How Pong changed the world
We all know Pong. The two paddles scrolling up and down the side of the screen, the blip of a ball pinging back and forth between the two players’ pads – it’s an industry phenomenon, the birth of interactive entertainment, signified with two rectangles, a square and a dotted line.
The old adage of ‘less is more’ certainly works in Pong’s favour: it’s arguably the most simplistic game out there, yet perhaps the most impactful.
The story of Pong is a relatively simple one; it was actually preceded by another coin-operated cabinet called Computer Space, a game that tasked players with taking on the role of a pixelated space ship and taking out enemy alien craft.
It was difficult for a coin-op, not player-friendly enough to extract enough credits and keep players coming back for more (though it did make over $3 million in cabinet sales), so Atari founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney – along with programmer Al Alcorn – thought up Pong: a game that was simple to pick up, competitive, and – most importantly – addictive.
Before Pong cabinets captured the imaginations of the mainstream, computer games were the domain of bored computer programmers of military engineers that had time to spare an access to an incredibly rare resource at the time: a computer.
After the release of the Magnavox Odyseesy – complete with its own primitive tennis game – Bushnell and his fellow employees at Atari saw the lines these games were drawing in at stores that had the console on-site, and realised that if games like these were made publically available, on a kind-of pay-per-play basis, it would easily draw a profit.
Pong was born, and the game caught on; you could argue it was the birth of social gaming – a collaborative yet competitive effort between two friends, working together, to try and get the highest score possible whilst trying to stretch your money out for as long as possible. Pong invented arcade gaming as we know it today – it established that there was a market of young people with disposable income that would happily pay money to play games in a social environment.
Consoles were still ludicrously expensive – owned by those with a lot of wealth to spare, or those that were lucky enough to get a hold of one of the limited machines manufactured in the first place. Pong tapped into the common market, the everyday player: what the industry would eventually come to call the ‘casual gamer’.
Pong was a revelation, shipping 3500 units in a matter of months, at a time when traditional coin-operated games (mostly pinball) were only selling under 1500 units per release.
The press of the time became enamoured with the idea of a playable TV program, and there was a jostling amongst newspapers and magazines to define this new phenomenon: Space Age games, Space Age pinball, TV tennis, TV games, television skill games and video skill games were some of the offered format labels offered, before popular consensus settled on the videogames moniker that we know and love today.
Pong came to not only be one of the most iconic images of the videogames industry, but also of the Seventies in general – seeping its way into cross-media, references made to the Pong machine in sitcoms, movies and literature from the time.
Pong also launched Atari to international acclaim; drawing attention to the company that would become synonymous with gaming (for the next few decades, at least).
The simplicity and accessibility of Pong slingshotted the idea of interactive entertainment to the masses, breaking out of the humid labs of computer professionals and engineers into the thriving American bars of the 70s.
Due to Pong’s relative simplicity to code and create, many junior programmers used the game as a basis to get to grips with creating games, and almost every single format of console has since seen some iteration of Pong make an appearance – usually as a test for up-and-coming designers to get to grips with the consoles programming language.
It’s a success story unique in its inception and impact, a technical and cultural revolution all in one. Without Pong, we wouldn’t have the industry as we know it today. Pong didn’t just change the videogames industry, it changed the world