Gaming Pioneers: Part One

The man behind Pong and the Atari 2600 talks about the industry he helped to create

According to GDC 2008 attendee evaluations, the most popular session was not the Portal post-mortem or even the Super Smash Bros Brawl development discussion.

The highest rated talk was "How to Create an Industry: The Making of the Brown Box and PONG" from Ralph Baer and Allan Alcorn. Both men spoke of their inventions and their contributions to the games industry circa 1960s and 1970s. Later that evening, Allan Alcorn presented the Pioneer Award to Ralph Baer at the Game Developers Choice Awards.

Both men were gracious enough to speak to about their first-hand experiences and the current state of the industry they helped to create. In part one of this feature, we first talk with former Atari engineer Allan Alcorn It must be odd to look around and see thousands of people here at GDC, considering that the industry used to consist only of a handful of people - yourself included. How did your involvement begin?

Allan Alcorn: I was fortunate enough right out of college to get a job at Ampex in 1968. These are some of the guys who had invented videotape recording, so they understood video really well.

And Nolan Bushnell was there in the same group working with me. Because he had worked in an amusement park, Nolan had the idea to make a coin-operated entertainment game using video. He was going to use a computer because he had played with the Space War game at the University of Utah, which happened to be one of the few leading centers for computer graphics at the time in the world.

So that was the concept. He went out on his own...He worked for Nutting & Associates and designed a game called Computer Space, which was groundbreaking in that it was the first coin-operated videogame.

Then he hired me, started his own company called Syzygy, and I did Pong. That's where I fit into the history of it. You might say that the industry started with Pong, right? There were some other rumblings and things, but all of a sudden Pong was a hit...

Q:We still make a distinction today between computer games, console games, and coin-op arcade games - although the lines have definitely blurred. Do you think that this tracks the creation of the industry - Steve Russell creating computer games, Ralph Baer creating home games, and you and Nolan creating coin-op arcade games?

I think the first videogame...That is, a game played on a light-emissive device - a cathode ray tube at the time, now maybe LCDs - controlled by a computer, was probably done by Steve Russell with Space War. That was on the PDP-1, and that was way back. So the concept was there.

What Ralph did was truly remarkable in the sense that he made the first home videogame that hooked to the home set. In those days, it was a lot different. The TV had a twin lead antenna, not a co-axial, and there was no VCR. There was no cable. You just put an antenna up, and that was it. It was conceptually a tremendous breakthrough, and that was marketed by Magnavox.

What Steve did with Space War was indeed the first computer game, but remember - computers were these big things. They were not home computers, so this was not a good thing. Managers were trying to get these damn things off the machines because they were taking up valuable time. So there was no thread that led to computer games.

[Computer games] really came out of...The interesting consequence of Apple, which was born out of Atari. So, there were the games, there were the computers. In fact, one of the first things they programmed on the Apple ][ was Breakout.

Q:And then Atari itself was in the home computing market...

That came later. We never did much in personal home computer games. I mean, we had the machines, but our big efforts...We led with the arcade games and then the home games.

Q:Before the market crashed in 1982-83, there was news of a telecommunications division - Ataritel. If it hadn't failed, perhaps it might have been a precursor to what the industry is doing today with online gaming, digital downloads and such.

The failure of Ataritel was really illustrative of the failure of Atari.

It was shortly after I left, but it was a big, well-funded division that had completed - to my understanding - several products and they were never released. Why wouldn't you release a product? That's why Atari died.

Q:Looking at the games industry today, is there a modern equivalent to Atari in terms of the innovation and risk-taking? Or, towards the end, in terms of mismanagement?

The way I look at it, there were three different Ataris.

There was Nolan Bushnell's Atari which ran from 1972 until about 1979 or 1980. Then there was Warner's, Ray Kassar's Atari. Then in 1983 there was Jack Trammel's Atari.

So if we are talking about the early Atari, which is what I expect from your question, I don't think so. Because, at Atari, we were the whole thing. We were breaking new ground, and that's a whole different thing when you are out there making new stuff that hasn't been done before.

Whereas now you are competing with somebody, so you have a tight measure by which you have to be compared against. But when you are building the first one of something, you can get away with it. We were so young and risk-taking that we had a lot of fun and did a lot of neat things.

To answer your question more thoughtfully, I would argue that there are companies like that - they just aren't in the videogame business. Google, when they got started, was like that. That's where it is fun.

If I tried to be in the videogames business, I'd be terrible. Because I'm not good at improving upon things incrementally. I like to go build the first of something, where I can be sloppy and look smart. [Laughs]

Q:You mentioned not having any competition at first, so how did you model the business? Didn't you also invent your own competition at one point in order to get around the way that games were exclusively distributed?

