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Gaming Pioneers: Part 2

Ralph Baer, the "Father of Videogames," talks about his role in creating an industry

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.

Mr. Alcorn and Mr. Baer were gracious enough to speak to GamesIndustry.biz about their first-hand experiences and the current state of the industry they helped to create. Part One, our interview with Allan Alcorn, can be read here. In Part Two of this feature, we talk with engineer and inventor Ralph Baer.

GamesIndustry.bizHow did you first get involved in the electronics business?
Ralph Baer

Electronics wasn't even electronics then - the term hadn't even been coined yet. In those days it was radio, and by 1939 it was radio and television. I read an ad in the back of a magazine in New York. It said "Big money in radio - become a radio serviceman." Hey, I thought, this could be me!

After WWII, having served stateside and overseas in the US Army during the war for three years, I finally got to go to college courtesy of the GI Bill. In 1948, at the age of 26, I graduated with a B.S. in television engineering.

GamesIndustry.bizAnd when did you come up with the idea of videogames?
Ralph Baer

I was working on military electronics from 1951 through 1966 - I built an x-band spectrum analyzer to monitor Russian radio and so on. While building a television set for Loral in 1950-51, I pondered ways of using a TV set for something other than watching standard broadcasts.

In 1966 I came back to the idea. By then there were about 40 million TV sets in the US and another 40 million in the rest of the world. The whole effort from beginning to end was a few weeks in 1967, then 1968 and 1969, between two or two and a half guys.

The end result was the "brown box." My '480 patent is the first one to cover the concept of playing games on a TV set.

GamesIndustry.bizYou documented your work extremely well and testified in numerous court cases over the years. Even so, some people still attribute the creation of videogames to Higginbotham's oscilloscope "tennis for two" or to Nolan Bushnell. How important is it to you that people get the facts straight?
Ralph Baer

Everybody, including me, would like history reported as it really happened. And that requires documentation to prove who did what and when - nothing else is qualifies as factual material. I did all of that, and still people insist on re-writing history to suit themselves.

Meanwhile, I was honored with the National Medal of Technology and with all manner of meaningful awards - I was just added to Guiness Book of Records. My documents and hardware are at the Smithsonian; replicas are in museums all over the world.

Still, people can't get it straight who did what and when. Mostly because the average person has no idea of how inventions come about, what the technology is that makes a novel electronic item tick, what engineers like me really know and do. None of that. So they imagine what they believe happened. And if that is repeated often enough on the web, on YouTube and other places, those fantasies take on a life of their own.

Meanwhile, I did what I did, [Al Alcorn] did what he did, and two branches of this industry were the result. Nothing came of Higginbotham, who would never have been heard of if he hadn't been dragged into the limelight by Nintendo lawyers in a lawsuit they lost - like everybody else.

And Bushnell probably would have been in the pinball business with Ted Dabney if Alan Alcorn hadn't done such a great job with Pong - which was a knock-off idea Bushnell got by playing the Magnavox Odyssey ping-pong game. Meanwhile, give Bushnell credit for what he did - start a company and associate himself with people who could materialize his visions. It takes all kinds of people to make a business.

GamesIndustry.bizI guess is like the saying goes, "Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan."
Ralph Baer

Yes, success has many fathers. How about Gerry Martin, the VP at Magnavox who said "It's a go!" after we demonstrated the brown box in Fort Wayne in 1970 - when all around him everybody sat there with a stone face, unwilling to commit themselves.

GamesIndustry.bizI asked Al Alcorn this -what about the notion that the games industry had three distinct origins? Steve Russell creating Space War at MIT may have started computer gaming, you invented the first console videogames, and Nolan Bushnell used both of those concepts to start the coin-op business?
Ralph Baer

You've got it backwards. No business, no industry, resulted from Space War - it remained a plaything for geeks. It was the other way around.

Ask [Steve Wozniak] - It was playing games on an Odyssey and Atari videogames and playing arcade games that motivated him to design a computer that could play - what else - games. He told me that repeatedly. Do you think he had spreadsheets in mind?

