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Pong is a video game released originally as a coin-operated arcade game by Atari Inc. on November 29, 1972. Pong is based on the sport of table tennis (or "ping pong"), and named after the sound generated by the circuitry when the ball is hit. The word Pong is a registered trademark of Atari Interactive, while the term "pong" is used to describe the genre of "bat and ball" video games. Pong is often regarded as the world's first video arcade game, but Computer Space by Nutting Associates had been launched a year earlier in 1971. Pong was the first video game to achieve widespread popularity in both arcade and home console versions, and launched the initial boom in the video game industry. The popularity of Pong led to a successful patent infringement lawsuit from the makers of an earlier video game for the Magnavox Odyssey. Pong is a first generation video game, a term used to describe the video game industry between 1972 and 1977.


Origins and development[edit]

The earliest electronic ping-pong game was played on an oscilloscope, and was developed by William A. Higinbotham at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. His game was called Tennis for Two.

In September 1966, Ralph Baer, then working for Sanders Associates, wrote a short paper outlining a system for playing simple video games on a home television set. Originally, his chief engineer Sam Lackoff asked Baer to build a television set. Baer decided to add the new concept of playing games on a television screen. He developed a computer version of a ping-pong game, and his ideas were patented. Magnavox licensed the technology from Sanders Associates, and in the middle of 1972, the company began selling the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console. The Odyssey was capable of playing a dozen different games, including a basic version of table tennis and a slightly more complex version of tennis.

Displaying animated graphics on a television screen and reacting in real time to user input would have required more computing power than 1960s consumer products could deliver. Although computing technology had progressed significantly by 1970, the tasks performed by a modern-day cell phone would still have required a mainframe computer the size of a small apartment. Despite this, it was possible to create a tennis video game by restricting the graphics to just one line per paddle, a dotted line for the net and a square for the ball.

In May 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was demonstrated at a trade show in Burlingame, California. Nolan Bushnell attended the event and played the Odyssey's table tennis game. In June 1972, Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded a new company which they named Atari, with a starting capital of $250 each. Bushnell was a keen player of the board game Go, and the word Atari in Japanese has a meaning similar to the term check in chess.

Bushnell was concerned that his pioneering 1971 video arcade game, Computer Space, had been too complicated for some users. In an interview, he said of the game: "You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn't want to read instructions. To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play. Bushnell envisioned creating a video car driving game for arcades and hired Allan (Al) Alcorn, an electronic engineer who had recently finished college. Concerned that this project would be too complex for his new employee, Bushnell's first request to Alcorn was to create a ping-pong game. The game that Alcorn created was fun to play and since the name Ping-Pong was already trademarked, it was called simply Pong. The dominant arcade game at the time was pinball, and unlike pinball, Pong was conceived as a game for two players. Amusement industry experts were unsure about Pong's potential, and initially there was little interest in the product.

The first successful video game[edit]

Before Bushnell departed on a trip to Chicago to meet with pinball machine manufacturers Williams and Bally/Midway, it was agreed that Pong should undergo a field test. Bushnell and Alcorn then added a coin-operated switch to the machine so that it could be used as an arcade game. The instructions of the game were simple: Avoid missing ball for high score.

The system was tested initially in a small bar in Grass Valley, California and Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar in Sunnyvale, California. After only one day, the game's popularity had grown to the point where people lined up outside Andy Capp's waiting for it to open.

After a while, the unit broke down, and the bar's owner called Al Alcorn at home to have him remove the game. When he opened the unit he discovered the problem - the milk carton placed inside to catch the coins was overflowing with quarters, causing the coin switch to become jammed. According to the account given by Nolan Bushnell, the Pong cabinet at Andy Capp's broke down the day after it was installed, while Alcorn remembers it working for two weeks before the breakdown occurred. Bally/Midway turned down Pong after watching a demonstration, but the successful trial at Andy Capp's led Atari to manufacture the coin-operated games itself. The games were manufactured in a converted roller skating rink.

The coin-operated Pong games manufactured by Atari were a great success, and by the end of March 1973, between 8,000 and 10,000 of the units had been sold. However, Atari did not obtain a patent on its system until November 1973, and by this time numerous other manufacturers had produced versions of ping-pong video games.

Other versions and platforms[edit]

Many versions of Pong were released, including Pong Doubles (a four-player variant), Quadrapong (also four-player), Super Pong and Doctor Pong. In 1976 Atari released Breakout, a single player variation of Pong where the object of the game is to remove bricks from a wall by hitting them with a ball. Breakout was updated successfully in 1986 by the Taito Corporation under the name Arkanoid.

Pong has been reissued for a range of modern platforms, including:

  • There is a version for the PlayStation, and it has been included in the recent TV Games collections, which are console-on-a-chip systems featuring classic games from the Atari 2600 era.
  • Pong is also available on Arcade Classics for the Sega Genesis.
  • Atari's 1991 arcade game Off the Wall features a competitive bonus round that plays exactly like a round of Pong.
  • In the Atari game Test Drive Overdrive, users can play Pong when the game is loading. In single-player mode the user play against the computer, but in multi-player mode the user can play against the other player.