and then write about his haplessness. So he was a pretty good fit for the Intellivision, which specialized in sports games like NFL Football and MLB Baseball that blew away the Atari versions in terms of both graphical quality and realistic gameplay. Here is the ad:
George lays into Atari
These hard hitting attack ads irked Atari president Ray Kassar so much that he complained about the “unfairness” of the comparisons to the TV networks airing them and threatened legal action. Eventually Atari would come out with their own version of the highly intellectual pitchman; a child dressed up in a suit and glasses who would point out the versions of popular arcade games that were absent on the Intellivision. Of course, Mattel then struck back with Plimpton schooling their own version of the pint-sized pitchman.
As a couple of bonuses, here is John Hodgman’s spoof on the Plimpton ad, used to shill his own book The Areas of My Expertise in 2006, as well as a link to Newground’s hilarious (and fun to play) fake web-based ColecoVision game George Plimpton’s Video Falconry, created in 2011.
A spoof of the Inty ad featuring John Hodgman, 2005
Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, and when he left the company he tried his hand at a myriad of start-up attempts. He had a particular obsession with robotics, from developing the animatronic animals in his Pizza Time Theatre restaurant chain, to household robot company Androbot, to the Axlon company responsible for the oddball scheme he is shilling here in the picture used for today’s What Nolan Said:
The picture is of Bushnell presenting a “Petster” to a crowd at the New York Toy Fair in 1985. You can see the Catster version rolling around at the bottom of the image; they also released a dog, hamster and even spider edition of the toys. The idea was to sell robotic animals to people who want to have a pet, but don’t care for the shedding or the pooping or the bringing of dead mice to the door as an offering to the master. At the time, Bushnell was barking up the wrong tree, and the prohibitively priced Petster line went nowhere. Petster did, however, help sow the seeds for spatially aware household robotics such as the Roomba and other robotic vacuum cleaners.
In the picture, even Nolan seems perplexed he’s standing there trying to sell the idea that people would have this particular want. I’ll leave you with a TV spot showing the Petster in action. At the end of this article, find a YouTube video of a Petster advertisement.
This article was originally posted to The Dot Eaters on Nov. 29, 2012
On November 29, 1972, a recently incorporated company in California named Atari announced the release of its first product, an electronic video arcade game called PONG. Two players would stand at the wood-grain and yellow cabinet, twiddling the control knobs that moved two paddles displayed on a B&W TV screen. With the paddles they would play an electronically abstract game of table tennis, batting a little white blip back and forth in an attempt to “Avoid Missing Ball For High Score”, as the simple gameplay instructions prompted.
Conceived by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and designed by Al Alcorn, Pong was a smash success, giving birth to the video game industry. Fast-forward nearly 40 years later, in 2011 that industry was worth US$65 billion dollars.
This newfangled electronic Ping Pong thing comes home, 1975
Among other celebrations of Pong’s 40th birthday, an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest game of Pong was made on Nov. 16, 2012. A 22-story version of the game, complete with festive lighting, was played on the side of the Downtown Marriott hotel in Kansas City, MO.
In a lead-up to the anniversary, earlier this year Atari announced the Pong Indie Developer Challenge. Offering a grand prize of up to $100,000, the company solicited independent app developers to submit their take on the venerable Pong. The three winners were announced on Aug. 2, and they will participate in a profit sharing scheme divided between the three Pong apps that will see them collect royalties up to the winning prize amounts. The top winner, the freemium-based PONG World by zGames, can be snagged at the iOS App Store here.
Pong put Atari on the road to becoming the fastest growing company in American history. It’s no stretch to consider that when you say Pong is 40 years-old today, you’re also saying the video game industry is 40 years-old. So like those tipsy patrons of Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale California, who played the original Pong prototype until it broke and convinced Bushnell and Atari to produce the game commercially, raise a glass to the grand-daddy of the video game industry. Your serve, PONG!
If you can think of anything less cool and hip and high technology than a television infomercial, please write in and let me know. But the ad gurus working for Atari in the mid-90’s thought this format would be a great way to move the Jaguar off shelves.
The Jag had already been on the market two years, and in 1995 had Sony’s PlayStation and the Sega Saturn breathing down its neck. Touted by Atari as the first 64-bit game machine, inside there were actually two 32-bit chips called Tom and Jerry connected to system memory by a 64-bit wide data path. This configuration made developing games for the machine difficult, hence third-party games were slow in coming. Meanwhile, the game libraries of its rivals swelled, and Atari discontinued the struggling Jaguar the next year.
Hard to see why, with hip and happening advertising like this. C’mon, Bob!
While not the first programmable home game system, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the 2600 after its model number, was definitely the console that put home video games into the public consciousness. Released in 1977 and bundled with the cartridge Combat , it had a rocky beginning, with production problems and lacklustre sales haunting its launch. Things got so bad that Atari co-founder and CEO Nolan Bushnell dramatically stood up during an Atari/Warner stockholder’s meeting and suggested that the 2600 have its price slashed and be discontinued by the company. It remained in Atari’s catalog, but Bushnell was pushed out of Atari in 1978.
First VCS prototype, assembled in 1975
With the home licensing of Taito/Midway’s arcade smash Space Invaders in 1980, the 2600 went on to become one of the most successful home video game consoles of all time. So wide was its installed base with users that two companies sprang up to become major third-party suppliers of games for the system. Both Activision and Imagic produced some great games, but only the former was able to survive the big video game crash of 1983 – 1984 by pivoting to the home computer market, eventually becoming one of the largest video game manufacturers and remaining so to this day.
The 2600 itself fought off all comers, including game machines from Magnavox and Mattel, until the 1982 release of the ColecoVision usurped the throne with powerful arcade-like graphics. Still, the 2600 held on in budget form as the $50 2600 Jr., until eventually discontinued by Atari in 1991. The system is truly one for the history books.