Here's what happened. Remember, what I like to do and what we were doing is - fundamentally, in the big picture - making a disruptive technology as opposed to creating a market. There was already a market for coin-operated entertainment - it was pinball machines and maybe driving games, things like that.

We knew that, and we had a route of about 50 machines in the neighborhood that generated a nice cash flow. So, what we did was we applied this new technology to change that industry. Our model, then, was Bally - Bally Corporation in Chicago was the dominant supplier of pinball machines, and we wanted to be as big as Bally.

Well, Pong was such a hit and took off so fast, along with our next games, that within a year or so we became as big as Bally. And then we made a decision to do a home game. Because, basically, Nolan being a very good businessman, looked around and said "Guys, we've saturated the coin-op business." In fact, we did the trick with Kee Games where we had our own competition and expanded our market a little bit.

But, basically, the best you can do is capture 100 per cent of a market of known size. So how do you get bigger? So we said let's sell them in the home.

Indeed, the fact that Ralph Baer and Magnavox had built one and sold one - now it can be done. Because there are FCC issues, there are marketing issues, there are a lot of issues that we hadn't explored that could stop you. We thought "Let's just do it and see what happens. Let's try it out. That will be fun."

So we made "Pong on a chip," which was a very ambitious thing. This was back in the days when people didn't do chips. With a small team we went ahead and did it, and then we got real lucky and sold it to Sears & Roebuck. It was a very wonderful, fortunate thing that happened.

Q:Looking back at that period now, if you had to name your biggest regret - either something you never pursued or something you wished you had thought of at the time - what might that be?

Well, the big regret I have is not taking up Steve Jobs on his offer of founder's stock. And passing up getting a free computer. That's my first regret...[Laughs]

They offered us the product and we passed on it. Now I don't regret having passed on the product, because we had all we could to at Atari to do videogames and we were just poised to take off with the VCS. We made far more money off of the VCS than Apple did in those days. I don't regret that decision.

Q:In your opinion, do you think we are a mature industry now? We don't have as much risk-taking, perhaps, but we have huge companies, huge budgets, stockholders, a lot of acquisitions...

I compare it to the movie industry, right? The numbers are almost in the same league. The Academy Awards are coming up and that's a big thing in society, but beneath it all are videogames which are nearly just as big.

Is it a mature industry? It depends upon your perspective. By my perspective, sure. Guys are out there duking it out. Huge amounts of money and huge amounts of risk and capital. Will it change? Sure it's going to change, because it is based upon technology. But I'd have to say, given all the money that's going around, it's mature.

When I think of immature...We didn't have any venture funding, clearly, because there wasn't a lot of venture funding back in 1972. Banks wouldn't even give us a line of credit. "Videogames? Isn't that the mafia? The mob?" So we had to work from retained earnings.

That, to me, is immature. But it's fun. I like that, in a way, because you can do lots of great stuff and nobody really notices your mistakes so much.

Q:What do you think about the current competition in the videogame market?

I think that, as the "arms race" has proliferated with the big-end machines such as the Xbox and the PlayStation...It really is an arms race, and you get caught in your own metaphor. You tend to build products like the ones you built before. And the theory is - prettier graphics, people will buy it.

A lot of credit goes to Nintendo for taking another path. Going with mid-quality graphics but innovative controls and a unique style of games. I think there is a danger, when you start making movies or videogames for one group - you know, the young, teenaged men - then you leave out a big piece of the market. And that's the other thing. Games have been decried for appealing to young man and they really can be much wider.

It's nice that Nintendo has done that. That's hard to do these days. Think of what it takes to say "Gee, I have this weird idea. I'm going to do it differently than everybody else." Well, that's not right. There's a common wisdom as to how it is supposed to be done.

The bigger the industry gets, the harder that is to fight.

Q:Is there room, though, for so many companies in the market right now? It's a lot different when Atari was dominant, Mattel barely made a dent and third-party software companies didn't even exist yet.

The story on all the competition was very interesting. People don't always realise it. This was in the day when most consumer electronics products companies were designed for the marketing companies.

For example, how did transistors get into televisions? Televisions were vacuum tubes at one point. The engineers in the companies that made televisions didn't know how to do transistors. The companies that made transistors couldn't sell them to these guys, and it was a big market.

So what has to happen, fundamentally, is that Fairchild and those guys would design the TV set for the manufacturer and say "Here...and, by the way, it uses all of our transistors." And that was how it happened.

The same thing happened in videogames. All the systems, save Atari - the Fairchild Channel F, the Intellivision which I think was designed by AMI...General Instruments designed a system - these were all semi-conductor companies that designed game consoles. They didn't know anything about the market, per se, they just saw what we were doing and copied the kind of games we had.

The problem was their interest was making money by selling semi-conductors. So, there was not a lot of incentive to minimize the design and make it more cost effective. In those days, memory was extremely expensive. We saw what was going on and did not want to go that way for many reasons.