Would playing games on a computer have happened anyway if there had never been an Odyssey or an Atari game out there? No doubt, but then it didn't.

GamesIndustry.bizYou've had to tell the story of the creation of the "brown box" so many times that it has probably taken on a life of its own...
Ralph Baer

I've told the story so many times in different ways to different audiences that I'm a little sick of it, but it is unavoidable of course. That's what they want to hear.

Tomorrow I'm going to be at the media lab at M.I.T. What's the media lab all about? It's all about the future. They're cranking out next generation this, that and the other thing.

So what am I going to talk about? History, right? An old fogie getting up, talking about history. Yeah, I'm going to have to do some of that, because they expect it. I'll show the short movie showing me and Bill Harrison playing the ping-pong game on the Brown Box back in the 1960s because everybody likes to see that piece of historical footage.

But I prefer to look forwards, not backwards.

GamesIndustry.bizWell, I'll try not to take you back too far...
Ralph Baer

People ask me "Could you foresee how things would develop?" What a stupid question that is.

Can I foresee where biotechnology is going to get us? Or which of the 10,000 different approaches for converting biomass into fuel is finally going to win so we can tell the Arabs to go...It is impossible. You know what is going to happen, but the extent to which it is going to happen?

Back in the 1960s, we weren't even in that mode yet. We weren't nearly as adventurous at predicting what is going to happen in the future. The future took a lot longer to arrive then than it does now.

If you think about it, how many tens or hundreds of thousands of years did it take before someone cut a nice round log off a tree - cut four of them or two of them - and made a cart out of it instead of dragging it along? Who knows? And how long from there to spoke wheels? Another 50,000 years maybe?

How long does it take now to go from early genetics to where we can now clone almost anything we want to? About 20 years. How long is it going to do the same thing 20 years from now? About 1 year? We're on this exponential curve.

And when people ask you "Where did you think we were going to be in the future?" in the 1960s - we were still at the bottom of the exponential curve. Things were happening a lot slower.

GamesIndustry.bizMagnavox had done a lot of things in the electronics industry before they got behind your invention, but they never became a big player in the videogame business. And they aren't really considered a major player in the electronics industry today. What happened?
Ralph Baer

Who were the players in radio and phonograph and television sets in the 1950s and 1960s? There was RCA. There was Zenith. Philco. Motorola. Magnaxov. Sylvania. Three or four others. All US manufacturers. So what happened?

What happened is that the guys who ran those companies - ran them all through the World War, got pulled out and wound up in the army, then came back to run them - they all died off. Their successors were all MBAs - paper pushers - and what did they do? RCA decides that they're going to buy Hertz. "We're not going to make radios any more. We're going to buy Hertz. It will make more money more rapidly and do better for the stockholders that way."

We gave our birthright to consumer electronics away to the Japanese in the 1960s and the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Who the hell knows this except someone over 40 and 50?

GamesIndustry.bizAnd in the games industry, of course, after Atari collapsed it was the Japanese companies - Nintendo, Sega, later Sony - that took the lead. So, do you think we'll get that "birthright" back?
Ralph Baer

We got a lot of it back. Think of the whole computer industry which is certainly merging with video in the present and certainly in the future. We got a lot of it back, but unfortunately we didn't get a lot of the manufacturing back. That's another story.

We're giving too much away. We need to recover.

It's already happened with India. Engineers -they begin to wise up after about 10-15 years. Once they have a big business going, they go to management and say "Hey, you bastards, we're no longer going to work for $10 an hour." Pretty soon the same thing happens to them that happened to the Japanese in the 80s - labor got too expensive and moved to Korea. A lot of it moved to India, Malaysia and other places.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you think the games industry is a "mature" industry - comparable to other entertainment industries - or do we still have a long way to go?
Ralph Baer

I don't think any industry is ever mature in the sense that there is always change. Electronic books are on the horizon, movie houses are becoming obsolete and new forms of games will undoubtedly arise - especially when and as the technology improves and allows new forms...Think 3D stereo, voice recognition, etc., etc.

