Pong, the world’s first successful video game, turns 40 today

29 Nov 2012

One of the world’s first successful video game titles – Pong – was released by Atari this day 40 years ago (on 29 November 1972), kickstarting a major multi-billion video games industry.

One of the earliest arcade games, Pong featured simple two-dimensional graphics and simulated a table tennis game.

Allan Alcorn created the game after Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell assigned him a training exercise. Bushnell is considered one of the founding fathers of the video games business and famously gave a start to Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak after commissioning them to design a chip that helped reduced the number of chips in Atari machines. Wozniak surpassed himself and reduced the number of chips in Atari machines by 50, but instead of splitting the proceeds 50/50 with Wozniak, Jobs famously cheated him by giving him just US$350 of the US$5,000 offered by Atari.

Impressed by the quality of the Pong game created by Alcorn, Atari decided to manufacture the game in upright cabinets for amusement arcades in 1972.

The commercial success of Pong is considered by many the start of the video-games industry. For many years in the 1970s and into the 1980s, Atari’s global manufacturing operation was based in Limerick.

The success of the arcade game encouraged Atari to manufacture a home-based version in 1975 that it distributed through Sears and it, too, was a commercial success. This spearheaded the arrival of console-based gaming.

The video-games industry has changed beyond all recognition in the past 40 years. This era of Angry Birds on smartphones and Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is massively different from those fledgling days in the 1970s.

In 2011, the video-games industry worldwide was valued at a whopping US$74bn. Who’d have thought a table tennis game could herald so much change?

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years