The History of video Games #2: Pong

Updated: Jun 15


Welcome back everyone. In the last article we looked at the very first video games. In this we will investigate the first commercially successful video game, Pong.

It is worth noting that prior to Pong there were few, if any video arcades. However, there were pinball arcades, which housed multiple pinball machines. Pinball machines were also common in most bars.

Pong (the arcade version) was released in 1972 - several years earlier than the home version. The prototype cabinet was set up in a local bar, Andy Capp's Tavern. This was chosen due to the close working relationship between Atari and the tavern - Atari having provided the tavern with pinball machines in the past.

The prototype became very popular, and as word spread, people would come to the tavern specifically to play Pong. Allegedly, it became so successful that the unit needed repairing after the coin mechanism overflowed with quarters.

Improved commercial cabinets were soon designed, and Pong cabinets started to appear across the world in 1973. In many ways, Pong kickstarted the video arcade industry. By the 1980s video arcades had largely supplanted the pinball arcade as the go-to indoor hang out.

The Secret of its Success

Pong was a remarkably simple game that leveraged the best gameplay possible from such primitive hardware - its technical specifications would look archaic by today's standards. Its gameplay was simplicity itself. Players would control one 'paddle' each via an analogue dial. Movement was limited to the vertical axis - the paddles were unable to move horizontally forwards or back. The aim was to bounce the 'ball' past the opposing player's paddle to score a point, the first player to score eleven points won. In essence it was a highly simplified digital representation of table tennis.

As you can see its audio visual qualities were extremely primitive by today's standards. They consist of a monochrome colour pallet, chunky low res pixels, no in-game music and sound effects that were limited to beeps. However for the time this was revolutionary.

Even such a simple game used ingenious gameplay mechanics to increase both its challenge and entertainment value. Firstly, the portion of the paddle the ball hit determined its return angle, allowing players to send the ball back at extreme angles thus making it more challenging for the other player to intercept.

Secondly, to ratchet up the difficulty further the ball got faster the longer it was in play, when the ball was lost the speed reset.

Lastly, the paddles were unable to reach the top or bottom of the screen, thus leaving a gap which the ball could slip through. Although this was originally due to technical limitations the developers decided against trying to correct it, reasoning it made the game more challenging and fun. The "It's not a bug, it's a feature!" trope is as old as gaming itself it seems.

The challenging gameplay these mechanics created served triple duty. Firstly, it stopped it from becoming boring due to being too easy. Secondly, it ensured players would keep pumping in quarters to keep playing after they lost - the 'Just one more go' factor. Thirdly, it prevented skillful players from having excessively long play sessions on a single quarter, which would probably become boring for the players, frustrating for other players waiting in line and harm the profits of the arcade owner.

These design choices worked, as its simple gameplay loops proved addictive and resulted in enormous commercial success. The age of the coin-op arcade had begun.

Pong Comes Home

The Atari Pong home system

The home version appeared in 1975 and became an instant success. Many clones from rival manufacturers soon flooded the market, all wanting a slice of the home video entertainment pie. The word was out - there was money to be made in home video games, and the most successful console would get the lions share. This inevitably led to the 'first console war'.

Join me next time as we look at the 1st generation video game consoles in 'The History of video Games #3: Gaming Comes to the Living Room'.

See you all there :-)