GamesIndustry.bizIf you had to identify one positive or negative thing about the games industry, what would it be?
Ralph Baer

That's a matter of personal opinion. I dislike violence in games, but people seem to eat it up so it will always be with us.

Violence sells. There's no question about it. And why does it sell? Because in the last 30 - 40 years, in my opinion, we have managed to debase our culture unbelievably.

I don't have to lecture you on the dissolution of the family. What do you think of a country where one of the most successful programs is worldwide wrestling where you watch people slam other people against posts or throw them over the side of the ring, you know? What do you think of programs where people laugh like hell when somebody does something stupid and falls off a roof and breaks his back? On and on it goes.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat about something positive?
Ralph Baer

I like physical involvement - a la the Wii, which I have pushed unsuccessfully myself for nearly 20 years and now Nintendo finally "did it."

For one thing, I like it because I did most of what they are doing in 1989, 1990-91. I had Konami in here - the VP for, I think, product development came with a couple of Chinese factory people and I showed them a whole bunch of stuff all of that nature.

Like shooting at the screen not with a gun, but with a helmet with an optical eyesight inside so that you could home in on the target and yell in the mouthpiece "fire" and being able to fire.

Things like knowing where you are with respect to the screen so that the object on the screen can interact with you depending upon where you are in the room.

Remember the floormats with the early NES machines? We reworked the floormats so that you could play any NES game with your feet, either sitting down or in a standing position which is totally different.

All that was shown to Konami and a whole bunch of others and they all said "Yeah, very interesting, very interesting" and they did nothing except rip me off on the helmet with the sight in it. And here we are, almost 20 years later, and it is all happening. So naturally I'm pleased to see it happen. I have no financial stake in it anyway.

As an individual inventor, you can't afford to patent anything. And if you did, and spent the money, it would do you no good because if a company wants to do what they want to do, they just do it - and if I sue them, they have three or four or five house lawyers. It would cost them nothing to respond, and it would cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend, and there's no guarantee of winning, right? So patents are almost entirely worthless to an individual.

GamesIndustry.bizThat's pretty strong coming from someone with around 150 patents to his name...
Ralph Baer

Two-thirds of them wound up in some production item and made money, but very few of them wound up in my bank account.

[The Franklin Pearce Law Center in Concord] made me an honourary Doctorate of Laws - mostly because I spent ten years in court.

I know what went on then, and I don't think that what goes on now is any better - probably far worse.

GamesIndustry.bizHindsight is always 20-20, of course, but if there were one thing that you could do differently - relating to your invention of, and involvement with, the videogames industry - what might that be?
Ralph Baer

I should have paid more attention to the patent filing process for the concept of digitizing famous peoples' faces for use with videogame characters.

I invented the concept, licensed it to Bally-Midway in the 80s - it became the "Journey" game - lost track of the patent application and missed the biggest payday ever. Think Madden, etc.

It's bad enough that I am not even credited with that concept which is ubiquitous now. My first disclosure document says: "Digitize face of famous person (NFL quarterback)." It's a long story of screw-ups and cover-ups.

GamesIndustry.bizYou were "right" on so many things - determining that people would be interested in playing games on their televisions, detailing the genres of games that would one day exist, nesting data on videotapes, digitizing faces, and so on. Is there anything that you were definitely "wrong" about?
Ralph Baer

Yes, I thought of videogames as just a TV accessory of some interest that people might just enjoy and didn't really recognise the fact that it might have the impact it has until the early seventies. From then on my middle name was "interactivity".

GamesIndustry.bizDuring your session, you said that the biggest obstacle facing the production of the Odyssey is the same obstacle we face today - making sure it doesn't cost too much.
Ralph Baer

How affordable was it? There were so many parts...because ICs were still pretty expensive. With Odyssey, the way they built it, they put a USD 100 retail price on it. Well, that's 1972.

