Pong’s success in the arcades of the early 70’s propelled Atari and it founders to the forefront of the new and emerging video game industry. The Pong arcade cabinets had been released in November of 1972, but soon Nolan Bushnell want to see his company grow even further and appealed to his engineers to come up with new innovative products. One engineer Harold Lee pitched the idea of a home version of Pong, which led Lee and fellow engineer Alan Alcorn starting work on the project that was codenamed Darlene. The pair worked in tandem with Lee coding by day and Alcorn debug the code at night, later another Atari engineer Bob Brown would join the pair in development. The first prototype contained hundreds of wires attached to the device that where later consolidated into a single micro-chip, the power and capabilities of this chip where ground-breaking at the time. By 1974 the Pong home system was ready and it was up to Bushnell and Atari Sales director Gene Lipkin to find a distributor for their new device. This proved to be more difficult than the two had believed with most toy and electronics companies uninterested in the device, as video games where still seen as a passing fad at the time. It would eventually be Sears the department store retailer that would strike a deal with Atari for the exclusive rights to sell the console in their stores. In particular their Sporting Goods department as the Ping-Pong like game was seen more as a piece of sporting equipment then a toy or electronic product. In 1975 Sears branded Pong home systems where first released with an Atari branded version of the device coming a year later. The system was an instant success with Sears selling all 150,000 of their first batch of devices by the end of the holiday season in its first year. Its success was not lost on other electronics and toy manufactures who raced to reproduce clones of the Atari system to capitalize on the demand for video game consoles. Coleco and Nintendo both entered the market with their Telstar and Colour TV Game 6 systems respectively. The two companies had previously been toy manufactures and now looked to emulate the success of Atari, with the latter going on to have a long held dominance in the industry.
“The Pong console spawned numerous clones which flooded the market in the late 70’s”
However all of Atari financial success was not lost on one particular company, Magnavox and their console Odyssey which pre-dates Pong. Sanders Associates who held the licence to the device and its creator Ralph Baer continually pressured other manufactures with copyright infringement. A formal lawsuit was filed in 1974 against several companies including Atari who were said to have infringed on the Odyssey console in particular the tennis game that featured on the device. Unwilling to undertake a lengthy court battle Bushnell decided to settle out of court with Magnavox, Atari agreed to pay a licencing fee of $0.7 million and give Magnavox the licencing rights to any Atari products released over the follow year. Although Atari purposely held back on any future releases over the next year in order to circumvent the deal with Magnavox.
“Imagery of Pong that is ingrained in the culture of the video game industry”
Court proceedings aside Atari continued with its plans of expansion, releasing follow ups to Pong over the next few years that all where based on the original with some added feature and new gameplay elements. One of their more popular sequels was a single player version of the game called Breakout, which involved using the ball and paddle to knockout bricks out from a wall. Just like Pong other companies soon had cloned version of their own again looking to ride on the coat tails of Atari innovation. The legacy that Pong has left is unquestionable, the game led to the creation of the video game industry. A host of companies’ first attempts at gaining a foothold in the industry where through Pong clones. The game has also become the culture touchstone of the entire medium, being referenced in TV and film numerous times. Although obviously not the first video game in the history of the industry, but definitely one of the most important for taking what was at the time a niche medium and bringing it to the wider world.