The Inside Story of Pong
November 30, 2012 8:32 PM   Subscribe

The Inside Story Of Pong - On Nov. 29, 1972, a crude table-tennis arcade game in a garish orange cabinet was delivered to bars and pizza parlors around California, and a multi-billion-dollar industry was born. Here's how that happened, direct from the freaks and geeks who invented a culture and paved the way for today's tech moguls.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (17 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The presentation of this Buzzfeed post is fantastic. How long have they been doing this?
posted by tapesonthefloor at 9:17 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Now if they take it HG Wells
Well, I'll be on the first flight
To a time before the Kong
Whatever happened to Pong?
posted by any major dude at 9:18 PM on November 30, 2012

The early arcades were great. It really bums me out that the world may never see those early pre-cpu games like Pong, Stunt Cycle and a lot of the Exidy games like Death Race.

Sure there's always MAME, but those early games aren't included because they'd be "mere" simulations of the games rather than emulation. Not that I want to knock the MAME folks, because they've done wonderful and unique work, and I'm extremely thankful to them all.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:32 PM on November 30, 2012

Ok, this comment isn't about Pong, but that article brought back some memories.

I live a few blocks from that Rooster T Feathers. I saw a friend perform a comedy routine there last year. My house is painted with paint from the store they mention in the first paragraph. It struck close to home!

When I was 11, after three years of programming on an Osborne 1, I got an Atari 1040 ST. I learned everything about that machine. I disassembled the operating system, I patched it, I hacked it, I memorized how many cycles the CPU took to execute all the important instructions. I wrote games, word processors, and even presented a demo at WAACE Atarifest 1992 in Reston, VA. My local BBS, The 8th Dimension, was running the games room. I wrote the BBS software that it ran. This is all to say that Atari was pretty much my whole life.

One day I was idly leafing through the manual that came with the ST and saw that Atari was based out of Sunnyvale. At that moment I decided that I wanted to visit Sunnyvale, and if possible, live there and work for Atari.

Two decades later, my then-girlfriend and I found ourselves commuting from San Francisco to jobs in San Jose and Mountain View, and we wanted to move closer to work. I'd just gotten a job at Google and even with the shuttle it could be a 90 minute commute each way.

We started looking in Palo Alto, where teardown dumps start at $2 million. Not gonna happen. Then we looked at Mountain View, which was still too expensive. Finally, with a week left on our lease, we found a place in Sunnyvale that looked promising.

I showed up at the house and met the landlord. Upon opening the door he said, "this house is for a family. You are a single man. I can't rent it to you." The Fair Housing Act be damned, I still needed a place to live. I persuaded him to give me the tour anyway, promising that I planned to have a family soon. After the tour, he was still distant and cold; there was no way he would rent to us. This was far and away the best house I'd seen in a month of searching--fruit trees in back, nice hardwood floors, and you couldn't even see a liquor store from the front yard. Hoping to find common ground, I asked him what he did. He said he was retired but used to work at NASA. On what did you do, I asked? He said he did fluid flow simulations for the space shuttle back in the day.

I immediately remembered a conversation I'd had with my new office mate at Google. She had done a master's degree in partial differential equations. She explained the basics to me because that is good getting-to-know you talk among nerds. Because of this, I knew exactly one thing about fluid flow simulation, and hoping to avoid living in a hotel, I took a shot with the only idea I had left:

"Did you use the Navier-Stokes equations?" I asked? His eyes lit up and he became animated. He told me all about his work at NASA, the difficulties in dealing with turbulence, and the problems with numerical methods. We had a grand old time talking about computing and fluid flow and differential equations and all sorts of other cool things. By the end of the conversation, he said he wouldn't consider renting to anyone else, and that I was like a son to him(!).

A few years later, my then-girlfriend and I are now married and own our own little bit of Sunnyvale. Sunnyvale is shockingly overpriced, it doesn't have trees, it's overrun with liquor stores and check cashing places, and the only good things about it are the weather and that it isn't Santa Clara. I was down about this for a long time until I realized: I'm actually living my childhood dream.

Beware of your childhood dreams. They can come back to get you when you're not looking.
posted by jewzilla at 10:04 PM on November 30, 2012 [23 favorites]

Lunch bell rings at 1130. Pile 4 or 5 of us into my bud's 65 Mustang and head to Shakey's for their cheap-o buffet. Play Pong until we run out of quarters. Return to school just in time for afternoon attendance check.

What a great article. I miss those old arcade games.
posted by Pudhoho at 10:05 PM on November 30, 2012

The inside story of Pong?








posted by yoink at 10:25 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pong. I was 16, and working as an apprentice in theatre. This was fortunate, as it made it possible for me to go un-carded, hanging out at a bar (with my older fellow workers) that had the first pong machine I ever saw. I was the best at it. But I still find Breakout my favorite of the really old games.
posted by Goofyy at 10:43 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I played Pong in what had to be early 1972. Vancouver. I would have been twelve, playing in a hockey tournament and they'd stuck a game in the main off-ice activities area, I guess to see if kids were interested. It was free. The lineups were non-stop all weekend.
posted by philip-random at 10:46 PM on November 30, 2012

It's odd how little those early (pre-Space Invaders) games get mentioned these days. Of those Atari made, Breakout, Tank and Sprint are the ones that went on to have the greatest influence on the company's later games, and gaming at large.