Since 1972, at 3 per cent average inflation, 35 years roughly, that's close to 2 to 1. It was a USD 200 box in today's terms. Well, 200 bucks in 1972 terms was one hell of a lot of money. So that was the first problem.

That was before you could think of integration. But it didn't take long, because three years later Allan [Alcorn] and two other guys did it when they came up with the machine that wound up as Sears' home pong.

Why couldn't they do it? Because, in terms of technology, what was in the Odyssey dated back to 1968. The reason why it dated back to 1968 is that, by the time we negotiated a license between late 1970 and 1971 with Magnavox - with the lawyers who went back and forth for over a year, futzing around - and then handing over the job to the engineers in Fort Wayne to come up with a production model to pass FCC specs in less than a year.

What choice did they have except to take what we had that worked and copy it? It was insane, because it was three generations overdue in terms of renovation. But it was better than nothing.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat about the current situation? Consoles are being designed with more and more technology - hard drives, ethernet connections, USB ports - making them even more expensive than ever to manufacture.
Ralph Baer

Do we really need all of that technology? Short answer - no. I mean, we played perfectly fine games with, by today's standards, extremely primitive hardware like the Atari VCS.

There's got to be a reason for playing the damn thing, but obviously the reason for playing most of those interactive, gory games is that they look a lot better when they are in high resolution.

Is it necessary for the gameplay? No. Do the high-res people look down their noses at the Wii? Yes. The resolution isn't good enough for them. Does the Wii play a bunch of nice games? I think so. A whole lot of other people do.

And I think it appeals to old-timers who can't manage the...Who the hell - who didn't grow up with that stuff - over 45 or 50 can handle pushing 50 different buttons on a hand control? The answer is no one, right? Or very few, so there is a whole pile of people left out of the equation.

The way it is going, it seems to me that as the hardware gets more complex and the software gets more complex, you need more specialised guys. Guys who worry about shadows, guys that worry about animating figures, musicians, graphic artists - all that stuff.

It just gets more and more and more expensive, which means that most small companies are going to die by the wayside.

GamesIndustry.bizBut since the videogame industry is so dependent upon technology, which is constantly changing, doesn't that mean there will never be an end to the increasing complexity? We're adding more and more features.
Ralph Baer

Blu-ray machines inside a videogame. How unbelievable is that?

Does it all make sense? I think it all makes sense in a different way. Those machines are going to be more and more tightly tied to the Web. I don't think we're very far from where there won't be such a thing as a game console any more.

The game console is the most powerful computer sitting there - why don't you just upload Microsoft Office and you're in business? You can do anything you want to. Plug in a keyboard and you're done.

GamesIndustry.bizSome companies in fact are suggesting that the future is in server based games, where the console is merely a conduit...
Ralph Baer

I hate that idea. I don't like to have other people in control of my documentation and my thoughts and my impressions and my private correspondence.

You saw what happened here with...Was it Visa? Or an insurance company - I forgot which. This goes on constantly. They lose data, people steal data...I don't like the idea, but I think it is going to go that way.

I grew up in Nazi Germany, you know? What I'm afraid of is that it makes it all too easy for some cabal to take over. It can happen little by little, then all of a sudden in a hurry. We keep improving the means of controlling people because we have access to every thing they ever did and said.

You don't think it can happen here, think again.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you currently play videogames or computer games?
Ralph Baer

I don't play games, but I sat next to my 18 year-old grandson for an entire week while he and his family were visiting me in Florida. Everybody else was out there swimming and surfing and scuba diving while my grandson was sitting next to me. And what does he want to do? Play games on his laptop.

I had him show me some games to get a view of what that's all about. It's a world I don't live in. [Laughs] It is hard for me to have any opinions, except...I get bored watching what he's doing.

How enthusiastic can I get about having some avatar character on screen on whom I lavished days of activity equipping him with the right stuff, giving him the characteristics I want him to have, then have him run around and bludgeon a whole bunch of people over the head? I don't see it. But obviously the youngsters see it and they love that stuff. They are into it up to their eyeballs.

Ralph Baer invented videogames. Interview by Mark Androvich.

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