When you design a certain architecture - for example, it had a frame buffer, it had sprites and the sprites were a certain size - somewhere along the line, someone is making a decision about what the games are going to be that are going to be on that machine. The more hardware support you get to do that, those games will play real well but it makes it real hard to do anything a lot different.

So we wound up designing the Atari VCS with a very lean, mean effective eye towards being very cost effective. No frame buffer at all. It used this weird 6502 microprocessor that was the largest volume microprocessor in the world for the longest time between Atari and Apple and Commodore.

Q:That almost parallels what Sony did with the PlayStation 3, doesn't it? The system is more expensive because it was designed to read Blu-ray discs - not necessarily for the sake of games, but to promote the media and non-gaming capabilities.

Indeed. Sony is trying to do many things with that effort. And that can be a little distracting some times.

I look at the American home where you have an entertainment room where you sit back and watch TV and maybe play games. Then you have a computer room where you lean forward and interact with it, you know? And you look at all the different gadgets in the entertainment room that are all disconnected, and the basket of remotes, right? And obviously it occurs to all these guys to go and clean that up. Even Apple is trying to get in there and clean the mess up. I'm surprised it hasn't been done yet.

Also, the technology is still rapidly evolving. Let's say you had an all-in-one box that did everything a few years ago. But now Blu-ray is out. So now what do you do? Then you go from 2 channel to 5 channel to 7 channel sound. I think it is evolving too fast to be able to do that yet. I'd like to, but...

Q:If you could point to one positive thing about the videogame industry, from its beginnings to where it is now, what would that be?

I think that videogames, more than anything else, have inspired a generation of young people to go into technology. That, to me, is one of the most favourable outcomes. Whereas when you pop a tape into a VCR player, it doesn't do that. There's just something about "How do they do that? How is that done?" and the curiosity involved with games.

Fundamentally, it is a form of entertainment like going to a movie. It has made money for some people. It has lost some money for a lot of other people.

But I've had more than one person come up to me and say that because of the work I did it got them to think about how to do this stuff. That's really great when you hear that - I took science and mathematics courses because of videogames.

I think this whole debate about violence and videogames is overwrought. I mean, there are violent books, there are violent stories and violent songs. There are violent movies...

Q:Agreed. Do you think this is just something that the older generation is targeting, looking for a scapegoat because they don't understand it?

Having been a former member of the younger generation...[Laughs] I went to school at Berkeley in the 1960s, so I'm well-versed in pissing off the older generation.

That's part of how Atari came about. We took a lot of risks. Atari really came out of the 60s - which went from '65 to '73 or so. The Cold War was on. The Vietnam War was on. We knew life was not permanent. And also there was the welfare state and whatnot.

There was this situation when we left Ampex. The president of the division took us in and said "Hey guys, you really ought to reconsider this. You've got a career with Ampex. You don't do startup companies." Today, people think it's the thing you do. Then, it wasn't something you did with no business training per se.

But we did it because it was...Personally, my feeling was that it would be fun. I didn't know anything about this stuff. It would probably fail, but I'd go back to work at Ampex. But my parents would never have made that calculation - they wouldn't have been able to go back to Ampex because they would have been considered "disloyal."

The valley, even in those days, was too money driven to ignore competent people. You can't afford a lot of prejudice or stupid stuff - if the guy can get the job done and make you money, you're in.

So we had that feeling permeate the company. When we did the consumer stuff, we knew that we were risking the company because it was a big capital investment that we had never seen before.

Q:You're here at GDC to lead a session with Ralph Baer talking about your past work. How does it feel to know that there is such an interest in your accomplishments?

It's wonderful that people care about those things. It's nice to have people like something you did. I'm very fortunate, because that was not my intention. I didn't say "I'm going to start an industry!" I wanted to do this weird thing, see if it worked, and get on with my life. How many people can be part of something that's affected so many people? I'm really lucky.

Q:We appreciate the opportunity to talk with you. How many industries do you know where you can still speak to almost all of the people who were there at the very beginning?

That extends to the whole computer electronics revolution. There's a group down in Sunnyvale called the Computer History Museum. They have a great collection and all, but the memberships have these talks that can be quite stimulating. You get all these guys together, and here you all with all the pioneers. Literally. The people who did this stuff are still alive, so they're busy making oral records so that 100 years from now people can look back and see what really happened and what they were really like.

This revolution has really come from the sixties onward, and it has happened so fast. It has had such an impact - it changed the world in so many ways. And the people who did it are still around.

Allan Alcorn was Atari's first full-time engineer who designed Pong and had a hand in developing all of Atari's products - such as the VCS (2600) - until he left the company in 1980. As a Fellow at Apple Computer he did early work that led to the MPEG standard and QuickTime. He is currently CTO of IMMI. Interview by Mark Androvich.

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