Breakout: not only did it become the go-to game to copy for indie startups trying to make a quick buck (as well as the occasional larger company like Taito), Atari themselves copied it, first with Super Breakout, and then the late-Silver-era game Off The Wall, which is multiplayer Breakout with powerups, where each player got one side of the board. Warlords, another pre-Space Invaders game and one of the best from that time, was also greatly influenced by Breakout.

Tank was released in multiple cabinets the largest of which supported eight (!) players surrounding a giant screen. (How kick ass would that be to find today? I'm amazed Tank is almost forgotten now.) But its real legacy was its Atari 2600 port Combat, probably the best-selling Atari game of all (since it was the pack-in).

Sprint would be returned to many times, both in the early days of arcades and in the Silver era too, in the form of Championship Sprint and Badlands. On the 2600 it was known as Indy 500, released with a special controller that was basically a paddle without the stops at the ends of its range, so it could spin continuously.

Both Tank and Sprint can be seen as predecessors of Asteroids, with their ship-perspective, as opposed to player perspective, steering, and their rudimentary physics simulations.

(I should define terms. I tend to think of the pre-Space Invaders age the "bronze" age, the Space Invaders-to-Crash period as the "golden" age, and Crash-to-Street Fighter II the "silver" age of arcades. I don't usually name the age after that, mostly because I don't feel like I should mention its substance in polite conversation.)
posted by JHarris at 12:21 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I loved the presentation of the article as well (though I thought the actual content skipped detail I would have enjoyed learning).
posted by maxwelton at 1:19 AM on December 1, 2012

I played the Pong arcade with my sister in one of those places.

Intel made memory chips back then, and the tiny memories sold for a lot of money. I heard that Noland asked Intel if he could buy the memory chips that failed their testing--just tell him which half of the memory doesn't work. He designed his boards to be able to take the 1/2 broken chips, which he got for very low cost.

I also heard that when Warner bought Atari, they brought in this textile manager, who didn't understand why these game designers were making so much money. He told them "you're nothing but a bunch of towel designers, you're a dime a dozen.".

So the game designers left (to form Activision), and Atari's game quality, and sales, plummeted.
posted by eye of newt at 1:23 AM on December 1, 2012

I don't know about plummeted. Certainly some excellent designers walked out to form Activision and that hurt them, but it wasn't the end of the world for Atari, not yet. Atari Corp. lost a lot of great designers, though, when Warner Bros. sold off the arcade manufacturer Atari Games, who still had some of their best work ahead of them.

The games that are often pointed to as signs of Atari's downfall are 2600 Pac-Man and E.T., but those were sabotaged by extremely short development cycles on a platform that required a lot of time and energy to develop for successfully. But possibly another contributor to the death of the 2600 was the incredible assortment of bad games that third parties were releasing, glutting the market.

(BTW, the edit comment function is intended for use in correcting typos, not for adding or moving content around. It's no crime to make a second comment to add more information.)
posted by JHarris at 1:31 AM on December 1, 2012

I'm at the age where I can clearly remember the fun of the old electro-mechanical games they had down in the four-lane basement duckpin alley around the corner from my grandmother's house. These things were all built in the physical, practical world, with little cars that rolled along on sculptured rolling drums and guns that shot fusillades of BBs at targets long since scratched all to hell. They were a bit silly, in their way, but no less fun during those breaks when I'd be banned from bowling for the evening because of my unfortunate youthful predilection for hurling the ball overhand, and were as loud as the midway, clacking and clattering and rattling and playing back blowsy announcements and sound effects from embedded record players.

Pong, on the other hand, was new, but just...boop boop boop boop boop. Looked like the world of the future back then, but wasn't. The upscale fancy bowling alley up York Road where we'd go after church sometimes had a glutinous yellow glob of a Computer Space machine long before computer-based games started to proliferate, but still, the game play wasn't there. There was something about the machines, the real physical machines and how you could trick them, carefully making your little car-on-a-stick hop out of the track on the rolling conveyor belt and crash around loudly over the plastic scenery.

Space Invaders arrived and single-handedly wiped out all the old mechanicals, but I found the accelerating soundtrack to be more of an inducement to panic attacks than fun. Too much "beep boop" and too much HURRRY! for my tastes.

I wouldn't enjoy video games again until Qix appeared, partly because it was lovely and abstract and challenging, yet playable, but mostly because it rewarded scores with a deep thrumming drone that hit you right where you were pressed up against the machine. Plus, Qix wasn't about anything. It wasn't pretending to be a not-very-fun-in-the-real-world paddle game, or pretending to be spaceships or aliens or evil robots attacking—it was just lines and abstractions and territory scored with a fizzing, buzzing sonic uncertainty that almost certainly influenced my eventual decision to start making music myself.
posted by sonascope at 5:29 AM on December 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh man...Warlords. Hadn't thought about that game in years. Good times.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:11 AM on December 1, 2012

I'm amazed Tank is almost forgotten now...

Heh...Tank was one of my favorite games...I'm flashing back to a Chuck E. Cheese playing Tank, waiting for the next showing of The Last Starfighter...
posted by foonly at 8:50 AM on December 1, 2012

You may be happy to hear that the Museum of Modern Art has finally started a collection of video games. Pong is just one of the classics (modern and retro) slated to be a part of the first installation.

So, there you have it. Arcades are turning into museums, and museums are turning into arcades.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 10:16 AM on December 1, 2012

If you don't want to go to MOMA, consider coming to Rochester NY. Our local Museum of Play (as seen on The Daily Show) has an International Center for the History of Electronic Games.
posted by Wild_Eep at 5:38 PM on December 1, 2012

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